Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 376–388 | Cite as

Postcolonial compañeras? The desire for a reciprocal gaze in two Mexican women’s accounts of Africa

  • Thea PitmanEmail author


This article considers texts by two Mexican women writers that directly concern or are derived substantially from their experiences in Africa: María Luisa Puga’s Las posibilidades del odio (1978) is a fragmented novel set in Kenya in the late 1970s; Verónica Volkow’s Diario de Sudáfrica (1988) is a journal of a trip to South Africa in the mid-1980s. Via an analysis of the ways in which these writers treat the theme of the gaze, in particular the differing effects of, and reasons for, their focus on reciprocal direct gazes, the article explores the possibility of comparable experiences between different post-colonial/colonised peoples.


María Luisa Puga Verónica Volkow travel writing race the gaze 


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  1. 1.
    Antonio Machado, ‘Proverbios y cantares’, in Nuevas canciones y De un cancionero apócrifo, ed. José María Valverde (Madrid: Castalia, 1971 [c. 1922]), 136. Trans. Robert Bly, inGoogle Scholar
  2. 1a.
    Antonio Machado, Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 1983), available at:, accessed 20 November 2008.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 115.Google Scholar
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    David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourses in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 13 (original emphasis). The ellipsis in the quote from Agee’s work is my own rather than that of Spurr’s text.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Although the quotation from bell hooks’ work that stands as an epigraph to this study focuses on the question of the power play in the exchange of gazes between parent and child, hooks is an African American feminist and social activist who is primarily known for her work on race and gender. The work that this quotation is taken from, Black Looks, is a study of the gaze in relation to such issues. While the quotation concerning relations between parent and child is useful here to indicate the range of situations in which power relations affect the gaze, hooks’ work will be used later in this study in the context of her comments on race, gender, power and the gaze.Google Scholar
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    María Luisa Puga Las posibilidades del odio (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1978).Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    This contextual slippage of categories of black and white closely resembles Puga’s own experience in Kenya and in the UK. Note also that the novel opens with an epigraph from Fanon’s Les damnes de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] (1961) that identifies the ‘ruling class’ as ‘those who come from abroad, who do not look like the natives, like “the others”’ (Puga, Las posibilidades, 7). This is then contrasted with a second epigraph by Lía Herrera - a poem called ‘Identidad’ - which focuses on sameness and recognition (Ibid., 8). (All translations from Puga’s novel are my own.)Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Veronica Volkow, Diario de Sudáfrica (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1988).Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    A couple of critics have noted the importance of the theme of the gaze in Puga’s novel (Alice Reckley, ‘The Historical Referent as Metaphor’, Hispania, 71, no. 3 (1988), 714–715; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 8a.
    Norma Vega, ‘Re-Inscribing the Nation under the Global: Mexican Narrative Perspectives after 1968’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1998, 78–113). Puga’s own review of Volkow’s Diario also focuses explicilty on the theme of the gaze in that work (Google Scholar
  11. 8b.
    María Luisa Puga, Lo que le pasa al lector (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1991), 102–106), thus demonstrating both writers’ interest in the theme. Other of Volkow’s articles of art criticism also give evidence of her predilection for the topic (see, for example, Veronica Volkow, ‘The Eye’s Domain’, Fotografya, 6,, consulted 28 April 2005).Google Scholar
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    Puga, Las posibilidades, 212.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Ibid., 172.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 95–96.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 96.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 98.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Ibid., 272.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Ibid., 272–273. Nyambura does look at ‘the Mexican woman’ enough for her to emit an opinion on what the she looks like: ‘no era blanca; más bien parecía asiática’ [‘she wasn’t white, in fact she looked more Asian’] (Ibid., 272). However, this is not an exchange of gazes so much as a unilateral ‘classificatory gaze’; a type of gaze that will be examined in the context of Volkow’s work later on in this article.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 273, 287.Google Scholar
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    Volkow, Diario, 26. All translations from Volkow’s journal are my own.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 11.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 12.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 31.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 71.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 36.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 97 and 178 respectively.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    Ibid., 178.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 97.Google Scholar
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    hooks, Black Looks, 118.Google Scholar
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    Volkow, Diario, 125.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 12.Google Scholar
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    Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 188. For a compelling study of whiteness that includes comment on the combination of whiteness, disembodiment and power, seeGoogle Scholar
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    Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Volkow, Diario, 59.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 10–13.Google Scholar
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    The similarities between Puga’s own biography and the character of the Mexican writer in Las posibilidades del odio are striking and in many ways the character comes quite close torepresenting Puga’s voice in the text. Nevertheless, the style indirect libre of the narrative and the dénouement of the plot suggest a critical attitude to the Mexican writer’s naïvety more consonant with what Puga herself derived from her experiences in Kenya.Google Scholar
  37. 33.
    hooks, Black Looks, 115, 118.Google Scholar
  38. 34.
    Ibid., 116. hooks’s definition of the ‘oppositional gaze’ is very similar in its disruptive function to what Homi Bhabha defines in his essay on mimicry as ‘the process by which the look of surveillance returns as the displacing gaze of the disciplined, where the observer becomes the observed and “partial” representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence’ (Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 127 [original emphasis]).Google Scholar
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    hooks, Black Looks, 126 and 129 respectively.Google Scholar
  40. 36.
    Puga, Las posibilidades, 286–287.Google Scholar
  41. 37.
    Still in Rome, on the eve of her return to Africa, Nyambura tells Chris, ‘me gustaría saber si escribió su libro o no. Me gustaría hablar con ella. Ahora sí’ [‘I’d like to know whether she wrote her book or not. I’m ready to talk to her now’] (Ibid., 277).Google Scholar
  42. 38.
    The latter is what some of her male hosts assumed that she would write, and in such an assumption lies their tacit condemnation of Volkow as bourgeois for not actively taking part in their struggle (Volkow, Diario, 159–60). The South African feminist academic Jennifer Robinson also comments on the general trend of avoiding the pursuit of research interests that were not politically relevant or committed in South Africa in the latter years of apartheid (Jennifer Robinson, Gillian Rose (New York: Guilford Press, 1994, 1Google Scholar
  43. 39.
    Puga wrote specifically for Mexicans, but she also expressed a desire to be translated and read by Kenyans (see Erna Pfeiffer, ‘El enfoque tercermundista en Las posibilidades del odio de María Luisa Puga’, VIII simposio internacional de literatura del mundo hispánico, ed. Juana Alcira Arancibia (Quito: Universidad San Francisco de Quito & Instituto Literario y Cultural Hispánico, 1992, 182)).Google Scholar
  44. 40.
    Jorge Klor de Alva, ‘The Postcolonization of the (Latin) American Experience: A Reconsideration of “Colonialism,” “Postcolonialism,” and “Mestizaje”’, in After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, ed. Gyan Prakash (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 241–275. I recognise here that the category ‘black’ is rather flexible in its application and not a guarantee of pure indigeneity. Nevertheless, it is clearly in a stronger position to make such claims than the concept of mestizaje.Google Scholar

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© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American StudiesUniversity of LeedsUK

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