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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Judith Ortiz Cofer (b. 1952)

[2184] Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Great He-Goat (Witches Sabbath) (c. 1823), courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Prado, Madrid.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in Hormingueros, Puerto Rico, and was educated in the United States, primarily New Jersey. Her fiction incorporates elements of memoir as well as of the oral storytelling tradition that she learned, and that comforted her, while she was growing up in Puerto Rican communities. As a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays, Cofer has merged her Latin and Anglo experiences to express the dual identity engendered by living in two cultural spheres. In her work, she adapts for new readers the Spanish and classical myths that provided the foundation for the stories she heard as a child. For example, in “The Witch’s Husband,” Cofer uses a double-narration technique that allows us to share the perspectives of both the storyteller Abuela and her granddaughter. Cofer is adept at crafting fiction that honors the traditions and stories of the older generations while remaining sensitive to the post-women’s liberation views of the younger generation.

Cofer also builds bridges between generations as a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia: she teaches students about the importance of their ancestors’ stories even as she guides them in creating their own. In addition, she regularly gives lectures on biculturalism in America and on the importance of encouraging diverse voices to contribute to American literature. Cofer’s works include Terms of Survival (1987), Reaching for the Mainland(1987), The Line of the Sun (1989), Silent Dancing (1990), The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry (1993), and Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer (2000).

Teaching Tips

  • You may want to start a discussion of “The Witch’s Husband” by relating it to the oral tradition of Cofer’s culture. Discuss how Abuela’s story may be even more effective if spoken, and encourage students to read passages aloud.
  • Students will be curious about what Abuela (“Grandmother”) might have done during her year in New York. While you may effectively entertain a few suppositions, this would be a good place to emphasize Abuela’s role not just as a character but also as a storyteller. She decides to leave out these details for a reason. Why? Are they not important to the story?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does the narrator’s family think she will be able to talk “sense” into her grandmother?
  2. Comprehension: Why did Abuela go to New York for a year and what did she do there?
  3. Comprehension: Why do you think the story is called “The Witch’s Husband” and not, for example, “The Witch”? Is the story more about Abuela or her husband? Or is it actually about the narrator? Also, what does it mean to be a “witch”?
  4. Context: Think about how Cofer uses storytelling as a memorial to earlier generations, as a means of remembering and honoring ancestors. How does Abuela’s ability to tell a good story, including her knowledge of her audience’s values, affect her granddaughter’s impressions of old age?
  5. Context: Compare this narrator’s appreciation of her grandmother’s “folk wisdom” to Dee/Wangero’s simultaneous disdain and reverence for her mother’s way of life in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” You might also think about the way the homes, and setting more generally, function in a story, particularly Cofer’s use of the hammock, Walker’s use of the butter churn, and both authors’ use of yards.
  6. Context: Compare Abuela to the “big-boned,” down-home woman in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” They are both earthy, sensual women, but in very different ways. They each fulfill some traditional gender roles and expectations but break others, and they each (as far as we know) expand their opportunities relatively privately, e.g., by wearing masculine clothes, attending secret witches’ meetings, or taking an extended break from the family. Consider their decisions to act privately in relation to archive item [6181] (“When women become massively political, the revolution will have moved to a new level” poster). Could these women do more “good” for the women’s movement if they were more public about their feminism? Why or why not?
  7. Exploration: Compare Abuela’s storytelling approach of keeping memories to the more methodical approach–the “art of memory”–used by the father in Li-Young Lee’s poems, especially “This Room and Everything in It.”
  8. Exploration: Abuela’s story ends, “And in time, the husband either began forgetting that he had seen her turn into a witch or believed that he had just dreamed it.” How does this ending affect the story’s meaning? Is his forgetting positive or negative? If he no longer recognizes her “powers” as real, does this mean he has lost his hard-earned wisdom?
  9. Exploration: The narrator tells us that in Puerto Rico, a “good woman” is willing to martyr herself to the interests and needs of those around her–and no woman has been better in this way than Abuela, whose “life has been entirely devoted to others.” Do you agree that this kind of self-sacrifice makes a woman “good”? Think about this definition in relation to the following passage from British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, who wrote that when she began her career, she had difficulty because she was haunted by a phantom that she called “the Angel of the House.” The angel whispered, “My dear, you are a young woman. . . . Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” Is this good advice? Consider why this way of thinking could be difficult for both Woolf and Abuela, who seem very different.
  10. Exploration: Consider “The Witch’s Husband” in relation to other stories about witches in American society, including Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (about the Salem witch trials). Do you think that stories like “The Witch’s Husband” allow us to interpret witchcraft and “possession” as a form of resistance for women? In what sorts of societies might such forms of resistance be necessary? You might consult I. M. Lewis’s Ecstatic Religion, which discusses how witchcraft, shamanism, and possession can enable women to resist.

Selected Archive Items

[2184] Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Great He-Goat (Witches Sabbath) (c. 1823), 
courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Prado, Madrid. 
Goya left several of his paintings unnamed. This painting is known variously as El Gran Cabrón (The Chief He-Goat), Witches Meeting (Imbert), Sabbath Scene (Sánchez Cantoacute;n), and Witches’ Sabbath (Viñaza). A group of initiates gathers for a ritual led by the black figure in the left foreground.

[2230] Jan van de Velde, The Sorceress [engraving] (1626), 
courtesy of The New York Public Library, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 
Van de Velde was a seventeenth-century Dutch artist. Beginning with the introduction of tobacco to Europe in the 1500s, smoke began to appear in artwork to allegorize the five senses, most often taste, as well as the notion of fleeting time. This etching shows a shift both in perceptions of tobacco and in representations of evil. The scene was intended to expose the darker and more unnatural side of tobacco by placing tobacco pipes in the hands of goblins and feminine minions of the devil.

[2245] Alexandre-Marie Colin, The Three Witches from Macbeth (1827), 
courtesy of Sandor Korein. 
Shakespeare’s influence on the popular American imagination has been profound. Paintings like this one resonate with the nineteenth-century interest in the occult and fear of what was seen by some as the supernatural power of women.

[6181] Peg Averill, When Women Become Massively Political the Revolution Will Have Moved to a New Level . . . (1976), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [CN POS 6-U.S., no. 39 (C size) <P&P>]. 
Poster of a woman in whose flowing hair is pictured a setting sun and silhouettes of soldiers. The women’s movement was closely allied to the peace movement. The National Organization for Women’s 1966 statement of purpose began as follows: “We, men and women who hereby constitute ourselves as the National Organization for Women, believe that the time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”

[8990] Greg Sarris, Interview: “Search for Identity” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Greg Sarris, author, professor, and Pomo Indian, discusses the task of integrating diverse cultures and viewpoints.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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