The Wretched of the Earth: Violence and Motherhood in Conceição Evaristo’s Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres
Natalia Fontes de Oliveira
Conceição Evaristo was born in Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She grew up in a small town called Pindura Saia and in the 70’s moved to Rio de Janeiro. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Literature/Linguistics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a PhD in Comparative Literature. A poet, novelist, and short story writer, Conceição Evaristo has greatly contributed to Afro-Brazilian literature and continues to innovate as a creative writer and critic. In many of her novels, Evaristo challenges preconceived ideas and depicts the implications of being a black woman in Brazil. Evaristo’s Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres (2011) is a collection of thirteen short stories in which Afro-Brazilian women are the protagonists and the narrators of their own stories. The stories highlight that many Afro-Brazilian women face daily spectacles of physical and psychological violence, poverty, and discrimination. In each story, a woman character shares her past memories, in a process of remembering and rearticulating her experiences. One common theme is that of motherhood, which is characterized by conflicts between women who are trying to help each other survive in a society that constantly tears them apart, mainly because of the constraints imposed by a racist and sexist society. Parting from Frantz Fanon’s theories of violence and resistance, this paper focuses on “Aramides Florença,” “Shirley Paixão,” and “Lia Gabriel” to analyze the peculiarities of the experience of motherhood that helps the women characters fight against victimization. The women characters will respond differently to their experience of violence, some resist by leaving, ignoring, or even committing more violence. Nevertheless, the women characters are not judged according to binary notions of good or bad, because such essentialist notions only hinders the complexity of the protagonists, their environment, and their stories. By suggesting the alignment of Frantz Fanon’s I propose a new reading of Afro-Brazilian literature in light of postcolonial theory, to analyze motherhood in the midst different kinds of violence. I suggest that the maternal figure in the short stories is portrayed differently from the traditional perspective of submission, because motherhood can help women fight against victimization and struggle for empowerment.
The notion of empowerment is complicated and brought to the forefront by Insubmissas Lágrimas de mulheres. Lionnet argues that “the female writer who struggles to articulate a personal vision and to verbalize the vast areas of feminine experience which have remained unexpressed, if not repressed, is engaged in an attempt to excavate those elements of the female self which have been buried under the cultural and patriarchal myths of selfhood” (91). Evaristo’s act of writing stories that are commonly forgotten by mainstream canonical literature can be seen as an act of resistance, a refuse to be silent, a confrontation of the status quo that often downplay domestic violence women suffer. Through her literary work, Evaristo problematizes the hardships and struggles women face as they struggle against a racist, classist, and sexist ideologies.
The first story in Insubmissas Lágrimas de mulheres is entitled “Aramides Florença,” the name of the protagonist of the short story. Aramides is a proud mother and immediately introduces about her son, Emildes Florença. She describes how she met Emildes’s father and how much they loved each other when they got married. After becomes pregnant the social dynamics between them changes. One night, while both are already in bed, Aramides struggles to find a comfortable position to sleep and she is shocked to find a razor in their bed: “was looking for a better position to fit her belly, and in the place that she had laid down and her fingers touched something strange. There was one of those shaving lenses . . . with difficulties she managed to get up and scream with pain. One strain of blood was dripping from one of the sides of her womb” (14). The blade cuts her and she screams in pain. She is hurt and she cannot understand why her husband’s razor is in their bed. She confronts her husband about it, but he claims not to know how the shaver got there either. Aramides decides she it was an accident and that the pregnancy is making her sensitive.
