Tag: Literature

ArticlesPoetry

Feelings

Jie Tian

“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political.” -Adrienne Rich

Feelings well up in the Women’s March
Feeling mauve, Santa Ana, I grieve for the broken river bank
        the homeless  an ancient rage
        —the thirst to kill  the drive to war

Feeling angry at the deceit in the inauguration address—
        power to the people
        a masquerade disrupting the symphony and California air

Feeling ashamed of our unscrupulous race and pursuits
Feeling dis-eased
       there are lies, lies, lies in the human mouth

Feeling an ache for asking again
        when shall we ever learn

Feeling wanting to tell the truth, mouth cracked
        drought-intolerant
Feeling opened & tender
        longing for green rain   wisteria   sustenance

Feeling partially irresponsible for preferring to retreat to Mount Baldy
        comforted by friendly snow      intelligent pine
        the swirled knots of kindness

Feeling pulled to the streets of Santa Ana
        the energy field of feelings    the humanly love and struggle

Feeling the intensely worried brown eyes of a handsome young father
        the older child sleeping in his arms   the infant strapped to his shoulder
        clearly feeling an uncertain future

Feeling unrest and agitation
        feelings of crisis criss-cross   faces   signs    and hearts
Feeling respect for the devotion to order and peace

Feeling reassured women who marched in the sixties rejoin the march today
        in vivid colored clothes and lipsticks and beliefs
Feeling we come from a long history of making public our feelings

Feeling a flash of recognition of a kindred spirit
        as a winged couple pass through—
        Hope is the thing with feathers

Feeling innocent and trusting again     seeing a girl’s smile
        and her sign   with the bold pink words   close to her heart—

        BUILD      KINDNESS               NOT    WALLS

Feeling humbled by the clear vision of the young
Feeling a secret conviction that our words can heal our warring worlds

Feeling into dreaming
Feeling into believing
Feeling into dancing

Feeling warmth now    in January    in genuine California sun and light
Feeling awe—           our bodies still blaze like the many colors of dawn
                —how we come together    how we will go on

Feelings-4

Jie Tian is a poet, librarian, ecological artist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. Her work appears in Spillway, Solo Novo, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, Asian American Short Story Writers, and Asian American Playwrights. She is completing her poetry manuscript, Migration, and learning book arts.

Copyright: © 2018 Jie Tian. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPoetry

An Agent Suspects of Her

Omar Pimienta

an agent suspects of her
suspects of him    suspects of me
suspects himself and above all suspects the baby

his work      to suspect   suspicious

everything about you is suspect: your glasses are suspicious
                     your books are suspicious
                     your car is suspicious
       the cloudy day is suspicious
       the picture on your ID is suspicious
       your last name is suspicious
       your ears are particularly suspicious
       your fingerprints
       above all are very suspicious

she carries a newborn
he looks at the IDs
there’s no picture that’s true to a baby
there’s no ID that can assure
that you are you at 10 days after arriving to the party

every father or mother suspects
during the first 10 days
where that baby came from

suspicion is part of the cog
that churns when the world moves

a suspicious customs officer
suspects     asks her to pull out her breast
she suspects         he suspects her breasts
asks her to breast-feed
if that child is hers there will be milk


if not the suspicion will be certain

she does it
he asks her to do it again
during the first attempt the amount of milk
was suspiciously small

she does it again
he allows her to cross
and the line of suspects moves on.

21_LIP6Eed2

  • Translated by by Jose Antonio Villarán.

Omar Pimienta is a Tijuana-based artist and writer, and Ph.D. candidate at in Literature at UC San Diego. His work examines questions of identity, migration, citizenship, emergency poetics, landscape, and memory, and his work is currently on display as part of the unDocumenta exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. He has published four books of poetry in México and Spain, and his newest book, The Album of Fences, with translations by Jose Antonio Villarán, is forthcoming with Cardboard House Press.

Copyright: © 2017 Omar Pimienta. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPoetry

This is Not a Lie

Omar Pimienta

This is not a lie
        it’s not a lie about the lie       a lie that prolongs the lie

this is the truth   the only truth

Anastasio Hernández-Rojas  (San Luis Potosí 1968 – San Diego †2010)
stole a bottle of wine
      a bottle of wine
to celebrate mother’s day    his own         his children’s

prison and deportation    beatings and electricity
the only truth is death

it can be seen     it can be heard     the lie spreads
until it creates a discourse

but the truth is this: people die
and the truth most real is this:
        there are people who die in the hands of others
        who believe killing is part of their job

Anastasio Hernández-Rojas  (San Luis Potosí 1968San Diego †2010)
screamed so they would stop beating him
they beat him because he screamed
the people heard
the people heard     even though they didn’t want to

sound is more stubborn than image
the eye is more afraid than the ear
the truth just like fear is felt

few were able to translate the scream
others screamed to let him go
someone asked like he did      for help
others wanted to ignore this and crossed the border

this is not a lie     it’s not a lie about the lie
                                 this is the truth      the last truth.

21_LIP7Eed2

  • Translated by by Jose Antonio Villarán.

Omar Pimienta is a Tijuana-based artist and writer. His work examines questions of identity, migration, citizenship, emergency poetics, landscape, and memory, and his work is currently on display as part of the unDocumenta exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. He has published four books of poetry in México and Spain, and his newest book, The Album of Fences, with translations by Jose Antonio Villarán, is forthcoming with Cardboard House Press.

Copyright: © 2017 Omar Pimienta. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Lines and Fences

Marcel Brousseau

Gloria Anzaldúa delivered a presentation called, “A Crosser of Borders,” on 10 April 1983 at a conference at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Just a week earlier, on Easter Sunday, Anzaldúa visited Border Field State Park in San Diego. “That place,” Anzaldúa related to conference attendees, “has a fence that runs from the top of the mountains all the way to the edge of the sea. And that fence divides the United States from Mexico. I started writing a poem beside that fence.”[1]

The chain-link and barbed wire fence that Anzaldúa saw, touched, and translated into verse in 1983 has been replaced by an array of forms and materials over the past three decades. In 1992 a perimeter of steel landing mats, running 14 miles from the base of the San Ysidro mountains due west to the Pacific Ocean, supplanted the barbed wire and chain link. In the intervening years steel mesh, and finally, twenty-foot-high steel bollards were installed on the south edge of Friendship Park, where Anzaldúa once stood. Meanwhile, multi-layered mesh and landing mats continue to shadow the rest of the line.

It is not hard to imagine that the border fence will change again in the coming months and years: Fall 2017, the U.S. government built eight prototypes of 30-foot border walls on Otay Mesa, adjacent to the extant landing mat fence. These historic and ongoing changes to the form and media of the California border fence/wall are not incidental. Each fence or wall rewrites the horizon line and the surface of the land itself, as it also revises the political and cultural narrative of the borderlands. By reading Anzaldúa’s poetic drafts about the fence in comparison with Friendship Park photographs from Joe Burkeholder, Peter Goin, and María Teresa Fernández, this essay critiques the inscriptions made by the very presence of the California fence. While the future of the California fence/wall is being written, in legislation, steel, concrete, and dirt, the representations of the fence provided by Anzaldúa, Burkeholder, Goin, and Fernández critically document the fence as a violent yet vulnerable discursive medium. Whether as a shifting poetic symbol, or as an evolving iconic sign, the fence appears as an assemblage of materials and semiotic associations—in other words, as a kind of written text—capable of being replicated, transformed, critiqued, and destroyed through countervailing acts of writing. These acts of writing, like the fence itself, encompass the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, but are centered on California, where the border fence has long been a palimpsest of U.S. line drawing and cross-cultural revision.


Poetic Revisions

In the years after her visit to Border Field State Park, Anzaldúa wrote a few more drafts of the poem that she “started…beside that fence.” Then, in 1987, she published the poem in “The Homeland, Aztlán/ El otro México,” the first chapter of her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. As Anzaldúa drafted her poem, its content and form changed, and the semantics of the fence shifted. At first a metonym for the bureaucratic violence of boundary marking, the fence also became an analogy linking the brutality of land division with acts of sexual assault, and with agricultural techniques. One draft of “Del Otro Lado”—which we might assume is a typed version of the poem Anzaldúa began beside the fence due to its being labeled, “Begun 3 Abril 83/ Easter Sunday/ Border Field Park/ Beach, San Diego”—ends with the lines, “They build a fence across her body, Mexico,/ a wall called El tratado de Guadalupe-Hidalgo./ Thousands are sacrifieced [sic] to that Barbed wall.”[2]

Figure 1

An early draft of Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “Del Otro Lado,” written in response to her experience at Border Field State Park, in San Diego. Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

In this draft, bodies are rendered geographically, and the fence is conflated with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which resolved the U.S.-Mexico War and officially redrew the U.S.-Mexico borderline. By characterizing the peace treaty between the two nations as a barbed wall, Anzaldúa characterizes the border not as a legal concept, but as nomos, as an act of land appropriation that forecloses Mexico from its territory, or its body. In this frame, “law and peace” in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands “[rests] on an [enclosure] in the spatial sense” dividing the body of Mexico, and enforcing the sacrifice of Mexicans to the United States. The fence symbolically and technically perpetuates this sacrifice by maintaining the historic foreclosure of Mexico from itself.[3]

In another draft of “Del Otro Lado,” Anzaldúa further qualifies the nomos of the border fence in terms of gender and sexual violence, writing, “She looks at the Border Field fence/ feels them stick posts into her throat, her navel,/ shove barbwire up her cunt./ She and the land were one./ Her body torn in two, half a woman on the other side/ half a woman on this side, the right side.”[4] While the earlier draft qualifies Mexico as a female body dismembered by a treaty signifying a wall and by a wall signifying a treaty, Anzaldúa’s later draft enacts a more personalized and localized violence in which a female observer is violated and dismembered by the apparatus of fencing as she speculates upon the fence. While the specific components of the “Border Field Park fence”—“fence posts” and “barbwire”—are implicated in the dismemberment of the female body, the fence’s particular geography is generalized to a binary of “the other side” and “this side.”

Figure 2

Another draft of “Del Otro Lado” elaborates upon the themes of sexual violence, dismemberment, invisibility, and silencing, in relation to the “Border Field Park fence.” Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

The fence’s repression of national and cultural markers is revealed by the poem to be one dispositif among a system of discipline, as half of the dismembered female protagonist gains subjectivity by educating herself in language and classification techniques. She only commemorates her historic wounding “At night when no one is looking.” Meanwhile, the other half of the dismembered protagonist is further dissected, viscerally “scattered over the deserts,/ the mountains and valleys,” until her “mute voice” is transmuted to a wind “whisper[ing] through grass stems” in echo of her other half. In its narrative of dismemberment, invisibility, and silencing, this poetic draft forces the reader to consider the poem as a document that communicates yet cannot resolve the multivalent ”struggle of flesh, [the] struggle of borders…[the] inner war” symbolized by the “Border Field Park fence.”

