Reading Today: What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo

What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo, who edited the ground-breaking anthology Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mother Warned Us About, is the story of the life of eleven year old Marci Cruz, growing up in California in the 1960s. Marci tells us, the reader her secrets.  She has two prayers: the first is that her violently abusive father will go away; the second that God will physically change her from a girl into a boy.

The reason for her first prayer is obvious. What night brings is a father who, while at times loving and affectionate, can explode in fits of violence, beating Marci and her sister Corin with his belt and fists. Marci prays because her mother is so crazy with love for this man she ignores the escalating abuse of her daughters. One of the ways this story is unique is that Marci and her sister, for the most part, don’t romanticize their father, instead disowning him and calling him “Eddie” rather than dad.

Marci tells the reader she’s not praying for her father to die, just that he’ll go away. Her reason for not wishing him dead is she’s afraid that if she does God won’t answer her other bigger prayer, to be turned from a girl into a boy. This desire for a male body is intense, forming the basis of her dreams and sexual fantasies. Her reason for wanting a boy’s body is that she’s attracted to other girls and believes the only way she can have relationships with them is by becoming a boy.

Two traditional Chicano institutions are subtly criticized in the novel. Marci’s extended family knows about the father’s abuse of the girls and tries to moderate it, but ultimately can’t seem to step in and stop it. The Catholic Church is prayed to, with wishing taking the place of action for Marci. When, in the midst of the climax where her father begins beating her mother causing Corin to shoot Eddie, Marci stops wishing and praying and instead takes control. She gets her sister and herself out of the house, away from their mother whose only concern was her abuser, getting them from California to their grandmother in New Mexico, saving them both.

The book reminded me of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, in that the violence doesn’t detract from the beauty of the story, while also still being a graphic depiction of a child growing up abused.  As a Chicana text, it both questions the traditional family and religion, while also offering insight into the confusion of a girl growing into her lesbian desires. I would definitely recommend this book an important and engaging novel.

Reading Today: Caramelo

Reading Caramelo was an odd experience. I used a library copy, but the only one my library had was the large print edition. The large type gave the odd impression of being shouted at. At first, I thought the larger print was the reason it was taking me a long time (several days) to read through this deceptively simple text.

But that’s the thing. Cisnero’s novel, like her earlier work The House on Mango Street, is not a simple narrative. In fact, it’s not really plot driven. It’s a series of interconnected moments, told with rich detail and, at times, overwhelming emotion. The narrator, Lala or Celaya Reyes, tells the story of three generations of her family’s history in Mexico City, Chicago and San Antonio. Yet we’re constantly reminded throughout the text that this isn’t entirely a fiction as Cisneros weave her own family’s, U.S. and Mexican histories into the book’s footnotes, using the device of the novel to fill in gaps in the historical record.

The narrative device is a candy colored (caramelo) rebozo, left unfinished by the too-young death of Celaya’s great grandmother, the Awful Grandmother’s mother. It fascinates Lala from the time she is a small child until she inherits it as a young teenager.  Like her grandmother, for whom she has little affection, she braids and unbraids the unfinished threads of the scarf. Likewise the narrative feels incomplete as Lala tries to piece together her family’s stories from what they tell her, what they haven’t told her and from her own creative imaginings.

Reading some of the reviews on Amazon, you would think that the book is written in Spanish as much as English.  This isn’t the case — there’s no Spanish in the text that can’t be translated by context. However, in a sense those reviews are right. The English names “Aunty Light Skin” or “Uncle Baby,” “The Little Grandfather” are badly or literally translated Spanish, highlighting the impossibility of translating an endearment from Spanish into English without loss.  It is, I believe, a clever way of the author joking with the bilingual reader, pointing out that something will always be lost in the move from Mexico to the United States.

[Passing note: I don’t see this book working for the class on the Chicana/o Gothic I’m constructing.  Mores the pity because it is a lovely novel.]

For Aztlán Reads: Gazing East: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

[This text was written for the new blog, Aztlán Reads, to which I’m excited to have been asked to contribute. The blog post is here. Go ahead, leave a comment.]

Just as there is a presumption that United States history begins in the east and moves to the west against a savage frontier, so is there a presumption that this expansion was an inevitable and ultimate good. Even now, to connect western expansion with race slavery and Native American genocide is to write against the “official” versions of Californian and southwestern history. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s nineteenth century novel Who Would Have Thought It? writes against these assumptions and makes the connection between United States imperialism and issues of race clear, as her novel’s trajectory connects the U.S. west to the east, and the north to the south.

Published in Philadelphia in 1872, Ruiz de Burton’s work is the first known novel by a Mexican American. Yet the claiming of Who Would Have Thought It? as an early Chicana/o novel lays bare more than one history of racism and resistance to the existing United States black / white binary. Writing this satirical novel, Ruiz de Burton attempts to reclaim whiteness for her own class of Californios by exposing the racist hypocrisy of the northeastern white elite. In doing so, she expresses sympathy with southern slave holding, seems to agree with the stereotypes of crudeness and vulgarity expressed about the Irish in the northeast, reinforces racist stereotypes about African and Native Americans and ridicules the position of abolitionists as little more than hypocrites. Spanish colonial Mexico becomes, in the process, a utopian space of cosmopolitan civility set against the provincialism of the northeastern bourgeois capitalism.

In her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, as well as her later work The Squatter and the Don, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton writes against this presumed east to west historical trajectory, locating the home space in the southwest (and, in The Squatter and the Don, specifically in California) rather than the New England east. She also names as a cultural point of origin the Mexican south rather than the New England north. Similar to Ruiz de Burton’s own life, the history of the novel’s heroine, the idealized Lola Medina, begins in Mexico at the time of the United States / Mexican War, then migrates to the the United States’ western frontier — first outside then inside of the “civilized” United States — before she finally moves to the supposedly tolerant and civilized northeast. Read as early Chicana novels,6 Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s works offer an insight into nineteenth century perspectives of Anglo Northerners by the early California Chicanos / Mexican Americans. Continue reading

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: Gods Go Begging By Alfredo Véa

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.

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.