Books By Women: Dreaming in Cuban

After reading The Lady Matador’s HotelI knew I needed to explore more of Cristina Garcia’s work. Dreaming in Cuban (1992) was Garcia’s first novel, but you would never be able to tell by the flowing language, intricate pacing and point of view. The novel follows three generations of women exploring their relationship to each other, their Cuban identity and heritage, as well as the bias of perspective.

dreaming in cuban

This was a perfect choice to read during my year of Books by Women because most of the main characters are female and each experiences life, love and politics in a vastly different way than the other women of her family. Celia del Pino, the oldest of the women, supports the Cuban Revolution and is bound by her communist beliefs just as much as by her experience in a mental institution, away from her husband and daughter, Lourdes.

Lourdes hates Cuba and communism and moves to the United States with her husband to open a bakery. What I loved about Lourdes is that she is described as obese, but a beautiful and sexual being. Her weight holds no bearing on her sexuality or her sexual desires. As usual, Garcia writes female sexuality as natural, intimate and for the woman’s pleasure not the male gaze. There is a time in the novel where Lourdes loses weight through vigorous exercise and not eating for months and I felt awful for her, no matter how gorgeous she looked in her trim white suit for Thanksgiving. It felt like a character I loved for who she was withered away. When she finally starts eating again, she does so with such immense pleasure and might that I loved her more and more with each bite and each button that snapped from her suit. I loved the way Garcia rejected fat shaming and the novel is an excellent source of body positivity.

After Lourdes, Celia gives birth to Felicia. Through Felicia, Garcia takes a second look at the trope of women and madness through Felicia’s abusive relationship with her husband and the odd ways she loves her children.

The novel is told through third person present tense, but at times we see first person narration through the eyes of the youngest generation. As readers we learn Felicia’s story through third person and then through first person through the eyes of her twin daughters, and then again through the eyes of her son. This narrative switch comes into play throughout the novel, with first person narration by Lourdes’ daughter, Pilar, a punk artist. The switch in perspective happens only occasionally but is never jarring. Reading the novel as a writer, I marveled at Garcia’s use of perspective to tell a nuanced story of the lives of three generations of women: Celia, Lourdes and Felicia, and Pilar.

I would definitely recommend this novel, especially to readers interested in Latina authors and Cuban history. Because the novel is mainly historical fiction, Garcia fleshes out the story with historical details of Cuba during the Cold War and beautiful details of Cuban culture including foods and traditions. Dreaming in Cuban did not disappoint and her writing style foreshadows the incredibly work she would later do for The Lady Matador’s Hotel. 

Next up: No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July. The summer’s almost over, but keep reading!


Books By Women: Bad Feminist

Read Bad Feminist. Plain and simple, no strings attached I can safely recommend Bad Feminist to anyone. Roxanne Gay frames her collection of essays as a critique of the concept that there is one singular way to be a feminist and how she doesn’t want to be a feminist icon and put on a pedestal. She knows she can’t be perfect and doesn’t want to be the “popular media feminist flavor of this week” as she explains it. She is human. She is flawed. She (gasp!) shaves her legs.

And she’s a feminist. A self proclaimed bad feminist.


One of the reasons this collection works so well is because it takes the fear out of feminism without removing the title of feminist or proclaiming an ideology. Roxane Gay is a cultural critic first and foremost. These essays are accessible conversations about why we need more representations of women (especially women of color) in movies and books. You do not need to know feminist theory to understand her ideas and as Gay explains in her introduction, she’s not as well read on feminist texts as she should be. There’s no pressure. You come as you are and take what you take, whether you agree with her critiques of sexual mores, race, and women in literature, you can see how she arrives at her ideas.

And for readers who have read all the feminist theory, Roxane Gay’s book is a great way to introduce yourself to the writings of a feminist of color. Gay doesn’t dumb down feminism or subtract from the need for feminism because her writing is accessible. The accessibility makes her work all the more poignant that, like Bell Hooks wrote: Feminism is for Everybody.


The best moments in the essays are when Gay speaks about her personal experience, growing up as the child of immigrants, working through sex and sexuality, and navigating her own privilege. Essays like “I Once Was Miss America” capture nostalgia for childhood literary favorites (even when these tastes are embarassingly awful), while analyzing race and the incessant need in literature for flawless Mary Sue women. You finish the book feeling like you know Roxane Gay and have just spent hours and hours on the phone with her, as if you are best friends.

If you have not already read Bad Feminist is is my reading recommendation for the summer, fall, winter or spring. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.


The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

The Princess Bride AKA Look at the Straight White Blonde Couple

Anyone who knows me personally will know that I have complex feelings about The Princess Bride. It was the film my parents saw on their first date and the book that led me out of the teen section and into the world of adult fiction. I loved the film before I read the book and then criticized the film to no end once the book became my bible. I worked at a summer camp and would spend days reciting the story of The Princess Bride to my campers.

