Happy International Women’s Day!
I’ve written something for you to read if you want to.
A few months ago I got a book for my birthday – The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, written by Maria Isabelle Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho Da Costa (Transated by Helen R Lane). I thought it was brilliant and incredibly interesting but I’d never heard of it before so I decided to write a meeting discussing it for the Psychedelic Bolshevik’s Pub Crawl Day School event.
I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to say so I’ve fleshed it out here and tried to answer some of the questions people had at the meeting. I’ll be adding more to it soon so but here’s some stuff about why it’s definitely worth reading…
In 1971 three women decided to write something collaborative and by all accounts they did this by meeting up twice and week and passing letters to one another to read. These letters make up the book but these women came from different backgrounds and wrote about very different things. You can see this in the sometimes stark contrast between the erotic passages, the letters which discuss the rights of women with painstaking attention paid to the wording of Portuguese law and the heart breaking sections that tell of the trauma experienced by the women of Portugal – brought to us by fictional characters throughout the book.
When the book was first published in 1972 it was banned but the women managed to smuggle copies to France where it was translated and published. From here their story spread further and was translated into different languages for others to read.
The women were writing under the Salazar Regime, a 36 year long oppressive dictatorship when the book was published in 1972 it was confiscated. They were arrested under charges of ‘outrage to public decency’ and ‘abuse of freedom of the press’.
Their trial was an international event, with groups of women across the world demonstrating in solidarity with the authors. These demonstrations often took place in front of Portuguese embassies, linking the arrests and censorship with the oppressive nature of the regime.
They were allegedly tortured as the government wanted to know who had written the most provocative elements of the book but none of them broke and to this day it is not known for definite who wrote which letters.
Soon after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the judge who has thus far avoided trying the authors dropped all charges and they were released. He praised their work and encouraged them to keep writing. However, they went their separate ways and didn’t really communicate much after being freed.
The trio may have split following release but the strong voices within the letters spoke to and compelled many women to fight together against the oppression they faced.
To suggest that we are any less oppressed now than Portuguese women were in the 1970s would be, to me, a ludicrous claim, as I believe that capitalism simply absorbs and co-opts most social movements, appearing to support equal rights and emancipation but on their own terms in order to try and eliminate the threat social movements can pose to it.
However, there’s no denying that this book was politically important and in fact pointed to the ways in which women suffered and still do suffer, causing women to push forward arguments about things like legalisation of abortion.
The book was allegedly inspired by the story of Mariana, a 17th century Portuguese nun, who writes about her affair with a French cavalier and his eventual abandonment of her and these letters are re-invented by the Three Marias. They tell of her woe but also of her anger. There are letters in which she masturbates, letters in which she grows angry and tells the reader of her frustration towards the church. There are also letters where she questions the very idea of love and what it means, whether love is simply an auto-erotic exercise in which to revel at the fact of being desired. She questions gender relations and suggests that her lack of passivity is what drove the Cavalier away – he could not handle her as anything but tame and submissive.
The exercise of re-inventing Mariana’s stories seems to me an attempt by the authors to unbind her and unveil the real emotional and physical capacities of women.
In addition to Mariana’s story there are stories of other women and other men. There are also poems and word games that the authors sent each other and these deal with rape, suicide, grief, domestic abuse but also the reality of women’s sexuality.
The authors use the body and bodily fluids in a way that would probably shock many people still. The book celebrates women’s sexuality discussing both mastubatory orgasm and pleasurable sex with men but it also points to the way in which men see women as sexual objects but women are not allowed to have sexual desires.
At one point a father rapes his daughter and as he is doing so he repeats to himself the words ‘She was perverse’, eventually placing the blame on her firmly and forcing her out of the house. He calls her ‘provocative’ and says ‘we can’t all go on living together in the same house after what’s happened. It was all your fault’. Her mother backs him up, shouting that she is ‘a dirty whore’ and she does not back down. She says ‘Of course I’m a whore. You needn’t have any worries on that score, Papa. I’m a whore’.
I’m not sure whether this is meant to be funny but I think it is. She throws her father’s words back at him and you might argue that she’s affirming what he’s saying but really she’s rejecting his right to label her and forge her identity. She’s releasing his hold over the word ‘whore’ and claiming it for herself – spitting it back at him.
The thing that I love most about this book is the clever structure, which I am convinced was unintentional.
We move from Mariana’s sad letters and stories of the everyday Portuguese woman to stories that become more and more shocking, forcing the reader gradually to engage with the more difficult realities of life. Eventually, by about page 300, we have overt political commentary and calls for uprising. The book begins to make demands of the reader:
‘Let us refuse to be taken in by offers of help from males. We do not need men’s help;
or, to be more precise, we do not want to accept this “Christmas present” in pretty gift wrappings concealing a bomb that is certain to explode once again in our hands, as usual.
If we are the ones who want things, we must be the ones to demand them.
Let us put an end to mystifications and false modesty, let us cleave from top to bottom the waters we are drowning in.’ pp.328-9
They urge women to ‘form a barricade with our bodies’. This is a novel that centres around our experiences of our own bodies and ownership of our own bodies (even delving into psychoanalysis and encouraging analysis of one’s own childhood).
The beauty of this novel is that the authors do not end on a false high-note and pretend that through writing this book they’ve solved the world’s ills. The book is entirely self-critical in nature and towards the end the authors revisit and take the piss out of previous letters. They call each other out on bullshit they’ve written.
One of the others critiques the a comment earlier in the book, written by one of the women which describes the other two women as ‘as much fun to pal around with as young boys’. She urges her to ‘Take back the words … and stop pretending’. There has clearly been some kind of development in the writers’ thinking This writer is clearly sickened here by her friend’s comparison of their friendship to that of young boys palling about.
I will leave you with some concluding comments that the authors make and my loosely concluding comment that I think the best art probably comes from not knowing what you’re writing about and never really settling on any one conclusion about anything but acknowledging the importance of writing as an exercise through which we can share ideas and perhaps feel slightly less alienated from ourselves and others through having done so.
‘What is literature? And what is this experience shared by the three of us? Perhaps nothing more than telling each other aloud – Out of courage? Out of necessity? – about our discontents, our fits of rage, our refusals and our fears.
Let this contorted dialectic of ours unfold between us and the others, and not only between-our-selves or between-selves.
It is impossible to survive in the morass of self-analytical reflection; and so I disruptively break away; to hell with the whole thing; I’m fed up.’ pp. 378-9