While I was at the MALCS Summer Institute I confided in another attendee that I was nervous about the process of creating course syllabi as I’d never done it before. She, an associate professor of Spanish and all around lovely person, enthused that creating a syllabus was fun, and then told me she sometimes writes them to amuse herself.
With her words in mind, I tried to embrace this as an opportunity rather than something to fear. Sure enough, as I sat through the next talk, thinking about Chicana literature (I knew whatever course I came up with would be one focusing on Chicana/o literature), I came up with the idea of the “Chicana/o Gothic” — a course that would explore canonical and recent Chicana/o text through the dark lens of the gothic.
This is what I’ve come up with so far. I’d love to hear what you think — criticism is helpful. This version of the course is being imagined as one offered for a 10 week quarter. I’ve linked the texts I’ve reviewed to the reviews I’ve blogged.
Bless Me Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya Calligraphy of the Witch – Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Brides and Sinners in El Chuco – Christine Granados
The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction – Jerrold E. Hogle
The Rain God – Arturo Islas
The Hungry Woman – Cherríe L. Moraga
What You See in the Dark – Manuel Munoz
Demon in the Mirror by by S. Joaquin Rivera The Hummingbird’s Daughter – Luis Alberto Urea Gods Go Begging – Alfredo Véa
Is there a Chicana/o Gothic?
What is called “Chicana/o literature” has many origins and forms and is itself a contested space — from the Chicana/o civil rights movement to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the pre-Columbian legends of Aztlán. Likewise, defining the “gothic” in literature encompasses literary periods and styles from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries.
Gothic literature conveys a sense of uncertainty through bizarre twists, violence, and moral ambivalence to create suspense. Looking at Chicana/o texts, some recent, some canonical, can we see these techniques being used to explore the social, political, and racial issues of the Chicano community and Southwestern United States as the works move away from supernatural events and onto something which affects the reader’s state of mind regarding social issues and experience? Are Chicana/o novels and poems using elements of the horrific, the violent, the unorthodox, and/or the supernatural to guide the reader through the story’s action and explore anxieties about the instability of identity and nation? Is such a comparison between the gothic and the magical real useful to our understanding of Chicana/o literature as part of the larger U.S. literary canon? Drawing from constructions of the Southern Gothic and magical realism, what we may come to call “Chicano/a Gothic” is an attempt to discuss and define a Chicano/a and American sub-genre of gothic fiction.
For the past couple days, as I read Alfredo Véa’s San Francisco novel Gods Go Begging, I’ve been flashing back to my undergraduate days studying Vietnam in film and literature with Professor John Hellmann at Ohio State. My first impression of Véa’s book is that it’s a great Vietnam novel, a story of physical and emotional warfare played out thirty years distanced from the conflict.
Yet as a Chicana/o text it’s even more interesting, with the hyperreal images of conflict, almost too brutal to be depicted. This sense of the hyperreal gives way to the magical real as the spirituality of violence and love are explored. The protagonist, Jesse Pasadoble is a San Francisco defense lawyer, thirty years back from Vietnam, yet emotionally he’s never been able to leave. As his past catches up to his present, Vietnam becomes part of his legal battle, the violent lives he’s surrounded by.
At first I wasn’t sure I could read this text as gothic (remember the course I’m planning) — it seemed too modern for that. Yet in this text the dead come back to life and speak the unspeakable, partly through grotesque depictions of their own bodies. Yet in these depictions of violence and death, what endures (and what the dead seem to be trying to speak) is about their desires, their loves.
This book isn’t an easy read by any means, but is one I would highly recommend.
[Note, this blog title was shamelessly stolen from a tweet by @laura_luna who has her own blog, creativexicana. I only steal from the best.]
Over on Twitter Chicano MA student @xicano007, who has a library anyone would envy, started posting images of his Chicana/o books along with titles and authors. Ever the busybody I suggested he start a hashtag so we could search them more easily and maybe join in. The result was #aztlanreads and it’s glorious with an explosion of tweets of Chicana/o and Latina/o books (poetry, novels, academic writing and histories). If you read Twitter, participate. If you don’t, follow the link and look anyway. Seriously, I promise it will make your day.
There have been so many books I remembered and even more that I hadn’t heard about. I seriously have to find a job so I can afford the book habit this hashtag is creating. I hope it lasts forever. It’s the best use of Twitter I’ve ever seen.
