Phoebe Martin investigates poet Carmen Ollé’s relationship with feminism and activism in Peru

Speaking to Carmen Ollé, she says that she “has never been an activist”. Yet her work is often seen as the beginning of feminist poetry in Peru. How then, can her poetry be considered a cultural form of activism? As she puts it in her own words: “you don’t want to be political, but sometimes your nature just is, so it’s going to show in your work”.

The publication of Ollé’s Noches de adrenalina in 1981 is seen as the beginning of a ‘boom’ in women’s poetry in Peru, which developed in parallel with a ‘boom’ in feminist activism. However, her work presented a challenge to dominant ideas both in writing and in society in a way that was distinct from the discourse used by ‘official’ feminists.

Broadly speaking, feminist activism in Peru in the early 1980s was still in its early years after having emerged out of working class activism in the 1970s. There was a tension between the desire on the one hand to create an alternative feminist struggle but also, on the other hand, the need to maintain links with the popular women’s movement who did not consider themselves feminists. This meant that feminist activists tended to focus on economic factors, rather than tackling the “classic” issues of second wave feminism: sexuality, reproductive rights, violence against women.

It was in this context that Ollé wrote Noches de adrenalina, as she recalls “when I started writing my poetry, I had this idea of feminism: the importance of highlighting the secondary role that women played at that time”. However, Ollé takes a different approach to challenging this, one that is confrontational from the start. In Noches, the image of the a woman’s body who has just given birth disturbs the reader. The female body is presented as something raw and natural; a body that menstruates, defecates and desires. The first poem in the collection says: “I am 30 (the age of stress) / My vagina is plagued with yeast as a result of the first delivery”. Yet, she is aware that she is isolated within the poetic tradition: in a different poem she says “in this mystique of telling dirty stories [cosas sucias] I am alone and feverish”. At a time when feminists were also trying to challenge women’s subordination, Ollé was able to present an alternative challenge to patriarchal structures using an intimate, personal perspective.

While her work clearly has a feminist outlook, she dismisses the idea that it is an explicitly political form of writing: “I have never been an activist, [but] it is in my way of thinking”. Arguably, one of the strengths of her writing is that it puts forward an individual and an intimate perspective. Ollé contends that “poetry is something more personal and more free”, in contrast with the narratives used by mainstream activism. Instead of explicitly putting forward a feminist agenda or a political thesis, she reacts to her personal experiences in a more subtle, spontaneous way.

At the same time, the way her work was received is also indicative of the challenges that have faced women writers, and the impact that writing can have by unsettling established ideas about gender. As Ollé recalls, when Noches was published “critics were tearing their hair out trying to explain it, they were bewildered, and they gave it these absurd and derogatory labels such as ‘light’ or ‘intimate’ literature”. By labelling women’s writing as ‘light’, ‘confessional’ or ‘erotic’, these critics (for the most part men) relegated it to the private, intimate sphere. This reaction underlines the significance of Noches as a piece of fiction; it completely challenged the literary establishment at the time. By writing in such a personal, defiantly female way that subverts prevailing ideas about femininity, particularly sexuality and the body, her writing has power.

While Noches was the first work of its kind, the situation for writers and poets today is still difficult. Even for a well known writer like Ollé, “it’s not easy to get published if your work is controversial, political or feminist”. Feminist writers either have limited runs in independent publishing houses or have to pay to self-publish. So, although there are more writers now, there is a limit on both who can publish their work and who has access to their work. Without a wider audience, how can feminist writing challenge established ideas?

In this way, the challenges facing feminist writers – such as Ollé – and activists are similar: how to reach an audience that doesn’t already share the same point of view. Here, the work of Ollé is an important example, showing how a personal, intimate viewpoint can be both critically and politically successful.

By putting forward an individual perspective as opposed to a collective one, she does not have to worry about speaking for all women, nor is she constrained by the prevailing discourses of feminist activism. So, while she “has never been an activist” the way she has represented the female experience has been an important and valid form of activism.