March 18,1998

International Women's Day

Lady Rojas-Tempe took two undergraduates to literary conference
Women's writing takes scholars to Cuba

by Barbara Black

Two young women were introduced to international literary scholarship recently when their professor, Lady Rojas-Trempe, took them to Havana for the International Colloquium on the Latinoamerican Woman and her Culture on the Threshold of the Next Millennium: Theory, History and Criticism.

La Casa de las Américas, a Cuban publishing house, brings writers, editors and scholars to Havana for academic conferences. They are eagerly anticipated not only by Hispanic scholars, but also by impoverished Cubans, who welcome the outside contact and foreign currency.

At the colloquium, which attracted more than 50 specialists, Professor Rojas-Trempe presented an essay called "Rasgarse la vestiduras en Mortal in puribus de la peruana Marita Troiano," an analysis - literally, an "undressing" - of a work by a Peruvian writer.

For students Nancy Cloutier and Elena Ribarova, it was their first visit to Cuba, and a thrill to be with established literary scholars. Cloutier read a paper on the post-revolutionary poetry of Cuban poet Nancy Morejón, and Ribarova read a paper on the Argentinian writer María Luisa Bombal.

Cloutier was especially nervous because the subject of her paper entered the room only five minutes before she was to present it. But she need not have worried, because the poet said she liked it, and appreciated the fact that Canadian students are studying her work. When Cloutier told her that she had had to comb through anthologies to find her poems, Morejón gave her two signed collections.

Elena Ribarova had started studying Spanish in her native Bulgaria. Her family left when she was 15, and spent a year in Spain before coming to Canada, which helped to reinforce her interest. Now Ribarova considers Spanish her second language, and is more fluent in it than English or French.

This was the fifth time since 1988 that Concordia has sent scholars to a La Casa conference, and for Rojas-Trempe, it was an endorsement of Canadian critical research in Hispanic literature.

She noticed how international the event is becoming, with a steady increase of European and Brazilian delegates, and, as always, marvelled at the educational level of Cuba, where even the taxi-drivers discuss literature with enthusiasm.

But the three women were conscious of how Cubans are struggling now that their communist alliances have disintegrated and the U.S. embargo cripples their economy. Cloutier went from the conference in Havana, surrounded by food rationing, moonlighting and general hardship, to a week at a resort in Santiago. "Every day, I had confronted the new Cuban reality," she said, "but the tourists don't have a clue." Rojas-Trempe came to Canada from Peru, and taught at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Ottawa before coming to Concordia's Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics Department two years ago.

She is doing research on the women writers of Peru, and hopes to publish the first volume of a dictionary on the subject later this year. She visits Peru fairly often, and on her December trip, was interviewed on television in the cities of Lima and Cusco. "I am starting with writers for the period 1990 to 1997 and working backwards," she said with a laugh. "It is easier to meet and interview them than to find the much older writers of, say, the 1920s."

Characterizing the difference between Canadian and Latin-American women writers is easy. "The cultural and political situation of women in Peru is so very different," Rojas-Trempe said. "Naturally, the women writers there deal more with social [than with personal] subjects."

This was true even in the 1970s, when political repression was severe, she said. Writers disguised their views by developing the so-called fantastic genre, full of inventive, non-realistic elements.

Copyright 1998 Thursday Report
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