Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and critic. Frida, her latest novel, is based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the rivalry between Frida and her sister Cristina for Diego's affection.
About Barbara Mujica
An Interview with Barbara Mujica
More About Barbara Mujica
A Professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, Mujica is a specialist in Early Modern Spanish literature and Latin American culture who has written extensively on Spanish literature, mysticism, the pastoral novel, and seventeenth-century theater, and her articles have appeared in many academic journals. She is also director of El Retablo, Georgetown University's Spanish-language theater group.
Other book-length fiction includes The Deaths of Don Bernardo (novel, 1990), Sanchez across the Street (stories, 1997), Far from My Mother's Home which is currently being translated into French (stories, 1999), and Affirmative Actions! (2000). Appearing in numerous magazines including The Minnesota Review, Pangolin Papers, and The Literary Review, and anthologies such as Where Angels Glide at Dawn, eds. Lori Carlson and Cynthia Ventura, Intro. Isabel Allende (1990, 1993), What Is Secret: Stories by Chilean Women, ed. Marjorie Agosín (1995), Two Worlds Walking, ed. C. W. Truesdale and Diana Glancy (1994), and The House of Memory, ed. Marjorie Agosín (1999), Dr. Mujica's short stories have been nominated for numerous awards and prizes.
In 1998 Dr. Mujica won the Pangolin Prize for Best Short Story of the Year and in 1992 the E. L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition. She has also won grants and awards from Poets and Writers of New York, the Spanish Government, and other institutions. She is a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize for Fiction. Mujica's essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning Star, and hundreds of other publications. In 1990 her essay “Bilingualism's Goal” was named one of the best 50 op-eds of the decade by The New York Times. Her latest non-fiction works are Hispanomundo, an overview of Latin American culture which has been classroom tested extensively in her Colloquium on Hispanic Society, scheduled for publication in 2001 by Harcourt Brace, and Sophia's Daughters: Women Writers of Early Modern Spain, scheduled for publication in 2002 by Yale University Press.
In addition, she has written Et in Arcadia Ego: Essays on Death in the Pastoral Novel (1990, co-authored with Bruno Damiani), Iberian Pastoral Characters (1986), and Calderon's Characters: An Existential Point of View (1980). She has edited El texto puesto en escena: Estudios sobre la comedia en honor a Everett W. Hesse (2000, with Anita Stoll; published with a full grant from the Association of Hispanic Classical Theater), Looking at the Comedia in the Year of the Quincentennial (1993, with Sharon Voros), and Texto y espectáculo (1989). She also edited Comedia Studies at the End of the Century, a special issue of the journal Hispania (Sept. 1999).
Mujica has also published eight anthologies of Spanish and Spanish American literature: Milenio: Milaños de literatura española (2001), Antología de la literatura española: Siglos XVIII y XIX (1999), Premio Nóbel: Once grandes escritores del mundo hispánico (1997), Texto y vida: Introducción a la literatura hispanoamericana (1992), Antología de la literatura española: Edad Media (1991), Antología de la literatura española: Renacimiento y Siglo de Oro (1991), Texto y vida: Introducción a la literatura española (1990), and Readings in Spanish Literature (1975). Her anthologies have been published by Georgetown University Press, Oxford University Press, John Wiley & Sons, and Harcourt College Publishing. Her articles have appeared in many scholarly journals and collections. She has also published numerous language books, the most recent being El próximo paso, published by Harcourt in 1996.
As book review editor of Américas, the cultural magazine of the Organization of American States, Dr. Mujica regularly reviews new books from Latin America and interviews Latin American authors. Over 130 of her reviews and interviews were published in Books of the Américas: Reviews and Interviews from Américas Magazine, 1990-1995 (1997). A second collection, covering the years 1996-2000 was published in 2001. Mujica's articles on Hispanic culture and language have appeared in hundreds of major newspapers and magazines.
Dr. Mujica is a member of the editorial boards of Bulletin of the Comediantes and Hispania. She has lectured widely on Golden Age theater in the United States and abroad. In March 2000 she was Master of Ceremonies and Discussant at the Golden Age Theater Festival in El Paso, Texas.
Q: What drew you to want to write about Frida Kahlo? How long were you attracted to her as a subject before you began the book?
A: I had been interested in Frida Kahlo’s painting for a long time, and I had read quite a bit about her. Most of what I had read dealt with her art—her themes and techniques, influences of Mexican folk art, comparisons with Diego Rivera. Those books and articles that recounted her life tended to be almost hagiographic. Frida as the victim. Frida as the Communist saint. But Frida Kahlo was a complex woman. She was very vulnerable, yet very manipulative; very kind, yet very cruel; politically committed, yet completely self-absorbed. I wasn’t interested in writing another documentary about Frida, but in exploring her psychology.
Q: In your Author Notes you say that you wrote this story through the eyes of Cristina, the youngest Kahlo sister, because you were "interested in what it might be like to be the unexceptional sister of such an exceptional woman." Did you always see yourself telling the story through the lens of Cristina, or did you decide on this once you began your research and/or writing? Why did you choose to have her speaking to a therapist to tell her story?
A: I started writing in the third person. After I had written about three chapters, I decided it wasn’t working. The book was turning into a biography, and that wasn’t what I wanted. When you tell a story in the third person, you make the narrator omniscient. The narrator becomes the all-knowing authority whose word constitutes truth. I wasn’t interested in enumerating facts. I was interested in the paradoxical, shadowy areas of Frida’s personality. I asked myself: What would it be like to live with someone like Frida? How did she impact those close to her? I needed a subjective narrator, someone who knew Frida well, someone very close to her, someone who loved her but suffered the effects of her moodiness and her selfishness. I came up with Cristina, Frida’s younger sister.