There’s more about #aztlanreads’ wonderfulness over on the excellent blog Lotería Chicana. She points out the power that the shear volume and quality of the Chicana/o texts listed have in combating the notion that there’s a shortage of books and materials out there.
Rumor has it that there’ll be hashtags for #aztlansongs and #aztlanfilm next. I can’t wait.
Actually I read this book yesterday. Was so into it I didn’t start the review until after it was completed. Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I’m reading it with the thought of including it in my Chicana Gothic syllabus.
Calligraphy of the Witch by Chicana scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba is an amazing American novel. It confronts Chicana/o absence in traditional American history and literature by telling the story of a convent raised Mexican mestiza scribe, Concepción Benavídez, captured by pirates and brought to 17th century New England as a slave. Raped on her journey, the story is framed by Concepción’s daughter, born in the Boston colony and torn between her Mexican mother and her mother’s slave owner who adopts the child as her own.
Parts of the text are told as if written by Concepción in her scribe script (and are in a calligraphic font.) I loved this, but I did find my eyes straining to read at various points (maybe I need new glasses). Still, this touch makes the novel feel like a work of art.
Her Spanish language and foriegn ways put Concepción (renamed Thankful Seagraves) at odds with her New England owners and neighbors, eventually sweeping her up into the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. The story is well written and at times almost too tense. I could hardly put it down. And yes, it will be perfect for a course on the Chicana/o gothic.
ADDED: This wonderful YouTube trailer. You know you want to read it.
Since the MALCS Summer institute I’ve been more active in the Chicana/o community on Twitter. Today I found out about my first Twitter book group. Using the hashtag #DITM we’re going to be talking about poet S. Joaquin Rivera’s book Demon in the Mirror, a collection of edgy, dark poetry. The author is going to be leading the discussion. What a thrill. I just ordered my copy from Amazon and can’t wait. I’ll put a review up here.
Want to join in? Talk to me on Twitter @anneperez and use the hashtag. Even if you’re not on Twitter, read the collection and talk about it here.
Today I’ve started the novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’m thinking of using it for a class I’m planning (planning in a sense of writing a syllabus, rather than actually having been engaged to teach) on the Chicana/o Gothic. At 499 pages, it seems a bit long, but is actually a fast read. While it code-switches between English and Spanish, the Spanish is understandable by context.
The book is a novel telling the story of the Mexican saint, Santa Teresita Urrea. So far I’ve read the first five chapters. It captures a diverse sense of Mexico as a space not just of Spanish and Mexican, but of indigenous. The novel is in the magical real tradition, yet magic and spirituality are also questioned throughout. As Teresita becomes more spiritual, more of a saint, it causes friction within her family, especially for her father who is not religious / full of doubt. This doubt / balance is one of the things I like best about the text. That aside, it’s a beautiful book. If you’re looking for some rich summer reading I highly recommend The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Reading today over at the excellent blog, Lotería Chicana, Cindy has written today about Oscar Zeta Acosta who would have turned 75 this year. It’s a great post on a great blog and inspired me to put down my own thoughts about the Chicano wild child lawyer and writer that was Oscar Zeta.
His biography is probably equal parts history and myth. In the passionate and wild time that was the the Chicano movement in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles, Acosta still stood out as larger than life.
I first encountered Zeta Acosta’s prose in Revolt of the Cockroach People. I read it when I as eighteen, followed quickly by Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. However much I may take issues with the sexism and narcissism of Acosta’s texts, I love these books and on some level, have compared every bit of Chicana/o writing I’ve read since to them. Though Acosta wasn’t originally from Los Angeles, these are Los Angeles texts about a moment in our history when everything was being questioned, when change was both seen as possible and being demanded.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the birthdays of César Chávez and Zeta Acosta are so close — the men were born a decade and a week apart. Chávez is seen as the saintly figure who fought self-lessly for decades to life and move his people forward, fighting for the rights of downtrodden farmworkers from the 1960s until his death, peacefully in his sleep, in 1993. Acosta raged through life, a representation of raw Chicano manhood. He also fought for his people, but it was for the urban Chicanos in Los Angeles, fighting within the law, politically and outside the law through the use and abuse of drugs, women and alcohol. He never officially “died” and never went quietly, instead disappearing in 1974.
One of things I’m looking forward to most about teaching Chicana/o studies is the chance to teach Zeta Acosta. He deserves to be remembered, not as a saint but as a hero, complete with flaws and tragedy.