The Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres has published two novels, two collections of short stories, two collections of poems, and various articles of literary criticism. In her work she deals with themes of female sexuality, the erotic, gender fluidity, desire, and power. Representations of female sexuality in women's fiction is not new in Puerto Rican women's writing, nor in that of the wider Caribbean, but Santos-Febres's work marks a new modality of erotic openness. She often focuses on the powers of seduction, often in the context of a dystopic contemporary Puerto Rico, while the nostalgia that is part of so much Puerto Rican prose is absent in her writing. Puerto Rico's urbanized and industrialized metropolitan areas provide the setting for much of this work, and the denizens of these areas are the key players.
She has published several collections of poetry in Spanish. Her prose work in English translation includes Urban Oracles (1997), Sirena Selena (2000), and Any Wednesday I'm Yours (2005). The stories in Urban Oracles deal with the powers and transformations of the female body, though this theme is treated in a unique way by Santos-Febres, at least compared with most literature by black authors. In "Broken Strand," for example, the beauty of black womanhood is restored through a protagonist who visualizes herself becoming the pinnacle of beauty through the ministrations of a beautician. The story's tone is celebratory, representing nappy hair not as a problem, but as yet another element of black women's beauty. Similarly, in "Marina's Fragrance," a woman protagonist has a particular gift: when she thinks about an aroma, it becomes manifest in the world. Magical and dreamlike, the narrative places women in a position of power. Another story features a gardener who must prepare dead prostitutes for burial after a cataclysmic storm. Yet in performing this task, rubbing oils into the bodies of these women becomes a ritual of love and respect.
Sirena Selena, an iconoclastic first novel, features an underage transvestite who seeks success and money among the rich and powerful in the nighttime world of the Dominican Republic and San Juan. Much is made of transformations of the body as ways to attain the male gaze, the socially accepted dominance of the male through the act of looking at the female. This novel was, and remains, controversial because it questions gender categories in a way that had never been done before in Puerto Rico. The closest anyone had previously come to destabilizing these categories was Luis Rafael Sánchez, in some of the stories in En cuerpo de camisa (1966), but even there, the specifics of what, where, and how were not as openly portrayed as they are in Santos-Febres's novel. As in her shorter fiction, there is here a celebration of the erotic, of the body, and of sexual expression in all its forms.
Santos-Febres's second novel, Any Wednesday I'm Yours, features a would-be novelist who loses his job at a newspaper and takes a job working nights in a motel. Educated and sophisticated, he discovers ties between a narcotics kingpin and a corrupt labor lawyer who is supposedly engaged in contract negotiations for electrical workers. The power outages common in Puerto Rico turn out to be due to sabotage engineered by this lawyer and the druglord, who meet in the motel where the protagonist works. This is one of the novel's mysteries; another is the identity of a mysterious and sensual woman who makes love with the protagonist every Wednesday (hence the novel's title). Her purloined manuscript contains the necessary clue to solving the novel's crimes, which is the impetus for the protagonist to overcome his difficulties with writing.
The novel also features a secondary character whose identity is Haitian and Dominican. He is trying to make enough money working in the motel and delivering cocaine to Miami to be able to install electricity in his mother's home back in Haiti. There is also a rich episode featuring Santería rituals, complete with the names of African gods and Yoruba prayers, a ritual attended by representatives of all social classes, including professionals.
A promising and talented young writer with a bright future ahead, Santos-Febres represents the newest generation of self-consciously diasporic Puerto Rican authors who embrace rather than bemoan that identity.
See also Women Writers of the Caribbean
DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. Daughters of the Diaspora: AfraHispanic Writers. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2003.
Villafane, Camille-Marie. "La reconceptualización del CUEPO en la narrativa de Mayra Montero y Mayra Santos-Febres." Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, Tempe, 2001.
diana l. vÉlez (2005)