Kate Abbott: Brava to María Tellería Solari from Berkshire Festival of Women Writers


Writing in Peru, she said, is like dropping a rose petal into an abyss and waiting for the sound of rock as it hits the bottom.

I'm paraphrasing Holly Brown, professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock, as she quotes María Tellería Solari. Solari wrote columns and fiction -- she had a writing career spanning 50 years -- and she is known here, now only by one short story in an anthology.

As a circle of us read her story aloud this week, I wanted to thank her for persevering, and to thank the editors of the anthology, because I have at least this one way to know her.

When the anthology was first published, Brown said, a critic panned it for including the work of an unknown writer. And even in the anthology, in the one place a contemporary computer can find her -- we have her name wrong.

In a feature story in last week's Berkshires Week, celebrating this month's Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I described a conversation Brown and her students held this week about four Latina writers. It turns out she and I both perpetuated a mistake: We identified the writer of the short story "Death and Transfiguration of a Teacher" as Maria Teresa Solari -- a different writer from a different country.

I want at least to begin to set things right.

At the panel, we read her story aloud, and we laughed and sobered by turns. It's a deadpan satire with a cutting edge. A poetry teacher who can't control her class disappears. The principal discovers, on enquiry, that the students have taken her apart.


And yes, I mean literally. They have buried her bones under a rose bush.

Macabre? Not when you read it. It's absurd humor over a pain and protest as tough as the rose bush. We read this story after a series of poems by Gabriela Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize -- and who wrote an ongoing conflict between the day "alive, brisk, and rich with work" and the langor of dusk after a day when nothing happens.

The first Spanish American woman to win the Nobel Prize writes, over and over, of the day ending with delay, emptiness, vanishing. She too wrote about killing a woman. But in her poem, the woman who dies is hard, wasted, parched and burned, and dies within her so that a woman supple, fluid with sap, may come to the water and drink.

Solari's poet seems to see the same kind of woman -- the vivid and active woman who rises every morning like "like a halcyon."

I want to thank the woman beside me that night for telling me that a halcyon is a bird. They're all over Vancouver, she said.

She's right. I knew halcyon as a blue-sky day, but today a halcyon is a kingfisher, a blue-sky bird, and originally, in Greek, a halcyon was a bird that nested on the ocean, and halcyon days were the calm mid-winter days of its nesting season.

Solari's poet saw the possibility for this confidence and elation. She saw the need for it. She couldn't teach it. But Solari can teach it, and she does.

If I could read Spanish, I'd propose an expedition -- to comb the libraries of Lima, and the archives and newspaper clip files, for María Tellería Solari's collected works.

She wrote a regular science fiction and fantasy column, Brown told me. Fantasy, I think, reaches out to include a story like the one we read. It might encompass magic realism, paranormal, the kind of story set in a world almost like this one -- but infinitely variable.

Imagine The Eagle starting a column like that? We have kingfishers too. They breed here.

When the eggs hatch in the early morning on the lake shore, and the birds dive into the water, what might they become?


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