view of water drops on reflective surface; bold, blurred colored shapes in reflection’s background: yellow, red, purple
15
Oct
2015

Textual Communities: Writing, Editing, and Generation in Chicana Feminism

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Written by
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Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sarah Honeychurch
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►April☼” by Jessica; CC BY-NC 2.0

When I first proposed the research title “Editing Chicanas,” one of my mentors, Alice Gambrell, commented that it was a good title, partly because it prompted such anxiety. I was surprised, as anxiety wasn’t what I had intended. I was referring to the act of editing — how was this anxiety-making? As we talked, I realized she was thinking of the act of being edited. Being edited, like the process of peer review discussed so well by Sean Michael Morris, is generally intimate, sometimes to the point of violation. Academic editors often serve a gatekeeping function, one that can allow them to define, or help define, a field of study. While writing, especially its myth as a solitary act of creation, is examined, deified and debunked, editing, so central to publication, is rarely discussed. The history of the book is figured as a triad relationship between authors, publishers and readers, with the role of editorship either subsumed under publishing or left invisible. Yet my research on the relationships and writings produced by Chicana print cultures demonstrated that editorship and editors were and are frequently a catalyst for writing and the “making” of theory. Editors can serve as gatekeepers, yes, but they also solicit writing, contextualize it, help refine it and, ideally, put it into conversation with other voices.

Peer review, frequently both blind and anonymous, is itself a form of and part of the process of academic editing. For me, one of the most interesting and sad conversations I’ve witnessed on Twitter, following the articles “Peer-Review Jerk Survival Guide and “Revise and Resubmit!,” both by Rebecca Schuman, was the discussion of blind peer review. In tweeted responses there were some defenses of the system while, at the same time, academics across disciplines shared the negative and often cutting criticism they had been offered. Sometimes, it seems, anonymous peer review more closely resembles Internet trolling than anything pedagogical. Ironically, within the Slate comments following Schuman’s “Revise and Resubmit,” peer reviews are frequently defended as a test by fire of the research and writer. Yet this process can result in work being lost, not only to the journal where it was originally submitted, but ultimately to any reader, as the author shoves the rejected article into a virtual file.

While readers may perceive the authorship of collected works, whether journals, newspapers or anthologies, as autonomous and absolute, the content is actually the result of individual and collective editorial decisions. Within a text, editors are seen, to the extent they are seen at all, as serving a generally administrative or organizational role. In reality editors act as facilitators, filters and/or gatekeepers — albeit sometimes uncomfortably — deciding who and what is included and excluded, encouraging writing that otherwise might never be published or even written. Editors also decide, in the case of a movement’s newspaper, journal, or anthology, what constitutes the inside and the outside. By making these decisions, they decide whose thoughts merit inclusion, which ones belong and which do not, controlling how and if a subject or author will be presented. Still further, editors decide through which point of view or lens an artistic, social, or political movement will be viewed. Lien Chao comments on this in her discussion of the emergence of the Chinese Canadian anthology. She notes that minority-voiced anthologies frequently carry “larger-than-life” titles and roles. This was the case with the foundational text Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature by Luis Valdez and Stan Steiner, which was the first (and for a while only) anthology of Chicano writing published by a popular press. This same point is made more bluntly — though doubtlessly tongue-in-check — by Norton editor Alane Salierno Mason, who writes in Boston Review that “editing a literary anthology is like forming a social club — you get to decide who are ‘your’ kind of people.” Anthologies have the authority to speak with the collectively powerful voice of an otherwise mute community, and can end up being a movement’s primary or even solitary voice.

The rhetoric of the 1960s-1970s Chicano Movement focused on manhood with leaders like Cesar Chavez galvanizing crowds by exhorting them in speeches that “…we are not beasts of burden, agricultural implements or rented slaves; we are men.” While the rhetoric focused on manhood and nation, the Movement itself opened up opportunities for women to write and edit. From this grew a questioning of gender roles in the Movement. Chicana writers and editors of the late twentieth century split the single “divine soul” by pointing out the contradictions and flaws in a discourse on the nation (U.S. and Chicano) which presumes only masculine subjects. Their writings created textual communities as sites for feminist, cosmopoetic and cosmopolitical interventions into U.S. print culture. At the same time, like African American feminists of the same period, writers like Elizabeth Martinez and Anna Nieto Gomez resisted the essentialist and universalizing tendencies of white feminism, forging in its place a U.S. differential feminism of color. The publications of the Chicano Movement themselves became communities that were, to a degree, bound together by the intersections of their texts, as essays, poetry and reports were published and republished by one community newspaper after another.

The textual community created via Chicana editors are ones created as imagined communities — that is, the editors bring together authors who became a community as they imagine their own connections (whether or not they know each other face-to-face). The early Chicana textual communities, as Blackwell’s research on Hijas de Cuauhtémoc demonstrates, were actual physical communities. Likewise, many of the contributors to This Bridge Called My Back were part of the same community of San Francisco Bay Area lesbians of color, something reinforced in the anthology’s history, which recounts how Anzaldua’s lack of money for postage meant that she handed out copies of the call for contributions in person. By the time Lopez, Davalos, and Alicia Partnoy restarted Vocas as Chicana / Latina: The Journal of MALCS in 2003, the community of Chicanas and Latinas is separated by geography but virtually real, through its connection with MALCS (Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, a Chicana / Latina / Indigenous women’s organization). This meant, and continues to mean, a community physically forms and reforms each year at a summer institute.  As part of this annual institute, the journal’s editors and former editors sponsor an intensive two-day workshop to help prepare first-time authors and their work for submission to the journal, helping to demystify the journal’s conventional blind review process.

