5 deconstructing stars.
Lilus Kikus by Elena Poniatowksa, on the surface level, is about a young girl and her adventures as she grows up. This book was first published in 1954 erroneously as a child’s novel due to the age of the protagonist (although her age is never clearly defined) and the simplistic writing style. However, Lilus Kikus is bursting at the seams with a feminist and anti-patriarchal agenda.
As a modern reader, the evidence of this book’s agenda is so apparently and blunt that the only explanation as to how it could ever be passed as a children’s novel is because the publishing industry in the 50s, especially in Mexico, was dominated by men and they just didn’t expect this sort of commentary from a woman.
The reader is first introduced to Lilus when she is outside playing. Lilus does not like to play with dolls (which are traditionally feminine), instead she prefers to play doctor and perform experiments (traditionally masculine roles). As she grows up, she joins an all-girls school where one of her closest friend, the “Lamb,” is being sent away due to pre-martial sex that resulted in pregnancy.
When Lilus is talking to her next door neighbor, the Philosopher, he says this of the Lamb:
“The lamb, the lamb… let me think. Ah yes, the feminist. The free thinker. … Well, life started too early for her.” Lilus herself is neither fully feminine nor fully masculine, but she knows better than to try and stand up for her female rights. She knows she will end up exiled like the Lamb and decides that "she would rather keep quiet. It is better to feel than to know."
Indeed, the Lamb was born into the wrong time period, where women are not allowed to commit the same “sins” as men or hold the same positions. They are meant to be beautiful, vivacious and submissive: “Also, Lilus had heard it said that dummies were the most enchanting women in the world.”
One of my favorite parts of this book is when Lilus is describing her good friend, Chiruelita, who is very naiive and innocent. Chiruelita is the picture perfect idea of a "feminine" lady, of a "delicate" woman. She ends up marrying an artist and obeying him easily, until the one day she decides to think for herself and “with a languid gesture, the eccentric artist wrung her neck!”
If that's not a blatant statement comparing the patriarchy to the silencing of women, then I don't know what is. It is baffling to see how original readers missed all of this subtext.
Eventually, Lilus cannot be contained and is sent to a nunnery where she is completely oppressed, both by the patriarchy and the Catholic religion. The ending is open – it can be read as Lilus searching for signs of rebellion or as Lilus searching for signs of God. Either way, the message is clear: the woman’s place is in the silence of the men’s voices.
All this in a “children’s” book.