Luisa Valenzuela (born 1938) is an Argentine writer of both fiction and journalistic works. She is among her nation's most significant writers, best known for the style of writing that blends magical and fantastic elements into prose known as magical realism, a style often associated with Latin-American writers such as Gabriel García Marquez and Julio Cortazar. Valenzuela is also one of the most widely translated female South American writers. As Naomi Lindstrom wrote in World Literature Today, Valenzuela "has created numerous narratives in which authoritarian rule in society is mirrored by patriarchal domination in relations between men and women."
Luisa Valenzuela was born November 26, 1938, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to parents Pablo Francisco Valenzuela, a physician, and Luisa Mercedes Levinson, a writer of note in Argentina. Valenzuela, an insatiable reader since childhood, attended a British school in her youth.
Began Journalism Career as a Teen
Given her parents' place in society and the family's connections with academics, Valenzuela was able to meet writers such as as Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, and Peyrou in her youth. Her parents were a formative influence: "As a child I thought writing was dreary, drab, but they loved it," recalled Valenzuela in Americas. "They could be quite obnoxious but funny. That impressed me that writing was more lively than one would think." While she originally hoped to become a painter or a mathematician, writing eventually won out over those early career aspirations.
Valenzuela's first journalistic work appeared in magazines including Esto Es, Atlantida, Quince Abriles, and El Hogar while she was still in her teens. Her first short story, "Ese Canto," was published in 1956. Valenzuela also worked for a time at the Biblioteca Nacional, where Borges was the library's director. She went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Buenos Aires.
In 1958 Valenzuela married Theodore Marjak, a French merchant marine and moved with her husband to Normandy, where her daughter, Anna-Lisa, was born. It was while living in France that Valenzuela wrote her first novel, published in 1966 as Hay que sonreir (published in English as Clara), which she wrote while her daughter was napping. In a review of the book, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the tale a chronicle of "the bizarre, brutal existence of characters on the fringes" and a "harsh, provoking yet graceful tale of exploitation."
Divorcing her husband after five years of marriage, Valenzuela moved to Paris and began working as a writer for Radio Television Française. She returned to Buenos Aires in 1961 and worked as an editor at La Nacion, the Buenos Aires newspaper, as editor of the Sunday supplement from 1964 to 1972. "I learned a lot from journalism because when I began to work for the supplement to La Nacion I stayed there for nine years," Valenzuela commented in an interview with Matrix. "I had a boss, Ambrosio Vecino, who was a literary man and was very keen on style. He taught me how to express ideas in a very concise way." Journalism "allows for a horizontal view of facts, as opposed to the vertical, in-depth, literary vision," she went on, adding: "I still appreciate journalism because I'm so interested in the world, and there are many issues that make me want to express an opinion, so I still use journalism as a tool and write columns and keep my fiction free of 'messages.' "
Fellowship and Grant Allowed for Travel
A collection of short stories titled Los hereticos was published in 1967. Valenzuela was subsequently awarded a Fulbright grant in 1969 that allowed her to participate in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. The result of this fellowship award was the novel El gato eficaz, which was published in 1972 and translated as Cat-o-Nine-Deaths.
Valenzuela began her freelance journalism career and started lecturing about writing in 1970. Over the course of the next two years she traveled to Barcelona, Paris, and Mexico on a grant from the National Arts Foundation of Argentina. Her journalistic work appeared in publications in the United States, Mexico, France, and Spain, as well as in various publications based in Buenos Aires. These publications included La Nacion, New York Review of Books, Vogue, and the New York-based Village Voice.