Then I found out that the classic tale by S. Morgenstern and abridged by William Goldman was actually just written by William Goldman. S. Morgenstern does not exist. This was earth shattering to someone who was legitimately planning on finding a way to get to Florin (the city Goldman claims to be real) and seeing the museum where we could actually see Buttercup’s wedding dress and the six fingered sword.

Just a quick summary of the story for those who don’t know. Buttercup is the most beautiful woman in the world and lives out on a farm. She and a farm boy named Westley fall in love and he leaves to seek his fortune in order to marry her. But he is killed at sea by pirates. The Prince of Florin, Prince Humperdink, finds out about Buttercup’s beauty and decides he will marry her, even though he knows she doesn’t love him.

But on the day her engagement to Humperdink is announced, Buttercup is kidnapped by a hunchback named Vizzini, a Spanish man named Inigo, and a giant named Fezzik. Her captors plan to kill her and blame it on the neighboring country Guilder in order to start a war. But they are being followed by a man in black who rescues Buttercup through a series of sword fighting, hand fighting, and a battle of wits.

The man in black turns out to be Westley who was never actually killed and the straight white couple is re-united. Then, Prince Humperdink tracks the lovers down and Buttercup makes a deal that she will go back with Humperdink if Westley is allowed to live freely. Though Humperdink agrees, Westley is not spared and is taken into Humperdink’s Zoo of Death (Pit of Despair in the film if you’re more familiar with the movie version) to be tortured.

Humperdink kills Westley, but Fezzik and Inigo bring him back to life with a miracle pill and they storm the castle to stop Buttercup’s wedding. In the end, Westley and Buttercup ride off with Inigo and Fezzik and true love conquers all.

The End.

I know I’m leaving out Inigo’s storyline and tons of stuff from the book (for those of you already familiar), but this is the main plot condensed as best as I can condense it.

For the past two years I haven’t touched the book or the film because of my anger at William Goldman. But last night I watched the movie with my room mate who had never seen it before and I realized that this was the first time I was watching it as a feminist.

It is such a heteronormative story! It is such a sexist story!

I knew even before I would even consider touching the word feminism that Buttercup does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. And what she wants is Westley. Her arc, if we’re generous and want to call it an arc, revolves around her love for Westley. What is she without the male protagonist? She is beautiful. The most beautiful woman in the world. Why does Westley love her? For her beauty. Her looks are all anyone ever mentions of her in the book and it’s all that Westley ever talks about in regards to her. Granted there isn’t much else to talk about. William Goldman makes it a point actually to emphasize that Buttercup isn’t very smart: she named her horse Horse and used the world syllabub instead of syllable. This just shows that Goldman is sexist and thinks that writing comedy involves making fun of women’s brains in order to highlight their beauty.

Hilarious, William Goldman. Hilarious.

The whole idea of a couple where the woman is just prized for her looks reminds me of this scene from The Swan Princess:

Even when I liked the book, I never liked Buttercup. It’s a shame to hate a female character just because she is written as flat as a piece of cardboard. But the strange thing was that even though I hated Buttercup, I envied her and perhaps that was the source of my hatred. A shallow part of myself wanted to be Buttercup because she does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. She is the stereotypical princess, except that The Princess Bride was writte in 1973 during the Second Wave of Feminism. William Goldman had to have been aware of what he was doing in writing this “perfect woman” who had all the beauty in the world and none of the brains.

Westley on the other hand has both looks and brains, because the two go hand in hand in men, but not so much in women, right? Westley is also perfect, but where Buttercup is a Mary Sue, Westley is amazing! He scales the 1,000 feet of the Cliffs of Insanity (part of the way not even using a rope), he duels the greatests swordsman alive, beats a giant in hand to hand combat, outsmarts a schemer and rescues Buttercup at every possible moment where she is in danger. Buttercup exists to be rescued by perfect Westley and this is called true love!

There is such a double standard here. When Buttercup is brave and stands up to Prince Humperdink expressing her love for Westley her bravery is framed in words. She has the regal bravery of a queen who commands in words though not in actions. She is and always was passive. When Westley is brave he is undergoing torture and not crying out because he is removing himself to think of Buttercup’s beauty. As Westley says to his captor Count Rugen, “We are men of action”.

I don’t care if this book and film were meant to be a comedy because it takes the theme of true love very seriously as being the through line of the plot. And Goldman’s idea of true love is the limited one of a straight white blonde couple where gender roles match up like puzzle pieces. Comedy is never funny when it is at the expense of any group of people. If someone believes in true love more power to them, but true love is not just between a man and a woman. True love is not just between “beautiful people” and true love is not based on gender roles.