During her last month of pregnancy, Aramides is in front of the mirror admiring her body, when she sees her husband approaching. She closes her eyes and welcomes his arms. But once again she suffers physical violence: “she screamed in pain. He, who rarely smoked, had just hugged her with the cigarette lit between his fingers. It was such a fast and violent gesture that the cigarette was smashed and put out in Aramide’s womb. A slight smell of burned meat invaded the air” (15). Her husband burns her body with a cigarette. She is a victim of domestic abuse, her life and her baby’s life is in danger, but she refuses to acknowledge her husband as an aggressor. She still wants to believe that the incidents are accidents. Why does Aramides take these forms of abuse in silence? Why does she refuse to see the aggressions and fight against this physical abuse? In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon talks about how the oppressed incorporate the oppressor’s ideology, by internalizing a “guilt complex” (53). The oppressed becomes imprisoned in the dominant culture’s configurations, even if they are deteriorating to the self (52). In light of Fanon’s arguments, a parallel can be made with Aramides, who is domesticated into submission by her husband, the oppressor. She ignores the cruelty and reality of his violence, because she is imprisoned by patriarchal paradigms that legitimize and undermine men’s abusive actions. Moreover, Michael Foucault argues that dominance is only possible with some room for resistance (789). Aramides cannot completely rebel against her husband, but she resists the violence by screaming and pushing him away. The dynamics between oppressor and the oppressed are subtle, it is “a relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities. Its opposite pole can only be passivity” (Foucault 789). Aramides’s husband violates her body, becoming increasingly violent and more explicit about his violent acts. He tries to assume control of her body and her life. Aramides is trapped in a metaphorical prison of the social roles of wife and husband; she knows he is abusing her, but she downplays his actions, performing the role of a good wife by being submissive.
After giving birth and back at the house, Aramides forgets about the past incidences and focuses her attention on Emildes, who is only a few days old. But once more, she suffers domestic violence. She comments:
I was breast-feeding my son, when Emilde’s father arrived. He ripped the baby out of my hand putting him in the crib without a slightest care. He almost threw the child . . . in a succession of violent gestures, he threw me on the bed, ripped my clothes and violently touching my breast, with his mouth in one of my breasts that was already out from feeding my son. And in this manner, he violated me. And in me, what still hurt from the passing of my son, from the deepest pain I suffered, feeling the blood spout(18).
Aramides’s husband rapes her as he attempts to control her body. He seems to be jealous of the new bond between mother and child. Aramides left the hospital few of days before and she is too weak to physically fight against the wrath of her husband and protect her child. She is raped, violated, abused, in front of her newborn baby. The husband immediately leaves after raping her and she never hears from him again. Aramides says that she finds the will to survive because she wants to be strong for her child and guarantee his well being. She ignores the doctor’s orders to give Emildes different milk, other than from her breasts: she wants her son to have the best of her. Aramides’s kind of resistance is not through violence, but nevertheless full of action, marked by acts of courage to continue her life and care for her son. She rejects victimization by loving her son and cherishing their mother-son bond, which her husband tried to break. Even though it is important denounce domestic violence and the aggressors, Aramides should not be judged negatively for not going to the police or authorities. A point to consider is that in the rural areas of Brazil, sexists’ and racists’ ideology still pervades the dominant discourse. Domestic violence is often ignored by local authorities and women face further abuse. Thus, although Aramides does not denounce her husband to the authorities, this does not mean that she is convenient with his actions. Through motherhood she tries to find the best way she can overcome the violence, caring for her son and fighting against victimization.
The third short story in Insubmissas Lágrimas de mulheres is entitled “Shirley Paixão.” Shirley is an older woman, who lost her first husband and tried to kill her second husband. Despite the initial shock with such a statement, her story sheds light on how such a violent act is possible, if not welcomed. Shirley has two daughters with her first husband, who one day abandons her. Later adopts the three daughters of her second husband. For years, they lived a harmonious family life and Shirley explains that she loved all the girls equally: “The girls, his daughters, had become mine just like mine,” (26). She adopts her husband’s daughters as her own. Shirley goes on to say that Seni, his oldest daughter, is always very quiet and grows up “alternating periods of little talk, with no talk” (27). She is not talkative, also preferring to be alone. The husband is constantly picking fights with Seni and only directs his voice at her “to diminish the little girl, to undermine her” (27). Even though the relationship between Seni and her father is problematic, Shirley was at first oblivious to the violence involved.
