Post Road Magazine #25

THE THREE MARIAS: Whatever Happened to Portugal's Pussy Riot?

Oona Patrick

I finally read the English translation of the 1972 feminist classic The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, known simply as Novas Cartas Portuguesas in Portuguese, this past summer in Lisbon. I was there to

work on the Disquiet International Literary Program, showing American writers around the city. I'd arrived early to spend some time by myself and was staying in a borrowed hillside apartment. From the living room I could hear, but not see, raging soccer match celebrations and brief, scheduled protests against austerity in the vast city squares below. Two floors below me, a karaoke bar frequented by transgender people got going at 3 A.M. They seemed to prefer obscure American disco and rock from the 1970s. The singing was so loud that I could tell that everyone knew the words, except me. I lay awake and wondered what I was doing there.

I'd come to Portugal first in search of my roots, but I realized that this, my fifth trip, was leaving me strangely alienated, right down to my feet. My shoes caught or slipped constantly on the small, polished limestone cobblestones, which make wearing heels in Lisbon dangerous. These calçadas, as they are called, had been laid down in intricate black and white designs and patterns, at first by prison laborers in the 1850s. As American scholar Darlene J. Sadlier has pointed out, they were built for the flat sturdy shoes of men at a time when women did not often leave the home. Much of the city is paved with this enthralling but antagonistic surface.

From the first day I saw it, Lisbon has always made me question time. It looks old—some of it stuck in the 1960s, some of it in the 12th century—but feels so modern, especially in its arts scene. Portugal's rapid progress since the 1974 overthrow of the fascist dictatorship has been remarkable, financial crisis or not. This is also a country where gay marriage has already been legalized, and Portugal has led the world with its approach to decriminalizing drug use. From what I had observed and experienced during my trips, however, relations between men and women seemed far from modern.

Maybe my alienation and homesickness is why I gave Novas Cartas Portuguesas another try. I hadn't gotten very far the first time, when a male Portuguese academic had insisted I read it. I knew the book was important to both feminism and Portuguese literature, but so much about it had seemed so distant, so over, that I didn't give it much of a chance at first.

In 1971, the three authors of Novas Cartas Portuguesas, Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno, and Maria Velho da Costa, were young mothers in their thirties and published authors, with fourteen books of poetry and fiction between them. They met together that spring after one of Horta's volumes of poetry had been banned and decided to collaborate on a book that would directly challenge the Salazar dictatorship's censors. They began Novas Cartas Portuguesas with a series of unsigned, but dated letters between the authors, and then took their inspiration from the 17th-century classic Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Novas Cartas Portuguesas consists of poems, found texts, erotica, stories, and letters in the voices of both women and men, forming a complex response to the classic Letters while also telling new stories set at various times in Portuguese history. The authors purposefully made it impossible for the censors to determine which woman had written which entries.

When the book was published in 1972, it appeared in bookstores but was quickly banned, and the remaining 100 copies out of 3,000 were confiscated. According to Sadlier, the women were charged with an "outrage to public decency" and "abuse of the freedom of the press" and arrested. They were freed on bail after being interrogated by the PIDE, the regime's notorious secret police. The police wanted to know which of the women had written the book's most scandalous erotic passages. The trial of the three women, which began in July 1973, became an international incident and one of the first international feminist causes. Men and women demonstrated and held other events in support of the "Three Marias," as they became known, in Brazil, Europe, and the United States, often in front of Portuguese embassies—further isolating the regime.

The case dragged on until May 1974. As the government began to falter, the judge withheld the verdict, then dropped all charges soon after the April 25, 1974, Carnation Revolution. He praised the book and encouraged the authors to continue writing. The book was reissued in Portugal and translated into numerous languages. It didn't appear in English until Helen Lane's translation in 1975, at which point the scandal was over and interest had diminished. It received mixed reviews and was only reissued once in English, in 1994. Hilary Owen writes in her 1999 Index on Censorship article "Exiled in Its Own Land" that even in Portugal, the book fell out of print for eighteen years after its 1980 edition, and was forgotten and little read, even in universities. The authors went on to separate literary careers, although Horta apparently had difficulty publishing her work for a time because of her reputation as a feminist. Maria Velho da Costa disowned the book in a letter to a newspaper soon after the revolution. The Three Marias never collaborated again, and later stopped speaking to each other.

When I finally read Novas Cartas Portuguesas myself, I felt that I had been badly misled by the dismissive Publisher's Weekly review that appears on the 1994 English edition's Amazon.com page. It said, "Perhaps more valuable as a historical document than a work of literature. [. . .] the sentiments appear dated from the vantage point of our more jaded age." I admit that I believed this at first, and expected to find a historical relic, but eventually I came to the conclusion that the book was instead ahead of its time—post-dated, perhaps, to our time. And I was chagrined that I'd never heard this fascinating book or any of its authors discussed in lectures on Portuguese literature I had attended.

As Ana Martins of the University of Cambridge has said, Novas Cartas Portuguesas was considered "strange" by many early readers. However, a number of its features look quite familiar now. There is the experimentation with authorship, the use of found texts, the juxtaposition of facts to make points, the fragmentary structure, and the braided stories, all held together by a through-line formed by the collection of letters between the authors that appear in the order in which they were written in 1971. While the book clearly owes much to modernism and epistolary novels, in my opinion, the authors may have also independently invented modern creative nonfiction in the Portuguese tradition.

It is still a difficult and wrenching read. The book took me into a convent cell, a mental hospital, an unhappy childhood, an unhappy marriage, and a rape victim's bed. Many times I put it down in tears, or rage. It's not that as a Portuguese American I didn't want to see my distant ancestors' country in this light—it's that these incidents felt as if they could have happened almost anywhere, in any time. And they were still happening.

The authors are especially lively and challenging when they engage with the story of Mariana Alcoforado, the nun whose five letters to the French cavalier who abandoned her form the 1669 Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Although the book's authorship remains in doubt, and most support the theory that they were actually written by a Frenchman, the Three Marias frequently speak in the voice of Mariana or directly to her: "I know you to be hypocritical, crafty, querulous, but I also know you to be a document, a testimonial through your very presence in the world of these days."

It is true that the book is uneven, repetitive at times, and frustrating in its wild swings from specificity to vagueness. One of the authors even admits to her desire to change the others' work toward the end among a painful set of final letters that reveal the growing tensions between the women: "I yearned to change things, to omit things, to elaborate, to take a blue pencil to precocities of form and content." The book ends in discord, but in these last entries there is also a vision for what books like this can do: "The love of violating taboos as something that can one day be totally integrated within society is the truth behind this story and these crafty literary tricks of ours." It seems to me that this book's work in the world is not finished.

Portuguese feminist scholars have been busy with a revival and reevaluation of Novas Cartas Portuguesas in the past few years, issuing a new annotated edition in 2010 and preparing anthologies of writing about the book from around the world in celebration of its fortieth anniversary. Nevertheless, after learning about Novas Cartas Portuguesas and its history, I have to question what David Remnick wrote online in the New Yorker about the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot on August 11, 2012: "The women of Pussy Riot, like Sinyavsky and Brodsky before them, have spoken with the confidence of free people who know that their words—not least their closing statements—will outlive their persecutors, both in the courtroom and the Kremlin." As I watched the backlash against the three women pile up in the early comments on his piece, it seemed possible that these brave, and seemingly "strange," artist/activists are more likely to be Russia's Three Marias— suppressed and forgotten after the initial uproar.

The Portuguese novelist Patrícia Reis told me that she truly believes that history will someday do Novas Cartas Portuguesas and the Three Marias justice. But will it?

 Copyright © 2016 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved