My practice-based project, a novel, will investigate the ways in which a creative narrative can evoke the actual and metaphorical underground as a place not only of violence, suffering and exile, but also as a place of creative fertility, of the subversion of social convention and heteronormative assumptions, and of the fostering of identity and revolutionary ideas.
The Ancient Greek narrative convention of katabasis will provide a conceptual structure for an original contribution to the field of underground literature/descent narratives. Katabasis is the descent of a hero or heroine to the underworld, often in search of something. In Ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus descends to the underworld in the hope of recovering his lost wife. Katabasis can also refer to other journeys of discovery, such as that of Odysseus in Homer’s epic The Odyssey or Juan Preciado’s quest to find his father in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. In contemporary literature, katabasis is often more a metaphorical journey rather than a literal one, such as the narrator’s mental and emotional examination of his/her gender in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. My novel will weave the stories of a group of LGBTQ Bolivians dwelling in abandoned mining tunnels beneath a capital city with that of a foreign woman who becomes involved with them. Although the underground dwellers have been driven to seek refuge underground by the violence and prejudice of their society, they find more than mere safety in the dark.
The relationships between these women and the foreign interloper will be informed by my reading of postcolonial theory. My novel will excavate how the persistent damage of foreign dominations plays out in these lives whilst also reflecting on what it means to write about Bolivian women from the “outside” (i.e. as a non-Bolivian) and in English.
The narrative structure of my creative work will reflect the relationship between the underground and the society that made it necessary, with the underground represented by the voices of the subterranean Bolivians and the above-ground represented by the daughter of a diplomat. Initially, the voice of the foreigner will dominate, but over the course of the book the Bolivian voices will become dominant. The sections told from the point of view of the subterraneans will become longer while the sections told from the point of view of the foreigner will grow shorter until she is allowed just one line. This structure is one way I hope to resist reinforcing the dominance of the foreign voice, the narrative of white rule. I plan to develop further narrative strategies to reflect the problems of power and perspective implicit in a work by an Anglophone writer not a member of the victimized group, writing mostly for an Anglophone audience. I hope to engage the reader in thinking about problems of authenticity; of representations of power; and of who owns experience. I also hope to demonstrate that this is an important political story that ought to be made visible.
My critical work will examine select representations of the underground in both Anglophone and international literatures in translation and the various tropes of these narratives. These texts potentially include Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (a novel about doomed underground Mexican resistance fighters); Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (a novel that explores the Shining Path insurgency from the perspective of three women); Pedro Páramo, a novel about one man’s journey through a village of ghosts in search of his father; Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (a novel about the relationship between two men in an Argentine prison); Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (a novel about a group of underground poets); Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras, and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (a novel that explores queer Parisian underworlds). Once I have settled on the most relevant and illuminating texts, I will discuss the ways in which these novels grapple with the idea of underground as well as how my own work enters the conversation. My questions are about the representation of underworld and its uses, metaphorically and literally, in literature. I am interested in exploring the ways in which the underground has been gendered and the ways in which it is a postcolonial space.
My critical work will also examine whether the lives of LGBTQ South Americans, particularly the lives of women, have been neglected in the Latin American literary canon. Do male voices, particularly heterosexual male voices, dominate? Do women in much of South American literature exist merely as foils, to be objectified, violated, and manipulated by the men? If so, I would like to counter this macho narrative and add to the growing body of female and queer work about this part of the world.