August 2008 Archives
In my Chicana/Chicano Lit class, a new course for me, I'll be teaching these great books:
Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya, a classicBy sheer happy accident, I ran across an advance copy of Mexican Enough at the Pine Manor residency this summer, and I got hooked by just the first five pages. It's a lark, a romp--but with serious brains. Then--again, by sheer happy accident--I was lucky enough to meet Stephanie herself, very briefly, at Macondo, and I'll tell you what: even on only a first impression, she's a way fun girl. That carries over into her narration, so I thought her book would be a livelier intro to some of the cultural and historical material we need to cover than me lecturing at the front of the classroom. We'll see if the ENGL 245D students agree!
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, which I've been teaching now for over ten years--it never wears out!
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, which blew me away in graduate school (though I remember that it freaked out a few of my fellow grad students)--the title page of that early edition still bears my sweetly awed, breathless, scrawled note: "the most amazing book I've ever read"
the anthology Latino Boom, edited by these great guys, John Christie and Jose Gonzalez, who also have a very helpful website on Latino lit
and the brand-new, still damp from the presses memoir by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Mexican Enough: My Life between the Borderlines.
I'm in love with the books for my graduate course in creative nonfiction, too, especially Telling True Stories (a brilliant craft guide, co-edited by Wendy Call, one of the terrific participants in our workshop at Macondo), Food & Booze, the collection from the journal Tin House, and a beautiful collection of essays, Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places, by Naomi Shihab Nye, who (hurray!) will be our writer-in-residence here at UNL next spring. But I won't rave about them now, because I've got to finish thinking through my opening-day spiel.
I'm reading Barry Lopez's Resistance, and I love the first story and the deep seriousness that it opens up. Read it, read it.
But--call me cranky--the rest of the collection just doesn't sustain. At least so far. Maybe it'll pick back up, but it's becoming just a shade monotonous, predictable, and the voices of all the fictional narrators are so similar that it's hard to distinguish them. The first story's wonderful, seriously, but I'd rather just have imagined the rest.
I'm also reading the Bhagavad Gita again. Like Arjuna, I'm feeling reluctant to charge into battle (another start-of-the-semester feeling), so I'm trying to listen up and see if Krishna will make any sense this time.
On a totally unrelated note, I saw Bill Maher on Larry King last night. My Dad used to love Bill Maher--he watched him religiously, if I can use that word in regard to anything Maheresque. We don't get HBO, so I don't watch Bill Maher's show, but I must say, his interview with Larry King was refreshing. You don't hear people speak so frankly in the public sphere very often. Whether or not you agree with Maher's perspectives, his honesty and directness are bracing.
I think he's the kind of guy that the best of the U.S. founding fathers--the best of them, mind you--would have liked hanging out with. Little perceptible b.s., little perceptible spin. There's a kind of unassailable vulnerability that comes when you just tell the truth about who you are and what you believe. He has some of that, and it's refreshing because that's not a quality that makes it to prime-time very often.
Lastly, how is it that, according to a recent poll, McCain and Obama are tied? Huh? Hello? What did I miss? Nation, what's happening?
"Beach Blanket Baja," by Helena María Viramontes, begins by delineating her family's class and ethnic position:
IN our East Los Angeles working-class neighborhoods of the ’50s and ’60s, no one thought of summer vacations or sleep-away camps as a possibility. . . . My parents grew up in one of the largest and oldest Mexican-American communities in the nation. Immigrant belief prevailed, despite the fact that both Mom and Dad were born in the United States. We were poor, but it was a poverty that we were unaware of since everyone around us was the same.Into this mix comes the "delirium" of a childhood vacation:
. . . [I]n 1964, when I was 10, my father announced that we were all to spend a weekend in Ensenada, Mexico, with José and his family.
My mother was, at first, skeptical: It would be no easy feat to transport a total of 16 people, the majority of them children, but Tío José had worked out a plan. He would drive his Pontiac, accompanied by his wife, Tía Lola, and his children. My father would drive Joe Junior’s clunky Chevy, and my oldest brother, Gil, would be in charge of driving our father’s white Ford pickup.
Gas and food? Everything was much cheaper across the border. Lodging? Camping under the stars!
Funny, frank, and unflinching about the economic woes she sees south of the border, the piece finally becomes a story about the nerve-wracking difficulties, the "anxieties" of "monstrous proportions," even for documented U.S. citizens, of crossing the literal border from Mexico back to the United States--an important thing to make vivid for readers across the country now that, as the Pew Research Center reports, "Just over half of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. worry that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported," according to a nationwide survey of Latinos, and "Nearly two-thirds say the failure of Congress to enact an immigration reform bill has made life more difficult for all Latinos."Thanks, Helena, for bringing it all to life.
The whole going-door-to-door thing--not to mention the fact that we got assigned to a gigantic trailer park--was sort of a flashback fest, but once I got over my jittery old self, it was really fun.
The best parts were when I got to talk to really elderly voters. They were like, "Yes, this is great! It's hard for me to get out." In November, the weather in Nebraska can be daunting. It was good to imagine them warm and comfortable at their kitchen tables, filling in their ballots.
Nebraska is one of the few states (two, I think?) that don't go all red or all blue in the presidential race, so individual voters have a little bit more of an impact. We have three congressional districts. Ours here in Lincoln (and stretching north and south) is the first, Omaha's region is the second, and western Nebraska is the third.
Right now, folks are guessing that the second CD (Omaha) will line up for Obama in November, and the third CD (west) will go for McCain. But the first CD (ours) is anyone's guess. It's kind of up for grabs and could go either way--or that's what some say, at least--and it was cool to be out there helping people make their voices heard.
In other news, I'm working to get my syllabi ready for the new semester at UNL, which starts on the 25th. I'm excited to be teaching two new courses this fall: Chicana/Chicana Literature (I've only taught big-umbrella Latina/Latino lit courses before), and a graduate course in creative nonfiction. I'm very psyched about both, but the planning is eating me alive!
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
When I was writing the first draft of The Truth Book, I stayed for three weeks at the beautiful women's writing colony Norcroft up in Minnesota (now sadly defunct--sigh). I had the Julia Alvarez room. Framed on the wall was a poster, Alvarez's "Ten of My Writing Commandments." I've always been a sucker for wise aphorisms, and the sayings that inspired Alvarez also buoyed me through the difficult evenings when I came back alone from my little shed overlooking Lake Superior to the solitude of my room.
Here are the first five:
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities.
In the expert's mind there are few.~Zen MastersThe obligation of the artist is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.~Anton Chekhov
Do not be afraid!~Angels appearing to shepherds tending their flocks by nightIf you bring forth what is inside you,
what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is inside you,
what is inside you will destroy you.~St. Thomas, Gnostic GospelsPoetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling.
It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.~Wei T'ai
So I'm grateful to Julia, and I wanted to pass these along. The other five "commandments"--and a Macondo report, I promise!--will come later. And many, many thanks to Joan Drury, founder and supporter of Norcroft, who helped so many women for so many years to do the writing they longed to do.