“I am Sirena Selena, I am Isabel la Negra, I am ‘M’ from Cualquier miércoles soy tuya, I am lots of people. […] That’s what an author is: many people live inside you, and they come up from the clay of your skin and ask you to tell their stories.” This is how, in one interview, Mayra Santos-Febres (Puerto Rico, 1966) describes the intimate space from which the protagonists of her novels emerge. These words also illustrate a set of recurring themes in the poetics and the literary career of this Puerto Rican writer, whose work I explore in this essay, emphasizing her two latest books: Antes que llegue la luz (2021) and Lecciones de renuncia (2021).
One well-recognized and distinctive aspect of Santos-Febres’ work is her preference for subjects and spaces that are traditionally marginalized, from brothel-keepers to black and mixed-race women in the academy or the sciences. But what sets her characters apart is not so much their marginalized condition as the artful way they challenge the barriers traditionally associated with their identities and reclaim spaces into which they have not been invited. Santos-Febres’ protagonists share that struggle with the writer herself; she has also had to make a way for herself as a creative and a producer of knowledge from her position as a black woman. She has something in common with the cross-dressing youngster of her first novel, Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000), who wields his extraordinary voice like a weapon. There is also something of Santos-Febres, who earned her doctorate from Cornell University, in the protagonist of Fe en disfraz (2009, unable to escape her disguise as a historian, and in Julia (de Burgos), the writer who, in Yo misma fui mi ruta (2014), maneuvers between the path she designed for herself and the one others assigned to her based on skin and speech. Something of her position as a media celebrity can also be glimpsed in the scientist torn between her romance with popular culture—incarnated in her lover—and her longing to be taken seriously in La amante de Gardel (2015), the novel that won her the National Literature Prize from the French Academy of Pharmacy in 2019. Hand in hand with her characters, the Afro-Caribbean world is revealed not only as a battlefield, but also as a field ripe for harvest, made fruitful by creativity, dignity, and effort.
The aforementioned interview also reveals how Santos-Febres conceives of her task as an author: one who has made of words an instrument—of seduction, pleasure, revelation, or discomfort—with which to knock on (or knock down) doors, such that those who are traditionally thought of us “the others” might come in behind her. This mission lends coherence to the varied facets of her practice, which brings together creativity, activism, and her work as a professor and mentor, as well as a critic, poet, and prose writer. Since the publication of her first verse collection, El orden escapado, in 1991, Mayra Santos-Febres has published five more poetry collections, four short story collections, six novels, and two books of essays, as well as anthologies of other writers, numerous articles, and books for children. She has also been prolifically active in the cultural scene of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, where her influence is widely recognized. Among her endeavors is the Festival de la Palabra, which from 2009 to 2019 brought an all-star lineup of international writers to the plazas, schools, and neighborhoods of San Juan, an effort that earned her the United Nations’ Gold Medal for Cultural Work. More recently, Santos-Febres has focused on promoting the study and recognition of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. In 2021, she founded the Blackness and Racial Studies Program of the University of Puerto Rico, and in March of this year she hosted the first International Summit on Blackness in San Juan.
Her two most recent books explore, from a place of unusual intimacy, the weight of being a woman compelled to move by a collective self. Antes que llegue la luz recreates, in first person and from her own home, the catastrophe that Puerto Ricans suffered after the back-to-back landfalls of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the long blackout that disconnected them from the world in 2017. In Lecciones de renuncia, a writer’s lyric voice guides us through the internal battles brought about by having to embody, in all her various facets, a tireless warrior woman of words.
In Antes que llegue la luz, Santos-Febres places herself in the eye of the storm as a sounding board for a polyphony of voices testifying to the resources Puerto Ricans turned to in order to survive the worst of their natural tragedies. Never was a greater challenge faced; never were the writer’s subjects more vulnerable, literally coming up from the clay; and never was their skill at surviving with dignity and making hope shine through more beautiful. At the start, the main characters are Mayra herself, her children, and a friend named Alexia, grappling with the blackout caused by Irma from their condominium in Ocean Park. This is just a prelude to the unimaginable: Maria, an unprecedented hurricane bringing unquantifiable destruction, a loss whose dimensions the writer Santos-Febres had been up to that point was incapable of committing to paper. Perhaps that’s the reason behind the personal, realistic register she chose for this book.
Those of us who kept up with Maria’s impact will recognize the basic outline of the drama the author depicts: the federal abandonment of a country whose supposed protector showed its scorn at the moment of greatest need; the corruption of the local government, devouring what little help was received with its customary gluttony; the agonizing faithfulness of the Puerto Rican diaspora, supporting the rebuilding of their island of enchantment from afar; and the massive exodus of those who saw no other alternative but to throw themselves into the arms of their mighty stepmother. Far fewer of us bore witness to the strength of those who stayed behind. The imbroglios, onslaughts, and achievements of those who “se alzaron en almas”—who “took up souls”—not only to survive but also to ensure the persistence of others; because, as the author says, there was no other option: “in this clan, you lose in the collective. Being an ‘individual’ is a luxury to which we do not yet have access. The poor, the fallen, are the burden of those lifting themselves up. It’s a hard, uphill climb. It’s a steep, brakeless fall.” This is the story that shines through in the multivocal testimony Santos-Febres presents in Antes que llegue la luz.
