OBVIOUSLY, I AM A FEMINIST

In conversation with Eduardo Lago

By PHILO COHEN

  Portrait of Eduardo Lago by Philo Cohen

Portrait of Eduardo Lago by Philo Cohen

Eduardo was the first college professor I ever met. He is my advisor at Sarah Lawrence College, and I was in his class on European Literature last year. Only half way through the year, as he mentioned friendships with Paul Auster and David Foster Wallace, did I learn that Eduardo was one of the most important Spanish writers of his time...

What is important to know, which is the reason why I chose to include Eduardo in TOGETHER is that Eduardo is a better feminist than a lot of us, ladies. Yes I said it. Eduardo hung out with a class of 15 young badass women, Freshmen in college, who were more politically aware than ever, and ready to eat your ass if you made a mistake about their rights, or history. Not the most peaceful place for an adult male. Well, Eduardo taught the History of European literature to this crowd, and not once I felt the need to correct him nor educate him about women in any of the fields he was talking about.

To sum it up, Eduardo Lago is a precious element in the movement towards equality, and we need more men like him to help us change the way our society functions.

Spotlight on a man, an artist, and a teacher whose intelligence and sense of the world never stops amazing me.

Philo Cohen: When we talked a bit the other day, I was telling you that you were a feminist, and then you answered "I don't know if I am a feminist".  

Eduardo Lago: Alright there are two things here that are important. Obviously I am a feminist. Not to be a feminist is like to be a racist. That's one thing. Another thing that is very important, is how deeply buried inside of us we have residues of our education, it goes back even before we were born. In Spanish, and I think in French too, grammar is male chauvinistic, the structure of grammar, the structure of thoughts are patriarchal. So, there is a limit to the responsibility that the individual has. Despite this, and I think of this for myself, having being brought up against Franco, in a dictatorship, there are things that you don't control, that you are unaware of, because these things are happening to you when you were two or three years old. There are things, inside of you, that come from a long time ago, from history. When I publish articles in El País, my brother, who is also a writer, says to me: “So and so [a woman friend] says that you seldom speak about women writers” [Laughs]. When he says that, he makes me think. I think you also said something similar in class too. 

PC: You do speak about women writers though. And I believe that you are a strong component of our quest towards equality. I witnessed it this year by taking your class.

EL: We are still very far away from being an equal society in that sense. You can see that clearly in places of power such as the presidential office, the government. You look at the government of Spain now and you see nineteen men for one woman in the cabinet [in today’s conservative government, it was different when Socialists were in power]. What is changing is buried beneath things whose importance we can not quite see the yet. It will take more than a generation, maybe a couple of generations or more, because what is changing is the structures of culture itself, the foundations of culture.

PC: I am interested in these buried identities that were founded at the base of our culture. The birth of the culture is in education. You are teaching at one of the Seven Sisters college, that has been co-ed for 50 years now, but at which the student body is still composed of more women than men. You are indeed teaching a lot of women. When I was in high school, I did not come across any women writers before my Junior year. What are your thoughts on the fact that no one comes across any female writers until the end of their secondary education, or unless they decide to attend a school founded by women? 

EL: It is very interesting. You know how I choose books: I often ask you guys how you feel about reading this or that. When I am preparing the reading list of my literature classes in Spanish language, I get in touch with writer friends and ask them if they can recommend me women writers. I ask my friends, many of whom are quite young “What is new in Spanish literature? What is new in Latin American literature?” and they often answer me without mentioning any female writers, claiming that they don’t know any. In the structures of society, of history, of power, and of culture, if the feminine component equals the masculine component, the structure of culture changes, it becomes something different. 

PC: Do you have any hope in this change? How could we make that happen? Not only with women, but with all people treated as minorities. How could they be equal in culture, and also, since culture is so influential in society, could that influence how society operates?  

