This was a speech I gave at the 58th Congress of International PEN in Rio de Janeiro in 1992
I would like to begin by invoking the spirits of two Brazilian women writers who, together, symbolize the poles of the work of the International PEN Women Writers' Committee. They also speak to me personally. The first is Clarice Lispector, a very famous writer, though much of her fame came posthumously. Her voice is highly sophisticated, delicate, nuanced; she is a complete original, full of strange turns of thought and striking expressions. This is from her book Since One Has to Write:
Today, suddenly, like a great discovery, I found that my tolerance for others was also reserved for me (how long will it last?). I took advantage of the crest of the wave to bring myself up-to-date with forgiveness. For example, my tolerance for myself, as a person who writes, must forgive me for not knowing how to approach 'social problems' in a 'literary' vein (this means to transform within the vehemence of art). Ever since I have come to know myself, social problems have been for me more important than anything else: in Recife, the black shantytowns were the first truth I encountered. Long before I felt “art,” I felt the profound beauty of the social struggle. It is just that I have a straightforward way of approaching social conflict: I want to 'do something', as if writing were not itself doing something. What I cannot manage is to use writing for this purpose. How humble and pained I feel by my inability to do so. The problem of justice is for me so basic that it never surprises me—and without surprise I am unable to write.
The other Brazilian writer whose spirit I wish to invoke is Carolina Maria de Jesus, author of a book in English called Child of the Dark. More of a literary phenomenon than an author in the usual sense of the word, she lived in one of the favelas of Sao Paulo, where she filled 26 notebooks with writing while ceaselessly prowling through garbage cans for paper she could sell to feed her children. Her voice is raw, harsh, full of energy and pain:
I got up at seven. Happy and content. Weariness would be here soon enough. I went to the junk dealer and received 60 cruzieros. I passed by Arnaldo, bought bread, milk, paid what Iowed him, and still had enough to buy Vera some chocolate. I returned to a Hell. I openedthe door and threw the children outside. Dona Rosa, as soon as she saw my boy Jose Carlos,started to fight with him. She didn't want the boy to come near her shack. She ran out witha stick to hit him. A woman of 48 years fighting with a child!... Dona Silvia came to complainabout my children. That they were badly educated. I don't look for defects in children. Neither in mine nor in others. I know that a child is not born with sense. When I speak with a child I use pleasant words. What infuriates me is that the parents come to my door to disrupt my rare moments of inner tranquility. But when they upset me, I write. I know how to dominate my impulses. I only had two years of schooling, but I got enough to form my character. The only thing that does not exist in the favela is friendship.
I identify with both these writers. Like Lispector, I am torn between writing and action. Like Carolina, I struggle: on, a single mother, trying to care for my children. It is the goal of the Women Writers' Committee to bring the Clarice Lispectors of this world together with the Carolinas, so that one can say to the other, “Hey, come in, have some lunch, tell me about your writing.”
Which brings us to human ecology. Everyone in Rio must know what ecology is bynow. As I see it, ecology is the way things in the natural environment fit together to make a system that can sustain itself and all its parts, that is capable of both reproducing the conditions it needs to continue and adapting to changing circumstances. Human ecology is the way human beings fit together with nature and each other to produce the same result—a system capable of sustaining its parts while growing and adapting to change.
But this is not the case. The system doesn't work any more.
The world is wearing out its women and itself. Each year more children are born into poverty, the children of singlemothers, migrants, refugees. Twenty years of development economics have produced a world system that has planned only for growth, not for subsistence; part of it has grown wild, like a cancer that eats up the very organism it needs to sustain its existence. A pamphlet called “Gender Bias: Roadblock to Sustainable Development,” recently published by the Worldwatch Institute, lays out the problem. To paraphrase:
In the subsistence economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, conventional agricultural development policies have actually shifted resources away from female farmers. In Ghana, commonly owned village land where women have traditionally grown food for their families is being privatized and put increasingly into the hands of male farmers who arc not responsible for domestic food supplies but instead grow cash crops—cash which they mainly keep for themselves and do not share with their families. “Left with smaller holdings, on poorer soil, Ghanaian women can no longer practice crop rotation and must farm the same plots year after year. As a result, soil becomes eroded and less fertile. Food production declines and malnutrition deepens.” In sub-Saharan Africa, in Belize, in Guatemala, in Mexico, throughout the Indian subcontinent, women are drawn into a grinding cycle of poverty, working harder and harder for less and less. Lacking access to education, training, land ownership and credit, their only hope for productivity is to breed more young hands: daughters who arc kept out of school to help in the backbreaking, unyielding labor, and sons for status. With local variations, the same is true in the industrial cities of my country and Europe. One story is repeated all over the world: the increasing poverty of women and children.
How docs this affect the individual? The writer? Me?
A verse by the English poet William Blake has been a talisman for me since I was a young student: “The Angel that presided o'er my birth/ Said, "Little creature, form'd of Joy & Mirth, Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.'" Angels preside over each of our births, angels bearing gifts. The gift of far sight. A good ear. A way with words, the ability to make them dance. The ability to love. The capacity for joy. And each of these angels is paired with another who brings a complementary gift: the conditions needed to bring the first gift to life. Health. Loving parents. Peace. Safety. Enough to eat. Education. Time. Money.
Every child gets a multiplicity of gifts. But they are not always paired correctly. Some get too many abilities to bring them all to life. Some get good conditions but not the capacity to make use of them.
I was given the gifts of language, a good ear, and a far-seeing eye. And I was given the capacity for joy, but not the conditions to fulfill it. For myeye and ear lead me to see and hear too much of the unhappiness around me; I absorb it so deeply, feel such a need to give it voice and language, that I cannot use my capacity for joy as I would wish. The world is like a radio that I cannot turn off, an amplifier for emotion, and most of what I receive is pain. There is so much unnecessary pain and want and brutality.
So I cannot rest. I am torn between the need to express what I hear and see, to turn it into language as my gifts require, and the need to alleviate the pain, to use my little life to make things better, so I do not have to hear these cries everywhere I go. I turn back and forth, back and forth.
This is what it means to be a writer, especially a woman writer. It means being born at the wrong time, too soon, before the best conditions exist for one’s survival. One survives, somehow, but twisted, bent. The human ecology is not right.
Our writing and our actions hear fruit. They change conditions, often in ways we cannot see. But conditions change too slowly for us to profit as individuals. Those who come after us will know more than we do about how to live—that is our hope. Our species—the woman writer—will survive and adapt. But the individual will die before she brings into being the conditions she needs for happiness.
This is true generation after generation; this is the meaning of progress, for what was good enough for my grandmother and my mother is not good enough for me. My grandmother couldn't even read; she wanted only to survive and have some of her children live. My mother wanted a little more than that. I want whole worlds: not only education but also success; not only love and children but also work in the world. So we go on, changing the human ecology of this planet.