In the midst of uprooted trees, shredded houses, and shattered reason, a ray of light comes through when local community organizations get together to create a space for visionaries called “El Colaboratorio.” Among other initiatives, this space is the birthplace of Mayra’s team, a group of friends and accomplices who previously brought writers to local neighborhoods during the Festival de la Palabra, and who now surge into shelters and schools to donate books, do group readings, and put on writing workshops. “We were not interested in making art, impressing people with our handling of form, shaking up institutionalized aesthetics, or educating,” she clarifies, “we just wanted to bring people together, to laugh, to prove that we were alive, to tell each other our stories and adventures, to share experiences, to start healing.” This statement explains the book’s candid prose, whose polyphony is not a product of aesthetic artifice, but rather of the groans and rumblings shared in the midst of disaster.
Santos-Febres’ personal story is the bridge that lets the reactions of others across. We know of the writer’s origins in a working-class neighborhood, the early deaths of her mother and brother, her two divorces, and her “modern mother’s” devotion. Among the reactions of others, we read testimonies of truck drivers gathered to pick up rubble; electricians and rescue workers (both official and amateur) terrified by the insufficiency of their efforts; freshly orphaned children traumatized as much by past horror as by the turbidity of the present and the uncertainty of the future. Another main character is the unrelenting heat, without the comfort of air conditioning, feeding into the hallucinations of a world already filling up with ghosts.
These new-made ghosts are joined by other somber figures. Santos-Febres documents the crisis of homeless addicts, taking to the deserted city streets to pick through the debris, and of other people “drunk on stuff,” both useful and useless, set loose in the desolation of abandoned shopping malls. The writer’s reflection links these spirits to the ongoing struggles of the Americas’ oldest colony, and to the disaster hidden behind the wishful dream of a Latin island “modernized” under U.S. patronage.
The climax of the island’s doubly-ghostly condition coincides with the return of electricity. It catches the author reading in the news about the unofficial death count left by Maria and its aftereffects, including the suicides that followed the disaster. The nearly five thousand fallen might seem like just a handful in a post-pandemic world, but they are no such thing in Santos-Febres’ account. In the final scene, the lyricism of a “swarm of dragonfly wings” against a fierce sunset marks the tension not only between death and life, but also between reality and the power of imagination. Perhaps this book’s greatest revelation is proven not by the number of victims, but by the nine thousand six hundred thirty-eight people who participated in the workshops organized by the writer and her group. With Santos-Febres’ usual narrative skill, Antes que llegue la luz captures a Puerto Rico that reads, even in the grip of catastrophe, and a Puerto Rico that, at the same time, calls out to be read: “Write, writer, write. Don’t forget me.”
“What does the woman who writes give up,/ why is the woman who writes a warrior,/ what battle does she have to face?” The lyric voice of her latest verse collection, Lecciones de renuncia, asks these questions. A collective self, speaking to the experience of wise, creative women, she leads us through the internal battles brought about by being like the mythical Atlas, carrying the world on your shoulders, when you live in a woman’s body. The only way to lighten the load seems to be by giving something up—but what?
In the first poems, what she gives up is the emotional detachment demanded by “the well-bred old ladies” for the sake of the concentration and toughness needed to wrestle with words. This is, in turn, the consequence of embodying that exotic and dangerous object the woman writer has historically been: “warrior women are forever marked by giving up […] everyone wants her, wants them and fears her, fears them/ few dare to touch her.” Among the dilemmas triggered by this giving-up on the part of the lyric self we recognize those of women in academia trying to function in the exclusive realm of knowledge, women writers silenced by the masculine monopoly on words like Sor Juana, and women driven to suicide by the lashes of emotional and social rejection like Alejandra Pizarnik—the book pays homage to both. Heir to “the wise woman made witch and then ash,” the thinking woman must give up on being anything but a rational mind.
But what happens when the warrior woman refuses to ignore the pleasures and pains of the flesh? What happens when she is “skin and paper,” as the title of one of Santos-Febres’ essay collections suggests, or when “this body is a country,” in the words of another poem of hers, and as she illustrates in Antes que llegue la luz? This woman writer is a lover, a wife, a mother, a provider, and a public figure. Her “typing fingers” are intercut in her daily life with the needs of her children, “the still life of the plates/ in the sink/ the new husband reading online.” These others impose themselves upon her in what should be her space and time to create, refusing to step aside so the woman who writes can dedicate herself fully to producing knowledge. The woman writer struggles, torn by the conflict symbolized by “the warm smell of the unnameable fetus/ that will always dwell in the air my children breathe/ while I write.”
Once again, her struggle is both individual and collective. After all, “what is a woman who writes to do with the world?/ how can she put it back together/ so that other women fit/ other beings of ink?” Little by little, the woman writer resigns herself to the impossibility of following precepts that exclude the body and repudiate the emotions, “because existing is not the same as living./ life demands a different power:/ jumping into the abyss transformed.” Thus she understands that the giving-up required to ease the burden on the world-body of the woman who writes consists of divesting oneself of the tyranny of rationality, that garb that also wounds the protagonist of her novel Fe en disfraz. Once transformed, the survivor—now a wise ancestor of the warrior women yet to come—augurs an end to the tearing-apart and the inner wars of women writers: “solitude defeats itself/ with more solitude/ only more solitude/ and more ink./ In the end,/ there/ is the presence you seek./ later on, a little to the left or maybe to the right/ lies love.”
The last question put forward by this verse collection’s author, embodied by Santos-Febres, is if it is possible to exist in the collective without either collapsing or giving up on your own humanity. The last poem of Lecciones de renuncia offers an optimistic answer. Through so much “retracing” of the paths that divided her being, the woman writer turns back into “a simple little girl dressed up as a wise woman” who wonders: “can it be that in the end,/ after so much running away,/ I have earned the privilege/ of being born into freedom?”