AP Online, 05/21/98
Books and Authors: Rosario Ferre
CHARLES J. HANLEY
(05/21/98, Copyright © 1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) She was the toast of the well read and well bred in San Juan, an accomplished writer of fiction, essays, poetry, the daughter of a leading island family.
Then Rosario Ferre committed her outrage: She began writing in English. "Everybody was furious."
To compound her crime, Ferre next came out for statehood for this U.S. territory, an idea that appalls island intellectuals who dread American assimilation. "It was like an atom bomb."
Angry nationalists dashed off letters to the editor and anonymous threats, and former admirers of the 1995 National Book Award finalist began to boycott her latest novel missing out, in the process, on an entertaining saga that would help any reader better appreciate what the uproar is all about.
"Eccentric Neighborhoods" tells the tale of three generations of two Puerto Rican families against the backdrop of the century-old U.S. relationship.
The Rivas de Santillanas, sugar-growing gentry, and the Vernets, who are industrial entrepreneurs, are linked through the marriage of Clarissa and Aurelio. Their daughter, Elvira, narrates the fast- moving, highly readable stories of aunts and uncles without number, family secrets, U.S. connections and very human joys and travails.
Elvira comes to represent Puerto Rico itself, seeking her own identity but unable to shake loose from her bloodlines in Puerto Rico's case, its mixed Hispanic and North American upbringing.
"She's torn the same way as the island is torn," Ferre said in an interview in the gazebo-like "terraza" of her home in Condado, San Juan's lush and luxe seafront district.
"It has a lot to do with what being Puerto Rican means," she said. "There are lots of people swinging back and forth," between nationalism and the attraction of the United States.
The character of the handsome engineer Aurelio, who is elected island governor, was inspired by the novelist's own engineer father, the pro-statehood Luis A. Ferre, who served as governor in 1968-72.
That was when Rosario Ferre committed her first public outrage, writing an open letter in support of independence, breaking politically with her father and enraging conservatives.
"Puerto Rico is a fundamentalist country. But instead of religion, it's politics," she says today. "You're either on the far right or far left. There's no real space in between."
A gracious, smiling woman of 59, Rosario Ferre managed to find some space between two traditions. She was educated on both the mainland and in Puerto Rico, and holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland in Latin American literature.
Her writing over a quarter century covered a formidable range of criticism, verse, fiction, but always in Spanish, with occasional English translation. Then her New York editor suggested she write a novel in English.
The result was "The House on the Lagoon," another family saga, which impressed critics and contended with Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theater," the ultimate winner, for the NBA fiction prize three years ago. "Eccentric Neighborhoods" is her second work cast first in English.
Other critics the political kind in Puerto Rico muttered that she had sold out for bigger U.S. sales. Ferre explains it this way, "If I wrote it in English first ... it would be reviewed in all the main literary magazines."
But she also sees artistic advantages in English.
"Spanish is very light, baroque, playful," she said. English, on the other hand, "is more to the point, direct, and I find it very moving in a no-nonsense way, like a Henry Moore sculpture."
This aptitude for simile touched some nerves when she wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, in support of Puerto Rican statehood, that she felt "as Latina as Chita Rivera" in the States, but "more American than John Wayne" when in Latin America.
Ferre may be "a great lady, a good writer and a friend of mine," fumed Ruben Berrios, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, but she "is totally confused."
Why did Ferre convert from 1972 "independentista" to 1998 statehooder? Because, Americans may finally be willing to accept a Spanish-speaking state, she said. "The U.S. has evolved enormously in 26 years."
In fact, while some here fear a takeover by English, Ferre sees another kind of conquest under way.
"Eventually I think the United States will have Spanish as a second language," she said. "It will begin in states like Florida, like California. But eventually, I think Spanish will be mandatory in all U.S. schools."
"Eccentric Neighborhoods." Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $24.