Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter Reading

For many academics, our breaks--winter break, spring break, summer break--are sacred reading times. We finally get to remove ourselves from grading, course reading, and committee work (sometimes) and read for pleasure or research, which for me is frequently the same thing.

This winter break, I first picked up William Germano's From Dissertation to Book, which I loved. I flew through it, finishing it in about a day, mostly because I recognized myself in its pages, which was heartening. Germano's book motivated me to set up a revision schedule, but it also got me thinking about my manuscript in really productive ways.

With the new project on my mind, I then picked up The Popul Vuh (Dennis Tedlock's revised and updated edition, 1996) and a book I'd been wanting/needing to read for a while, Pat Mora's House of Houses (1997). I suspect that sometimes the universe and our antepasados speak to us through books; the combination of these two books confirms my suspicions.

I have to admit that I found House of Houses a bit slow at first. I tried really hard to relate to the details of Mora's family history, but I found myself wanting more from my precious winter break reading. After I picked up (and couldn't put down) The Popul Vuh, I realized an important connection between the two texts: both trace spiritual and familial lineages. By writing her family's history as she does--weaving together, over the course of a solar year, the different lineages and events that form each generation and especially by privileging saints' days--Mora continues a centuries-old indigenous Mexican written tradition. In precolonial and colonial Mixtec, Mayan, and Aztec-Mexica amoxtli (books, codices), deeds and lineages were written to celebrate powerful families and important historical and spiritual events. Continuing this indigenous American literary tradition, Mora thus elevates her ancianos y antepasados to the level of the sacred.

Fascinating. I'm grateful that The Popul Vuh could light my way to a better understanding of and interest in Mora's work.

Part of my own project is in tracing these kinds of continuities between early indigenous Mexican writing traditions and contemporary Native and Chican@ writing. But that focus is coupled with an emphasis on the representations of sound and listening in literature, both ancient and contemporary. Thus, I was really drawn to Mora's incorporation (in the sense of bringing into the text as well as in the sense of embodiment) of sound and listening in House of Houses. For Mora, memories of songs sung, whistled, and hummed by her tias y abuelos combine with her own efforts to listen intently to her ancestors. She writes, for instance:
Voices weave through bare branches. I write what I hear, my inheritance a luxury, the generation with time to record the musings of turtles, the poetics of cactus, the stoicism of stones, the voices from the interior of this family house, la casa de casas (45).
For Mora, listening is creative in the most literal sense of that word. Listening enables her to reconstitute the lives of her ancestors, some generations removed from her life and memory. Listening in this sense is thus not necessarily material, though sometimes it is motivated by material artifacts like songs and letters, missals and flowers. Rather, listening is spiritual here. In listening to/for her ancestors, she re-embodies them in the text. She gives them a new literary life; they are born again in her words.

This may be another connection between House of Houses and the Popul Vuh, though it's one not yet fully fledged in my thinking.

In the Popul Vuh, I was disappointed to find few references to sound or listening. Most of the metaphors are visual, relating sight to knowledge and wisdom. Thus, the creators and the first humans are said to be able to see "everything under the sky perfectly." When the humans are made, then, the Book says, "They understood everything perfectly, they sighted the four sides, the four corners in the sky, on the earth" (147). This becomes a problem because the humans cannot, like their creators, have perfect knowledge, which is what these sight metaphors mean. Eventually the creators dim their vision so that humans can only see near rather than "near and far."

However, there is one reference to the ear that I find fascinating, though, again, what follows is merely speculative. At one point, Tohil, the god of the first Quiche men--Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, and Dark Jaguar--tells them:
"It remains for you to give thanks, since you have yet to take care of your bleeding ears, yet to take stitches in your elbows. You must worship. This is your way of giving thanks before your god."
Dennis Tedlock clarifies that this reference to ears and elbows is punning on the words xikin (ear) and tz'ikin (bird, but also slang for penis) as well as ch'uk (elbow) and  ch'uq (breechcloth). In other words, penitence and praising would come in the form of bleeding one's penis. What I wonder, though, is about this pun on ear and penis. I have a hypothesis that it may suggest a relationship between listening and masculinity that comes to bear on an important and dynamic philosophy at the heart of the Popul Vuh: the sowing and the dawning.

I won't pretend that I fully understand the metaphor of the sowing and the dawning; instead, I'll let Dennis Tedlock explain how it links cosmic creation and the daily creation of the sun with human development and birth as well as the planting and flowering of crops. Tedlock has this to say in his introduction:
These two groups [gods of the primordial sea and gods of the primordial sky] engage in a dialogue, and in the course of it they conceive the emergence of the earth from the water and the growth of plants and people on its surface. They wish to set in motion a process they call the "sowing" and "dawning," by which they mean several different things at once. There is the sowing of seeds in the earth, whose sprouting will be their dawning, and there is the sowing of the sun, moon, and stars, whose difficult passage beneath the earth will be followed by their own dawning. Then there is the matter of human beings, whose sowing in the womb will be followed by their emergence into the light at birth, and whose sowing in the earth at death will be followed by dawning when their souls become sparks of light in the darkness.
 Given the role of the male sex organ in the sowing of human life in the womb and the linguistic relationship--pun--between ear and penis, I wonder if there is, in Quiche Mayan understandings, a relationship between listening as a kind of sowing that then dawns in thought, which, for the Quiche, is inherently productive/creative/generative.