Returning to Buenos Aires in 1974, Valenzuela discovered that the political situation in Argentina following the death of Juan Peron had degenerated into a paramilitary dictatorship rife with violence and repression. Between 1976 and 1983 some 20,000 Argentine citizens "disappeared." Continuing to work as an editor, Valenzuela also found fictional inspiration in the political regime under which she now found herself living, resulting in another short story collection, Aqui pasan cosas raras, published in 1975. Valenzuela had been teaching at Columbia University periodically since 1973; in 1979 she was offered a writer-in-residence position and decided to move to the United States to escape the political repression. "I decided to leave in order not to fall into self-censorship," she told a contributor to Belles Lettres. "Exile may be devastating, but perspective and separation sharpen the aim." At Columbia University she became a teacher in the school's writing division from 1980 to 1983, the year she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Her fellowship allowed Valenzuela to move across town to New York University, where she was appointed visiting professor in 1985. She held that post until 1990, traveled frequently to lecture, and was a guest speaker at writing conferences in locations throughout the world, including the Americas, Israel, and Australia.
Political Repression Informed Fiction
Valenzuela became a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities in 1982 and belonged to the Freedom to Write committee of PEN's American Center. Her concerns with human rights issues prompted her to join Amnesty International.
As an essayist noted in the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Valenzuela's work continues to revolve around themes of politics and women's issues. Also rooted within her work is the violence and suffering experienced in many Latin American countries under authoritarian regimes. In her novel Cola de lagartija —translated as The Lizard's Tail —the protagonist, a cruel sorcerer, is based on Jose Lopez Rega, Isabel Peron's Minister of Social Welfare.
Z. Nelly Martinez, writing in World Literature Today, observed that Valenzuela's "main pre-occupation throughout the years has been the repressive character of our primarily masculinist Western culture. Thus the fate of women … as well as that of all marginalized peoples, is at the center of the fictional realms she creates." Martinez maintained that through the power of language Valenzuela "has obsessively defied the established order," be it masculine, political, or religious, "with her own fictional practice."
"Another salient feature of Valenzuela's style is her approach to language as not only the means of conveying a theme, but also as the object of the story," added an essayist in Feminist Writers. For Valenzuela, "Language is supple and malleable, its purpose can be different for different people, and the denial of access to its multiple ranges of applications is seen as another form of oppression. Valenzuela contends that, as a writer, she is always discovering new meanings to words and that she hopes to unlock their secrets each time she endeavors to write something new."
Eventual Return to Argentina
With democracy restored to Argentina in April of 1989 Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires. Returning on occasion to New York City, she continued to write prolifically, as evidenced by the publication of the novels Novela negra con argentinos —translated as Black Novel (with Argentines) —and La travesia as well as the 1990 short-story collection Realidad nacional desde la cama (Bedside Manners). A Publishers Weekly contributor, in a review of Black Novel (with Argentines), dubbed the work "powerful, unusual and unsettling." Reviewing 2001's La travesia, Lindstrom described the novel as, while "not the most strikingly innovative of Valenzuela's fictions," nonetheless a book with "a good dose of social satire, a tricky and fast-paced plot whose diverse strands are well coordinated, and a cast of memorably weird secondary characters."
Valenzuela's works have been translated into English and have appeared in anthologies. Among the published collections to appear in translation is Strange Things Happen Here: Twenty-Six Short Stories and a Novel (1979), which includes the novel Como en la guerra ( He Who Searches ) as well as stories from Aqui pasan cosas raras. Among her best known works in translation are Other Weapons, The Lizard's Tail, Black Novel (with Argentines), and Bedside Manners. Much of her work has been published in translation outside the Americas, including Japan, and her books can be found in French, German, and Portuguese translations, leading to her acclaim as the most widely translated of the South American female authors.
"Valenzuela could be placed into the post-boom generation of Latin American writers, following on the heals [sic] of the explosion of popularity of authors who enjoyed a widely translated readership in Europe and North America," concluded the Feminist Writers essayist. "She is emphatic, however, that the Latin American boom was a sexist phenomenon, since all the writers recognized within that group were men, and since women whose writing was of comparable quality were virtually ignored."
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
Americas, January-February, 1995.
Belles Lettres, January, 1996.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 10, 1994.
Publishers Weekly, March 9, 1992; November 21, 1994;December 20, 1999.
World Literature Today, Winter 1984; Autumn 1995; Spring 2002.
"Interview with Luisa Valenzuela," Matrix,http://alcor.concordia.ca/~matrix/excerpt3.html (February 28, 2003). □