Research - Prof. dr. E. Helena Houvenaghel

Exile & Migration - Myth & History Rewriting

Myth Rewriting in the 20th Century, Latin American Literature:
New Meanings for Ancient Stories

The study of new meanings transmitted by 20th century Latin American rewritings of ancient myths is at the heart of this component of Houvenaghel's research.

In Lector: el nazismo te implica. Activación moral en Oscuro bosque oscuro de Jorge Volpi, Helena Houvenaghel considers another meaning transmitted by the rewriting of ancient stories in Latin American 20th century Fiction: the moral activation of the reader. Houvenaghel zooms in on the hybrid text Oscuro bosque oscuro (2010), in which the Mexican author Jorge Volpi describes the cruel killing of over 1500 Jews (women, children, elderly) in the Polish village Józefów in 1942 by German soldiers.

The analysis foregrounds how ancient fairy tales told by the Grimm brothers, such as Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Hiding Hood and The Pied Piper of Hamelin acquire new meaning in the context of the Second World War. The study shows how the rewriting of the ancient fairy tales is a strategy to make the reader participate in the moral dilemma lived by the German soldiers who were ordered to do the killing of the Jewish families. The article explores how the rewritings of ancient stories give shape, in 20th century Latin American Literature, to the representation of ethical dilemmas.

In The Penelopes Left Behind: Griselda Gambaro’s El mar que nos trajo (2001), Helena Houvenaghel (2020) studies the rewritings of Penelope and Medea in the context of 20th century migration from Italy to Argentina. The novel El mar que nos trajo (The Sea that brought us, 2001), by playwright Griselda Gambaro (Argentina °1928), daughter of Italian immigrants, treats migration from a women-centred perspective. The novel is set both in Italy and Argentina during the late 19th and early 20th-century wave of Italian and Spanish labour migration to Argentina. Gambaro brings together depictions of three Italian and Italian-Argentinian women who are left behind by their husband, lover, father, respectively. She thus shifts the focus away from those who migrate to those who stay behind. This study connects the novel with the Heroides, or Letters of Heroines, in which Ovid gives voice to Penelope and other Greek and Roman women, such as Medea, Dido, or Ariadne, all of whom were abandoned by their husband or lover.

Reading Gambaro’s novel in dialogue with Ovid’s Heroides illuminates the novel’s gender dimension and dramatic structure. The spectrum of abandoned women depicted by Gambaro differs from the series of female portraits included in the Heroides in that it comprises two generations of women who cope with abandonment in different ways. The first generation is similar to Ovid’s heroines who struggle, at a turning point in their lives, with their feelings of love, anxiety, and uncertainty about what may have kept their beloved from returning. The second generation, however, develops practices more similar to Penelope’s plan to regain control, or even to Medea’s cruel revenge intentions. This generation works out strategies to put an end to their situation of dependence and abandonment.

Revision of myths on sisterhood in Latin American rewritings of the 20th century

In the articles related to the Revision of myths on sisterhood in Latin American rewritings of the 20th century, three researchers of the Fenix Network for Research on Female Exiles, Refugees, and Migrants study the figure of the sister. In ancient Biblical, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian traditions, the most famous male sibling pairs are mortal enemies. What about the sisters? This article gives prominence to the figure of the mythical sister and highlights how the polysemic characteristics of sisterhood can generate multiple meanings ranging from rivalry to alliance. From this starting point, my study directs its gaze towards the 20th-century Latin American rewritings of sisterhood myths. I investigate the new forms that the ancient dynamic rivalry/alliance takes in these rewritings and reflect on the new meanings that the dynamic acquires in 20th-century Latin American socio-political contexts.

As a case study, I read the novel Las hermanas Agüero (1997) by the Cuban-American writer Cristina García in dialogue with the Greek myth about Helios (the Sun) and his sisters Selene (the Moon) and Eos (the Dawn). The novel gives protagonism to a female Helios and emphasizes the transformation of the rivalry between two opposing sisters into a cross-border alliance. To that effect, Las hermanas Agüero gives a central role to a hybrid figure who serves as an intermediary. In this way, the novel calls into question a system that pigeonholes women into opposed models and shows a possible path to different and more ambivalent perceptions of femininity. The novel thus endows sisterhood with a meaning related to the re-modelling of femininity in the Cuban and Cuban-American 20th-century society.