Hernández: Essaying the Borderlands

The essayist Daisy Hernández gives us a good deal to consider as we conclude our focus on the “rhetoric of the essay” and head into the Second Writing Project next week.

Foremost, we can note any and all questions we might ask this writer, since we get an opportunity to hear from her and converse with her next week. She will be reading at the Literary House on Tuesday, April 5, at 4.30 pm. This is a great opportunity to engage with one of the writers we have been studying. Some basic questions I have in mind at the outset (I will expect us to generate more specific questions in our class conversations this week): What does “creative nonfiction” mean–is that a term that defines what you do? Are you an essayist, a memoirist, or both, or neither? Where (and how) have you learned to write essays?

We can also continue our exploration of the essay taken up with Susanna Kaysen. I would note that Hernández also uses the concept of the border, or borderland–Kaysen, recall, refers to the “borderline.” For Kaysen, that’s an analogy (both metaphorical and metonymic) derived from the mental health “topography” she maps, particularly her diagnosis (borderline personality disorder). The border provides a figure for various images and ideas of conflict–of moving between opposing positions: mind and brain, viscosity and velocity, sane and insane. For Hernández, the borderland provides analogies for moving between cultures, places, languages–and most particularly, moving between and among genders, bodies, sexualities. The borders that are crossed are norms, preconceived or given or conventional views of what it means to be an embodied self. A keyword for this crossing is “queer.” The creation and reception of story, narrative, provides Hernández with a crucial analogy for how this borderland is explored and crossed. The various references to story and narrative within these essays are sometimes metaphorical (she refers, for example, to a “thread” throughout) and often, if not ultimately, metonymic: the threads are real material from her life (her mother sewing, the hilo, Spanish for “thread”), and lead to real material in her life–namely, the narratives she will write.

I see the rhetorical purpose of her project emerge in these narrative threads. Recall that any argument, as I have argued, is simply a response to a conflict: a given or conventional view that is disturbed or questioned or conflicted in some way, and the writer seeks to respond to that conflict, explore, if not provide, a resolution. When Hernández refers to her writing, uses phrasing such as “this memoir” or “this narrative,” she extends her analogy to the reader. We, as readers, become part of the story. We can think of that in rhetorical terms: metadiscourse (a new keyword). We saw Frederick Douglass do this at key moments. It is a way he implicates his reader in the narrative, a witness but also a participant. “Queer Narratives”: that’s a title for one of her essays, an adjective describing what she produces; and its a verb, describing the action that she is pursuing, performing, the queering of (our) received, or preconceived, narratives.

As we learn in the last two essays, Hernandez becomes a journalist, writing and working first as an intern at The New York Times, and then for a number of years at Colorlines, a publication based in Oakland, California. While there, she wrote an essay/feature article in 2008, “Becoming a Black Man.” I am interested to learn from her how journalism informs or shapes the way she writes essays or thinks of the essay as journalistic. One option for your final project would be to pursue an essay that is conceived more as journalism–a feature article (which is more like an essay) for a publication like The New York Times Magazine. For example, this essayistic journalism by Claudia Rankine (herself a lyric essayist) about the tennis player Serena Williams.

Momaday: shadows on the grass

“It was a simple story in the telling, but there were many implications, many shadows on the grass” (The Names, 50).

This line could well have been written by Nick Flynn, or at least, written about his memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb. With The Names, for all its differences–its location in different places, different culture, different approach to family and identity–we have yet another nonfiction text that could be described as lyrical autobiography. We could even return to one of our earliest discussions in this course: Momaday, like Wolff after him, and not unlike Franklin and Douglass before them, engages in the imaginative truth of autobiographical writing.

As I suggested in class, Momaday locates the cultivation of this creative idea of autobiographical identity–I think, I write, therefore I am–not just in his mind (as Descartes does), but in his family. And, as we see, his conception of family, in his tradition, extends far back in time and space; one’s identity is shaped not just genetically, but historically. And history includes: names, stories, places, parents, myths.

Is that really so strange?  What if we think of The Names as Momaday’s Genesis, his story of his beginnings, interwoven with everything else? Isn’t this familiar to us: where do I come from? If we take that question a bit more deliberately than we might usually do–and I would suggest a good nonfiction writer is nothing if not deliberate–then an honest answer to the question would fill a book. It is certainly familiar to American autobiography. Franklin begins with the story of his name, his ancestry enfolded in that; Douglass begins with the absence of his name. Momaday is also telling the story of his name. And what he does–albeit with different locations and names, as we should expect, since we come from different places–that is, to my mind, very similar to both Franklin and Douglass and Flynn and all the authors of this course, is approach the narrative of one’s beginnings as a narrative, in fact and in effect, of one’s becoming. If one of Flynn’s keywords for his “becoming” is “bewilderment,” the wandering that marks the experimental quality of his text, one of Momaday’s keywords is “evolving.”

We see a rich example of that in the case of his mother. He demonstrates in those pages around her images not just the evolving of her identity, but the idea of imaginative identity that he evolves from her. As we keep reading, and particularly as we give more thought to the creative and poetic (or again, lyrical) elements of his narrative in chapter three, we should keep the implications of evolution in mind.

And as we finish out this narrative at the end of next week, and give more thought to the environmental focus in the text–identity in place–this sense of creative evolution will also provide some grounding. However, as he forewarns us, the simple and recognizable image has many shadows on the grass.