Intimacies of Family and Fiction

Rosario Ferré, Memoir, trans. Suzanne Hintz and Benigno Trigo (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016); 124 pages; ISBN 978-1611486629 (paperback)

• February 2017

Rosario Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1938, and died in San Juan in 2016. The life lived in between these dates intersected with many names and events of importance to her country—most notably, her father, Luis A. Ferré, was governor of Puerto Rico from 1969 to 1973. But Ferré’s life and her account of it merit our attention primarily because of her considerable literary achievement. Her output was substantial, including novels, short fiction, literary criticism, and children’s literature. A great deal of it has been translated into English—mostly by Ferré herself—and into multiple other languages. Perhaps her best-known novel, The House on the Lagoon, was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1995 and was lauded as “a work of self-conscious brilliance” by the New York Times Book Review.1

Memoir is a slim volume, the main body of which—framed between a prologue and an epilogue—comprises two sections: “The Word Became Flesh” and “How I Began to Write.” The epilogue is followed by “Upon Entering the Academy,” a reproduction of the essay that Ferré wrote for the occasion of her induction into the Puerto Rican Academy of the Spanish Language in 2007. Taken together, the book’s various sections and its many black-and-white photographs offer an intimate and yet strangely disjointed look into the mind, life, and work of one of the hispanophone Caribbean’s most notable—and most notably feminist—writers.

“The Word Became Flesh,” in particular, is more properly a family history than a memoir, and in attempting to trace both her mother’s and her father’s ancestry back to the moment of arrival in Puerto Rico (and, in some cases, beyond that), it tumbles rapidly, almost chaotically, over dates, places, events, and many, many names. The section seems to have difficulty settling on both its form and its audience. Character portraits and interesting anecdotes from the family’s history—such as the briefly but skillfully drawn vignette about Ferré’s paternal grandfather, who “arrived in San Juan with a revolutionary’s machete wrapped in leather in his suitcase and six pesos in his pocket” (16)—risk being crowded out by lists of properties inhabited, schools attended, and business ventures bought and sold, and most of all by names of relatives, friends, and even people known only in passing. Some remarks—such as the apparently off-hand comment that Ferré’s paternal great-great-grandparents’ marriage license can be found among her father’s papers at the foundation that bears his name (15)—might best be interpreted as notes to her children and other descendants toward the construction of a more detailed family narrative for which this text is merely the groundwork.

The second section—“How I Began to Write”—offers greater coherence; it is almost entirely focused on Ferré’s adult life and the development of her literary career. The section describes her time studying at the University of Puerto Rico, including mention of professors Ángel Rama and Mario Vargas Llosa, and her work as cofounder of the literary journal Zona: Carga y Descarga in the 1970s. Ferré attributes to that work her burgeoning political consciousness and proindependence position, from which she later departed: “My political views have changed since then, and today I think that the United States is made up of many peoples and ethnicities, and that it is not impossible to become a Puerto Rican state” (83). Central to the section is an account of the sometimes contentious intersections between her private and her literary lives, including her relationship with her cousin, collaborator, and sometime competitor, Olga Nolla, and the ways Ferré’s academic and creative ambitions led to the dissolution of her first marriage.

There is substance here of interest to scholars: Ferré spends more than four pages on The House on the Lagoon (La casa de la laguna), sharing her thoughts on the significance of the title, the importance of language as a theme, and the relationship of the novel to her broader attempt to write “a vision of a Puerto Rico that was no longer logocentric and homogeneous, that went beyond the principles of nationalism but did not deny access to them” (105). She traces the reasons for her decision to translate the novel from its initial (unpublished) Spanish version into English (because she wanted the exposure that would be created by the book appearing in the US market “as an original work” [105]) and then back into Spanish for the Spanish-language market.

This initiates a motif of Ferré ruminating, at several points, on the interaction between writing and translation. She describes herself as “intrigued” by the translation process, saying, “One became a different person in each language and saw the world in a different way” (97). She comments that for her, translation (in either direction) almost always adds significantly to the length of the text and often produces “a completely different novel” (108). Most strikingly, she reports that her one attempt (with Flight of the Swan / Vuelo del cisne) to begin by writing in English was unsuccessful, or at least aesthetically unrewarding: “I wrote directly in English only with great difficulty, and the words did not flow. I don’t know exactly why, but a story flows directly from its language in some mysterious way” (108). Given Ferré’s interest in translation and record of translating her own work, it is worth noting that Memoir was translated by her son, Benigno Trigo, and Suzanne Hintz, both scholars of Ferré’s work. This is especially interesting, and poignant, in light of the fact that Trigo’s chapter on Ferré’s work in his book Remembering Maternal Bodies opens with a discussion of the way that writing in English, whatever its aesthetic challenges, allowed Ferré the psychological freedom necessary to write about her own mother’s death.

While Memoir seems to begin with the personal and end with the intellectual (with Ferré’s statement to the Puerto Rican Academy of the Spanish Language, which reads as a manifesto for her own creative project as well as a survey of Puerto Rican literary history of the late twentieth century), the truth is that it is, throughout, both a cerebral and an intimate text. Specifically, the entire book seems haunted by the ghost of Ferré’s mother, to whom it is dedicated and with whose influence and memory Ferré plainly struggled. Ferré describes her mother early on as a woman with “extraordinary intelligence and [a] strong personality” (8); she opens the book with the claim, “I suppose that the literary vein comes to me from my mother’s side” (5), and credits her mother more than once with “awaken[ing]” in her the “love of Spanish literature” (119). Yet she notes elsewhere, somewhat forlornly, “Even though I loved stories since I was a child, I do not remember my mother ever reading one to me or even telling me one” (68). At another point she reveals that her mother, herself highly educated for a woman of her generation, joined Ferré’s father in expecting nothing more for their daughter than marriage and a life of respectable domesticity (69). But Ferré never overtly comments or reflects on this—a striking silence from a writer renowned for her feminist stance. Further, it seems likely (although, again, is not made explicit) that some of Ferré’s democratic political impulses may have clashed with her mother’s more elitist attitudes—as when a young Ferré is sent by her mother to spy on a housemaid whom she suspects of having a romantic dalliance with the gardener; the maid is fired the next morning (59). Ferré recalls the anger and shame of her younger self at her own involvement in the incident but does not overtly criticize her mother’s actions. In this way, the text repeatedly reveals, without exploring, the painful fissures in Ferré’s clear desire to commemorate her mother as a loving and inspiring presence in her life. When she closes the biographical section of the book with the observation, “We passionately love those we betray as if betrayal was unquestionable proof of our faithfulness” (111), this seems an apt reflection not only on the fictional characters (from Lazos de sangre, her last novel) whom she is discussing in the moment but also on the broader emotional landscape that Memoir poignantly, if unevenly, surveys.


Rachel L. Mordecai received her MA from the University of the West Indies and her PhD from the University of Minnesota. She teaches Caribbean literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Citizenship Under Pressure: The 1970s in Jamaican Literature and Culture (UWI Press, 2014); her new book project investigates the deployment and re-fashioning of the family-saga genre by twentieth- and twenty-first-century Caribbean writers.


1 Suzanne Ruta, “Blood of the Conquistadors,” New York Times Book Review, 17 September 1995.


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