Rosalie Morales Kearns

A Bohío of One’s Own,
or Reading Virginia Woolf from el Monte

Here then am I, living in a Midwestern college town, when I decide to revisit A Room of One’s Own. “A good dinner is of great importance,” I read as I sit at my kitchen table. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,” writes Woolf, “if one has not dined well.”

Good point. Everyone needs enough to eat, it’s a basic human right, I think as I start in on my mesclun salad and take a bite of an arañita, which I’ll explain if you don’t know Puerto Rican cuisine: get hold of a green plantain, the greener the better, peel it, grate it, form it into patties, and fry it till it’s golden brown. Add some salt and you’ve got one of the great pleasures in life. Maybe sprinkle on some hot sauce (Cholula, if you have it), or dip it in a mojito (not the drink, the dipping sauce of olive oil, garlic, and lemon). I’m feeling good, I’m feeling mellow, what did she say about a glow somewhere down the spine—

But wait, Woolf is complaining about the meal at the women’s college: plain broth, plain beef, plain everything: greens and potatoes, custard and prunes. It’s not what she ate when she visited the men’s domain, Oxbridge, where they served sole in cream sauce, succulent partridge, plenty of wine.

I take another bite of succulent fritter and try to calculate the price of the ingredients. You can buy an entire plantain for a quarter, and then there are the salad greens . . . Three dollars, I estimate. You can’t even get plain beef broth and roast for three dollars.

Sure, Virginia, you need to have a reasonably full stomach to think well, but do we non-partridge-eaters have lesser thoughts?

To answer that question I have to think myself out of the room, back into the past, and eastward I go, across half a continent and a cold gray ocean, across seven decades or so. It’s 1928 and I’m standing behind Virginia (call her Mary Seton or “any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance”). She’s pressed her face against the window, looking out at the venerable buildings of Oxbridge lit up below. She wants it so badly, and who can blame her? I have the college degree she longed for, so does my mother, so did my grandmother.

“So, uh, about the partridge,” I say, but she doesn’t turn around; she doesn’t hear me, or maybe she’s too absorbed in the hurt.

I keep reading—the book has come with me into this other dimension. With money and a college degree, Virginia is musing, women could spend a “pleasant and honorable” life, “exploring or writing, mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon.” They would converse about “archaeology, botany, anthropology,” cabbages and kings.

A wonderful future, this higher education open to all—but wait, maybe she doesn’t really think it’s going to be bestowed on all. Housepainter, nursemaid, coal heaver, and grocer are mentioned in the book going about their business, and lamplighters—well, she doesn’t exactly mention lamplighters, but twice the evening lamps being lit are part of the lovely word-pictures she draws, and some guy actually had to light them, right, in 1928 in London? She needs those folks to be part of a peaceful, domestic scene. They can’t run off to college.

And then I come to this perplexing sentence: “It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.”

I try to puzzle it out. Who is this very fine negress? Do men want to make an Englishwoman out of her? And if women don’t, then is she saying that English women weren’t complicit in British colonialism?

I want to ponder this some more, maybe ask Virginia, but instead I think myself out of the sitting room altogether. I’m hurtling west and south, the ocean beneath me turning from storm-gray to deep blue. It’s still 1928 but I’m in Cuba, outside the hut of a very fine black woman indeed.

Calixta Morales.

Her image, her words, her life story are fresh in my mind after reading El Monte, the fascinating/frustrating ethnography by Lydia Cabrera.

Calixta was elderly by the time Cabrera wrote about her, but the woman in front of me is about fifty, I calculate, only because I know she was a slave till she was about twelve, and slavery didn’t end in Cuba till the late 1880s. She’s petite, almost doll-like in a dress that seems too large. She has glowing skin of darkest brown, set off by a head-wrap kept meticulously clean and bleached.

She doesn’t seem surprised when she sees me, flickering and finally becoming solid enough to sit on a stool next to hers at her outdoor cookstove. She’s frying chunks of plátano, and I persuade her to let me do the work of pounding them into mofongo with mortar and pestle. She goes to the pump to wash the rice, which she adds to a pot of black beans.