Yet another draft of Anzaldúa’s poetry states, “In—Park in South San Diego/ staring at that rust colored fence/ 2,100 miles long from the mouth/ of the Rio Grande in my valley to/ the Pacific/ Nature had gashed a hole in the wall/ Did not ask are you an American citizen/ Where were you born/ can we see your papers.”[5] This draft also extends the fence, from its localized site of witnessing, across the entirety of the borderline, symbolizing the historic foreclosure of Mexico. Where, in past drafts, the fence/wall enacted violence, in this draft the wall is made vulnerable. Rust eats away and “colors” the metal; “nature” breaches the wall, undermining its physical and discursive formations. However, despite the emerging precarity of the fence, this handwritten draft, taped together from three separate fragments, attributes another loss to fencing—the “ancient myths” of “sacred history.” In this revision, the fence encloses a system of mental concepts—“fence posts on which the mind/ is strung out”—away from the “land of creatures/ primal instinctive.” With this representation, Anzaldúa relates the California fence to “archaic cultural techniques,” such as “corrals, pens, and enclosures,” that “accentuate[d] the anthropological difference between humans and animals.”[6] In concert with the other drafts, the ancient delineation between humans and animals is implicated in the histories of colonization and sexual assault represented by the fence.

Figure 3

Another contemporaneous handwritten draft of Anzaldúa’s poetry introduces a vulnerability to the border fence and addresses dichotomies between natural and mental systems. Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

The many meanings of the fence worked through by Anzaldúa in her drafts ultimately cohere in her published revision, with a twist: She reformatted the conventional typography of the drafts to express spatial and emotional conflicts in the physical arrangement of lines and words, as well as in their linguistic semiotics. The poem’s second, third, and fourth stanzas, which rewrite the image of waves attacking the fence, slant and arc back and forth, in successive enjambments that resemble the careening tides of the shoreline. The seventh stanza, which continues the trope of the fence stretching the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, connotes a cartography of the Americas in its formatting, while also embodying a twisting form that resembles the barb of a barbed wire fence:

Untitled-3
In refining her poetic visions of the California fence, Anzaldúa declares the fence to be an inscriptive object: a technology that is not only representative of, and represented by, writing, but that also functions as writing, in its marking of space and time. As she twists her poetic lines in shapes across the page, Anzaldúa replicates the fence “unrolling” in space, “dividing” and “split[ting]” the terrain until at the end of the poem the fence has indeed been blown down, and Indigenous land is restored.[7]

In reckoning with the border fence, Anzaldúa indirectly presented the fence as a counter symbol to the figure of the bridge, the guiding motif of her and Cherrie Moraga’s landmark collection, This Bridge Called My Back, which was published the same year Anzaldúa visited Border Field State Park. However, just as the bridge is a complicated symbol of burden and connection, so too is the fence a paradox. “That fence” in Border Field State Park in San Diego ultimately functioned for Anzaldúa as a deeply referential infrastructural text. While her poetry provides a rich document of the California fence, cataloguing its diversity of forms and materials in relation to its violences and its vulnerabilities, the fence also provided a motif for Anzaldúa’s self-reflection. The fence aided Anzaldúa’s understanding of the ways in which she felt displaced and split among different cultural locations and coalitions, and it connected her struggle to monumental histories of hominization and conquest. Although she prophesized the fence’s destruction, her readings of the fence would continue to inform her conceptualizations of artistry and “consciousness.” The fence eventually became central to her idea of nepantla, the transitional process through which one “question[s] old ideas and beliefs, acquire[s] new perspectives, change[s] worldview, and shift[s] from one world to another.”[8]


Photographic Revisions

“In the beginning was the fence,” writes Jost Trier, asserting the enclosure of space as the basis of law.[9] Anzaldúa, in her characterization of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as a fence, concurs that the accord between the U.S. and Mexico is fundamentally an inscription that divides, or forecloses, Mexico from itself. In this context, the actual fences and walls that have risen over the borderline during the last century are indexes of this original diplomatic, postwar enclosure. However, as Anzaldúa’s poetry shows, fences and walls on the U.S.-Mexico border are also representative of animal economies, of gender violence, and of artistic techniques and transformation.

A 1909 range fence installed by the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry to eradicate the fever tick’s infestation of cattle herds between California and Baja California is among the first documented fences on the borderline.[10] Thus, in the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico border fence was the California fence, which Anzaldúa’s poetics inspire us to see as a work in revision, an object continually rewritten in reference to law and to commerce, to xenophobic rhetoric, and to discourses of fear. A 1974 photograph of border monument 258, taken by Joe Burkeholder and used by the National Register of Historic Places, shows that roughly a decade before Anzaldúa began her poem, a simple range fence with three to five strands of barbed wire also crossed Friendship Park, in what was then known as Border International Park. The labeling of Burkeholder’s photo with the toponyms of Mexico and the United States, on either side of the fence, gestures toward the ambiguity of the borderline, as it also indicates a bureaucratic investment in reinforcing the distinction between the two nations.

Figure 4

Friendship Park, in Border Field State Park, on the border of San Diego and Tijuana, as photographed by Joe Burkeholder on 21 March 1973. It is not clear when or by whom the photo was marked. Image courtesy of United States Department of the Interior.

In dedicating the park three years earlier, first lady Pat Nixon stated, “I hope someday there won’t be a fence here at all,”[11] but in monument 258’s registration as a National Historic Place, the stakes of the California fence are literally and figuratively made clear. The photograph of the site, and its accompanying paperwork, document a fragile borderline, at which the legal marker—the border monument—had, by the end of the nineteenth century, been subject to erasure, or “mutilat[ion] by visitors [until] its outlines were nearly destroyed, and its inscriptions partly obliterated,” at which point it was renovated and itself protected by a fence.[12] This brief history of the border as a site of textual revision corroborates Anzaldúa’s poetic exploration of the unresolved violence underwriting the borderline. Apparently, for bureaucratic readers, neither the border monument, nor the barbed wire fence are depicted in Burkeholder’s overwritten photograph, effectively demarcated the nomos, or the enclosure, of the United States from Mexico. In the hypertextual discourse referenced by Burkeholder’s photograph, the borderline inscribed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is rewritten by the monument, the fence, the photograph, and the markings on the photograph, each a separate mediation correlating to the others, while also implying the limitations of the others.

The overwriting of Burkeholder’s photograph demonstrates why Nixon’s hope for an unfenced border was never honored in any official manner: The fence, as Anzaldúa would later indicate in her poetry, functions as a form of writing used by the U.S. to both demarcate the borderlands and the bodies that inhabit it. The barbed wire fence that bisects Burkeholder’s photo also bisects two bodies, and forecloses them from the photographer’s point of view. The subsequent overwriting of the photo places these individuals on the Mexican side of the fence, as it places the photographer on the U.S. side. The importance of the fence in underlining the distinctions between “this side” and “the other side” is made official in the filing of Burkeholder’s overwritten photograph as evidence of a National Historic Place, namely the “southwestern corner of the Continental United States,” as it is described in the site’s nomination paperwork.

By 1987—the year Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera was published—the barbed wire fence at Friendship Park had itself been overwritten by chain link and wire mesh, as documented by photographer Peter Goin in Tracing the Line, his photographic survey of the U.S.-Mexico border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. At the time, Goin’s fieldwork revealed that “most of the [border] fence [remained] barbed wire, usually three to five strand.” However, he also learned that during the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had selectively “constructed an ‘impenetrable’ fence… twelve feet high… of metal webbing (much like chain link) topped with barbed concertina wire,” between Calexico and Mexicali and San Ysidro and Tijuana.[13] Goin’s photograph of a heavily-fenced Friendship Park, in comparison with Burkeholder’s earlier official image, indicates the escalation of the enclosure of the “southwestern corner of the Continental United States,” as it also provides context for Anzaldúa’s semiotic shift between symbols of barbed wire and chain link in documenting the different forms of the borderline. Goin writes in Tracing the Line, that “Each photograph must represent an area far greater than the parameter of its rectangle,” arguing for, not unlike Anzaldúa, a metaphorical yet material reading of the borderlands, in which “path, roads, bridges, and fences with barbed wire become line [which then] creates tension by dividing the space, both visually and culturally.”

Figure 5

Friendship Park, as photographed by Peter Goin for his 1987 book Tracing the Line: A Photographic Survey of the Mexican-American Border. Image courtesy of Peter Goin.

Lines—or fences—structure Goin’s photographs, revealing the 1980s borderlands to be a “web of boundaries.” In his image of Friendship Park, the rewriting of the fence as a chain link wall with locked gates becomes a multiplication of lines blotting the horizon and the ground, and casting the sunlight into shadows. The area labeled “Mexico” in Burkeholder’s photograph is not actually visible as land in Goin’s photograph, but rather only as tracings or shadows, as visual effects of the crosshatched lines of the California fence. The rewriting of the California fence in steel mesh and chain link was, in narratological terms, rising action in the now-long story of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. Contextualizing Goin’s image, Anzaldúa’s roughly coeval poetry indicates that the fortified fence remained symbolically plurivalent yet materially ambivalent: A culturally divisive, physically imposing, historically onerous enclosure, albeit vulnerable to the elements and to transborder economies and human migration. The slab of chain link seen in Goin’s photograph of Friendship Park is replaced by a broken and patched web of metal in his photos taken further East, in areas derogated as “lawless” by the Border Patrol.[14]

The slab of chain link in Friendship Park is also replaced by a twenty-foot bollard wall, clad in steel mesh, in a photo taken by María Teresa Fernández thirty years after Goin and Anzaldúa’s books were both published. Since the end of the twentieth century, Fernández has been photographing Friendship Park, and families “torn in two”—to use an Anzalduan phrase—who meet there to talk and bond through the California fence/wall. Her photography has regularly documented a correlation of events on the borderline: The capricious expansion of the border fence to a larger and more tortuous wall, and the constancy of families and friends—a binational community—in negotiating the nomos enforced and reinforced by the growing fence/wall. What would Anzaldúa write about the scene depicted by Fernández? What would she say about a fence so large that it obliterates the southern horizon, about the steel bollards dissecting the faces and bodies of people on the south side of the borderline, about the thick layers of metal and mesh that now commemorate “el tratado de Guadalupe-Hidalgo”? “I am tired of borders,” Anzaldúa said at that 1983 conference talk in Illinois, “I am tired of nationalist thinking.” She cast her vision forward: “I think we will grow to have respect for one another, that we will listen to each other… [and] tear down that iron fence.”[15] This growth of respect and compassion is, beside the shadow of the California wall, the other subtext of Fernández’s photography. Despite the fact that the fence has not been torn down—quite the opposite—patterns of filiation and amity have emerged at Friendship Park that implicate the fence into “act[s] of fellowship [and] strategic coalition” by families, friends, law enforcement, and local activist groups such as Friends of Friendship Park.[16] Although Fernández’s photo documents Friendship Park as a dystopian enclosure, it also depicts the results of dedicated binational activism to write a communal narrative around, through, over, and, indeed, beside the fence—a narrative that seeks to erode the enclosure and revise the nomos foreclosing Mexico from itself and the U.S. from its others.

Figure 6

Friendship Park, as photographed by María Teresa Fernández on 10 September 2017. Image courtesy of María Teresa Fernández.