Again, this hypothesis is entirely speculative, but it works in a deconstructive, intertextual kind of way, particularly in light of (pun intended) the use to which Pat Mora puts listening in House of Houses. Listening for the ancestors as a means of bringing them to the light of the text.

I'm not sure yet whether either of these two readings will make it into the manuscript, but both have been really influential on my thinking and approach to the diss revisions I'm now undertaking. I'm using this spring semester to slog through the dissertation revisions so that I can then begin the exciting work of writing new material in the summer. So keep on the lookout for the spring break and summer reading installments!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Magical Realism In/And Historical Fiction

This weekend I got to see one of my favorite authors, Luis Alberto Urrea, who's on tour promoting the paperback edition of his novel Queen of America, the sequel to The Hummingbird's Daughter. I've seen Urrea a few times before in Austin; he's an amazing speaker and consummate storyteller. Each time I hear him, he tells a story that sends chills down my spine and/or raises goosebumps on my arms.

Luis y yo at Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX

This time, speaking at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, he said something about magical realism that I just have to share. First, a little background: The Hummingbird's Daughter and Queen of America are both about Urrea's tia, Teresita, the Saint of Cabora. For those unfamiliar with the novels or with la santa, Teresita was/is una curandera, a healer. In The Hummingbird's Daughter, Teresita apprentices as a midwife and learns to "fly" across space and time; she dies and is resurrected; and she heals all manner of debilitating illnesses with a simple touch. She also preaches a gospel of love that launches an indigenous revolution which feeds into the Mexican Revolution.

While Hummingbird's Daughter focuses on the life of young Teresita in Mexico, Queen of America is about her life in exile in the United States. Both are what you might call "historical fiction." As Urrea related on Saturday, this designation of historical fiction threatened the depiction of Teresita's milagros when, during the editorial process, many of those depictions were being cut on the basis that they were so much "magical realism."

Urrea's response was what really got me. He said that really things like what kind of clothes the characters wore or what a house or room looked like were the magical realism; those are the things he had to make up, to imaginatively invent.

The miracles and the healing--those, he said, are the real history. The miracles and "magic" stayed in. Way to go, homes!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

La Bloga: Chicanonautica: A Chicano Writer in Arizona, 2013 ...

La Bloga: Chicanonautica: A Chicano Writer in Arizona, 2013 ...: by Ernest Hogan Here we are, the year 2013. Are we futuristic yet? What’s a Chicano writer to do in this new spacetime configuration...

Best line is: "I still say Chicano is a sci-fi state of being"! Orale, Ernest.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Feliz Año Nuevo

Native dancers enter the tent at the October 2012 Sacred Springs Powwow in San Marcos, Texas
Dancers enter the tent at the October 2012 Sacred Springs Powwow. Copyright Collin French.
One of my New Years resolutions is to better cultivate my social media personae through this blog, Twitter, etc. Since it's the fifth of January, and I'm just now posting my Happy New Year post, I'm not doing so well already. Nevertheless, I wanted to ring in 2013 with something of an homage, for me, to the Winter Solstice 2012.

By now the general excitement over the Mayan calendar and December 21st, 2012 has waned, though I still hear occasional jokes and announcements of Protestant seminars on the idolatry of prophecy. That a group, lumped together in popular terms as "the Mayans," has become the butt of a joke that the white media feel entitled to tell both sickens and saddens me. Apparently, it's OK to tell racist jokes if you believe the race in question is "extinct" (see image below).

It's comments like this that demonstrate how much we all depend on broadening education about Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. I've been blessed to work with the Indigenous Cultures Institute of San Marcos, Texas, the primary mission of which is precisely to educate, for about four years now. Though I volunteer in whatever way I can, my primary role is that of managing editor for the online scholarly journal Nakum. "Nakum" is a Coahuiltecan word that means "I/we speak to you," and the mission of the journal is to provide a space and a forum for Native and Chicana/o Peoples to speak to the world at large about the issues and creative paths that interest our communities.

Here I am at the admissions table for ICI's Sacred Springs Powwow in San Marcos, Tx in October, 2012. Copyright Collin French
This year we had the great fortune to release print copies of our first two issues. And, as of December 21st, 2012, we have published our third--and strongest-- issue. Check out Nakum 2012! This issue in particular is so important for all of us at ICI because it debunks the popular assumption undergirding the excitement and subsequent disappointment surrounding 2012: that Indigenous knowledge is exclusively spiritual rather than scientific or academic.

As El Paso native and author of Nine Seasons: Beyond 2012, Carlos Aceves points out in his introduction to the issue, the end of this Bakhtun reveals the scope of Amerindigenous knowledge and cosmology. The Mayan calendar records the fact that ancient Peoples not only kept astonishingly accurate astrophysical data, but they also recognized the relationships of cosmological phenomena to the mundane physical world they inhabited and continue to inhabit. That it's easier for the Western mind to believe in the possibility of a Mayan spiritual prophecy than in the precise data-collecting, scientific capabilities, and interpretive powers of Indigenous people says more about Western society than it ever will about Native people themselves.

Enter Nakum to provide a space for contemporary Indigenous voices and intellectual and creative work. Check out our 2012 issue and let us know what you think.

Feliz 2013!

I love images of Native people in ceremonial and/or traditional regalia or clothing with the indigenization of some contemporary fashion statement. In this case, I'm loving the Chuck Taylors on this young dancer. Copyright Collin French.

My son, in the Longhorns hoodie, with traditional dancer. Copyright Collin French.