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: environmental autobiography

Jemez, New Mexico

Wish I were here.  We know the phrase from post cards, usually (of course) directed to another: wish you were here. Or perhaps, if sent to provoke some measure of envy: can you believe I am here and you are stuck at home?

I feel this way, somewhat, in the final pages of Momaday’s memoir. I marvel at the way he locates his childhood and his very life in the place of New Mexico and the beauty and wonder of that world. I leave the book with a sense that Momaday knows where he is; that the place and places of his childhood and his ancestry have strongly and wonderfully shaped him. He writes of his relation to the landscape,

The events of one’s life take place, take place. How often have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. And a part of my life happened to take place at Jemez. I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. [142]

In the final chapter Momaday meditates upon this essential relation between the meaning of his life and the place and landscape in which he lived. The places where life took place, as he puts it. Life has context; and writing or representing life (in a word, autobiography) also needs context. This isn’t new to our study. We have certainly seen the importance of context in This Boy’s Life: it matters where the living takes place.

Momaday’s narrative can be defined as “environmental autobiography” to the extent that he focuses so intently on the interrelationship between his life and its place. As with his name, Tsoai, which locates his identity in a place. And in doing so, we see some interesting confirmations of the autobiographical tradition in America, but also some challenges and tensions. The I is placed and rooted: I celebrate myself (Whitman famously begins “Song of Myself”), I was born, I lived here. And potentially, the I is dispersed into the environment: if you want to find me, Whitman closes that same poem, look for me under your boot soles. So, Momaday’s “I” is centered in its sense of place–his family, its locations; but it is also de-centered into place, defined by place to an extent that is not traditional to an I-centered narrative. If the Cartesian ego traditionally keeps the subject clearly distinct from the objects of its world, an ecological ego tends to blur distinctions between identity and environment. The environmental literary critic Lawrence Buell argues that a text such as Momaday’s can be considered environmentally oriented if it meets 4 conditions.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. [Buell, The Environmental Imagination]

I think these conditions are at work in The Names and have something to do with Momaday’s interest in what he names “enchantment.”  Momaday’s “here” is thus local and universal. The here of his life and parents and immediate family–all the people in the photographs. But it is also a “here” that we traditionally don’t call here: the here of the distant past, of memory or ancestry; the here of other regions and races, of time that is not bound to what we know or where we are. For me this is what links Momaday’s environmental perspective to his spiritual perspective: “here” is also a window onto beauty and wonder and spirit. “The wonder: I want to tell you of it; I want to speak and to write it all out for you.” [155] I hear Wolff  and Douglass and Rankine and Flynn also wishing they could find that wonder–or, if finding it, speak and write it all out. It may be that Momaday–because he was given the name for it from his family–has had a life where that wonder can be realized.

As a reader of this narrative, that leaves me wishing I could join him there, or here. But I also understand that as a writer of autobiography, I have work to do. I didn’t grow up with the sense of place Momaday has. But my life, as every life, took place somewhere. This is something we all should consider for autobiographical writing. An environmental perspective need not mean that your life took place among the red rock and canyons of the Southwest.  It may mean, in fact, that you lived in very different places from how others might describe ideas such as landscape and beauty and wonder. But as Momaday tells us, these lives still take place.