EL: I think that everything is moving in that direction. Very slowly, things are changing change. It is not about hope; it is a struggle. A very good example, also close to me, takes place in the world of science. As you know, my wife is a scientist at Rockefeller University. The proportion of women scientists, in general, is very low. I don’t know exactly, buy a significantly low percentage. It is in places like there science where you really feel the gap. In connection with this, I am intrigued by emotional differences. By biological and psychological differences. Sometimes I have recommended my wife a book, and she says: “I don´t relate to it, it´s too much for my sensibility. Often it is because the book in question represents a worldview that affects her at the level of emotions as a woman. I think everything is changing but it has to change harmoniously because what happens is that you cannot move to the other side, and have no reaction. You were one of the few who saw it when we read Christa Wolf’s Medea. Essentially we want to be equal, it is not like we are in a box ring, trying to defeat the opponent and crush them. So, I think that it is a very slow process, and I think that some societies are way behind but in the end, it is a political problem. And the only way to change things, is by fighting. You cannot be there and not do anything. We need to revise the structure of our thoughts. 

PC: When did you start not only believing in equal rights, but also behaving in a way that you knew would impact changes in society?

EL: What happened to me is that I grew up in a family that was all men. Three boys. My poor mother always said “I am surrounded by lakes” because in Spanish “Lago" means lake and it is masculine. I was educated in boarding schools, where everybody was male. Only when I finished secondary school and I was seventeen, and I went to university, I came across women. I had no sisters, I had not had classmates who were girls. For me, university was a time of explosion and freedom, politically. When I was a first year student, Franco was still alive but he died when I was a junior. I was nineteen, very young. I had a very authoritarian education. We were against it, totally opposed to it, but that is what we were receiving. There were all kinds of movements, but there are things that you don’t change easily. For me as an individual it was a discovery, I had constantly been fighting for freedom in an idealistic way.

PC: But then you also moved to the US when you were fairly young. I know that moving here (New York) made me immensely more aware of the inequality gaps between people. When I go back to Europe, it is like if I were to take an archaic step back. Do you ever compare Europe and the US, as what you were and what you became?

EL: Sarah Lawrence was a very interesting discovery, I came here many years ago, and it was the world upside down. The President was a woman, the Dean was a woman, all the chairs of important positions were held by women. Everywhere women where important. So, that was an interesting contrast with society. When I came here, I felt in a totally different atmosphere, even in the classroom. In our class, for example, all students are female. I am aware that I change the chemistry, just because I am a man. 90% of the class being all women, it sets a very different relationship with power and knowledge. 

This school is a place that is different from society. I think that in many ways, in the United States, there are many cultural problems, and I constantly compare things in Europe from things in the United States. Europe is quite advanced in many ways, more than the US, in many ways. Anthropologically it is very interesting to study what is going on. At the same time, there is a very strong matriarchal sense in American society. A long time ago, decades and generations ago, women gained power at many levels. This is reflected in many situations, for example, in romantic relationships. Not that I observe much but it is just what I see around me, how the attitude of American men are very different. They were educated in a different environment, more sensitive towards female sensitivity, I think. 

PC: If these men tend to behave better it is also that they have been educated to behave better. They may have been more welcome in women communities, and their values regarding their female peers must have been set differently from European ones. Do you feel welcome in the conversation when we talk about feminist matters, or women condition? 

EL: When I talk with my niece in Spain, she is your age, I realize that there are many things that I don’t know very well. I have to say, as I am not an expert in these things, I have no authority. With education I am closed from “young souls”. I like to call them that way because every year I am a year older, and my students come and they are the same age, with the same energy. They transmit a lot to me. I feel like I have a lot to learn. 

PC: So what are you going to do? 

EL: You cannot reverse history. So many centuries of injustice. Virginia Woolf could not go to the university, women could not vote until yesterday. We still have so many problems. What is interesting is seeing what happens with culture if you go back. Some people say “Where is the female Beethoven?”. That is the weight of history. Women did not have space for their independent evolution, there was no room for them. So I think that if we have 2500 years of male dominance, we need a really long period of time, many years, I don´t now how many in order to place things in a different way. But I feel that many things are different already, in a relatively short span of time. 

In my next class, I will teach only women writers –normally I try to balance the proportion of male and female writers. We have so much to catch up on. It is like if we had set a table, with everything on it, tablecloth, silverwares, but that we had forgotten to put one of the four legs of the table when making it. Some times I think of different possibilities. Imagine, for example, how interesting it would be to write a book titled History of American Literature, and not mention one single male, or white person. Not now, but in the not so distant past, the opposite was normal: only male, white writers.