We talk while we work, though my Spanish is rusty. I mention that my mother, born in Puerto Rico, is also a Morales, though I debate whether to use the past or future tense.

Calixta smiles, too polite to comment on my ghost-white skin and atrocious syntax. “Tal vez somos familia,” she says. Maybe we’re related.

Occasionally she pauses when guests come. A woman has stomach pains, and Calixta, with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and their healing properties, tells her what she should take. Another woman thinks she’s received the call of Yemayá, she wants to consult Doña Calixta about it.

I try to talk about Virginia Woolf, but it’s hard to explain in my halting Spanish. “There’s a lady,” I start. “In England. Very wise. She writes books. She acts like you don’t exist.”

Calixta shrugs. “Why should she know?”

I try again: “She says women have sat indoors for millions of years.”

Calixta, after decades spent picking coffee beans, only nods and says, “She probably lives where it’s cold.”

The food’s ready and Calixta goes inside to place some at the altar of Yemayá. She sits down again and says, “You know, we don’t think the orishas really have jaws and teeth, and chew the food we offer them. They consume the essence. We’re talking about the spiritual level of things.”

“Yes,” I say humbly. I’m a gawking rube, I’m an arrogant colonist who thinks the natives don’t know the meaning of metaphor.

A black man arrives, lean and white-haired, and I recognize him too: José de Calazán. He won’t let me give up my stool, instead sits down on Calixta’s stoop. We give him a plate with mofongo and a big helping of moros y cristianos.

He objects when I call him Don José—“Everyone calls me Calazán”—but I don’t want to be presumptuous. We compromise on Don Calazán.

After we eat, we feel that glow in the spine, we sit contemplative on the steps of Calixta’s front porch. Calazán opens a sack of dried black beans and spreads them out on a sieve to pick out the bits of stone and soil before we wash and soak them overnight for tomorrow. We still do that in the twenty-first century, I want to tell him, only we use cookie sheets instead of sieves. I ponder how to describe cookie sheets.

Male though he is, Calazán has never sat in deep armchairs arguing philosophy, cigar in one hand, brandy in the other. With his injured arm he can’t work in the sugarcane fields anymore. Now he walks into town every day to beg for coins on the steps of the cathedral.

He tells me about the way people make up charms and talismans for different situations. “Some people do evil magic,” he says, “or so I’ve heard” (he winks, and Calixta looks down at the stove, hiding a smile). “It used to be, in the old days, our curses would only kill black people, but they work just as well on whites now that the Constitution says we’re equal.”

Some people wouldn’t find this funny, but I burst out laughing and I can feel the relief, the approval. I’ve passed some kind of test.

My laugh pulls me into the future, where I sit at my table with a book, and this is all that’s left of them—Virginia is long dead, so are Calixta and Calazán. It’s my turn to be flesh and blood in this dance, to hold a paper-and-ink book in my flesh-and-blood hand and laugh out loud when I read about magic and the Constitution and curses killing everyone equally. I think of terms like “law as a social construction,” “performativity,” “we create our own reality,” and so forth, but I’m just a fiction writer, what do I know from theory?

And suddenly it’s back to that long-ago English sitting room, Virginia staring out the window. The tormented genius for whom I’m invisible.

It pains me that she suffered so much, that in the end she saw only two choices: death or madness. And I love her righteous anger, her understatement, her devastating throwaway lines (“If through their incapacity to play football women are not going to be allowed to practice medicine . . .”). I love the way she writes an essay in story form.

I want to explain to her the problem with claiming that “intellectual freedom depends upon material things,” and “urbanity, geniality, [and] dignity . . . are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space.” If that’s true, then poor people can’t be intellectually free, sophisticated, dignified. People in thatched huts can’t create culture. They’re blank slates to be educated, colonized.

But it’s hard to have a dialogue with someone who can’t hear me.

And as Calixta said, why should she know? She lives in a cold place.

Rosalie Morales Kearns

<em>Edit Libroafricante</em> Rosalie Morales Kearns

Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the author of the short story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012). One of the stories in the collection earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Witness, Fiction Writers Review, and Calyx. Rosalie is the founder of Shade Mountain Press, a new small press focusing on literary fiction by women. Its first titles will come out in 2014.