Political Revisions

“This sagging wire fence is conclusive evidence of the present cordial relations between the two countries,” John A. Ryan writes, unironically, for Westways magazine in June 1958, captioning a photo of the “lonely” borderland above the Pacific Ocean, which would become Friendship Park. By Ryan’s logic, the California border fence is an index of international diplomacy, a barometer of the political consensus between the U.S. and Mexico. Where Anzaldúa later reads and writes the fence as a permanent trace of animalization, war, and sacrifice, Ryan sketches an idyll finally emerging “after bloodshed and hate… after a war of empire building through force of arms.” Strangely, to look backward at Ryan’s wild, windswept border site is to look forward to Anzaldúa’s proleptic flood, in which waves wash away the California fence. In this comparison, there is the intimation that the revision of the border fence is circular, not unilinear; that what has been written over and over will also someday be erased. However, Ryan’s article also documents another fence, the barbed-wire topped, chain-link fence discretely surrounding the border monument. Despite Ryan’s diagnosis of binational cordiality in a withered barbed-wire border fence, the sacrificial nomos of the border prevails: “U.S. Government Structure,” a sign reads on the east side of the monument’s chain-link fence, without specifying the fence, the monument, or the borderline it/they represent, “do not molest under penalty of law.”[17]

“Access to the monument is easy,” Ryan wrote, urging his auto-club-members-cum-readers to detour west down Monument Road and experience “the never-to-be-forgotten feeling of somehow being part of history.”[18] A quarter-century later, Anzaldúa, divided by history, urged us to go farther: “I propose we become a crosser of borders,” she declared in her 1983 conference talk, encouraging her audience “to start within yourself and reconcile [gender, racial, cultural, emotional, sexual, spiritual] borders,” and ultimately to “open ourselves up to what the other person is saying—to feel the other person’s presence.”[19] In this call to restore the self and to be marked by the other, the border fence has become, it seems, sublimated into a passionate political metaphor. This semantic shift, however, cannot be understood without acknowledging Anzaldúa’s insistence on the materiality of the symbolic, on the stages of revision that inform and deform ideas and visions to make personal and social change. Tired as she was of borders, Anzaldúa continued writing and rewriting her poetic fence, until it became a symbolic medium for self-reconciliation and communication with the other, a written object that she would live in and through, and not merely beside.

In her artistic destruction—or deconstruction—of the California fence/wall, Anzaldúa anticipated the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border fence/wall writ large has become a medium of transborder culture, a palimpsest for binational expression. Photographers, poets, activists, academics, families, and friends: At Friendship Park in San Diego, on most any Saturday or Sunday, countless people are literally or figuratively beginning poems “beside that fence,” as Anzaldúa did, writing themselves and each other in and through the fence, over the line where lawmakers continue to write with the fence. Of course, in Tijuana, and elsewhere del otro lado, people are free to write on the fence. One weekend in Playas, having crossed to volunteer with Dan Watman, of Friends of Friendship Park, in the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants, my wife and I watched schoolchildren cover the fence in writing, in pithy post-its that would have made Anzaldúa proud. “Di no al amor con fronteras” read one. “¡No Separan a las Familias!,” said another. Given a few years of revision, one can only imagine what these fence-post post-it poems might become. Likewise, one can only imagine what the California fence/wall will look like by then. Maybe it will be gone.

Figure 7

Student post-it poems affixed to the south side of the fence at Friendship Park, in Playas, Tijuana, 15 November 2014. Photographs by the author.


Notes

The author would like to thank Dan Watman, María Teresa Fernández, John Fanestil, Jill Holslin, and the Friends of Friendship Park, Peter Goin, Carla Alvarez, the staff of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, Domino Perez, Rita Raley, Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, and the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Literary Trust. Quotes and images of Anzaldúa’s poetic drafts are copyright of the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Literary Trust and may not be reproduced without permission of the Trust.

[1] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. The conference was called “Feminism: Cross-Cultural Perspectives.”

[2] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Manuscript, discards, Box 32, Folder 3, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. It should be noted that a poem specifically addressing queer identity and oppression by Anzaldúa, called “Del Otro Lado,” was eventually published in 1987’s Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (An Anthology), ed. Juanita Ramos. See Anzaldúa, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 99.

[3] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, Ltd., 2003), 74-75.

[4] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Manuscript, discards, Box 32, Folder 3, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bernhard Siegert, “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory,” trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Theory, Culture & Society 30 (2013): 56.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands-La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Co., 1987), 2.

[8] Ibid., The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 248.

[9] Schmitt, Nomos, 74.

[10] United States, Bureau of Animal Industry, Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Animal Industry for the year 1909 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1911), 290. This report by the U.S. BAI frankly conflates humans and cattle, stating, “with this fence installed, eradication [of fever tick infestation] will soon be accomplished…Such a fence will also assist customs officials in preventing illegal traffic between the two countries.”

[11] “Legacy of Parks,” The Washington Post. Washington, D.C., 20 Aug 1971: B4.

[12] United States, Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Federal Properties: Initial Point of Boundary Between U.S. and Mexico, 6 September 1974, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/3a5a9b80-bb6d-479e-a006-e2e18bb2ed4d?branding=NRHP

[13] Peter Goin, Tracing the Line: A Photographic Survey of the Mexican-American Border (Reno: Library of the University of Nevada-Reno, 1987), n.p. The “impenetrable fence” was also installed between El Paso and Juárez.

[14] See Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.- Mexico Boundary (New York: Routledge, 2002), 63-65; and Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, 2d ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), xi

[15] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.

[16] Jill Holslin, “Saving Friendship Park A History of the San Diego Coalition Friends of Friendship Park,” in Wounded Border/Frontera Herida (San Diego: San Diego City Works Press, 2011), 133.

[17] John A. Ryan, “Lonely Monument on the Border,” Westways, June 1958, 14-15. The photos do not reveal if the monument’s fence contained a similar sign under the aegis of the Mexican government, on the west side.

[18] Ibid. Ryan also quotes a sailor, employed at what was then the U.S. Navy’s Border Field, who assures him that the military installation does not deter visitors, stating, “We can’t keep the people from their monument.” Absurdly, the current fence installed by the U.S. at Friendship Park seals the monument on the south side, away from U.S. visitors.

[19] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Marcel Brousseau is a lecturer in Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. From 2015 to 2017 he served as a Carlos E. Castañeda Postdoctoral Fellow in UT’s Center for Mexican American Studies. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Copyright: © 2017 Marcel Brousseau. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

The Américas: Chapter the Fifth

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David Kipen

“As I was saying,” Navarre said, breathing a little heavily, “the gold was everywhere—nuggets the size of muskmelons, gold dust in drifts, dunes of it like anthills. On a large anvil, I saw the misshapen coins and lumpy ingots of a small forging operation that stretched farther back into the mountain, lost from sight.

I won’t lie. I plunged my hands into the nearest heap up to my shoulders. I’d been galumphing in rain and muck all day. All I wanted was to roll around in all that dust till it stuck to me like breadcrumbs on a rainbow.

If somebody had piled up this much gold in a cave, there must be mountains of it still out there. Rivers of it, just waiting. Enough gold for me to tell Greeley to go hang. Enough to buy the Tribune out from under him and rouse the whole world with it. Enough to buy out Sutter and give his blamed valley back to the Miwoks, to buy off every American soldier on Mexican soil and—

Mexican soil. Oh, shit.

In a flash, I saw it as if I were there. I saw the Guadalupe-Hidalgo estate, the generals and their secretaries gross from last night’s capons, fingers too sticky from the morning’s pastry to hold their pens upright, signing it away, signing it all away.

Forget the gold. I had to warn Mexico now, be it a thousand miles away…

 

TO BE CONTINUED,— NAY, ALREADY CONTINUING

 

Note

This is part five of five from a new short story. See also part onepart twopart three, and part four.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

The Américas: Chapter the Fourth

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David Kipen

“Last week,” he began, sleep forgotten, warming to the story as if from memory, growing more loquacious the while, “for all anybody knew I could’ve been dead a year. A year ago I was traveling with Frémont’s army, supposedly writing a profile of him for the Tribune.

Boy, that man knew how to treat a reporter. I wasn’t in any hurry to finish. I guess I took too long, because Mr. Greeley sent word I was to file immediately or not bother coming back.

I was mulling the choice when I heard a story from an old Miwok woman about gold in the foothills of the Sierra. So I stuffed my Frémont notes into my saddlebag, waited till lights-out, lammed out of that man’s army and made for the mountains. If I didn’t get rich, at least I’d get a better story. Maybe I’d get both.

So I knocked around California for a few months, chasing down one rumor after another. I rode south almost to Placerita to check out the gold strike from ’42, but it was pretty well played out.

All the time I kept hearing about this fellow Sutter, a Swiss colonel who’d gone up the Americano from Yerba Buena and set himself up king of the Sacramento.

Last month I figured I’d go and see for myself. On my way, I met a talkative Mexican—begging your pardon—who’d heard that there was gold up below Tahoe, but that Sutter’s marshal hadn’t got around to checking it out yet.

Once we pulled in, who do I see but Jim Marshall, the best carpenter in Frémont’s army. He was on his way up the trail as foreman to a pack of Mormons, aiming to build Sutter his first sawmill that wouldn’t fall over if you pissed on it.

Well, Jim remembered me. He’s a good guy—a little soft, maybe, but honest. So I made him a deal. He wouldn’t have to lie, I was very specific about that. But I’d work for him at half-wages if he’d keep it off the books. He assumed I was on a fresh story, and so I was.

All the while, I sought out whatever news came to hand. The war—call it Mexican, call it American, or call it what they all are, a Real Estate War—the war was over, but the peace talks in Mexico City were taking forever. Typical diplomats. Every Sabbath an announcement was expected, and every Sabbath, none came.

Lately, though, the negotiators at the Guadalupe-Hidalgo villa looked to be putting on steam again. If they didn’t sign something, the war might flare back up. If that happened, the Washington delegation might get recalled home in a hurry,— where the winds were colder, their wives closer, and a good mole nowhere in evidence.

Anyway, Marshall and a bunch of us traipsed up into the foothills, with all our equipment banging and clanging off the wagon like a jug band. He picked out a riverbank for the mill,— a pretty place, well-forested and sheltered from the wind. Next day we went to work.

I kept my eyes open the whole time. Every chance I got, which wasn’t often, I wandered off with a fishpole, creel and a dipper hanging off my belt, ransacking the terrain for a sparkle. Mormons probably thought I had a wench up there.

Those Mormons worked pretty fast once the Miwoks taught ’em upstream from down. Young Charley Bennett finally figured out which end of a saw was which, and Scotty the carpenter was almost ready to start in on the mill wheel.

And then the sky opened. It rained for a week, let up for a day and rained some more. I borrowed an oilcloth slicker from the cook and took to squelching around the foothills.

At first there was nothing. I trudged through the mud and underbrush in circles. By the second day, I could go a full hour without getting lost. But my creel stayed empty, with nary a nugget or even a trout to weigh it down.

On the night of the full moon, I resolved to stay out after dark. Either it’d be bright enough to shine up a nugget, or dark enough to stumble across a bear,— by this time, I didn’t much care which.

Once the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, I made out a mossy cliff nearby, just starting to glisten in the moon. Halfway up the side, a jagged spot showed itself, darker than the cliff around it. I tear-assed over to the riprap under it and looked back up.

Just as I’d thought, it was a cavern. I scrabbled up the scree toward it. With every step, a tiny gravel avalanche slid me back almost as far. Finally I gained a purchase at the very top of the pile and chinned myself over the lip.

There in the cave, dim in the infiltrating starshine, I saw a hoard of gold beyond counting.”

