Sensuality in Latin American literature and film

Ph.D. candidate Dana Khromov researches sensuality as a means of perceiving—and perhaps restoring—the world.

Woman sits in a shelter in the woods
Dana Khromov presented her research on the body as a site of sensuality in Latin American literature and film. 

Dana Khromov, a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic and Portuguese Studies, learned Spanish as a hobby while working in a bakery and pursuing a masters’ degree in social work. The language bridged both worlds, she said. While the social work didn’t stick, Spanish did. “Learning Spanish and Portuguese, the reason I enjoyed it so much was not just because it enables you to communicate with other cultures, but it expands your phonetic range, your capacity to perceive and explain the world around you,” Khromov said. She is currently writing a dissertation on the body as the site of sensuality in Latin American literature and film. In a Dec. 1 event with the Latin American and Latinx Studies Internal Speakers series, Khromov presented her research on “The Passion According to G.H.,” written by Clarice Lispector in 1963.

The narrator in the novel—referred to only as G.H.—opens the door to her maid’s room and sees a cockroach, killing it by slamming the wardrobe door shut on its body. This event precipitates a collision between G.H.’s identity as a bourgeois sculptor and the larger world around her, illustrating “corporeal intimacy between a human protagonist and life on the geologic scale,” Khromov said. The novel “confuses the ways in which we categorize ourselves and distinguish ourselves from the other.”

Lispector’s novel breaks down the boundaries between mind and body, text and world, inviting the reader into the text with poetic language as the narrator merges with the “other” through sensation. In this shift, the narrative drive of the human protagonist becomes subsumed within the author’s descriptions of the body as a sensory organ as a pathway towards a more holistic understanding of humans as a part of nature. “The world overtakes the human as subject by the end of the novel,” said Khromov.

Khromov tied this plot in with her larger thesis, saying, “the idea at the core of my dissertation is about the importance of the body in our way of engaging with the world. If we engage in the world beyond the intellectual in a sensual, erotic way, it shifts our paradigm from extractivism to a mutual relationship, where we are not parasitic.” The films and texts of South America offer an alternative solution to “the modern quest to dominate, domesticate, and categorize,” Khromov said. In this, “we might find an antidote to the destruction towards which we are rapidly driving our species and the planet.” Khromov was able to further develop these ideas during her time as a Penn Program for the Environmental Humanities fellow in 2018-19.    

“The Passion According to G.H.,” along with the other texts and films Khromov examines, uses language more for its poetic than its communicative capacities, she said. Language is “inherently sensuous,” and words that evoke our senses of touch, smell, and hearing have the “capacity to provoke more response,” Khromov said. “Language can shift our way of relating to each other and the world.”

Lispector writes in Portuguese but, like Khromov, comes to the language secondarily. Born in Ukraine in 1920, Lispector fled to Brazil to escape the pogroms. Khromov grew up in New York, north of Manhattan, and was raised to speak both English and Russian by her parents, computer programmers from the former Soviet Union who, like Lispector, are both Jews from the Ukraine.  Khromov’s father, whose educational trajectory was interrupted by immigration, recently earned his GED and started his associate degree at a community college, where he is learning Spanish “as a way to connect with me,” Khromov said.

Whether indulging in strawberry cream cheese cupcakes at the bakery, learning tango, or playing cello, Khromov has always been drawn to sensory experiences. Haptic perceptions offer a more wholistic perspective, she said. “Our bodies are the medium through we experience our immersion in the world.” Khromov worked with her advisor, Róman de la Campa, Edwin B. and Leonore R. Williams Emeritus Professor of Romance Languages, “developing that idea and trying to find language for it.” De la Campa helped her to articulate and develop a framework for her ideas, Khromov said. “The most exciting part of my work is the fact that what I’m writing about is the arrival of something I’ve been consciously or unconsciously thinking about my whole life.”