Building a Class: The Chicana/o Gothic

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.

Required Texts:
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

Course Description
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.

Reading Today: The Calligraphy of the Witch

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.