“How much?” I interjected, stirring as if from a trance.

“Didn’t I just say it was beyond counting?”

“About how much?”

“Am I telling this story or you?”

“I thought you were sleepy.”

“Second wind.”

“Windier by the minute, to my ear. Monsieur Vignes always says to avoid ten-dollar words. He says they’re just showing off.”

Navarre looked pained, as if from an old wound.

“Ten-dollar words. Kee-rist. Just because you don’t have ten dollars for one of my words doesn’t mean the whole world is broke.”

“If your word is ten dollars and mine is five, where are most customers going to shop?”

He considered.

“Look, kid. If this shed caught fire, which book would you save?”

“That’s easy. Monsieur Vignes bought me the whole Martin Chuzzlewit, bound in buckram. With deckle edges.”

“How much did it cost?”

“I don’t know. A lot, I bet.”

“Is that why you’d save it from a fire?  Because it cost a lot?”

“Partly. Partly I just like it.”

“Pretty big book for a little kid like you.”

“Who’s little?”

“You understand every word in it?”

“Most of ’em. I look up the rest.”

“He looks up the rest. What in?”

“Monsieur Vignes gave me a Webster’s. It’s a library all by itself.”

“Webster’s, eh?” Navarre smiled. “I were you, I’d hang on to that one. Let Vignes hang onto his Dickens til the fire burns out. May I continue?”

I let him, and kept any further interruptions to a minimum. That may have been a mistake. By degrees, his telling grew purple as a hanged man’s tongue.

 

Notes

This is part four of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part three, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

The Américas: Chapter the Third

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David Kipen

“What’s your name, kid?” the sodden wayfarer asked.

“Francisco P. Ramirez.”

“What’s the P. stand for?”

“Not Pancho.”

“Not Pancho. Fair enough.”

“What’s your name?”

“That’s complicated.”

“Your name is complicated?”

“I’ve had a few.”

“Pick one.”

“We don’t have much time.”

I had plenty of time.

“Why do you need La Jefa?” I asked.

“I need to get a message to la capital.

“Racing homers only fly one way. Monsieur Vigne has had La Jefa for years. He had a sweetheart once in Mexico City, yet he never sent her a message for fear no one would bring La Jefa back. La Jefa is for an emergency only, and love isn’t an emergency.”

“Shit, you are twelve.”

“What’s the message?”

“Do you know about the Mexican War?”

“Fourteen-year-olds must be very stupid where you come from. I know from the newspapers.”

“Newspapers. What good are newspapers in the West? By the time you read about war, there’s peace. By the time you read about peace, there’s war. You might as well study ancient history. At least Gibbon gets the dates right. The daily press is just fast enough to be wrong.”

“So why are you a journalist?”

“I ask myself the same thing every day. All right, what does the press tell you about the Mexican War?”

“Depends on the paper. The Mexican ones call it the American War.”

“A war doesn’t care what you call it. What’s the last newspaper you read about this ‘American War’?”

“Someone left a Santa Fe New Mexican from Christmas on the Friday stage. The driver saves them for me. He brought me one from New Year’s the week before. It gets confusing sometimes. But the New Year’s one said the treaty talks in la capital broke down. What’s the last you read?”

“It’s all out of date,” he sighed. “All of it. That’s why I need your Jefe. I know something about Mexico that even Mexico doesn’t know.”

“Something that fits around the leg of a pigeon?”

“Could be.”

“Is that what you had in your hand? When you tried to free La Jefa?”

“Hijo, enough with the questions. Do I get the bird or don’t I? I haven’t slept two hours together for three nights straight.”

“Then you’d better tell me the story while you’re still awake.”

“You’d better let me sleep or you’ll never get the story.”

I thought fast.

“Tell me the story or I’ll throttle the bird myself, and then where will you be?”

“You’ve been reading more than just newspapers, haven’t you? Put some coffee on. Have they heard of John Sutter’s Fort down here? Oh, and call me Navarre.”

 

Notes

This is part three of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

The Américas: Chapter the Second

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David Kipen

Before the hulking stranger on the floor of the pigeon shed recovered his wits, I got my first good look at him. He must have had to bend almost double to cross the doorsill, so tall he seemed. He looked Californian—black-haired, brown at the hands, red in the face, and badly sun-burnt around his thick, sugared beard. If I wanted to pursue newspapering, M. Vignes had said, I had better learn to notice details.

The man opened his eyes with a ready, well-worn smile, then groaned and sank back as his situation rushed in upon him. His eyes never left me.

The voice was raw, but he spoke English like an Englishman. “What are you,” he asked, “fourteen? Twelve?”

“I thought you were a burro,” I said. When interviewing, M. Vignes had also counseled, you ask the questions.

“Not a burro,” he said, “but close. I’m a reporter.”

“A reporter? Have I read anything of yours? Who do you work for?” I tried unsuccessfully to conceal my excitement. “The Californian? Noticioso de Ambos Mundos?” I paused in awe. “Reuters?”

“I’ve been fired from all of them. Twice by the same editor at Ambos Mundos. Now I’m with El Clamor Publico out of Madrid…?”

“We only get the papers that come through on the stage,” I admitted. “I don’t know that one.”

“I get that a lot. Madrid and I haven’t heard from each other in a while, anyway. But if I’ve been fired, nobody told me about it.”

“Are you here on a story?”

The journalist closed his eyes with an expression of great weariness, then opened them wide and looked over at La Jefa.

“I need to borrow your bird.”

“La Jefa? She’s not mine to borrow. Besides, nobody borrows a racing homer. Turn this one loose, she’ll make straight for Mexico City and never look back.”

Thoughtfully, not expecting much, the journalist reached for his hip. He barely registered his disappointment.

“It’s in a safe place,” I said.

“I need your bird,” he repeated. “I’ll bring her back if I have to walk both ways.”

“But Paul Reuter gave her to Monsieur Vignes himself!”

The journalist closed his eyes again. He looked tired of thinking. Then he reached into the other pocket.

“If that bastard Reuter were here,” he said, “he’d offer you this.”

Of a sudden, the palm of his outstretched hand brimmed with yellow dust. He poured it onto the deal table between us. It formed a small cone there. What remained of the candle made the pile glint, and his eyes with it.

“Is that—”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I passed through Georgia in the thirties. I know.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Do you want some or don’t you?”

I loved M. Vignes, but my father owed him a fortune. Now it was my turn to think.

“I want something better,” I said at length.

“Oh, no,” he said

“I want to hear the story.”

 

Notes

This is part two of five from a new short story. See also part one, part three, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.



David Kipen
is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Southern California Science Fictional Thinking in Mundos Alternos

UCR Arts Block-28

Tyler Stallings

History is written in retrospect. Patterns are sought among seemingly unrelated events at the time of their occurrence. There is never just one historical narrative. Historians make choices about what events to represent and from which perspective, often to the disadvantage of people on the losing end—for example, the colonized or enslaved. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas provides a space-time continuum for reimagining the past from the perspective of the “alienated” and the “other,” from the peoples marginalized by the powerful. The exhibition includes over thirty contemporary artists who explore interactions of science fiction and the visual arts in Latin America, the U.S., and the intergalactic beyond; collectively laying out a provocative view of arts in the Americas told in the present but with an eye toward future, alternate Americas.

Mundos Alternos is an 11,000-square-foot exhibition, with an accompanying book of the same title, presented at University of California, Riverside’s downtown UCR ARTSblock, which includes two adjacent venues: the California Museum of Photography; and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. Myself and the two other co-curators, Robb Hernández and Joanna Szupinska-Myers,[1] have brought together works from across the Americas that use science fiction to imagine new realities and alternate worlds, utopian and dystopian. The exhibition is part of The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which is an exploration of the global intersections of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Southern California, with many of its seventy-plus exhibitions opening Fall 2017.

ARTSblock’s project was inspired by two facts: UCR Library’s Special Collections and Archives possesses the Eaton Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection, one of the world’s largest archive of its kind; and UCR is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), defined by 25% or more of its student body falling within that demographic.[2] The power of nomenclature is an important aspect of the Mundos Alternos title. The use of the word “Americas” in its subtitle was significant in order to point to a hemispheric approach in which the exhibition’s original location, the United States, is realized in a broader milieu of cross cultural connections including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In the exhibition, artists employ science fiction tropes in their works, most created in the last two decades, such as alternate history and time travel, organized under themes such as “Post-Industrial Americas” and “Indigenous Futurism,” suggesting diverse modes of existence and representing “alienating” ways of being in other worlds. Latin American, Latina/o, and Chicana/o science fiction is a burgeoning area of study that has gained momentum within the past ten years, with an emphasis mostly in literature and film. In light of this, our curatorial team selected artists from across the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Texas) who have created artworks that point to mundos alternos (“alternate worlds”), where self-determination and autonomy can occur in a present that is quickly becoming a past pointing to a future.

Considering that dystopia and utopia are often two polarities of a single, metaphorical world, the artists in Mundos Alternos explore equally multi-faceted issues around immigration, queer futurism, indigenous futurism, information control, the border, and so on. An underlying concept is the “alienated alien,” or the “other,” and how they reimagine themselves in a world in which they are not marginalized anymore.

UCR Arts Block-2

Simón Vega (La Libertad, El Salvador), Tropical Mercury Capsula, 2010/ 2014, Sculptural installation (wood, aluminum, tin roofing sheets, cardboard, plastic, TV, fan, icebox, boombox, found materials; 67 x 129 inches (capsule), 118 x 236 inches (total floor installation area). Collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miama, Gift of Mario Cader-Frech and Robert Wennett.


The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, UC Riverside

Before I rewrite the history of my own writing, I would like to loop back around to a major source of inspiration for Mundos Alternos and a significant resource in California for science fiction studies scholars: The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

It is one of the largest publicly accessible collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world, and is housed in the UC Riverside Library’s Special Collections & University Archives in the Tomás Rivera Library on the main campus. It features more than 300,000 holdings that include over 100,000 hardback and paperback books; full runs of pulp magazines; nearly 100,000 fanzines; film and visual material, including 500 shooting scripts from science fiction films; comic books, anime, and manga; and collectible ephemera and regalia, including cards, posters, pins and action figures.[3] The Collection contains several manuscript collections of essential Southern California-based speculative fiction writers, including papers of UC Irvine physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford’s, and those of David Brin who wrote Uplift War and Sundiver.

Another major science fiction collection is held at the University Archives & Special Collections of California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library,[4] which includes original science fiction manuscripts, books and related materials of several U.S. authors including Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Ray Bradbury. As a side note, Dick died in nearby Santa Ana, and I once made a trek to his last known address. It is the site where he supposedly received the pink beam of light from God that revealed that the Roman Empire had never ended.[5] Additionally, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino holds the papers of Octavia E. Butler,[6] author of Kindred (1979), and arguably the most prominent African-American woman in the field of science fiction.

Over the years there have been periodic academic conferences of science fiction studies held in Riverside, sometimes connected directly to the Eaton Collection and other times organized by faculty like Sherryl Vint, a professor in UCR’s Media and Cultural Studies Department, who specializes in technoculture and science fiction film history.

