CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (AND THE MATTER OF SPANISH NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION)

I’m just back from the “I International Seminar on (Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain”, held in Málaga and organized by Prof. Rosario Arias, leader of the ‘(Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain Network (VINS)’, of which I am currently a member. I have learned these days that many more Spanish scholars than I assumed are bridging the gaps between Spanish and Anglophone cultures. This is very refreshing and I stand corrected in my pessimistic assessment of the exchange with great pleasure. I have also learned, however, that bridging gaps often reveals other problems that widen the cultural split which I discussed in my previous post. Problems that seem very hard to solve despite the apparent increase in intercultural communication, as they have to do with cultural appropriation.

Although others dealt with this issue, I’ll refer here to two papers and a writer’s presentation. The first paper even carries the word ‘appropriation’ in its title: Begoña Lasa Álvarez, of the Universidade A Coruña, offered a presentation called “From Agustina de Aragón to The Maid of Saragossa: Cultural Appropriation of a Heroine”. Sonia Villegas (Universidad de Huelva) did not directly discuss ‘appropriation’ in her paper “Espido Freire Visits the House of Writing: The Role of Material Traces in Querida Jane, Querida Charlotte (2004)”. Yet, I find this was implicit in Freire’s positioning. Finally, the writer invited to the seminar is young Victoria Álvarez (Salamanca, 1985). She is currently specializing in Neo-Edwardian mystery fiction, which we might call a sub-set of the Neo-Victorian, of which she has published five novels already (see www.victoriaalvarez.es).

Begoña Lasa’s argument was straightforward: a series of British writers borrowed the heroic figure of Agustina de Aragón; using stereotypes connected with the representation of Spanish women (think Mérimée’s Carmen, 1845) and of a variety of female heroes, they progressively transformed her into a heroic fantasy. Furthermore, these British authors made the point of stressing that they had honoured Agustina in a way that was much above what Spaniards could do. In the process, the real Agustina became yet another loss to the truth of History.

As Begoña explained, unfortunately Agustina was connected by Franco’s regime with Spanish fascist patriotism in a way that had little to do with the original Agustina’s efforts to stop the French troops from storming Zaragoza. This is why so many of us have paid so little attention to her figure; I was very much surprised to learn that she was actually Catalan. No matter. While in her thirties (not her twenties) this woman, who may or may not have been pretty (probably not), and who was married to an artillery officer (and had seen what needed to be done), decided to fire a canon against the enemy. This common enough action for a man was magnified into a colossal feat for a woman, which had the downside of obscuring the participation of many other women in battle and in the diverse sieges. Typical patriarchal thinking: choose a woman, claim she is exceptional and pretend no other women are capable of doing like her. Then turn her into myth.

Agustina is only mentioned in passing in Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Zaragoza, part of the first series of the Episodios Nacionales. Tired of the ‘Artillera’ legend, a character quickly dismisses it as he seeks information about someone else: “Ya, ya tenemos noticia del heroísmo de esa insigne mujer–manifestó D. Roque”. ‘Agustina’ is finally mentioned by name when a shy woman, Manuelilla, is offered a gun, which she does fire, “radiante de satisfacción”. The man who tempts her simply declares, echoing the author: “Si a estas cosas no hay más que tomarlas el gusto. Lo mismo debieran hacer todas las zaragozanas, y de ese modo la Agustina y Casta Álvarez no serían una gloriosa excepción entre las de su sexo”. In short: by the time major Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós undermined (in the 1870s) the heroic exception that Agustina embodied in order to show that many other women had fought the Napoleonic troops, a series of British writers had already taken her from Spanish hands to turn her into a folk hero which only represented their own fantasies of Spanish womanhood. When asked whether these fantasies of exalted passion, dark beauty and rash actions had been finally lost in our global age, Begoña politely answered that she was not sure. I thought of Penelope Cruz–playing Agustina in some silly English-language epic…

Sonia Villegas analyzed in her paper the singular volume by Spanish writer (Laura) Espido Freire, Querida Jane, querida Charlotte: Por la ruta de Jane Austen y las hermanas Brontë (2004). This is partly travel book and partly writers’ biography, and has been advertised as the volume that solves the mystery of why these women authors wrote as they did. The solution comes from a fellow female author and not from academics who, it seems, can never share the same writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

