National Writing Project

Book Review: Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women

By: Meg Petersen
Date: April 12, 2016

Summary: Erika Martinez's anthology of writing by Dominican women seeks to inspire young writers, especially women of color, to write their own stories as well as to remind us of the importance of diversity in literature.

 

Recently, the 11-year-old activist and book reader, Marley Dias, made headlines with her #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign . Marley started this movement because she was sick of only reading about "white boys and their dogs." She wanted books with characters that reflected her life and experience. A similar problem of representation motivated Erika Martinez to compile and edit the collection of narratives by Dominican women writers, Daring to Write. Erika, a facilitator in the National Writing Project in New Hampshire summer institute , has been working on this collection for many years; she began collecting the works when she was in the Dominican Republic on a Fulbright grant in 2008. The resulting book, which opens with a forward from Julia Alvarez, contains 25 narratives by Dominican women, both those living on the island and women of Dominican descent in the United States.

Erika created this anthology with young women in mind, young women like the one she was, growing up in the United States struggling with issues of identity and not seeing herself represented in print. Erika's parents were part of the great migration of Dominicans fleeing economic conditions on the island in the 70s and 80s. By some estimates, almost a tenth of the population left the island, the majority for the United States, where their children grew up with hyphenated identities. That movement continues today. These factors make the book particularly appropriate for the young women in our classrooms. The book's four sections provide a vision of Dominican women's experiences through the lenses of love, identity, gender and migration.

The common denominator in all of these stories, both real and fictional, is that the women protagonists are represented fully, as complicated subjects of their own lives, struggling to come to terms with the circumstances within which they engage in this process of identity formation.

As Rhina Espaillat says in her essay in this volume, "Identidades/Identities," identity "is not a thing, a static, unchanging quality, but a process that takes place from the cradle to the grave." The protagonists in these stories continue to construct their identities throughout their lives in a world framed by the machismo, infidelity, colorism, and racialized ideals of beauty which seek to define them. They negotiate these identities within a web of relationships of family, sexuality, and responsibility. Often, their sense of themselves develops within more than one culture or even in the spaces between cultures. Rhina Espaillat remembers becoming aware, after moving to the United States at the age of 7, that her parents were different people here, and that she too, would become different. The narratives in this book illustrate the dynamic and fluid role of culture in identity formation.

While the selections acknowledge and depict the constraints of women's lives, they are, at the same time, transgressive. These women write against gender norms, against colorism within their families and in the wider world, and constraints of class. The protagonist of the story "Halfie" by Ana-Maurine Lara, struggles to claim a Dominican identity in a world that values her for the ideal of beauty represented by her white mother. The dark-skinned narrator of Lisette Rojas's story "The Heiress of Arroyo Hondo" takes on both racialized ideals and class-based assumptions in her account of her visit to a Dominican beauty salon in an exclusive sector of Santo Domingo. "Greñas" by Kersey Corporan, tells the story of a girl whose mother views her daughter's hair as a representation of everything that has made the mother's life more difficult, especially the girl's father. That young narrator strikes back at ideals of beauty in the only way she knows how, and in the process achieves a kind of acceptance. Sofia Quintero's "The Intervention" dramatizes identity issues in the public sphere through a captivating narrative of the kidnapping of a model /celebrity.

The common denominator in all of these stories, both real and fictional, is that the women protagonists are represented fully, as complicated subjects of their own lives, struggling to come to terms with the circumstances within which they engage in this process of identity formation. While many of the experiences the stories depict are painful, they are always authentic, and the writing itself is a testimony to women's agency.

For teachers, this collection complicates and expands our understanding, and gives us insight into the lives and stories of Dominican women, including the ones in our classrooms, as well as those of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters. The book also makes new writers available to teachers, many of whom are published here for the first time in English. Most of the selections would be appropriate for whole class discussions, although the language and frank discussions of sexuality might preclude the use of some choices with some groups of students. The stories and narratives also provide wonderful models for young writers to begin telling the stories of their own lives.

The book would be a great addition to any classroom library, as the real value of this collection will be realized when we make it available to our students. Erika Martinez created this anthology for the girl she was, who, like Marley Dias a generation later, could not find anything to read that reflected her own experience and the issues that defined her life. She created this book for the young woman she was, and for other young women like her, so that they could see themselves reflected in literature, partly so they could know they were not alone, but more importantly because she hoped to encourage them to speak in their own voices, to be inspired to also dare to write.

About the Author
Meg Petersen is director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire, and teaches courses in writing, writing pedagogy, and English teaching. She is also a consultant to the National Writing Project in Santo Domingo and coordinates cross-cultural programs in Santo Domingo and Costa Rica.

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