These conferences are usually less for the fan and more for the scholar of science fiction and fantasy. Without the exuberance of Comic-Con[7] or the World Science Fiction Convention[8] that has been going strong for seven decades, no one dresses as their favorite Star Wars or anime character; rather, unkempt clothes and mussed hair are the scholarly fashion. Additionally, it is not a gathering spot for Hollywood’s film industry, which is one aspect of Comic-Con’s metamorphosis. Instead, it is the serious underbelly to the glitz, and a place for the absorption of true cutting-edge ideas and writing in the field of science fiction, or speculative fiction, studies.

The most recent conference at UC Riverside in 2016 was sponsored by the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA).[9] Its overarching theme, “Unknown Pasts/Unseen Futures,” was meant to stimulate reflection on the future of scholarship of marginalized authors and subjects. It also reflected upon how science fiction studies at UCR are challenging the genre’s canons. This is exemplified with panel papers that included titles[10] like Cole Jack Pittman’s “Crip (Community) Futurism: Science Fiction as a Method for Analyzing Disabled Community Building, Networking, and Resource Sharing”; Joshua Odam’s “Fear of a Black Universe: Afrofuturism, Speculative Fiction, and the Black Liberatory Imagination”; Joan Haran’s “California Dreaming: Dystopian and Utopian Calls to Action in Parable of the Sower and The Fifth Sacred Thing”; and Kathryn Page-Lippsmeyer’s “Excessive Cyborging: Using Techno-Orientalism to consider Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.” Additionally, the conference’s keynote speaker was author Nnedi Okorafor, writer of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, who is perhaps best known for her Binti series that entwines African culture into a future imaginary. Okorafor’s work can also be couched historically under Afrofuturism, which underpins Mundos Alternos.

UCR Arts Block-40


Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

The tenets of Afrofuturism became a foundation on which notions of Mundos Alternos have been built. Coined in 1994 by Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future,”[11] Afrofuturism refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Pan-Africanism, perhaps best exemplified by African-American musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, and writers like Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany.[12]

Space Is the Place, organized in 2016 by New York City-based Independent Curator’s International, traveled the U.S. as a group exhibition with artists’ work inspired by nostalgia and speculation about outer space. The title was taken from a 1974 science fiction film of the same name that featured Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Sun Ra traveled to California and taught a course titled, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” at UC Berkeley. The film is based, in part, on the lectures he gave there in which he articulated many nuanced views like “I’d rather a black man go to Mars… than to Africa… because it’s easier,”[13] referring to the difficulty of a westernized African-American seeking roots back in Africa. The basic plot is that Sun Ra lands on a new planet in outer space and decides to settle African-Americans there. Seven years later, in 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented The Shadows Took Shape, an interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics.[14] Since then, one of the exhibition’s curators, Naima J. Keith, has become the deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In one of the exhibition catalogue essays, nearly twenty years after Dery, Tegan Bristow updates a definition of Afrofuturism:

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.[15]

These examples stretching between 2001 and 2015 indicate how the visual arts have historically looked at race and social difference through a lens of science fiction cultural production. Mundos Alternos proceeds from here.

As one reads the book and peruses the exhibition, we hope viewers feel like their thoughts and experience become part of proto science fiction Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ unbounded library, or that inklings of the Aztec empire existing on the Moon are experienced. Or perhaps participants may walk the streets of Los Angeles anew and feel moments of being part of the first Xicano science fiction novel by East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, where in Cortez on Jupiter (1990)[16] Pablo Cortez sprays graffiti across L.A. and paints in zero gravity, all in an effort to make a masterpiece for the universe and his barrio.

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Erica Bohm (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 21 works from the “Planet Stories” series, 2013, Instax Fujifilm, 12 x 11 inches each (framed). Courtesy of the artist and THE MISSION, Chicago.


How A Meteorite Inspired Twenty Years of Curating from the Cosmos

I came to the recent realization that a particular news story affected many exhibitions that I organized over the past twenty years, which touched upon outer space themes: it was the possible discovery of fossilized Martian bacterial life in 1996, based on the observation of carbonate globules in a small section of a meteorite called the Allan Hills 84001 (usually abbreviated as ALH 84001). It was found several years earlier in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984 by U.S. meteorite hunters, but it was not until much later that careful analysis was applied to it.[17] In September 2017, with the opening of Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the America, I now realize the impact that the meteorite has had on my curatorial endeavors.

My first curatorial venture inspired by the Martian meteorite was Are We Touched, Identities from Outer Space (1997). It coincided with NASA’s first lander on Mars and the 50th anniversary of the reported U.F.O. crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The exhibition featured a range of artists, including those fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.F.O.’s but would not label themselves as believers, such as Southern California artists Deborah Aschheim and Connie Samaras, to artists who felt they may have had an unexplained experience that provided inspiration for their work, but would not admit to it openly for fear of rejection. And there were also people who would not call their work “art” but rather a visual representation of an experience that they felt they did occur, like with alien abductee and artist David Huggins.

The pop cultural highlight for me was when Huggins was invited as a guest on a daytime talk show based in Los Angeles, Leeza, which is no longer in production. The artist claimed to have interbred with an extraterrestrial that he named Crescent, as she came to him only when there was a crescent moon, producing upwards of 200-plus hybrid human/extraterrestrial offspring. In 2014, a documentary was released about his alien sexual encounters, Love and Saucers: The Far Out World of David Huggins. Huggins states, “The reason why extra-terrestrials are interested in me is not because of my physical body but what’s inside—my soul.”[18]

Are We Touched was followed by Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice (2001), which featured twenty-six artists who explored changes in a tech-driven age. Theorist Donna Haraway coined the first part of the title, “Cyborg Manifesto.” I found kinship with her viewpoint of the cyborg as a metaphor for discussing hybridity, whether in terms of gender issues, genetics, or cross-cultural encounters. In other words, I was less concerned with thinking of the cyborg as a humanoid robot in which human and machine merged. Rather, I was interested in the impossibility of the notion of purity.

Accordingly, I thought it possible that Martian meteorites landed on an ancient earth and provided an important element to the primordial soup that gave rise to life. So, when looking through a telescope at planet Mars, we actually see an abandoned home. In this way, any human sense of feeling pure dissolves. Once we consider ourselves apart from Earth, we are all aliens and immigrants.

In 2009, I co-organized with artist Rachel Mayeri, Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art. It was a group exhibition of twenty international artists exploring human interaction with animals through a collection of provocative video installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. I saw this exhibition having a further development of the desire to make contact with other sentient beings. In this case, ones already present on Earth.

Artists in the exhibition collaborated with cockroaches, pigeons, dogs, cats, ants, bears, baboons, rats, spiders, and trout, which may have been domesticated, imaginary, laboratory, modeled, or wild. Curious about the animal’s point of view, artists designed their projects as a form of conversation or inquiry about the nonhuman world. Their artwork challenged the anthropocentric perspective of the world, placing human perception on par with other animals. Inspired by Darwin, the environmental movement, and species collapse, Intelligent Design envisioned a paradigm shift in which human beings are no longer the center of the Universe.

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.

Another paradigm shift, this time in U.S. policy, that would allow private companies to go into outer space inspired the 2013 exhibition, Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,[19] which I co-organized with artist Marko Peljhan. Civilian space travel and space exploration represents a major political and cultural shift away from sponsorship by the federal government and toward a private enterprise model. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities, which were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia, towards a private enterprise model.

Its presentation in 2013 arrived at a time when several private enterprise ventures had come to fruition. They included the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Elon Musk’s Space X company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station, the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company, north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.

These developments signal that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-Earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind open to a broader awareness of humanity and other life, both on Earth and beyond.

One of my favorite projects in Free Enterprise was by artist Richard Clar, based in northern California, which links back to my interests developed with Intelligent Design. He turned toward art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin (SFD). Approved by NASA, SFD was an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite would have transmitted a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that might have been detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbited the Earth, the dolphin voices would have been monitored in various museums around the world and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. The project suggested that humans might first consider trying to communicate with other very intelligent beings on Earth before considering extraterrestrial communication.

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas represents the most recent project inspired by the 1996 Martian meteorite bacteria imaginary. Perhaps it is the meteorite’s transcendent materiality—an object likely older than humankind—that has stuck with me. Mundos Alternos focuses on the materiality of being present in artists’ studios and exploring science fiction, not through literature and film, but through the uncanny presence of an art object that seems transcendent too.


Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas
[20]

World building is a major element of the science fiction genre. History, geography, economics, demographics, physics, cosmology, transportation, religion, technology, food, and the culture of an imaginary world are elements under consideration by authors, filmmakers, and game makers. The test for a reader, viewer, or participant is to suspend their present-day logic so that they can feel present in a virtual future. The challenge for the maker is to reconsider ongoing tropes, like anything called “Empire” being absolutely evil; an entire world being defined as if it had one purpose, such as the desert world of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965); and then the altogether prevalent, homogenous alien race that may populate an entire planet or galaxy. Embracing diversity is a major underlying theme of Mundos Alternos.

It is hard to say whether there is a particular genre of science-fiction fine art, per se, at least within the context of the international, contemporary art world that the Mundos Alternos artists inhabit. Here, I separate the world of the more familiar cover art, movie posters, comic books, and illustrated stories, arguing that the contemporary art-making endeavor represents a kind of science fictional process that results in a slipstream artifact, or strange thing.

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Gyula Kosice, Maquette I, Maquette K, Maquette L, 1965-75, Exhibition prints. Courtesy of Kosice Museum, Buenos Aires.


Slipstream Immigration

“Slipstream,” a phrase coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and colleague Richard Dorsett in 1989, applied primarily to literature that includes elements of science fiction, also called speculative fiction, in order to create a sense of the uncanny, of weirdness in the world, of dissonance between what one thinks is real and the feeling that other layers exist beyond the senses upon which we rely. More than twenty-five years ago, Sterling wrote in the essay in which he coined the term, “It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’”[21]

A recent and notable Latin American slipstream example is Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Its settings range from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, featuring a science fiction-obsessed boy who eventually dies, though the reasons for the death are ambiguous. The result of a fukú curse? The lingering vestiges of a corrupt society as result of the Dominican Republic’s former dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Or perhaps an inseparable mixture of both family, political scourges, and colonialism as filtered through the allegory of the science fiction genre?

Commenting on his falling for science fiction, Díaz said in a recent interview, “I fell for [the] genre because I desperately needed it—in my personal mythology, [the] genre helped me create an operational self. I suspect I resonated with the world-building in many of these texts because that’s precisely what I was engaged in as a young immigrant.” He then added, “Alien invasions, natives, slavery, colonies, genocide, racial system, savages, technological superiority, forerunner races and the ruins they leave behind, travel between worlds, breeding programs, superpowered whites, mechanized regimes that work humans to death, human/alien hybrids, lost worlds—all have their roots in the traumas of colonialism.”[22]

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Beatriz Cortez (Los Angeles). Memory Insertion Capsule, 2017 (in progress). Mixed media, c. 144 x 144 inches, exact dims tbd. Courtesy of the artist.


Contemporary Art as Speculative Technology

For a visual artist, the magic of their own making occurs when a preconceived notion takes a different turn during the process; leading them down a road that they could not have expected without taking the first step of manipulating materials with their hand. It is a method that intertwines haptic, optic, and cognitive processes. In regard to contemporary visual art, an artist’s methodology of process and product are inseparable from one another and therefore slipstream inherently. This slipstream aspect in visual art to which I allude is where the difference lies between it, writing, and filmmaking. There is a physical manifestation of the artist’s idea into the world—that is, it does not remain an imaginary one in a reader’s mind nor an untouchable screen image. Rather, it is a physical object that rests in a world where viewers can interact with it through touch, smell, and sound, or perhaps walk back and forth from it, around it, or through it.