This One’s for the Mothers

No matter how it might seem sometimes, feminism is not a movement for the young. Historically it seems that so long as feminism has had a name, the following generation of women has wanted to exclude her parents and older women in general. There is a misplaced belief that becoming a mother gives into the patriarchal system. Under this belief, mothers cannot be feminists.

This is one of the largest problems feminism still grapples with because although there are critics of feminism for being straight, white, and middle class, motherhood is discussed far less often. If each new generation of feminists is content to believe they are the only ones who are oppressed, and that because they are young and radical they are at the core of the movement, then feminism is limiting itself.

I understand that motherhood is a slippery subject with feminists asking questions such as: is giving birth and settling down accepting your biology? and Can this choice ever be a feminist statement? A woman named Kathleen M. Streater wrote a feminist critique of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in 2007 and summed up feminism in perhaps the clearest way I have ever heard: “Today, more than ever, feminism is about choice.” Without going too much into detail about Streater’s critique, I need to point out that choice is exactly what feminists are fighting for. We want the choice to be engineers, executives, or athletes. At the same time, what about the choice to fall in love, be in an equal relationship and raise your children as feminists?

Motherhood is often mislabeled as unfeminist, without anyone really understanding what unfeminist means. Does anyone stop to consider that motherhood does not kill feminism? I want to praise the mothers who want a better world for their sons and daughters. I want to praise the mothers who live in a world that dismisses them once they have fulfilled their biological function and given birth.

My mother has been influential in my life, and I know that she has has always put my brother and myself first, before any career options, and that employers are never happy with this. Women are supposed to raise families, give birth, and put aside their identities for the role of mother. The commonality of woman-as-mother puts her in direct opposition to feminism. But it shouldn’t be this way. If feminism is for equal rights, keeping mothers closeted as the uniformed generation of the patriarchy is not going to bring any unification.

The next step for feminists needs to be accepting mothers as the strong women they are, understanding that we are all women, and finally dismantling the stereotype that mothers are only identified by their children.


Clan of the Cave Bear: Ayla the Feminist

When I was a freshman in high school I knew nothing about feminism. I didn’t care to know and by no means was I reading books with strong female characters to give me a sense of how awesome women could be. No, most of what I read was either bad teen fiction or male-centered stories.  Then my mother suggested I read Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

The book is historical fiction set in pre-history and focuses on the evolution of the modern human species and the period where Neanderthals were living alongside Cro-Magnon Man before the Neanderthals went extinct. Ayla is a Cro-Magnum girl separated from her people at the age of five due to an earthquake. This same earthquake leveled the cave where one Neanderthal population, the Clan of the Cave Bear, had been living. Forced to leave their home the Clan travels looking for a new cave and comes across a nearly dead Ayla lying in their path. Ayla is adopted into the Clan’s sexist culture always aware that she is different in both looks and understanding from her Clan mates. As the story unfolds, it looks into Ayla’s role in contributing to the evolution of the modern human race.

Without realizing it at the time, I fell in love with a feminist character. When I first considered the idea that Ayla was perhaps a feminist, I thought about how difficult it must have been for Auel to write this character. How can you write feminism thousands and thousands of years before feminism was even a word and language was still in its crudest of stages? But then I realized, it must have actually be easy to write Ayla because she is a feminist simply by being a woman struggling for her rights and equality in a society that thrives off subjugating women.

Unfortunately, there are very few female characters in fiction I like, but Ayla is one of them. As a reader, you watch her grow up and see her understandings of sexism and how it affects her. The Clan is a misogynist society, where women exist to serve men, give birth, and gather food. Children are told stories about the power of womanhood that comes with the power to bring new life into the world and how this power has to be kept from the women lest they become omnipotent. In this way, Auel uses the sexist notion that women exist to make babies and turns it on its head to be the powerful force that it is. Hearing these stories, it is no wonder that Ayla is a feminist.

Women are not allowed to touch weapons, but Ayla masters the use of a sling. Women are not allowed to disobey men, but Ayla goes against both the male leader and his son, who is the antagonist of the story. I don’t want to give too much away because it is a phenomenal book, but Auel makes another perfect move by creating a balance where there are the deplorable sexist male characters and yet other male characters are righteous, upstanding moral leaders you can respect no matter your sex. The book is not meant to cater only to women and never perpetuates stereotypes of either hardcore feminists or chauvinistic men. Everything that is done is done with the purpose to prove a point about culture.

The book is the first of a series (though the first stands entirely on its own) and does contain pretty graphic sex and a graphic rape scene. I was not prepared for this when I read the book at age 14 and I bring it up because although I skipped over these when I first read the books, in later books when Ayla has sex because she wants it, sex isn’t treated as evil and heinous. Ayla’s sexuality is her own and her pleasure is nothing to scorn at.

If you get a chance, read the book. I have never found a more compelling, subtle, female character. I have never found another female character who inspires me as much as Ayla does. Pass along this feminist in fiction for a greater understanding of the complexity of women characters.