Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: What Was/Is/Will Be Chican@ Literature?

Panel 32: “Chicano/a Historical Consciousness, Arts Movement, and Literature,”

One panelist, Elizabeth Cummins Munoz, spoke about novelist and critic Emma Perez’s Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory Flesh (2009) and another, George English Brooks, talked about the significance of material objects in three Chicano texts: cockroaches in Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), bricks in Alejandro Morales’s Brick People (1988), and Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005).

But for me the most fascinating presentation was by Alma Ros Alvarez from Southern Oregon University, titled, “Institutional, Demographic and National Challenges to a Sustained and Vibrant Chicana/o Literary Arts Movement.” Rather than the traditional academic presentation, in which the presenter simply reads, Alvarez gave a short Powerpoint presentation about the way that Chican@ literature—rather than simply Chican@ studies—is currently being taught, offering some preliminary observations about why and how the field might adjust or adapt. She conducted a survey with instructors of Chican@ in the West and Southwest, asking about teaching loads, curricular choices (texts), rationales and feelings about classes and texts, as well as observations about students. Institutionally, the primary concern was with the frequency of classes being taught—most instructors were teaching one course every year or every two years. Demographically, Alvarez investigated whether classes were made of up majority Chican@ or majority white students (or, infrequently, other students of color). How did the makeup of classes determine the curricular choices? What do students expect? What do they respond to? Finally, Alvarez looked at the way that nationalist tendencies or issue shaped the field. How is the category of Chican@ holding up in the current moment, one in which there are many recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America? In which the Aztlan-inspired nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps overshadowed by the Mexican-flag-America-flag bi-nationalism evidenced in the May 1st demonstrations several years ago. In terms of the literature, Alvarez found that historical and cultural content was equal in importance to literary value—and thus there tends to be a focus on reproducing certain themes of Chican@ identity and life. Continue reading Reflections from MELUS Conference 2013: What Was/Is/Will Be Chican@ Literature?

@ MELUS Conference 2013, Pittsburgh, PA

Coming back from the MELUS (Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States) Conference in Pittsburgh, where I presented on a panel titled, “Irish American, Italian American, Jewish American, and Mennonite Literary Traditions and Narrative Voices.”

The abstract of my paper:

“Singing the Black Aesthetic Blues: Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants”

Recent attention to Kenneth Warren’s use of the past tense in the question “What Was African American Literature?” has come not because the question is entirely new but because of the historical moment in which it has appeared. Reconsiderations of Jim Crow and Black Power literary history and aesthetics are inextricably linked to contemporary concerns with the direction of ethnic literatures and ethnic studies in a post-nationalist period marked by “comparative race studies” and the “post-racial.” In this paper, I take up a variation of Warren’s question in the context of the Black Arts Movement and Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants (1971): what makes a “black text” black? And what is at stake in such a definition, not only within its historical context but for our contemporary moment as well. At the height of the Black Arts Movement, white Jewish author Malamud’s The Tenants attempts to represent the debate about the relationship between literature and race but also “black” writing itself. Thus, integrated into the novel are passages of Malamud’s ventriloquizing of Black Arts literature. Malamud is no Amiri Baraka, but he takes his charge and the question seriously, and thus presents the reader with an interesting challenge during a moment in which the parameters of “authentic” black literature were debated often and contentiously. I take up racial representation, appropriation, and self-expression in The Tenants in order to historicize the development of ethnic literatures and to continue to expand the discussion of how to approach texts that present problems of categorization.

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Django’s Prologue?: Rethinking Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

I’ve read around a bit about Django Unchained (2012) but haven’t seen it yet. Naturally, it has generated its share of “controversy,” even if all that such controversy means in material terms is discussion that serves as further promotion for the film–compared of course to the response in parts of the Muslim world to a youtube video. But engaged discussion is no doubt the best response we can have to culture. The debate about Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger,” instigated by Spike Lee among others, is perhaps the oldest and most stale response. (See Sam Jackson’s approach to this problem here: classic.) More interesting have been meditations on the so-called “Django Moment,” when, watching the film in the theater, black folks are unsettled by the laughter of white folks around them. I can’t say that I am particularly driven to see the film, but the amount of talk, especially in Black Studies / Race Studies circles, and the coincidence of its release with Spielberg’s Lincoln makes me feel the need to go see it. And if I can get time, I will. Without having seen it, I’d say that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s take on the film is closest to my own preliminary thoughts: that it is an effort of democracy within the system–nothing challenging but a significant intervention or inversion into the genre film. Continue reading Django’s Prologue?: Rethinking Inglourious Basterds

First Things First: An Introduction

Map created the year my paternal grandfather was born.
Map created the year my paternal grandfather was born, 1906.

Among the many observations that can be made about the effects of internet technology and culture on the way that we interact, think, read, and write, it seems clear that online we are thinking about presentation, formatting, design, and reception alongside, even before content. How many blogs have been meticulously conceived, titled, and designed only to become dormant after one or two posts? I am certainly guilty of this. I’ve searched—in vain, so far—for the best way to share what I do, what I write, what I think with others. My first attempt, Eduhate came into being basically for the purpose of posting one essay I had written, one I’m proud of. Snappy titles don’t age well though, and attempts to post only thoroughly imagined but never completed work end in empty blogs. My most consistent writing online has actually been a series of posts for Pueblo Nuevo Gallery’s blog. The wonderfulness of collaboration and community is indeed an inspiration, and I dream about bringing it alive again with the Pueblo folks. I’ve used Twitter but was once temporarily hacked by diet-pill sellers; more than that though no smartphone and not working in front of a computer all day makes “reading” Twitter selectively sort of like watching 5 random minutes of The Wire—no context, hard to follow, so much to scroll through. Most recently, I have also tried out Tumblr (“Billie Holiday and Mister”)—posting a few longer pieces of writing and pictures of book covers, an endeavor inspired by a homie of mine. But in the end Tumblr functions like a massive work of collaboration, as posts are reblogged into the ether and the tumbling “feed” can make day-old posts invisible and irrelevant.

So after the various names and concepts, I have titled this space for thought “B-Town Thinking, Thinking B-Town” simply because that is who I am and that is what I do. One of my early memories of writing is of winning a prize for writing an essay about protecting the environment. This was in 6th grade at Longfellow School in Berkeley, CA—1990 or 1991. One of the other winners was a kid named D. I had written an essay, and he had written a poem—a rap, actually. When we received our prizes at a ceremony down at the school district offices, he performed the rap, and he brought with him a little crew of girl backup dancers: “The B-Town Dancers.” Maybe that name is a construction of memory, but so be it. These memories make up the fabric of my being, my consciousness: writing and rapping about the environment in B-Town. You don’t hear B-Town used much anymore—but it was. But then, Berkeley is in some ways a different place than it was then. Berkeley has its own mythology, in large part self-created, but it can be funny to hear people talk about how “Berkeley” they act or think, especially when they are either fairly recent transplants or are referring to a “Berkeley” that has disintegrated, even disappeared, if of course it ever existed in the first place. Berkeley is and has always been in many ways far more complex and diverse than is acknowledged by the branded version of “Berkeley.” And it is that complexity and diversity that has made me.

“B-Town Thinking, Thinking B-Town” refers to who I am and what I do. It is in part about Berkeley and what the place/idea is or was. But it is also about the intellectual legacies of growing up in Berkeley, about the particular perspective and consciousness that has taken shape within me. It is about a way of thinking and about thinking through a place. In my life, B-Town Thinking, Thinking B-Town are not choices but are as ever-present and as inescapable as breath.

Berkeley, California, USA