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What the Swedes Read: Gabriela Mistral

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Gabriela Mistral

Daniel Handler
13 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945)
  • BOOK READ: Madwomen, translated by Randall Couch

One of the strange side effects of writing for young people is that young people give you their writing. Over the years, I’d estimate that young fans of my Lemony Snicket books have sent or handed to me perhaps fifty full-length novels, plus hundreds of short stories, poems, comic strips, and excerpts from diaries. The vast majority of the material is fan fiction, with some clearly autobiographical bits as well. The grammar and spelling are often better than you’d expect but not as good as you’d like, and the prose tends to be imitative and impulsive. So when I write back, I politely but firmly inform the young writers that their work is terrible—structurally sloppy, stylistically immature, and, by any reasonable standard of literature, plainly bad.

No, no, of course I don’t. I say thank you and what a pleasure it was to read. I don’t offer an honest critical judgment, because I don’t think one is called for, and there’s not a soul on earth to whom this needs to be explained. Not in this case.

Follow this philosophical path through the literary landscape, however, and it leads pretty quickly to quicksand. We can all agree that a novelist shouldn’t be given the Pulitzer Prize because, gosh darn it, she tried her very best. And we can all agree that you’d be a complete asshole if you told someone that a poem sent from a dying sweetheart was lousy with clichéd imagery and cheap sentiment. But there’s a lot of literature in between. I get tired, for instance, when a book gets called “a searingly honest and necessary story,” and it turns out that’s code for the fact that it’s a badly written piece of work with an impeccable moral pedigree. But what if it just speaks to people? Plodding, melodramatic memoirs inspire readers to change their lives; victims of terrible tragedies are comforted by the tritest bits of verse.

Now, the obvious reply is that one can keep one’s judgments of a text’s aesthetics separate from its other attractions—that you can respect and enjoy certain pieces of literature all the while knowing they are not very good. But what about when the literature’s aesthetics and intentions are closely intertwined? The language of a prison diary, for instance, or the plot of a novel modeled after true events—how can you untangle the literature from the circumstances?

If you find this bout of circular thinking long-winded, it’s because I’m stalling for time as I try to approach the poetry of Gabriela Mistral. She’s the first Latin American—and the only Latin American woman—to win the Nobel Prize in Literature… which is exactly the kind of statement that makes me cringe. I mean, good for her, and good for everybody that the hopelessly white, European list of prizewinners has been moving, very, very slightly, in the right direction in terms of inclusiveness and honest reflection of the literary landscape. (Wonder why I haven’t written about more of the women who’ve won this prize so far? Because to distribute them evenly I can do only one per year.) But on the other hand, I don’t want to get into the politics of the prize. It’s endlessly, hopelessly complicated, and in the end I don’t care about it nearly as much as I do about the words on the page. But this might be one of the times when the words on the page are the politics.

Gabriela Mistral grew up in poverty in a small Andean village, and despite a wanting education began working in local schools as a teenager. Her unique position—as a self-taught educator—gave her a perspective that was refreshing but not always welcome. She became a passionate advocate for educational reform, speaking up for children neglected and forgotten in Chile’s rural regions—a stance that got her banned at as many schools as hired her. In Chile she was a national hero, but a controversial one, and as her reputation grew internationally it grew dangerous for her in her homeland. She left in 1925, to work with the League of Nations and other diplomatic institutions, and spent most of the rest of her life in Europe.

I got most of this from Randall Couch’s lengthy introduction, which I went back to as Mistral’s poetry confounded me. And it didn’t confound me, you know, in a good way.  It confounded me in that it made me not want to read it. Most of the poems in Madwomen are called things like “The Abandoned Woman” and “The Woman Unburdened,” which fell on my ears like a dull women’s-studies syllabus, and when one poem began “Now the ballerina’s dancing,” it was difficult to continue without sighing.

Now the ballerina’s dancing
the dance of losing everything.
She lets go of all she once had,
parents and siblings, fields and gardens,
the murmur of her river, the roads,
the tale of her home, her own face
and name, the games of her childhood,
as if to let everything fall
from her neck, her breast, and her soul.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They can’t use her baptismal name.
She broke free of her clan and her flesh,
received the chalice-song of her of her blood
and the ballad of her adolescence.

On first reading I found this screamingly dull. It took me back to poetry readings of my undergraduate years, where this sort of thing clogged the open mics for hours and hours. But I feel more generously toward those readings now—I was, after all, waiting for my turn to go on and read my own awful verse—and after flipping back to the introduction I feel differently about Mistral’s words. That is, I think I do. Gabriela Mistral, for instance, isn’t her real name—she submitted her early poetry under a pseudonym so it could be judged fairly rather than dismissed outright as rural ramblings—so the line “They can’t use her baptismal name” gains a little resonance there, as does the entire idea that a woman born into nothing could carry her ideas out into the world only after she had discarded the trappings and baggage of her humble beginnings. I like thinking about that, but it still doesn’t make me like the poem, with all its abstract nouns and bland sentiments, granting the reader not a single specific detail to carry it through. But this poetry did carry it through—her work served as an inspiration to her own people and a symbol to everyone else—and if you need specificity, try the Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood, in Houston, which serves four-year-old children throughout the area. There’s a website, with triumphant photographs of smiling moms and arts and crafts, and I found myself thinking, Let’s wait until there’s an Elizabeth Bishop Center for Early Childhood, and then maybe we can complain about scansion. Mistral’s verse gave voice to herself and then, triumphantly, to a bona fide movement, and the Prize Committee saw the beauty in this, the testament to literature’s great power even when, or maybe particularly when, the literature itself is maybe not so great. Or maybe it is. Who am I to judge? Aside from, you know, the guy finishing Madwomen, and, with a sigh, nonjudgmentally not liking it. 

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