Rediscovering Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral
By Daniela Estrada, IPS, August 27, 2007
SANTIAGO, Aug 27 (IPS) – A treasure trove of poems, letters and personal effects of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, which have lain untouched for 50 years, have been donated to the Chilean state and may contribute to a revaluation of the work of the first Latin American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ana María Cuneo, who has a doctorate in literature from the University of Chile and has written books on Mistral, said that the unpublished material that has been discovered will boost interest in the poet’s life and work, and set aside the stereotypes and morbid curiosity surrounding her life.
Luis Vargas Saavedra, who has carried out research into Mistral’s life, agrees. “People hardly know her, they have barely read her, even cultured people in Chile. The puerile version of her work that has been taught in schools is to blame,” he complained.
“Now, thanks to the press, we can see a pre-revival happening. This is the key time to spread her work in full,” Vargas Saavedra, an academic at the Catholic University of Chile, told IPS.
Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, whose pseudonym was Gabriela Mistral, was looking for nothing less than “the meaning of existence” in her work, Cuneo said.
Mistral’s papers spent 50 years in the hands of her friend and executor, Doris Dana, in the United States, and then passed to Dana’s niece, Doris Atkinson. On Aug. 15 they arrived at the Chilean embassy in Washington from the house in Massachusetts where they had been sealed and carefully stored for so long.
There are 105 boxes of books, unpublished manuscripts, letters, photographs and other belongings of the Chilean poet, who was born Apr. 7, 1889 in the city of Vicuña in the north-central region of Coquimbo, and who died of cancer on Jan. 10, 1957 in New York. Her remains were repatriated shortly after her death and today are buried in the town of Montegrande, in Coquimbo.
This marks “the beginning of the rediscovery of Gabriela Mistral, as we approach the bicentennial (the celebration in 2010 of 200 years of independence in Chile)” said Minister of Culture Paulina Urrutia, commenting on the handover of Mistral’s legacy to the Chilean embassy in the U.S.
Mistral, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, was a schoolteacher with a fine career as an educationist, in Chile and abroad. She wrote for national and Latin American newspapers, and in 1932 became a consul, which took her travelling around the world.
She published four volumes of poetry: Desolación (1922), Ternura (1924), Tala (1938) and Lagar (1954). Poema de Chile (1967) and Lagar II (1992) were published posthumously, and Cuneo worked on the latter publication. Among her prose, “Lecturas para mujeres” (Readings for Women – 1923) stands out.
When Dana died in November 2006, the material passed to her niece, Atkinson, who decided to give it to the Chilean state, specifically to the Directorate of Libraries, Archives and Museums (DIBAM), on certain conditions.
The books and manuscripts are to be kept in the Chilean National Library, which is to microfilm and digitise all the documents and distribute them to the University of Chile, the Catholic University and La Serena University, as well as to the U.S. Library of Congress and the Organisation of American States.
The Franciscan Order in Chile is to receive rights and royalties from part of Mistral’s work, and will safeguard three objects of value to her: one of three leatherbound volumes of the Bible, the brooch she wore when she accepted the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, and two crucifixes thought to be hers.
Although the authorities have not specified a date, it is estimated that the Mistral legacy could arrive in Chile in the second half of 2008. While the paperwork for taking the collection out of the U.S. is being completed, the legacy will be classified by the conservator and head of special collections of the Chilean National Library, Pedro Pablo Zegers.
At present Vargas Saavedra is in Chile, studying the microfilms he made during the eight days he was able to examine the documents in Massachusetts, where he worked with U.S. expert Elizabeth Horan, who is about to publish a biography of Mistral.
Atkinson has authorised him and the Catholic University to publish the Spanish version of the complete works and the unpublished poems. Vargas Saavedra also intends to edit Mistral’s prolific prose works and letters, where her views on education and political thinking shine.
The newspaper El Mercurio has already printed some of the unpublished poems examined by Vargas Saavedra. After reading these samples of the revelations to come, Cuneo said that they would not cause a 180-degree shift in how the poet is appreciated, as they are about “the same questions and sensibilities Mistral had shown before, but enriched.”
“For now, I’m transcribing the unpublished works and tracing the evolution of Gabriela Mistral’s poetry, which progresses after 1940 to a rhythmic colloquialism and to a simplicity that I would call classical, in contrast with her inherently baroque style of the 1930s,” said Vargas Saavedra.
He pointed out that Horan has come to the conclusion that Mistral did not have a lesbian relationship with Dana, as has often been speculated, but instead viewed her as a daughter.
Horan has also dispatched doubts about the paternity of Juan Miguel Godoy, better known as Yin Yin, Mistral’s nephew whom she adopted as her son. Yin Yin committed suicide in Brazil, in 1943, at the age of 18.
The copious number of letters received, and others not sent, by Mistral shed light on her contacts with great contemporaries, such as Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain, Aldous Huxley, Carson McCullers, Miguel de Unamuno, and Gregorio Marañón, Vargas Saavedra said.
More details are also revealed about her travels to Germany and North Africa, and her life in Portugal, he said.
The fact that Atkinson explicitly asked the Chilean government that the material be used for educational and cultural purposes, and that travelling exhibitions be arranged, raises hopes that the poet’s legacy will be used appropriately.
But according to the experts, plenty of work is needed to achieve this. “If the state, through the ministries of education and culture, present children and young people with the best of her work, selecting poems that illustrate its richness, tenderness, intensity, drama, folklore, pan-Americanism and religious feeling, then they will come to understand why she was awarded the Nobel Prize,” Vargas Saavedra said.
Rolando Manzano, head of the Mistral Centre at the La Serena University, told IPS that the public excitement and anticipation generated by the recent events had accelerated the work of the regional board formed to create the “Gabriela Mistral heritage route.”
The educational, cultural and tourist-oriented heritage route, announced by President Michelle Bachelet on May 21, is planned to open around 2010, to coincide with Chile’s bicentennial.
“The main thing is that her poetry and prose be read, explained and assimilated, because the humanistic and neoplatonic thinking of this woman of genius offers immensely important guidelines for Chile and for the world,” said Vargas Saavedra. (END/2007)