One day, the schoolteacher suggests that Seni should go to a psychologist. Shirley’s husband bursts in outrage and she is sure that he tries to beat Seni, but hesitates because she is there. Later that night, similar to other nights, the father violently pulls Seni off her bed. Differently, this time Seni reacts by screaming. Seni breaks her silence and voices her desperation. Shirley runs to their bedroom and she describes the scene: “He advanced on top of Seni, screaming, cussing the most vowel words, ripping her vests and exposing the nakedness of that body still half-girl, violated several times by him ever since her mother had passed away” (29). Seni’s father has been raping her since she was five years old. Her silence, extreme self-censorship, and feeling of protectiveness towards her younger sisters, are all part of the mechanisms she finds to cope with such violence. The helplessness of Seni and her younger sisters enrages Shirley as she describes, “that was when I saw the most painful scene of my life. A man exploring, trying to hold, to take control, to violate the naked body of a girl, while the other voices supplicants, desperate, unprotected, screaming help” (29). The scene shocks Shirley, but through motherhood she finds the strength to survive because she knows her daughters depend on her. Shirley says that: “for her [Seni’s] salvation she turned the fear, the horror, into courage” (29). She explains that any fear or desperation turned into courage to save her daughter. Shirley sees only two choices: “to kill or die. But I couldn’t die, or he would be victorious and would carry his objective until the end” (29). Shirley does not consider dying because she needs to save her daughters, as a mother she will not permit any harm to be inflicted on her children. She has no doubt that violence is the only way to stop her husband from continuing to rape her daughter and she does not refuse to act.
Shirley decides to attack her husband using whatever she finds to stop him: “then salvation came. A small iron bar, that functioned as a lock for the window. It was easy: only pull up the bar and let it fall. When I saw the ruined animal lying on the floor. Half way through the second movement, somebody held me back-the neighbor” (30). Shirley tries to save her daughter and does not care what resources she has to use; she wants is to kill this man, her husband, who is destroying her daughter’s innocent mind and body. Shirley comments “in the very moment that everything was happening the only certainty I had was that he did not deserve to live” (25). Despite Shirley’s reaction, her husband does not die and he is sentenced to lifetime in jail, while Shirley is sent to prison for three years.
A parallel can be made with Frantz Fanon’s arguments, which suggest that for the colonized to be freed from the colorizer, violence is the only efficient way and is inevitable in the process of becoming independent or free (12). There are obvious differences between such comparisons, for one is the literal rape of a girl, and the other is a more metaphorical idea of a rape of people and land. Even so, Shirley’s reasoning come from desperation, from an attempt to eliminate the tragedies and pain the oppressor causes. Violence seems to be the most efficient way to immediately fight back and expel the invader. In the very end of the short story, Shirley says “I know that you can’t and shouldn’t make justice with your own hands, but my act was to set my daughter free. There was no other way. He was a tall strong man. Just a well given blow would stop his brutal force” (30-1). She comments that violence should not be answered with more violence. But during the night her husband was raping her daughter, she was determined to stop him by any means necessary. Through motherhood, Shirley acquires the strength to fight against her husband and struggle to save her daughter. Although her method used is unconventional and may lead to further violence, she had only one objective in mind: save her daughter from a rape.
The tenth story of Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres, is entitled “Lia Gabriel.” Lia quickly mentions that her son is diagnostic with possible schizophrenia. Lia describes her son, Máximo, as “the sweetest and happiest kid, and the moments of aggression were always against himself. He would throw himself on the floor, sometimes suddenly, for no reason . . . in these moments of contained rage he would hit his head on the wall, pull off his own hair, pull his libs, nose, and ears” (83). Lia emphasizes that he has never hurt her or his sisters; his violence is always against himself. She briefly mentions that one day, after a fight, her husband left them and she had to support her family alone. First, she works as a math teacher at a local school, then at home, to spend more time with Máximo, and later opens her own shop “I Can Fix Everything.” She explains the name by saying that “Everything can be fixed. And it can. I fixed my life, which had a rusty spring. I myself imprinted on me new movements of my days” (84). Lia’s story is already heroic, as she manages to survive supporting three kids on her own and patiently taking care of Máximo, who needs special attention. Lia Gabriel overcomes the difficulties of her life, which we later find out are much more than just financial and the abandonment of her husband.
Lia mentions that one of Máximo’s doctors is interested in the story of his father, because during one of his crises, he screamed his name. Lia thus begins to tell her story by saying Máximo was only two and the girls three. And one day, when her husband asks for dinner, she mentions it is in the microwave and continues to play with the kids. But he bursts out in anger: “after few seconds, he returned mad to the living room, jumped on me, pulling me towards the outer room of the house where clothes were washed. There, he opened the tap of the tank and blocking my mouth; he pushed my head inside the water, while he violently kicked me from behind with his knees” (86). Lia is physically beaten and tortured, inside her own home. She experiences similar torture that soldiers experience in wars, and like many, she does not succumb or break down in the face of her enemy. Lia Gabriel does not have the physical strength to fight back, but she resists by not screaming, because she is afraid this would terrify her children even more. It is not the first time he hits her, but Lia’s resistance to voice desperation enrages her husband and this time his violence extrapolates is extreme. He went back to continue abusing her and her children: “threw her in the outside room and with a belt on his hand ordered me to take off my clothes, and slashing me several times . . . Then he brought my son, already naked, throwing him against me. He slashed me, and I, with my son in my arms, only had time to arch over my son and offer my back and my naked buttocks as the man tortured me” (87). The imagery of this scene is visceral and disturbing, as Lia attempts to save her son from the lashes of her husband. She suffers cruel domestic violence, which haunts women who are entrapped in an abusive relationship. As in many cases of domestic violence, children also suffer the tragedies of an abusive husband/father. The story hints that Máximo’s psychological problems can be a result of his traumatic experience, seeing his father’s abuse his mother, but not being able to do defend her mother and himself. Lia and her children, especially Máximo, suffer horrible physical and psychological violence. After facing such horror, Lia manages to clean herself up and take the children to her mother’s house, looking for shelter and guidance.
Her mother advises her to go back, because the man is her husband independently of his actions. Lia comments, “Yes, I would do that. I would talk to him. It wouldn’t be easy, but the hate in me was keeping me strong” (87). How could her mother tell her to simply go back to such a husband? What is Lia doing returning to that same prison, to once again live with the man who violently tortured her and the children? Lia and her mother have also internalized what Fanon describes as the “guilt complex” (53). Both are metaphorically imprisoned by dominant discourse that many times justifies or accepts men’s violent actions and domestic abuse. Their reasoning, self-defense, and care for their children are suppressed by a sexist dominant discourse of women’s role as wives. The repetition of culturally acceptable acts reinforces women’s position as inferior to men’s and her submission as a wife. Lia is entrapped in an abusive environment that privileges men’s authority, especially inside the house. Lia does not want to go back, but she is forced to consent to the violence, because he is her husband. Fortunately, when Lia goes back to the house, her husband had left—taking all their belongings with him, including their bed. By having the courage to tell Máximo’s doctor the truth, Lia begins to challenge dominant discourse that privileges men’s authority inside the household. By voicing her traumatic past, she defies her guilt complex and she testifying the domestic violence she and her family suffered in the hands of her ex-husband. Through motherhood, Lia finds the courage to voice and condemn her abusive ex-husband in order to help her son heal.
It is relevant to note that in the three short stories analyzed, the name of the husband/father is not mentioned. This may be a strategy adopted by Conceição Evaristo to reduce their figure, not even deserving a name or acknowledgement for committing such violent acts. At the same time, this choice helps the narratives transgress borders of time, social, cultural and historical contexts, because the violence caused by these men may resemble that of many others who abuse, torture, and rape women. The lack of the men’s names also suggests that the violence transcends them, because although they are guilty for their actions, they are not solely to blame, as tainted paradigms confine women and men in deplorable conditions. In this sense, Evaristo aims to denounce the real causes of such problems, not its consequences, while exposing women’s suffering in this scenario.
In “Aramides Florença,” “Shirley Paixão,” and “Lia Gabriel,” the women suffer different kinds of violence and abuse, being many times marginalized and excluded to the margins of the dominant culture. Fanon’s theory about colonized subjects, violence, and resistance sheds new light to the understanding of the bond of motherhood in Afro-Brazilian literature. Despite cruel circumstances, acts of resistance are very much present as they question tainted paradigms and refuse oppression, many times resorting to violence. Through motherhood the women characters fight against victimization and struggle for empowerment. Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres challenges simplistic categorization of black mothers as motherhood is seen as a complex bond that cannot be defined by dualistic representations of good or bad.
Evaristo, Conceição. Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres. Belo Horizonte: Nandyala, 2011. Print.
Foucault, Michael. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982): 777-795. JSTOR. May 9 2011. Web.
Frantz, Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove P, 1963. Print.
Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989. Print.
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