Judith Cofer Silent Dancing Essay

After Judith Ortiz Cofer gave a poetry reading in 1987, a friend, Hilma Wolitzer, suggested that she take some of the images and subjects of her poems and create essays out of them. Silent Dancing is the result of that advice. In this memoir, she creates a unique form because in it she combines her essays with poems that share similar themes or, in some cases, retell or recast the same stories. It is unlike most other memoirs because of this blending of genres. The one-hundred-fifty-page memoir is composed of fourteen brief essays and eighteen short poems, eleven of which were previously published in the poetry collections Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987).

Ortiz Cofer announces her intentions for the memoir in “Preface: Journey to a Summer’s Afternoon.” Using Virginia Woolf, the British novelist and essayist, as a guide, Ortiz Cofer wants to “trace . . . the origins of [her] creative imagination” because she believes that reclaiming memories can “provide a writer with confidence in the power of art to discover meaning and truth in ordinary events.”

The “ordinary events” that Ortiz Cofer relates to the reader are actually quite remarkable. One is never quite sure how much of the memoir is a “partial remembrance” and how much of the past is, as Ortiz Cofer readily admits, “a creation of the imagination,” but the stories (or cuentos) are all surprising, moving, and evocative of that lost time of her childhood and adolescence.

The epigraph from Virginia Woolf that begins the book identifies the principal focus of the work: “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” The mothers that come to life in Silent Dancing include Woolf herself, as literary trailblazer; Ortiz Cofer’s mother and grandmothers, who model roles of behavior for women; and the “mother lands” of Puerto Rico and the United States. Ortiz Cofer must come to terms with the difficulties in each of these relationships and must come into her own womanhood, a womanhood that for her includes motherhood; her memoir is dedicated not only to her mother but also to her daughter, Tanya Cofer. The traditions are passed on, in a transformed manner, from generation to generation of women.

Early in Silent Dancing, which in 1991 won the PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction and was included in New York Public Library’s 1991 Best Books for Teens, Ortiz Cofer warns her readers that she is not interested in “canning” memories. Rather, like Woolf in Moments of Being(1976), she writes autobiographically to connect with “the threads of lives that have touched mine and at some point converged into the tapestry that is my memory of childhood.”

Silent Dancing is not an autobiography as such; it does not progress linearly from the moment of birth to the day before the final revision is done. It is instead a collection of thirteen stories and a preface, with eighteen poems scattered amid the stories. The book’s elements are interconnected but are also discrete. The sequence in which they are read need not be Ortiz Cofer’s sequence, although she obviously spent considerable thought on arranging the book’s disparate components as she moved toward publication.

“Casa,” the lead story, explains elements of the book’s genesis. The family has gathered, as it does every day between three and four in the afternoon, for café con leche with Mama, the term everyone uses in referring to Ortiz Cofer’s grandmother. In the comfortable parlor that Mama’s husband built to her exact specifications, drinking coffee together provides the adults with the pretext for spinning yarns,...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

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