‘We’re more alone now, but not completely.’ One morning at the end of February 2021, I exchanged this text with the writer Edurne Portela. It was the day of Almudena Grandes’ funeral in the Cementerio Civil in Madrid. Each from her own conception of literature, we told the other we would keep the commitment. What commitment? We didn’t say in our messages. We didn’t need to.
Almudena had really liked Edurne’s first novel, Mejor la ausencia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017). She recounted it for me one afternoon in Madrid, in the Librería Alberti. Almudena used to expound on books by other women – plot, formal analysis, tone, atmosphere – with such rampant enthusiasm that we might have written the adventures of her admired Ulysses. She was a wise and voracious reader. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She knew how to recognise the power of story, emotion handled well, narrative risks, and, now that I think of it, courage in books.
She liked Aixa de la Cruz’s writing and Cristina Morales’s audacity in Terroristas modernas (Candaya, 2017). That afternoon in the shop, she bought the latest book by the Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am. I haven’t read this one yet, oh good, you have to read Maggie, she told me. And she pressed me to take Zuleikha by the Russian writer Guzel Yakhina.
Those books all have something in common: they are novels written by contemporary women who build fictional universes that are inhabited by indocile characters. Pages that tell stories that haven’t been told, where women of different origins and traditions, heiresses of different cultures, in different languages, tell, write, narrate, invent, and, from their points of view, take risks. And that exact literary crossroads, sitting before a blank page, is still something groundbreaking and political today.
I was always surprised that she read us. That she knew perfectly well what our best lines were. That she was attentive to the literature by women from the generation that came after her. That she rallied around us, helped and defended us and, above all, that she sincerely admired the tremulous writing in our first books.
I never spoke to her about my second novel, and she never got to read it. I’m conscious of the fact that few readers besides Almudena would have given me a more honest critique. So I was left never knowing that truth.
In a column from those days last November, the writer Lara Moreno said that long before the rest of us were crying out for equality, Almudena was already there, in the ‘new books’ displays, beside all the men.
And long before I would dream of publishing a book, I held The Ages of Lulu, which I read at fourteen or fifteen years old, in secret, hiding from my parents. I’ve heard and read other female writers – such as Elvira Navarro, Elisa Ferrer and Bárbara Blasco – describe the same experience. Through that novel, a whole generation of women in Spain knew something about sex and the infinite possibilities of writing. We knew more about ourselves and the country in which we were going to live.
All of that is called paving the way.
And Almudena paved the way for us in many directions. She did it through her commitment to freedom of creation, freedom of opinion, through the possibility of ideological militancy and the joy of dedicating oneself to one of the most beautiful professions in the world.
In a television interview from 1998, I heard her claim that there is no women’s literature, that it is just our point of departure. Just as there is literature for people who write influenced by any other aspect of identity. Just like she was from Madrid and built her fictions from there. But back then, she was already defending the position that literature written by women cannot be identified as something that’s opposed to ‘normal literature’ – literature written by men, in other words. I wonder about the validity of that label and its significance today. Whether or not we have overcome that breach. Because despite the fact that bookshops are filled with the names of female authors, the masterful works, the crucial, are still written by men, and men still choose the canon.
Almudena was talking about an oppressive glass ceiling, one that goes beyond labels and which we have inherited through culture. If writing is to look at the world and say what one sees, a man’s gaze continues to be universal, exciting for all, while a woman’s gaze continues to be a subgenre, and exciting, most of all, to us. And so, despite the books we publish, despite the subjects we are beginning to write about, the challenge she articulated is one we continue to have ahead of us. To be read without the shadow of our gender over the page. For our point of departure to incorporate and describe the different realities in which we all participate.
The speed with which discrimination against women withdraws from their lives varies according to geography. But literature makes empathy with the other possible, through words, through perspective, showing us we’re all hanging off the same line. Sometimes tied on tight, sometimes by an invisible thread. One of my greatest joys is sharing readings with another woman who writes, discovering new or forgotten female authors, reading pages where we can finally recognise ourselves. And for this reason, it is so important when someone who has already made it chooses to hold her hand out to you, like Almudena did to me.
The afternoon she left us, I was writing at home, alone. I received a text and then hours passed before I could get up from my chair. Night fell over me, in silence; the house was dark. That day, I printed out a picture that seemed to me to be loaded with meaning about what it means to be a woman and to write. I pinned it up in my office. In the picture, Almudena is writing at a computer, in deep concentration; her son, who must have been four or five years old, is beside her. He looks into the camera.
When I write, there is always something that brings her back to me. About my first novel, she once said something about all the decisions I had made while writing it. Now, every time I make a decision, when it isn’t my intuition, I think: am I right, Almudena? I wish I could ask her about literature, how she did it, how she was always right. But, sometimes, I wish I could ask her about life, too. Am I making a mistake, compañera?
A few days ago, in A Coruña, two sisters came up to speak to me. They came to me through Almudena. They were her readers, readers I inherited with the sense that I can never compensate for her absence. I always feel regret for not measuring up to her readers. Because my way of constructing pages is very different from hers. But the sisters told me something: it’s how you look at life and at history, that’s all. I suppose, then, that this is the commitment.
We were unquestionably left more alone that day, more orphaned before our time, more in the dark, but we aren’t completely alone. Because we will keep talking to each other about the good books by our companions on this uncertain and often solitary road that is literature. With the comradery that can only be shared by those who are dedicated to vanquishing time through writing, to giving one another more life, more love, more adventure. Each of us on our own pages. Committed, each in her own way, to this craft that was Almudena’s, too. We will keep reading each other. And telling our stories.
Aroa Moreno Durán
Translated by Katie Whittemore
This article was originally published in Spanish in Tinta Libre, 27 November 2022.
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