There were six Kahlo girls. Frida’s father Wilhelm had two daughters by his first wife and four by his second. Frida was the third child of the second brood. She was just eleven months older than Cristina. They were very close. In fact, Frida referred to Cristina as “my twin.” Cristina was Frida’s closest friend and her confidante. Still, she must have felt some resentment toward her older sister because Frida was always at the center of everything. Frida was her father’s favorite and, because she was often ill, she required continual attention. Cristina was the girl who did everything right according to the Mexican social norms of her day. She married and had two children. She was the only one of the Kahlo girls to give Wilhelm grandchildren. But in spite of that, Frida was always the star. Cristina’s bitterness grew. Finally, she did the one thing she knew would really hurt Frida: She had an affair with Diego.
The affair with Diego is factual. One critic said she thought I was very audacious to invent such a far-fetched incident, but that critic doesn’t know her history. The affair between Cristina and Diego has been amply documented. It was a turning point in the lives of both women. Frida felt horribly betrayed, and Cristina felt so guilty that she practically became Frida’s servant, waiting on her hand and foot until she (Frida) died.
I thought Cristina would be a good narrator because we actually don’t know too much about her. Although she figures in every biography of Frida, she’s always a marginal character. By bringing her out of the shadows and giving her a voice, I was able to paint a more nuanced, subjective portrait of Frida than I would otherwise have been able to do.
Q: How did you conduct your research? Did you spend any time in Mexico visiting the places that were a part of Frida's life?
A: I had lived and gone to school in Mexico for a while, and I return to Mexico every year. I have visited all the places mentioned in the book. I also read everything I could find about Frida and also a number of books about Diego. Her letters and diaries are also available. I had been teaching a course on Latin American history and culture at Georgetown University for years, so I was very familiar with the historical period.
Q: It seems that living in Frida's world would be exhausting. Was there anything that particularly surprised you about Frida? Do you admire her more, or less, after writing this book?
A: I was intrigued from the beginning by the complexity of her personality—the contradictions, the inconsistencies. You have to admire her perseverance, her feistiness. She did not allow herself to be cowed by Diego. In spite of his abuses, his affairs, his temper tantrums, and his deceptions, Frida plowed ahead. She was her own woman. She had planned to study medicine in a period in which very few Mexican women had careers. When that didn’t work out, she became a painter. When she couldn’t stand Diego anymore, she got a divorce. But she needed him, and she was courageous enough to admit to herself that she wanted him back and to remarry. Also, you also have to admire Frida’s joie de vivre, her sense of humor, her ability to turn it all into a joke. That’s what kept her going.
Q: While Frida was a diva in many ways, what may surprise readers is how she loved to cook for Diego and take care of him. What does that say about her to you?
A: Frida was a woman of her times. In spite of her radical views and her desire to shock, she was raised in an upper middle-class household where girls were expected to become wives and mothers. Even though there were servants, the women learned to cook. They saw the kitchen as a “women’s space” where they gathered and shared in the joys of preparing food to nourish the family. For an early twentieth-century Mexican woman of Frida’s background, there was nothing unusual about wanting to cook for a husband and take care of himeven though there were women who didn’t share that attitude.
Q: Frida is a strong character sexually. Do you think that through sex she was looking for something else? Her sexuality began at such a young age. Can you see anything in her history to have inspired this precociousness?
A: Frida lived in a period in which the intellectual/artistic elements were involved in sexual experimentation. Frida was born in 1907. She was an adolescent during the twentiesthe “roaring twenties” in Europe and the United Stateswhen women began wearing short skirts and breaking the rules. Short hair and men’s clothes were considered chic in the artsy set. So were smoking, drinking, free love and lesbianism. So it’s not so strange that Frida, who wanted desperately to be accepted by Diego’s crowd, was drawn to that kind of activity. Even before then, when she was in high school, she saw herself as superior to the staid bourgeoisie. She and her friends did everything possible rebel against the norms, and sexual experimentation was part of that.
Q: Are you an admirer of Frida's artwork? If so, is there a favorite piece?
A: Much of Frida’s art shows tremendous depth and imagination. When you see her works in person, you’re overwhelmed by the luminosity of the flesh, the vibrancy of the colors. As awful as the topic is, I was swept away by The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. The figure is so fragile, yet so vital. She is dying, but she is so alive, and her gaze is so penetrating.
Q: Do you feel that creative people often are more eccentric than others? If so, what would you attribute this to?
A: I don’t know if they’re really more eccentric or they just give into it more. There’s an image of the artist in our societythe bohemian, the nonconformist. People who see themselves as artists often cultivate that aura. On the other hand, artists often observe more carefully and meditate more profoundly on what they see than other people. They are committed to transformation and re-creation, and so they must be acutely aware of their own world. And this often leads to alienation, depression or eccentricity.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on a book for Yale University Press called Sophia’s Daughters on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish women writers. It’s due out in 2003. When I finish that book I plan to begin another biographical novel, but I’m a bit superstitious and prefer not to mention the subject.
Q: What authors have you read whose work you most admire?
A: I teach early modern literature at Georgetown, so much of my reading is of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts. My favorite authors are Teresa de Avila, Cervantes and Calderón. I also read modern fiction constantly. Manuel Puig was my friend and is one of my favorite authors. Right now I’m reading Alexandra Lapierre’s Artemisia, a fictionalized biography of the seventeenth-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I loved Isabel Allende’s last two books, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia, which I read in Spanish. Two books I read recently and thoroughly enjoyed were Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring.
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