Arts & Entertainment

Chilean feminist library helping preserve works by ‘forgotten’ women authors

By Maria M.Mur

Santiago, Dec 6 (EFE).- Maria Luisa Bombal, Pia Barrios, Lucia Berlin and Irene Nemirovsky are just some of the “forgotten” female authors whose works fills the bookshelves of a small public library in the heart of the Chilean capital.

Vitoria Quiroz, a 71-year-old retiree, is one of the oldest users of the so-called “Women’s Library,” a space that also hosts workshops and a reading club.

“The ‘girls,'” as Quiroz refers to her fellow reading club members, “are 20, 30 or 40. For me, listening to them is something new. Their language is different. There are things I don’t understand and their gender perspective is different from mine,” she told Efe.

The book she has most enjoyed this year is Bombal’s “La ultima niebla,” a novel that like her other works is centered on female characters who escape their harsh reality by retreating to their interior world.

“I think a lot of men don’t know how to describe the problems of women. It’s hard for them to understand femininity,” said Quiroz, who acknowledged that the book reminds her of many of her friends because it tells the story of “a woman who tolerates everything even though her spouse gives her nothing.”

Inaugurated in 2021 at the offices of the state-run Foundation for the Promotion and Development of Women (Prodemu), the library houses a collection of nearly 2,000 books, including classics like French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” and English writer Virginia Woolf’s extended essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

Chilean authors also are well represented, including works by Nobel literature laureate Gabriela Mistral and international best-selling author Isabel Allende.

“There’s still a very large gender gap between men and women, and we think it’s vitally important to bring this discussion to all areas, including literature,” head librarian Cecilia Serrano, 26, told Efe.

Maria Jose Zapata, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical chemist, told Efe that reading literature with a gender perspective makes her feel she is not alone.

“I come from a world, science, where women are quite invisible, although in reality women are in (all these) spaces, in science, politics, literature,” she added.

The library has emerged at a time when Chile’s feminist movement is stronger than ever following a wave of anti-government protests in 2019 in which women played a key role.

“Women have been getting more and more involved, not only with respect to the movement’s traditional demands, such as sexual and reproductive rights, but also on issues like environmental (concerns),” Marcela Sandoval, Prodemu’s director, told Efe.

Sandoval said another aspect of the feminist struggle is to eradicate the centuries-long notion that women’s literature is “light,” “lacks content,” and “requires little reflection.”

“The letters and intimate diaries of women writers are still considered by some literary critics as minor genres. And Mistral, for example, wrote political letters that have the same value as her poetic work,” she lamented.

Male authors are not excluded from the “Women’s Library.”

In fact, its bookshelves also include several male writers such as Hernan Rivera Letelier, the most recent recipient of Chile’s National Literature Prize.

No such space is set aside, however, for Chilean Nobel literature laureate Pablo Neruda.

“He abandoned a daughter with limitations, cheated on all of his wives and wrote about a rape. He shouldn’t be censored, but his male-chauvinist works also shouldn’t be promoted,” Sandoval said. EFE


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