Los Angeles-based art critic Jan Tumlir expressed a similar notion about the relationship between contemporary art and science fiction when he wrote about the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2007 California Biennial. He said, “The young artists on the West Coast are operating in an idiom closely linked to science-fiction.”[23] He goes on to list some of the science fiction tropes with which they are engaged: future and alien civilizations, time travel, colonization, “the redefinition of the idea of the human in response to the other, either alien or handmade,” and so on. More specifically, he wrote that, due to the materiality of visual art, “Intensive concentration on these various artifacts is aimed at somehow ‘breaking through.’”

The emphasis on artist made physical objects, or slipstream, science fictional artifacts, is the major reason for the absence in the exhibition and book of classic visual memorabilia that one associates with the science fiction genre: book cover art, comic books, and movie posters, to name a few. This is as opposed to the unique object generated by visual artists that can exist in only one location; thus, it requires a pilgrimage to the site, such as a gallery, museum, collector’s home, public plaza, or artist studio.

A turn towards re-engagement with materiality, and its place within an increasingly screen-based cultural environment, is underscored by a recent exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. The Poetics of the Material (2016) was a group exhibition in which “contemporary art, which can be regarded as being aligned with ‘new materialism,’ attempts to give expression to the interpenetration of material phenomena and immaterial aspects of reality. The latter reveal themselves in the meaning of language or in the influence of cultural narratives on the perception of reality.”[24]

In a sense, I have felt often, throughout the visits with artists for Mundos Alternos, that I have engaged in a type of “retro-labeling,” as described by Rachel Haywood Ferreira in her seminal book, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011). She outlined the process towards defining a science fiction genre in Latin American literature in light of the genre’s already prescribed nature in the United States and Europe. Haywood wrote, “Although the genealogy of science fiction has been actively traced in its countries of origin since the moment Gernsback formally baptized the genre, in Latin America this process did not get underway until the late 1960s and continues today.”[25] Initially, her process identified texts in the late 19th and 20th centuries in Latin America, primarily in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, due to the strength of publishing in those countries, where there were science fictional tendencies. The most immediate and prominent examples of retro-labeled works were the ubiquitous and highly marketed “magic realism” novels and short stories of Argentine Jorges Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Chilean Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982).

In this regard, my two co-curators and I sought contemporary visual artists in Mundos Alternos who employed science fictional or slipstream thinking rather than literal science fiction elements. Driven by the theme of the show, we saw in their work, and through conversations during studio visits, that they demonstrated a commitment and influence from science fiction literature and film. The main theme that occupied them was a consideration of the future, focusing on post-colonization, labor, surveillance, environment, and hemispherical connections, viewed through the lens of art. However, what remains to be the biggest difference, and what I hope to be the contribution of this exhibition and book to the burgeoning scholarship around Latino and Latin American science fiction studies, is the effect of the material nature of visual art whose subject matter is science fictional.

Visual art exists as though a magical or a yet-to-be speculative technology has in fact manifested itself from the future into the present. They are strange objects whose message(s) are ambiguous. It requires work on the part of its viewer, who must be willing to engage with said object in order to receive meaning from it. I am not suggesting that there is a single, hidden meaning to be ascertained, but that its meaning is determined in part through a viewer’s interaction with it, as if a close encounter of the third kind, in which contact is made with alien beings, whose language we not yet know.

Meaning being determined in part by a book’s reader, for example, is a characteristically postmodern notion that accounts for paradox, unreliable narrators, and undermining the authority of the writer through metafiction techniques. However, I employ it here in order to demonstrate that this postmodern methodology can be different when dealing with strange objects versus literature and film.

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Fighting for the Future

One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.

The artistic inclination to pastiche disparate materials and ideas together generates uncanniness through its physical manifestation. This technique creates a slipstream or science fictional effect of “cognitive estrangement,” to borrow a phrase from science fiction theorist Darko Suvin, where the material and conceptual smashups provide a platform for viewers to look at their immediate society differently. Suvin might suggest that one’s viewpoint could be shifted to the point that there is recognition of one’s oppression and therefore, with a new view of the world, begin to resist, which is the major subtext for Mundos Alternos.[26]

To illustrate further, East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, author of the seminal Chicano science fiction novel, High Aztech (1992), wrote ten years after its publication in his blog on Latino science fiction, La Bloga, “I’ve always been more interested in science fiction as a confrontation with changing reality rather than escapism. And as a Chicano, I’m plugged into cultural influences that most science fiction writers don’t have access to.”[27] Three years later, after participating in “A Day of Latino Science Fiction” symposium at UC Riverside, he wrote in another La Bloga post: “One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.”[28]

I would add that Hogan’s use of the phrase “plugged into” is embodied, literally, by Mundos Alternos with Los Angeles-based artist Alex Rivera’s film, Sleep Dealer (2008), which finds nodes inserted into one’s body to allow Mexican workers to work in the U.S. virtually, and thus the United States get its labor, but doesn’t have to deal with their bodies. It was preceded by Rivera’s more experimental videos that featured what he called, the “cybracero,” which is a clever, techno inflected twist on the bracero program in the U.S. from1942 to 1965 which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the U.S.[29]

Sherryl Vint, UC Riverside professor of English, science fiction studies scholar, and Mundos Alternos research team members and contributor to this book, invited both Hogan and Rivera to UC Riverside’s campus. As organizer of “A Day of Latino Science Fiction,” she said, “Our event will foster discussion of the specific ways Latino writers negotiate science fiction’s relationship to the colonialist imagination, and its possibilities for imagining more ethnically inclusive futures.”[30]

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.


Accessing Gateways or
Las puertas

As curators, and with the visual arts in general, it is necessary to travel in order to see the work. This is a different experience than with film or literature where one can go to the local cinema or read in the comfort of a home where, theoretically, any engaged individual would be reading or viewing the same text or image shared by others. This is not the case in the visual arts where, at least in the context of this show, the materiality of a unique, strange object requires one’s presence. This means that, as a curator, my colleagues and I had to travel to the objects’ location. Rather than being deskbound or screenbound, footwork was involved to access gateways, or las puertas, to mundos alternos.

The future is their inseparability yet, at least for the moment, the artists in this show who focus on their slipstream artworks, present islands of materiality for salvation. For those of us who have not succumbed to screen-culture completely, we may commiserate on these islands throughout the Americas and plan the next world to build where water is free and flows.

Much further south of the border, a more recent revolution in Chiapas, Mexico, was explored by Portuguese-born, Los Angeles-based artist Rigo 23. For several years, he worked with indigenous groups in Chiapas, which aim for equal rights or autonomy from the Mexican government. Rigo 23 chose to extend Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN) use of poetics through workshops with the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas.[31]

Through this art making with Rigo 23, they envisioned autonomy as having occurred already. They asked how they would then represent themselves beyond Earth, on an intergalactic level, emphasizing an indigenous, technoculture imaginary, calling their project the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2012). Rigo 23 suggested that to imagine autonomy and to begin to materialize strange objects around this notion puts one on the path towards generating a new vocabulary in the present-time to be used in the future, similar to how indigenous communities in Chiapas might negotiate with the Mexican government.

In this context, Rigo 23’s cornhusk spaceship from the project, which arose from Southern Chiapas, was destined to become an interplanetary traveling vegetable that nurtured recognition of any being, whether on Earth, or elsewhere, as one who deserved freedom, justice, and equality. From an intergalactic sensibility, social justice for the indigenous in Chiapas translates to all Earthlings who become collectively indigenous in the context of encountering other beings beyond our blue dot in the solar system.

In an ART21 interview, Rigo 23 recognized the value of traveling and through his presence becoming a wormhole in which he collapsed geo-political events in order to generate kinship:

I have come to realize that, often, the further one comes from an area of intense conflict, the more likely the locals are to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, as one talks about Leonard Peltier in East Jerusalem, or about going to Palestine in Wounded Knee, links and kinships that are invisible to most manifest themselves in wonderful and affirming ways. There is a mutual recognition that one is globalized in an entirely different way.[32]

In kinship with Rigo 23, Salvadoran-born, Los Angeles-based artist and professor of Central American studies, Beatriz Cortez, created several projects in which she aimed to enunciate a positive, future imaginary for an Indigenous population.

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Guillermo Bert (Los Angeles), The Visionary, 2012; Tarn, natural dyes, wood, 82 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Cortez’s La máquina de la fortuna or The Fortune Teller Machine (2014) is an interactive sculpture, developed in collaboration with the Guatemalan Kaqchikel Maya collective Kaqjay Moloj, and prints fortune messages in Kaqchikel and in Spanish. When a viewer presses a button, a thermal printer ejects a message from their collective desires that were programmed into the fortuneteller machine. The messages are written in a future perfect verb tense, as if predicting what will become, hopefully, a reality soon. A sample list of possible, future-tense messages that a viewer may receive from this portal to the future include:

Xtik’oje’ jun raxnäq k’aslen
Habrá justicia
There will be justice

Xtiqetamaj achike ru ma xe kamisäx ri qawinaq
Sabremos la verdad
We will know the truth

Xtiqaya’ ruq’ij ri kib’anob’al ri qatit qamama’
Estaremos orgullosos de nuestro pasado
We will be proud of our past

Xti ak’axäx ri k’ayewal qa chajin
Nuestra voz será escuchada
Our voice will be heard

Chiqonojel xtiqil ru b’eyal ri qak’aslen
Tendremos oportunidades
We will have opportunities 

Xtik’oje’ jun qak’aslen ri man xkojyax ta pa k’ayewal
Seremos libres
We will be free

Brought together under the Mundos Alternos moniker, Beatriz Cortez and Rigo 23, the former from El Salvador and the latter from Portugal, demonstrate cross-cultural affinities as they engage technology closely tied to Indigenous communities. This approach is mindful of Indigenous knowledge and expertise with devices, which have often been cast as archaic and unsophisticated within Western colonization. Another Mundos Alternos artist, Guillermo Bert, born in Chile, but living in Los Angeles, has also worked closely with native communities to inform and realize their work. Bert’s Encoded Textiles tapestries were inspired by his observation that Quick Response (QR) code patterns often resemble the textile patterns woven by the Mapuche of Chile. He commissioned the woven works on view, which bear functional QR codes that link to dictums by tribal elders. He marries the encryption technologies of Indigenous woven textiles with contemporary digital ones, achieving the same goals but through different pathways.


Science Fictional Connectedness

From a curatorial perspective, the necessity of travel in cars, trains, planes, and by foot throughout the Americas became an experience in which the circulation of the kind of artwork that we sought became slipstream islands of materiality. Our radars were attuned to artists who viewed their art as platforms for investigating and questioning the immediate culture that surrounded them and the world at large, that is, embodying Suvin’s aforementioned cognitive estrangement.