Freire, as Sonia explained, presents herself as an illustrated super-fan with a more refined approach to the material traces left by these celebrity writers, in particular the Brontës. She touches the dresses, the furniture, the books exhibited at the Brontë Museum at Haworth and these objects lead her to understand who her 19th century peers really were. The mention of Emily’s bed was, however, a little too much for me… even though I am guilty of having made a (small) donation to the museum. I asked Sonia privately whether she had found any sentence in the book suggesting that a) Freire aspired to the same kind of fetishistic immortality, or b) Freire lamented that her survival into that kind of literary eternity was not likely. Apparently not, though Sonia granted that, yes, perhaps there is something parasitical in Freire’s volume or similar books. Now imagine the Brontës brought back to life and wondering why so many authors are piggybacking on their success with the excuse of paying them homage.

Espido Freire is, of course, Spanish and this leads me to the third part of today’s post: Victoria Álvarez. I’ll just note before this that the two cases I have mentioned, the appropriation of Agustina de Aragón by the British and of the Austen/Brontë set by Freire, seem to be mirror phenomena: I take your heroine and claim I know her best than you do, and viceversa. There seems to be a draw, then, in this game, but you will see that, oddly, this is not quite the case.

I want to open up here a debate about the appropriation of the British Victorian and Edwardian ages to produce fiction in Spanish. Please, note that Espido Freire’s book is non-fiction. In contrast, the very popular El mapa del tiempo (2008) by Félix J. Palma, followed by El mapa del cielo (2012) and El mapa del caos (2014)–the three of them translated into English–has started a trend that needs to be considered in depth, and that Victoria Álvarez is cultivating.

I started reading Palma’s first volume and gave up after just a few pages because I had the uncomfortable feeling that his novel, set in 1896 London and closely following the work of H.G. Wells, was fiction translated from English. Perhaps I am being unfair to Palma, and also running the risk of sounding censorious, but I wonder what the point of choosing this background is. I assume that he and his literary descendants, like Álvarez, will claim that writers should be free to use their imagination as they please–and who am I to say otherwise? I worry, however, very much at the decision to ignore the Spanish 19th century to focus instead on the British 19th century, simply because while there are plenty of British writers to lend new life to the Victorian past, the relatively few Spanish writers are seemingly choosing to turn their backs on Spain. And I don’t think that British writers will suddenly return the favour and start fantasizing about our 19th century.

The British, as we all know, excel at selling their past and their heritage worldwide–in the Málaga conference Mark Llewellyn noted that the biggest British export to China in recent years has been Downtown Abbey… We, here in Spain, are not immune to the charms of British fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as I know first-hand very well. But, from what I have seen these days, I think that the Spanish specialists in English Studies are among the only Spaniards aware of a very simple truth: this is not our culture.

It feels like our culture, in the same way that 20th century and current American culture does, because its products have colonized our cultural market. Also, because many of us can access them in English or enjoy the experience of travelling regularly to anglophone areas. Nonetheless, when I heard Victoria Álvarez tell us about her problems with the many anglicisms (or English borrowings) in her prose, because she reads all the time in English, I worried. Unless she ends up writing in English, she happens to be a Spanish writer and she should be concerned with mastering the language which is her artistic tool. As for the use of Victorian and Edwardian times in her fiction, although she was clear about her trying to stick to a plausible, well-researched view of them, the risk of her using second-hand clichés is still enormous. Read a summary of Palma’s books and you will also see that name-dropping is essential in his novels. So, should Victoria Álvarez cease publishing her peculiar neo-Edwardian fiction in Spanish? No, of course not. It’s her choice and she has many readers, it seems. My aim is not, as I have said, censorship but raising our collective awareness as Spanish readers about why we need to fantasize about other people’s cultures. And appropriate them.

I am finally reconciled with the TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, as it is, precisely, fulfilling the much needed task of turning local Spanish history into material for (fantasy) fiction. In one of the conference talks there was a scene from an episode on real-life Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to have x-ray vision but was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini. This is, I believe, a most fruitful strategy: make Spanish personages known, and bring international personalities into the tale if this requires it.

The British have found a very rich treasure in their past for their fiction and this is what we need to do: explore our own and claim it. It seems a better kind of appropriation.

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