Silvana Paternostro's own sister termed her book "sad and crass." She was so petrified of her parents' reaction that she did not give them a copy until the night before they got on a plane to Colombia--feeling a guilty relief that her mother does not read English.
If ever a book was like a bomb, it is Paternostro's "In the Land of God and Man," an unflinching indictment of what she views as the human cost of Latin America's complex culture of male privilege--most commonly known as machismo.
What Paternostro has written is nothing short of explosive. The award-winning Colombian journalist has penned an unprecedented critique of Latin America's gender divide, breaking new ground in a genre of literature that has flourished in the United States since the 1970s.
A Latino reviewer wondered if Paternostro would be "reviled as a traitor" upon return to her native Colombia.
"This book was not written the way Latin women are expected to write--flying grandmothers, talking to spirits, magical realism, all the mystification," Paternostro said, referring to the literary style of Latin American writers like Isabel Allende. "I decided to write a very factual book so people couldn't write it off as fiction."
"My book is a call to include women and everyone in the democratization of Latin America," said Paternostro, who will read from her book tonight at Book Soup in West Hollywood.
What has passed as democratization until now, in Paternostro's view, is a form of government by men at the expense of Latin American society as a whole.
The result, she writes, is a region where domestic violence flourishes unchecked by legal protection; where faithful housewives are at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic because their husbands view unprotected philandering as a male birthright; where archaic laws allow rapists in 14 Latin American countries to go free if they offer to marry the victim and she consents; where street children number in the millions.
"Our men grow up being told, by their fathers, their mothers, their teachers, their priests, their governors, that they are exempt from the rules," she writes. "They grow up feeling powerful, feeling they have the right to whatever. Our governments are corrupt, our justice systems operate mainly with impunity, our economies are shared among a few friends and families, our policemen rape us because we are ruled by men who grew up in a society that granted them impunity from the day they were born."
The book comes at a time when women's issues are just beginning to claim national attention in Latin America. In Mexico--where only a handful of states have laws designed to protect women from domestic violence and sexual abuse--President Ernesto Zedillo called such violence a shame to modern Mexico and called on local lawmakers to speed up the necessary legal reforms.
Latina Novelists Praise the Book
Not everyone is likely to agree with Paternostro's views, which form a striking departure from highly romanticized fictional portrayals of Latin America as a sensual Paradise Lost. But so far, the reactions of noted Latina novelists have been positive.
Rosario Ferre, author of "The House on the Lagoon," said the book should be required reading. She called it a "vivid manifesto of the inequalities and abuses women still suffer in most Latin American countries" and an "impressive denunciation of a situation that cries out to be remedied before it gets out of hand."
Julia Alvarez, whose novels include "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," said she loved reading the book and couldn't put it down. "Silvana Paternostro tells the stories our mamis always told us not to tell and, in doing so, she brings to light the secret sexual heart of our Latin culture," she wrote.
Latino writer Ruben Martinez, in a December review of the book for L.A. Weekly, was more critical. Paternostro, he wrote, was too much the crusader and the pessimist; her prose was "melodramatic" and too infused with her own emotional reactions.
"I doubt that Paternostro can return to Colombia, where she was born into an aristocratic family, without being reviled as a traitor by both men and women," he wrote.
However, the book, published by Dutton in November, is not likely to get wide readership in Colombia in its current English form. A Spanish translation will eventually be available, but for now, it is "like a political manifesto in the wrong language," Paternostro said.
Paternostro, 38, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, the city where she has lived much of her adult life, says she does not think she could have gotten an advance for such a book in Colombia, and would have lacked the perspective to write it had she not left to attend a Catholic girls high school in the United States.