In this regard, our visits became ones where citizens of alternative worlds found one another and cemented bonds through face-to-face meetings. We were surrounded by the artists’ slipstream artwork in their studios or their galleries, which became las puertas. It was by traveling through these wormholes, found throughout the Americas to islands of materiality (as opposed to “islands in the net,” to coin another phrase from Bruce Sterling’s 1988 novel with the same title), that I found an overall utopian experience of connectedness through material presence, rather than a dystopian one of disembodied connection through the telepresence of texts and screens. In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

 


Notes

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas is on view from 16 September 2017 through 4 February 2018. The opening party for Mundos Alternos is 30 September 2017 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. at UCR ARTSblock (http://artsblock.ucr.edu). UCR ARTSblock is open Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Friday– Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and closed Mondays. Open late until 9 p.m. every first Thursday of the month. Admission is $5.

  • All photography taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] The Mundos Alternos curatorial team includes Robb Hernández, assistant professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, California Museum of Photography (CMP) senior curator of exhibitions at UCR ARTSblock. Kathryn Poindexter, CMP assistant curator, is the project coordinator; and Sherryl Vint, director of the Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science program at UCR, curated an accompanying film program and contributed an essay to the book. A heavily illustrated, 160-page book accompanies the exhibition, including original essays by the curators, contributions by Kathryn Poindexter and Rudi Kraeher, with additional essays by Kency Cornejo, Itala Schmelz, Alfredo Suppia, and Sherryl Vint, leading voices in science fiction studies and contemporary art of the Americas.

[2] The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), https://www.hacu.net/assnfe/cv.asp?ID=191.

[3] The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, http://eaton.ucr.edu.

[4] University Archives & Special Collections, Pollak Library, California State University Fullerton, http://www.library.fullerton.edu/services/special-collections.php.

[5] See Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[6] The Huntington’s Octavia Butler archive, http://www.huntington.org/octaviabutler/.

[7] Comic-Con International in San Diego, http://www.comic-con.org

[8] World Science Fiction Convention, http://www.worldcon.org.

[9] Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), http://www.sfra.org/sfra-annual-conference.

[10] Science Fiction Research Association 2016 conference program, http://www.sfra.org/Conference-Program.

[11] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.

[12] The passages in this section, “Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism” are excerpted from Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, “Introduction” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas  (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 13-14, 18-19.

[13] Recorded lecture from 1971 when Sun Ra served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered the course, African-American Studies 198, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” https://ubusound.memoryoftheworld.org/ra_sun/Ra-Sun_Berkeley-Lecture_1971.mp3.

[14] For more on “Shadows Took Shape” see, Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds. The Shadows Took Shape (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013).

[15] Tegan Bristow, “We Want the Funk: What is Afrofuturism to Africa?” in Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds., The Shadows Took Shape, (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013), 81.

[16] Ernest Hogan, Cortez on Jupiter (New York: Tor Books, 1990). Out of print. Now available for digital download at https://www.createspace.com/5026216.

[17] “Meteorite Yields Evidence of Primitive Life on Early Mars,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, 7 August 1996, https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nasa1.html.

[18] Sara C. Nelson, “Alien Abductee David Huggins ‘Lost His Virginity To Extra Terrestrial Woman Named Crescent’,” Huffington Post, 16 October 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/16/alien-abductee-david-huggins-lost-virginity-extra-terrestrial-woman-crescent_n_5995334.html.

[19] Online catalogue from 2013 for Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration, http://sites.artsblock.ucr.edu/free-enterprise/.

[20] Excerpts from Tyler Stallings, “Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds., Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 130-143. An emphasis is placed on artists from California in these excerpts and includes additional text on artist Guillermo Bert that was not in the original published essay, along with a few additional comments that emphasize the California connection.

[21] Bruce Sterling, “Catscan 5: Slipstream,” sf Eye 5 (July 1989), online at https://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/Bruce_Sterling/Catscan_columns/catscan.05.

[22] Taryne Jade Taylor, “A Singular Dislocation: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Paradoxa 26 (2015): 97-110.

[23] Jan Tumlir, “Sci-Fi Historicism, Part I: The Time Machine in Contemporary Los Angeles Art,” Flash Art 40 (March-April, 2007): 102-105.

[24] Leopold Museum, http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/78/the-poetics-of-the-material.

[25] Rachel Haywood Ferreira, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 1.

[26] Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34 (December 1972): 372-82.

[27] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Prophesy, High Aztech, and Nerve Jelly,” La Bloga, 5 February 2011, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2011/02/chicanonautica-prophesy-high-aztech-and.html

[28] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Voyage to a Day of Latino Science Fiction,” La Bloga, 15 May 15, 2014, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2014/05/chicanonautica-voyage-to-day-of-latino.html.

[29] The Bracero History Archive, http://braceroarchive.org/about.

[30] “Latino Science Fiction Explored, UCR Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Program hosts April 30 event,” UCR Today, https://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/21579.

[31] “The Good Government Juntas represent both the poetic, populist and the practical nature of the Zapatista struggle to build workable alternatives of autonomy locally, link present politics to traditional ways of organizing [sic] life in indigenous communities, and contrast with the ‘bad government’ of official representational politics in Mexico City.” See Paul Chatterton, “The Zapatista Caracoles and Good Governments: The Long Walk to Autonomy,” State of Nature (2007). http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=6119.

[32] Thom Donovan, “5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Rigo 23,” ART21 Magazine, 20 January 2011, http://magazine.art21.org/2011/01/20/5-questions-for-contemporary-practice-with-rigo-23/#.Wb2PHtGX02x.

 

Tyler Stallings is artistic director at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock. He was chief curator at Laguna Art Museum prior to his arrival at UCR in 2006. He received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, with a special emphasis on the exploration of identity, technology, photo-based work, and urban culture. For more information see http://tylerstallings.com.

Copyright: © 2017 Tyler Stallings. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

 

Articles

Wendell Berry in California

Matthew D. Stewart

“We ought to love our own states and our own home places better than any others. That is our duty. But to love our own places is to recognize—or it ought to be—that other people love their places better than they love ours. This, too, is our duty. If we love our places, if we recognize that other people love their places, then maybe it is also our duty to refrain from bombing or in any way harming any place. Our own or anybody else’s. So I am speaking here as a Kentuckian, as I should.”

—Wendell Berry, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, 25 September 2010[1]

At the age of 24, the farmer, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry packed up and left Kentucky for California to join the creative writing program at Stanford in Palo Alto. What he did not pack for the journey was plans to return to Kentucky. Berry had absorbed the notion that homes—particularly homes in the dying rural communities of Middle America—were for leaving, and that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Berry would later dispute this received wisdom in several essays and limn the contours of it in his fiction, but it took him careful reflection to get to that point.[2] From the distance of several decades, these reflections are surprising to revisit since he is so closely tied to his place and has been since 1964. But what if Wendell Berry had just stayed in California like countless Americans before and since?

In a national literature marked prominently by restlessness, roads, and waterways, Berry has written eloquently about placed people, about those who have returned home or never left. Some American escapes have been romantic adventures, some desperate necessities, and some have been both.[3] If the American past has encouraged and even demanded a national literature filled with stories of escape, at times making a romance out of a necessity, Berry has tried through his writing to open up possibilities for an American future that includes not just escapes but returns.[4] Escapes may be riveting, but, whether the perception is accurate or not, an escape implies something deficient about the place and people that caused it. Escapes are not just adventures but fractures.

By rendering wholly, concretely, and imaginatively one place, Port Royal, Kentucky, through both history and fiction (“Port William” in his fiction), Berry has imagined for his readers the possibility of families, communities, and places that make a return more fulfilling, more joyful, and possibly even more romantic than an escape. But he has not just lectured Americans about why they should return to their places, as he did to his. His story is not simply about a return. It is about building places that inspire returns, where duty and desire coexist. He has lived and imagined a return to a place worth preserving; he has practiced an art of return.[5] As readers of his work know, this is not because his place is better than other places, but because it is his, by both birth and choice. To care for a given place does not demand the denigration of other places: “There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”[6]

The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places.[7] In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”[8]

But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.[9]

It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.

Berry admired The Odyssey, and he wrote movingly about it in The Unsettling of America.[10] Focused attention on the allusions to California in his work and then the work that he did there suggests that California as Calypso’s Island comprises his primary relation to the state. Remembering is the most vivid example.

In the turning point of the novel, the protagonist Andy Catlett finds himself restless in an ugly San Francisco hotel room. To escape, he goes for a night walk through the city at 4 a.m. His restlessness is the consequence of two festering wounds. One started with a literal wound. Andy had mangled his hand in a farming accident, it was amputated, and he has been withdrawing into himself and away from his family in his sadness and anger. The other is his lonely opposition to industrial agriculture and the economic justifications for it, exacerbated by his participation in an agriculture conference earlier that day.

Andy’s walk through dead-of-night San Francisco is marked by heightened interiority and intense moral panic. He is completely inside himself, and surprised by any sensory perceptions. He sees the people around him as souls. They occasionally speak to him, puncturing his interiority but only briefly. His wanderings lead to a pier, “the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water,” and Andy realizes that he is free, that he could forsake Kentucky, his troubled marriage, and his farm that he can no longer work independently. He could just reside in San Francisco and no one would find him. But this possibility begins to look more like the “freedom” of an astronaut cut off from the shuttle, careening away through zero gravity: “All distance is around him, and he wants nothing that he has. All choice is around him and he knows nothing that he wants.”[11]

As morning breaks into this dark night of the soul, he is remembered into Port William through his past and begins again to choose. Port William will not let him spiral into space. He sees that he has no meaningful future without his past, and it is his recollections of specific people and places that bring his mind back into his body and enable him to act. Though he cannot replace his amputated hand, he is remembered in every other sense of the word.

At the risk of turning Berry’s character into Berry himself, it is reasonable to guess that Berry saw his own experiences in California similarly. His past grew hazy, his future weightless. Being outside of his place pushed him outside of himself. “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” published journal entries from his 1968-1969 visit to Stanford, grant some historical weight. After a midnight walk across a golf course, he wrote, “I have become, in a very cool, knowing way, hungry to be at home again. I want back the clear, exacting sense of myself that I only get from being at work there on my writing and on the place itself.”[12]

But even if this is the dominant relation, it is not all that can be said about Wendell Berry in California. Berry himself has acknowledged the “necessarily confusing” difficulty of tracing influences in a writer’s life, or any person’s life. He has been surprised by much of what he has written.[13] He has attempted to trace influences; however, and it is therefore easier to discuss his relationship with Californians rather than California without conjecture.

Steve Rhodes_Mount Tamalpais State Park

Mount Tamalpais State Park via Flickr user Steve Rhodes.

