Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Juan Felipe Herrera's Natural History Of Chicano Literature

A lot of great stuff's already been said about the Juan Felipe Herrera performance/lecture we viewed last week, in particular the extent to which his very presentation embodied the border-crossing/genre-bending he names as integral to Chicano literature, and the centrality he affords the concept of self-definition, returning over and over to the notion of writing/speaking "on our own terms," and engaging in forms of self-publication (the chapbook, principally), as a means of subverting the stranglehold mainstream presses have had (and continue to have, really) on writing (and art, more broadly) produced by people of color. Similarly, the importance Herrera ascribes to having/utilizing "as many mediums as possible, to express as many realities as possible" (a quote I believe encapsulates not just many of his performance's/lecture's themes, but much of his own work as a writer and storyteller utilizing a confluence/cross-pollination of genres and forms) has been highlighted as crucial to an understanding of his vision/aesthetic.

I want to raise another couple quotes, that I don't think have been touched on yet, but that I find similarly necessary to understanding where Herrera's coming from, and the annihilation of hierarchies (around who is or isn't an artist, around who is or isn't an activist, etc) he seems to so advocate for.

"Sometimes our imaginations are anemic," he states, discussing the extent to which many, especially in historically marginalized/targeted communities, don't have images of family members and ancestors as artists, but exclusively as workers or home-makers. He calls out this lack (of visual representation either actual or imagined) as part and parcel of the oppression wrought against communities of color, i.e. eliminating the very idea of creativity/artistry in said communities' imaginations ensures that vacuum's/absence's perpetuation. Herrera says that we need images/conceptions of our elders and ancestors as artists, as storytellers, to undermine the notion that artists are somehow other than, or outside of, ourselves. There is great power, utility, and agency in conceiving of the stories or sketches a family elder told or showed us when we were children, as art, equally if not more important than that which gets lauded in widely distributed anthologies or regularly attended museums. Understanding everyday people, and past/present family members especially, as artists, frees folks to conceive of themselves as such, and can remove the barriers around tapping into creativity so many experience as a result of art establishments' gatekeepers claiming that only a handful of people really qualify for the label.

I also found Herrera's emphasis on all of us being victims, as well as killers, and needing to be aware of that both/and dynamic, a refreshingly nuanced take on political consciousness. He names that each of our actions, and inactions, implicate us in the middle of pressing social issues, rather than just on the 'right' or 'wrong' side. That's why it's so hard to write overtly politicized poems that merely stake out one position on an issue, he claims. Because, if we're really invested in vulnerability and truth-telling (an approach any artist of integrity should be aspiring to), we must name and critique not only the ills and wrongs of the world, but also the extent to which we each participate in and extend forms of structural oppression, even if we generally conceive of ourselves as activists, organizers, or socially aware beings. Again, an intentional dissolving of hierarchies and binaries, a crossing of traditional boundaries and borders, an opening into wider/broader conceptions of self and community...

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