Saturday, 2 February 2008

Review of Islands of Women and Amazons

Review from Geografiska Annaler · 87 B (2005) the international journal publishing articles covering all theoretical and empirical aspects of human and economic geography.

Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations

and Realities. Batya Weinbaum. (Austin: University
of Texas Press, 1999). ISBN 0292791267

This ambitious and wide-ranging study explores
material across a very long historical and a very
broad geographical sweep. Batya Weinbaum argues
that the myth of Amazons and of separate
communities of women living apart on islands has
had diverse and often contradictory meanings. She
does not attempt to shape her findings in one direction,
towards a liberal or conservative reading. But
she does underpin her entire assemblage of examples
by her belief in archetypes. The advantage of
this is that it allows her to investigate nuanced similarities
and differences among texts and practices
as far distant from each other as the Odyssey and the
Mexican Marian island, Isla Mujeres, dominated
(and to some degree formed) by American tourism.

The principal disadvantage of her devotion to archetypes
is that, in the end, all this diversity is in
danger of being homogenized.
So her work presents a paradox: encyclopaedic
in its array of instances, prodigious in its devotion
to knowledge of the field, it yet often simplifies the
findings of the many authorities she cites from different
fields of enquiry. They all return, in her analysis,
to the archetype of the Amazon. This makes
for a certain repetitiousness but it would be ungrateful
to insist too much on that, since the work
offers an extraordinary quarry and is the fruit of
long thought and observation.
Weinbaum faces the problem of working with a
rich symbol: where are its boundaries? She opens
her discussion with page after page of provocative
questions, ranging across actual events, story formation,
cultural interpretation, ancient accounts,
recent TV series. This allows her to trawl in copious
records, but after several pages the suspicion gathers
that perhaps for her all these questions have a
single answer. So that moving through Apollonius,
Herodotus, Paul Friedrich, Prester John, Sir John
Mandeville, ‘an early Renaissance Spanish writer’
and a ‘missionary off the coast of China’ to reach
the question ‘Is this the same “Women’s Land” to
which Maxine Hong Kingston referred in Chinamen
(1977)?’ I shout ‘No!’ while uneasily suspecting
that I am supposed to be saying ‘Yes’.
The problem is signalled also by the trouble
Weinbaum has with the frequently repeated word
‘really’: to take some examples from within a halfpage:
‘Was this supposedly manless island to the
south of China really a place where women mated
with the winds?… Did women really arm themselves
with bows and arrows, live without men, and
mate with cannibalistic lovers?… Did Columbus
really think he had arrived in the east when he sighted
the island, Matinoto…? Did Columbus really
take this island to be the refuge the ancients wrote
about in relation to the Themyscian Amazons’
(Jane [1930] 1970)?… Was this present-day tourist
paradise retreat once really a matriarchy? A convent?
A harem? A site of goddess worship?’ (p. 7)
Some of these questions invite scepticism, some
are quite imponderable, and some seem to imply a
steady ‘reality’ behind them by which they can all
be judged, yet for which evidence is lacking. They
issue from a scatter-gun and are gathered up together
without discrimination.
Of course, this is in the first chapter where, engagingly,
Weinbaum seeks to arouse in the reader
a shared fascination with her subject, and some of
her later chapters proceed at a slower pace. For example,
Chapter 8, ‘Amazons go American: Montalvo
’s Sergas De Esplandian’ concentrates on this
single [1510] work after opening with an interesting
comparison with Christine de Pizan’s The Book
of the City of Ladies [1405]. Weinbaum unfolds a
series of gendered contrasts between the texts: for
example, ‘Montalvo’s Amazons killed their male
children, while Pizan’s gave their male children
back to the fathers.’ (p. 129). She then pursues the
insight that one culture’s utopia may well be another
culture’s dystopia and that texts preserve faint
traces of earlier understandings in among their asserted
ideologies. In particular, she argues, this will
be so where oral elements have penetrated the written
form. These may not be fresh insights within the
academic communities from whose work she
draws, but there is a freshness in placing them within
such a sweeping study, and one that also frankly
embraces autobiographical elements.
The second part of the work draws on anthropology,
sociology, popular culture and tourism to give
a rounded picture of the changes in her relations to
her materials. She has lived for a number of years
on the Mexican island she has particularly studied,
Isla Mujeres, and she gives a wry account of culture
clashes brought about by her trajectory between a
North American university and the habits of the island
culture. She declares: ‘My experience of seeking
a cultural identity on the island, and of the discrediting
dominant culture of the university, colors
all my interpretations’ (p. 168). The rest of the book
explores the ways in which, in her analysis, that island
becomes a communal work of fiction created
by tourists and their mentors. What they all seek,
she suggests, is exactly that archetype of matriarchal
untouched female space she associates with
the figure of the Amazon. So the book comes to rest
in a demonstration of the ways in which material
objects in ‘leisure primitivism’ bear on persisting
needs and fantasies across centuries. Whether or
not one accepts Weinbaum’s belief in an archetypal
base to all this diversity of expression, there is a
marvellous range of materials gathered together in
this work and a personal passion in its exploration.

Gillian Beer
University of Cambridge

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