Among the Californians who influenced him, one stands above all others: Tanya Amyx Berry, to whom he has been married for over half a century. She was born in Berkeley in 1936, where her father was doing graduate work, and spent her early childhood there before her parents made their own return to Kentucky in 1945 so her father could take a position at the University of Kentucky.[14] It is a fool’s errand to attempt to untangle the mutual influences between them in relation to their respective places, but from his published letters to the California poet Gary Snyder it is at least evident that Berry enjoyed developing his own affections for places, such as Mount Tamalpais, that were special to Tanya in her childhood.[15]

Less difficult to elaborate is the influence of another Californian, the novelist, essayist, historian, and founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, Wallace Stegner.[16] By awarding Berry a fellowship to attend the creative writing program at Stanford, Stegner opened the first possibility for him to leave Kentucky. But by being a regional writer who cared about his region, Stegner also opened for Berry the possibility of return (he also eventually suggested Berry for a position at the University of Kentucky, materially enabling his return in 1964). Stegner’s writing about his region went further than the standard creative writing program advice to “write what you know.”[17] Though Berry did not really comprehend the lesson until after he had returned to Kentucky, Stegner had taught Berry how to be a regional writer who gives rather than takes. Stegner was a regional writer “who not only [wrote] about his region but also [did] his best to protect it, by writing and in other ways, from its would-be exploiters and destroyers.”[18] Stegner knew he belonged to his region, shaped by its history for good and for ill.[19] Among American writers, Berry thought Stegner was the first of significance to make that commitment to his region.[20]

Berry contrasted Stegner with “industrialists of letters” who mine “one’s province for whatever can be got out of it in the way of ‘raw material’ for stories and novels.” In this, fiction is not simply harmless entertainment. Berry wrote, “I would argue that it has been possible for such writers to write so exploitatively, condescendingly, and contemptuously of their regions and their people as virtually to prepare the way for worse exploitation by their colleagues in other industries: if it’s a god-forsaken boondocks full of ignorant hillbillies, or a god-forsaken desert populated by a few culturally deprived ranchers, why not strip-mine it?”[21]

In his reflection on Stegner, Berry writes that Stegner’s primary means of teaching was by “bestowing a kindness that implied an expectation, and by setting an example” and it seems that Stegner’s regionalism taught Berry as he was learning by his own efforts to become a generous regionalist himself.[22] Being a few steps past Berry in the effort, Stegner proved to Berry that it was possible.

The point requires extrapolation beyond their writings, but it might even be the case that Stegner’s example almost shamed Berry into writing from his region. Despite similarities in style, sentiment, artistic range, and theme, their life histories were as different as are their native regions. As a reader of his work, Berry knew that Stegner’s regionalism was forged in a rejection of his father’s rootless wanderings across the West against his mother’s protestations, an experience embodied most vividly in his fictional account of his childhood, The Big Rock Candy Mountain.[23] Because his father chased booms throughout the West, from Saskatchewan to Washington to Utah, Stegner was from a region more than a place.[24] Stegner found sensual comfort in the effects of aridity of the West, the ochres and parched whites under brilliant blue skies, but he had to choose a place to make a home (Los Altos Hills) since, like many deracinated Americans, he did not inherit one.

Berry’s sensual identification with the Appalachian forests of Kentucky was and is as keen as was Stegner’s with high desert plains and mountains, but Berry also had generations of stories and people awaiting his return. His regionalism was in part borne out of a renewed appreciation of his past as a moral resource. Though he was honest regarding the conquest of indigenous land and the institutional violence of slavery that accompanied his ancestors’ settlement in Kentucky and thereby made it possible for him to be a multiple-generation native Kentuckian, Berry valued these tangled roots too much to discard them. He had left several generations of family and friends to attend Stanford.

Stegner’s whole nuclear family had died just after he turned thirty and he barely knew any relatives or anyone else who had any recollection of him as a child. His past was contained almost exclusively in his own mind. There were no attics or relatives to remind him of it, to spark long unvisited memories, or to confirm hazy details. Perhaps Berry respected Stegner’s attempts to build a place despite his deracination; by observing Stegner’s efforts to find, keep, and respect a particular place over one lifetime, Berry then realized how rare and precious was his own generational rootedness to Kentucky and Appalachia. It was another of Stegner’s gifts that implied an expectation.

By Stegner’s own admission, and despite the example that Berry drew from his work, Stegner did not understand Berry’s attempt to write from Kentucky and in fact attempted to persuade him to stay on at Stanford following a visiting faculty appointment that Berry held in 1968-1969. Stegner thought Berry “owed it to [him]self and [his] gift to stay out where the action was.” “Fortunately,” Stegner wrote, in a retrospective article in 1990, “I got nowhere.”[25] He was among the many of Berry’s admirers who thought he would be overwhelmed by his commitment to farming or underwhelmed by the intellectual companionship of his fellow Kentuckians and that the result would be the waste of a rare literary talent.

But Berry thought there might be “another measure” for his life than his literary output alone.[26] He did not believe in Yeats’ choice between the “perfection of the life, or of the work,” a “fictitious choice” that “does damage to people who think they can actually make it.”[27] He refused the choice by returning to Kentucky, and has reaffirmed it since then: “If anything I have written about this place can be taken to countenance the misuse of it, or to excuse anybody for rating land as ‘capital’ or its human members as ‘labor’ or ‘resources,’ my writing would have been better unwritten. And then to hell with any value anybody may find in it as ‘literature.’”[28]

Mt Tamalpais 18 via Flickr user Tom Hilton.

Mt Tamalpais via Flickr user Tom Hilton.

The visit to Stanford did not persuade Berry to stay there full-time, but it did provide him with the opportunity to reflect on the racial injustice that inflamed protests on the Stanford campus and the rest of the nation in the late Sixties. It seems that his observation of racism and race in California allowed him the distance to reflect on racism in Kentucky. It is here that it might be easier to think about how California influenced him as a place.

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.[29]

Berry describes the incidents that motivated him to write The Hidden Wound in the book’s “Afterword,” written for the 1989 edition. While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”[31]

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.[32]

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.”[33] In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.”[34] By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”[35]

Berry’s essay was an attempt to acknowledge but transcend the double-binds that choke so many discussions of race, both then and now, by eschewing abstractions and turning to actual people and actual places. His thought was grounded in the assumption that “it is good for people to know each other.” [36] Berry’s essay includes an extended reflection of his love for a black man, Nick Watkins, and a black woman, Aunt Georgie, both of whom he knew in his childhood. He acknowledged that his relationship to them, including an understanding of their perception of and care for him, was always limited by segregation but also by difference in age, as well as the amount of time that had passed since they’d known each other. He had no way of knowing what they thought as he wrote the essay and was responsible in acknowledgement of his limitations, but he also knew that he loved them and that their example in his life was a “moral resource.”[37]

For hooks, this is one of the most important insights of the essay, the acknowledgement that “inter-racial living, even in flawed structures of racial hierarchy, produces a concrete reality base of knowing and potential community that will simply be there.” These relationships can then serve to challenge the more common reality in which “all that white folks and black folks know of one another is what they find in the media, which is usually a set of stereotypical representations of both races.”[38] What both Berry in the essay and hooks in her appreciation of it emphasize throughout is that places need holistic care: the inhabitants need to be open to each other and to strangers, and need to be sensitive to the limitations of the cultures and the flora and fauna that sustain it.

Berry’s reflections on his experiences in California are notable for what they are not and might very well have been—an exercise in distancing himself from his home for its racism or a rejection of the metropolis and retreat into jingoistic provincialism. Many in this situation choose, and then despise the rejected option. Berry chose Kentucky, but he chose a Kentucky that he both loved and sought to improve. He looked for his own native resources and tried to use them to their full potential.

If Berry’s return from California is more significant than his time in California, his call to make ourselves and our places worthy of returns and open to them is one abstraction that should not be limited by place. Berry has helped us imagine these returns as possibilities, and as possibilities that are meaningful and good. Not all of us can or even should return to our places of birth. But all of us—Californians, Kentuckians, Americans—should build places that make returns welcome, joyful possibilities.

Wendell Berry C Guy Mendes_full

Wendell Berry, photograph by C Guy Mendes, provided by Counterpoint Press.

Notes

  • The author would like to thank Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Eric Miller, Robert Corban, Katie Stewart, and the editors and reviewers from Boom for their thoughtful comments on this essay.

[1] “Restoration and Conservation” talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdFMKbVjwq0.

[2] Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill,” The Hudson Review 21 (Winter 1968-1969): 604-605. “A Native Hill” was republished in The Long-Legged House (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003). Berry also discusses his reflections on his return to Kentucky in The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989), 65.

[3] See Wallace Stegner’s “Living Dry” and “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecoeur” in The American West as Living Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987).

[4] Grace Elizabeth Hale examines the “romance of the outsider,” most prominent among white American men, and its historical significance in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). She highlights the fact that escapes and rebellions are, to some extent, not an option for many Americans. Neither are returns, in many cases. Reading Jeff Hobbs’ The Brief and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League (New York: Scribner, 2015) as an escape and return narrative illustrates this point more concretely.

[5] I am grateful to Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn for suggesting this phrase.

[6] Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” Poetry, January 2001.

[7] Wendell Berry, Imagination in Place (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010), 2. When he has written about other places, he has tended to write about their agricultural practices more than any of their other qualities. See for example, “Tuscany” in Citizenship Papers (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 175.

[8] Berry, The Long-Legged House, 190.

[9] Some shorter pieces have been written away from Kentucky as well, such as “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” included in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 36-55.

[10] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1996), 123-130.

[11] Wendell Berry, Remembering (New York: North Point Press, 1988), 51.

[12] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 38.

[13] Berry, Imagination in Place, 4-6.

[14] Mary Berry Smith, “My Mother’s Making of an Agrarian Home,” Edible: Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, June 2011.

[15] In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry writes of Mount Tamalpais, “it was a place very important to Tanya” and that after he lived in California, it “became an important place also to me.” Chad Wrigglesworth, ed., Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 245. Snyder is another Californian whom Berry has written to and about, and whose influence on Berry and vice versa deserves more recognition than it receives in this essay. The collection of letters is a good place to start.

[16] Stegner had a fraught relationship with California, but it was the place he chose to make his home, and he lived there from 1945 until his death in 1993.

[17] Mark McGurl has examined the influence of creative writing programs in the United States in the twentieth century in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[18] Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 55. In a review of McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand discusses the negative reactions of ethnic minorities whose cultures are revealed by ethnic minorities in creative writing programs largely for the sake of outsiders or what Menand calls “literary tourists.” The New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” 8 June 2009.

[19] This theme occurs throughout Stegner’s work. One of the best places to explore it is in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1990), 127-138.

[20] Berry lists the regional writers that most inspired him in Imagination in Place, some of which predate Stegner, such as Sarah Orne Jewett. It is perhaps Stegner’s commitment to protecting his place more than his sense of belonging that led Berry to argue for his uniqueness (pp. 4-5).

[21] Berry, What Are People For? 54-55.

[22] Ibid, 49.

[23] Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943). A cogent historical account of his childhood is found in “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 3-21.

[24] Stegner discusses his sense of where he is from most extensively in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” which is included and contextualized helpfully in Robert C. Steensma, Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 61-70.

[25] Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings, 211-12.

[26] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 87.

[27] Berry, Imagination in Place, 125.

[28] Ibid, 15-16.

[29] Bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[30] Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[31] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 109-110.

[32] Included in The Long-Legged House, 75-88. Berry’s pacifism and willingness to take an unpopular stand in his home institution suggests that he did not need to go to California to “experience” the Sixties.

[33] Ibid, 109-110.

[34] Ibid, 62.

[35] Ibid, 109-110.

[36] Ibid, 133.

[37] Ibid, 61.

[38] Hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, 182-83.

 

Matthew D. Stewart is a PhD candidate in History at Syracuse University. His dissertation explores the intellectual history of the modern American West through the career of Wallace Stegner. He was a scholar-facilitator for the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council’s Summer Teacher’s Institute, “Wallace Stegner and the Consciousness of Place,” and is currently a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York.

Copyright: © 2017 Matthew D. Stewart. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/