All poets know they’re standing at the end
of a tradition, not the start,
so every word they use reverts,
like water in an endless ocean,
back to prior seas
Cristina Peri Rossi, Lingüística general
The able maker of this categorical, lucid reflection could be none other than Cristina Peri Rossi. These lines open the section titled “En un fluir constante” of the compilation La nave de los deseos y las palabras, published in celebration of the 2021 Cervantes Prize, in which various writers from throughout the Spanish-speaking world (some of whom also gather in this dossier) speak of their earliest approaches to or first impressions upon reading this fundamental author, who has been an inexhaustible wellspring of inspiration for new creators.
More than fifty years ago, Peri Rossi was a young writer, literature professor, and journalist who found in fresh, irreverent, provocative words a way to speak a world that cried out to be denounced, witnessed, and occupied. Even in hindsight, the clairvoyance with which she evoked literature’s importance, early on, as a form of political action is surprising. Already in 1968, when in her native Montevideo she won the Premio de los Jóvenes de Arca for her short story collection Los museos abandonados, she was showing off this knack for direct, clear-eyed communication, and opening the doors to production ripe with possible settings and worlds in which imagination served as a tool with which to build an allegorical body of work referring back to life itself, always full of shortfalls, exiles, and insiles. “I imagine all the time, that’s how I bear the pain of living,” she recently stated in an interview for Spanish newspaper El Mundo to mark the republishing of her novel La nave de los locos (1984) by Menoscuarto press.
From the trench-made-of-paper of her literature, she has decried the collapse of a society (El libro de mis primos, 1969) and the heteronormative models with which the patriarchy pigeonholes feminine desire (Evohé, 1971). She has defended the rights of expatriates and political exiles (Descripción de un naufragio, 1975; Estado de exilio, 2003) but she has also reflected on the solitude of contemporary man (Solitario de amor, 1988) and on the impositions of a society driven by profit and consumption (Playstation, 2009; Habitaciones privadas, 2014).
This bravery in speech is recognized by today’s writers, who, from multiple perspectives, pay homage to Peri Rossi in this kaleidoscope, evincing the sharp, penetrating words that speak our desire, our fears, our passions and their conflicts: the most intimate part of our being. As some of them express: “To read Cristina Peri Rossi is to walk nude into the elements”; “She is a wild writer, which is to say her writing is free and undomesticated”; “Between diaspora and humor, Cristina constructs her own peculiar general linguistics that cannot help but enact rebellion.”
But, while we recognize the rebellion inherent to Peri Rossi’s work, we cannot forget its seductive facet, as Rafael Courtoisie points out in his reflection on the Uruguayan writer’s original and radical poiesis. The love she transmits, savoring every word, and the fascination that holds her readers in sway—a product of play, experimentation, and erudite sensuality—lead inevitably to “the pleasure of the text,” just as Roland Barthes dictated. “A writer is not an accountant, but a lecher: they must enjoy their language, revel in it and reproduce that revelry in the reader. From Homer to the present, this is basically what makes the difference between a person who writes and a writer,” our author told Jorge Ruffinelli in an early interview from 1968.
As Gerardo Ciancio points out in his illuminating essay, Peri Rossi is the protagonist of one of the three foundational ruptures of women’s writing in Uruguay, after those figureheaded, in his view, by Delmira Agustini and Armonía Somers. Undoubtedly, there was a long path from Agustini’s modernista “Nocturnos” or Juana de Ibarbourou’s poems—in which the feminine subject felt her way toward a place of enunciation hitherto veiled, a place from which to speak, to write, but also to desire—to Peri Rossi. Less long, perhaps, in a secular, anarchist, feminist Uruguay, with novel rights fostered by Batllismo in the Novecientos era, but a path not free of obstacles, at any rate.
Peri Rossi pronounces desire, and homoerotic desire, with courage and determination, with insolence and talent. And we believe this speaking of a woman’s desire with torrential intensity—the guiding line from Evohé (1971) and Lingüística general (1979) to Babel bárbara (1990), Otra vez Eros (1994), and Estrategias del deseo (2004)—along with the eccentric cartography or erratic, painful sketch of expatriates and the politically displaced are the two distinctive vectors of her creative work. The no-place makes one think about life, just as pain and uprootedness make one much more conscious of its light. The writer has claimed that “If we are brave, from the horror of the existent, books and revolutions are born”; and, “Exiles are both very painful and very enriching experiences, like love.” Also, “We are all exiled from something or from someone”; and finally, “splitting / is always splitting in two,” as Virginia Lucas and Natasha Tanna recall in an intelligent piece on excision, fracture, desire, and exile.
Literature is enough; it needs no more than itself. But, in Peri Rossi’s case, ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand, each illuminating and nourishing the other, becoming one. Without utilitarianisms, proclamations, or manifestos, her imaginative literature takes risks, asks questions, creates discomfort, interrupts. Her writing, outspoken and nonconformist, sensual and revolutionary, speaks of passions and injustices; it questions—often starting from the abject as a destabilizing modality, as Kristeva would say—social conventions, ironclad systems of thought, and inherited discourses. “She brushes history against the grain,” as Benjamin would have wanted. And she does so from a place of humor, one of the most subtle forms of intelligence.
Peri Rossi’s writing, which can be both fascinating and terrifying, has the power of constant revelation; an unprecedented strength in images—this is why she is also a poet when she writes fiction or essay; a pulse, the pulse of desire, the pulse of a salutary and catalytic childhood; voracity for life. Hers is a brazen writing that celebrates life, that welcomes the world on every page with curiosity as a trigger, with bedazzlement that never fades.
Practically all genres fall within a single project of writing: essay, journalistic article, novel, short story, poetry. Her work is soaked in technical experimentation and the avant-garde playfulness of the 1960s, permanently renewed and updated. In short fiction and in poetry, in novels and in essays, in personal testimony and in journalism, Peri Rossi has built a body of work with a voice of her own, absolutely unmistakable: she has elaborated her own general linguistics. Perhaps she was (and still is) at the start of a literary tradition that, like the lighthouses she treasures in her home, casts light over “the dark night of signifiers.”