Discussing early African American periodicals in her 2005 article for American Literary History, Frances Smith Fosters commented that “sometimes, the identities of editors, publishers, and financial backers are more important than the names of the literary contributors.” Chicanas on the frontiers of the Chicano movement, such as writer, newspaper editor and publisher Elizabeth Martínez (editor of movement newspaper El Grito del Norte), used their position to create a collective community, supporting Chicana authorship. In the years that followed, Chicana activists and scholars, such as Teresa McKenna at Aztlán, edited Chicana/o chapbooks and journals, doing editorial labor and opening the Chicano scholarly publication to Chicana voices. In the early 1980s, writers and editors Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa used their anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, for a similar purpose, creating a textual community / collective of writers which participated in the project of developing and defining a specific new feminism by women of color, as well as Anzaldúa’s border theory. Moving from the twentieth into the twenty-first century, academics such as Chicana historians Deena Gonzalez and Antonia Castañeda have edited the Chicana Matters series for the University of Texas Press, promoting texts by both young and senior Chicana scholars. At the same time, scholars Tiffany Lopez and KarenMary Davalos restarted the MALCS journal (which became Chicana / Latina), building the journal into the field’s flagship, while in the process developing and defining a Chicana feminist editorial praxis. What even my preliminary research has demonstrated is that Chicana editors have shaped the emergence of Chicana feminism as a discipline. Lopez speaks of “citational footprints” within Chicana feminism, a feature of the journal during her and Davalos’s editorial partnership. The history of Chicana editorship is to a significant degree the intellectual history of Chicana feminism.

Editing, at its best, is generative. The story of the publication of the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, told through a series of introductions, are a testament to that. The book began, as Gloria Anzaldúa recounts, with an act of her painful exclusion by a writing workshop. Channeling her hurt and anger at this rejection, Anzaldúa wrote a call for submissions, requesting writing speaking back to white feminism. As the works came in, were read, and were shaped by the two co-editors, the project and its context changed, its focus becoming not feminists of color talking back to white feminists, but the more resistant idea of feminists of color talking to each other. Researching Bridge, one of the things that stood out to me is that for many of the book’s contributors, this was their first publication. Some went on to publish more; for some this is their only published work. The history of Bridge is a fraught one. Without Anzaldúa’s initial call, would they have ever published their piece? More importantly, would it ever have been written?

Although I was not aware of the fact when I began this project, the term textual community is neither new nor original, but is rather a term which evolved out of reader response criticism. The term textual community may be used broadly, as Juliana Spahr does in Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity, to discuss the sense of connection readers of an individual work feel toward each other about their collective, dynamic participation in the text through their shared experience as readers of it. Spahr builds on the earlier usage by Thomas Kuhn, further developed by David Olson, who writes in The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading that “to be literate it is not enough to know the words; one must also participate in the discourse of some textual community,” meaning that within that community, one knows whether an individual text is important and, again within that community, how to read and understand it. While these definitions of textual community have significance for Chicana writings, including the anthologies This Bridge Called My Back and Chicana Voices, especially in discussions of their importance as consciousness-raising texts, I am using the term to convey a different sort of community. A textual community, within this work and my larger project on Chicana editorship, refers specifically to a group of writers and editors who identify with each other as part of, or as representing, a larger community or movement, and/or are identified by readers as belonging to this common collective publication.

My definition of textual community begins with and draws heavily on the historical and sociological studies of physical communal settlements in the United States described as “developmental communalism.” Donald Pitzer, in America’s Communal Utopias, writes that the three central assumptions of developmental communalism are that

  1. “communal living is a generic social construction”
  2. “communal structuring usually is adopted in an early stage of development”
  3. “communal arrangements that are not adjusted over time to changing realities or long-range objectives may contribute to the decline or demise of the original movements”

Using Pitzer’s three assumptions, but opening them further in order to discuss text-centered communities, the textual communities formed by collectively run and relatively short-lived 1970s Chicana-edited journals and newspapers (such as the publications Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, Encuentro Femenil, Regeneration and El Grito del Norte) can be discussed as textual communities as well as physical collectives. These early publications played a significant part in the development of Chicana feminist writings, and had influence which lasted far longer than the short-lived publication history of each journal or newspaper, partly because they evolved out of these physical collectives and communities into textual communities — what Chicana scholar Maylei Blackwell calls “print communities.” Via re-printing, early Chicana writings were distributed far wider than each newspaper’s relatively small printing, moving between Chicana/o publications and communities. Enriqueta Vasquez’s text, “The Women of La Raza,” for example, with its multiple re-printings and re-publications, is an example of a text gaining cultural capital by its distribution in multiple venues.  Rather than seeing these publications as having “failed” due to their small print runs and often short lives, these collectives can be judged to have succeeded to the degree they both furthered the goals that prompted their founding and influenced the development of their participants, who continued to engage in activist writing.

Not all anthologies fit this definition of textual community, but collections that represent their communities, speaking both for and to them, such as Chicana Voices and This Bridge Called My Back, do. As Barbara Christian wrote in her discussion of anthologies for New Black Feminist Criticism, one of the first functions of a women’s representative community anthology is to “confront … the issue as to whether a community of women writers actually represent their community.” The textual community created via the Chicana anthology is created by these imaginings — that is, the authors become a community as they imagine their own connection to (whether or not they have face-to-face connection) and representation of Chicanas, and that connection between authors is reified by their readers, who see the writers as connected to themselves and each other.

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