This Is How You Write about Gender in Dominican Literature

Maja Horn, Masculinity after Trujillo: The Politics of Gender in Dominican Literature (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014); 202 pages; ISBN 978-0813049304 (hardcover)

• June 2016

As with its island-sharing neighbor Haiti, the Dominican Republic is located at a crossroads: an Atlantic gateway for European and African transatlantic travel and migration (forced and unforced), at the geographic midpoint of the Americas, on the cusp of the Caribbean archipelagic arc. This geography has its scholarly analogy, since the Dominican Republic sits at the crossroads of the interdisciplinary fields Latin American studies, American studies, Caribbean studies, postcolonial studies, and African/black diaspora studies. Nonetheless, across these fields, the Dominican Republic generally has been overlooked.

This is one of the central reasons Maja Horn’s study of gender in Dominican literature is so important: it reveals the richness that emerges when the Dominican Republic is situated at the nexus of those interdisciplinary fields. The first page pushes against reading Dominican patriarchy and masculinity as an ahistorical—“traditional”—phenomenon of “Latin American” culture. Horn argues, instead, that the masculinity cemented during Rafael Trujillo’s three-decade dictatorship (el trujillato) must be seen in the context of US empire, in this way extending the book into a direct conversation with transnational and hemispheric American studies.

Horn broadens the relevance of her book—and, by extension, of Dominican studies—by placing her work in conversation with major recent work in Caribbean studies by Deborah Thomas, Raphael Dalleo, Mimi Sheller, Silvio Torres-Saillant, and Shalini Puri. She then introduces the work of Argentine Ernesto Laclau to consider how Latin American political philosophy points to political mobilization that opposes the hegemony of hierarchical political power structures with horizontal political and cultural relations “from below.” This forms the basis for one criticism of the book: in arguing for the necessity of horizontal relations, Horn presents what might be construed as a vertical conceptual framing, one that relies on political and cultural theory from outside the Dominican Republic and available in English, in order to imagine more egalitarian Dominican futures. (The lone exception is Torres-Saillant, but his academic home is in the United States and much of his well-known academic work is in English.) Of course, such a move may be necessary when trying to situate her own study at the intersection of Caribbean, postcolonial, Latin American, and American studies. Nonetheless, one important way to demonstrate a scholarly commitment to horizontal forms of organization is to think with Dominican political and cultural theory alongside the theory Horn does invoke.

To be fair, as soon as Horn engages masculinity itself, she converses with an impressive array of interlocutors, including Dominican ones based on the island, such as the late sociologist Antonio de Moya. Horn then closes her introduction with a glimpse into the archive for her study of Dominican masculinity: Dominican prose fiction, predominantly the novel. Her first chapter presents a sustained and compelling elaboration of her argument against three dominant popular and scholarly engagements with Dominican masculinity: as part of a (decontextualized) strongman “tradition”; as located in the exceptional patriarchal persona of Trujillo himself; and as isolated from a wider context of US imperialism in which masculinity and national sovereignty become equated.

Each of the four subsequent chapters is a close study of an individual Dominican author writing in Trujillo’s long shadow after his death in 1961. Thus Horn turns to the persistence of and challenges to masculinist discourse in the works of three major Dominican literary figures on the island—Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, Hilma Contreras, and Rita Indiana Hernández—as well as Junot Díaz, in the Dominican diaspora. In placing these writers together, Horn offers an important intervention, since Caribbean literary studies—in English, in particular—has failed to even register the three island-based writers. Horn thus performs a sort of horizontal praxis by eschewing the US-centric tendency to read Dominican literature as coextensive with writers of the Dominican diaspora who, like Díaz, write in English.

While each of these figures is deserving of study, Horn does not spend enough time articulating why the novel is the form that receives the most attention in her analysis. In a context with a thin literary publishing industry and a public generally unable to access books through purchase or through a library system, perhaps attention to other forms would index the way Dominican publics outside the narrow literary public sphere receive and respond to hegemonic gender discourses. The lone exception to this novel-centric focus is a brief study of short stories Contreras published in Dominican newspapers. To be sure, the academic literary market has long preferred studies of the novel. Nevertheless, a near singular focus on Dominican novels may unintentionally propagate a sort of hierarchy related to who can and does consume novels.

In spite of this limitation, the chapters themselves offer powerful readings. The chapter on Veloz Maggiolo, the most prized writer in the Dominican Republic, treats the relationship between the form of two dictatorship novels and the masculinist ideology they simultaneously critique and perpetuate. The subsequent chapter attends to the “vastly understudied” Contreras, whose “sparse but several-decade spanning oeuvre from the late 1930s to the mid-1980s offers a rare persistent engagement with Dominican notions of gender and sexuality” (81). This chapter is Horn’s strongest: as is the case with other mid-twentieth-century Caribbean women writers such as Una Marson and Marie Vieux-Chauvet, only relatively recently has Contreras been rescued from literary obscurity by contemporary Dominican women writers on whose work Horn builds. More important, however, is the way Horn powerfully elucidates Contreras’s criticisms of dominant gender and sexual norms in her works, and the way these criticisms foreground, unlike Veloz Maggiolo’s, the kind of horizontal relationships Laclau theorizes.

The chapter on Hernández, who writes in Spanish on the island, investigates two of her novels, La estrategia de Chocueca (1999) and Papi (2004), in a Dominican literary and cultural context less interested in retelling the trujillato and more interested, Horn argues, in exploring both its racist, sexist, and heteronormative legacies and their evolution under varying local and global political circumstances over the five decades since Trujillo’s death. Horn convincingly shows that even though the two novels offer divergent strategies for “destabilizing hegemonic notions” of masculinity, both end up challenging these notions and the corresponding hierarchical social relations that sustain them (122).

Horn ends with an invitation to consider “how not to read” Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), and his short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her (2012). As she does with Hernández’s works, Horn foregrounds Díaz’s use of irony, humor, sarcasm, and satire as modes of engaging patriarchal and masculinist hierarchies. However, one weakness in Horn’s analysis here is that she underexamines these modes, giving way instead to an overemphasis on both the novel and its narrator, Yunior, as ultimately earnest, sincere, and serious and thus compromised in their critique of hegemonic masculinity.

This criticism aside, the closing chapter—and Horn’s book as a whole—is a necessary contribution to Caribbean, Latin American, American, and postcolonial studies. It examines masculinity through a national focus on Dominican writers alongside—in this way horizontal instead of hierarchical—the Dominican Republic’s most celebrated writer of the diaspora. In so doing, the book reminds its readers that an uncritical focus on diaspora figures can function “not to unsettle an exclusionary US American identity but rather to consolidate and bolster it” (138), and this is true of gender discourses as much as it is of race and other politicized identity categories.

 

Raj Chetty is an assistant professor of English at St. John’s University in Queens, specializing in Caribbean literature across English, Spanish, and French. His current project studies the articulations between Dominican literary and expressive arts in the post-Trujillo period and conceptualizations of black diaspora. He recently coedited “Dominican Black Studies,” a special issue of The Black Scholar, and has published in Callaloo, Anthurium, Palimpsest, and Afro-Hispanic Review.

 

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