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Writing the Self: Gloria Anzaldúa, Textual Form, and Feminist Epistemology
Personal experiences – revised and in other ways redrawn – become a lens with which to reread and rewrite the cultural stories into which we are born.
- Gloria Anzaldúa, now let us shift....
Feminist writer and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa has been increasingly important for almost two decades; her work is now systematically anthologized in composition, feminist, and critical race readers, reaching new audiences each year. After the publication of This Bridge Called Our Back, co-edited with Cherrie Moraga in 1981, Anzaldúa’s reach extended with her book Borderlands/La Frontera published in 1987. Since then, scholarship surrounding Anzaldúa – as a theorist, a poet, a lesbian feminist, a Chicana, a mestiza – has consistently expanded in order to more fully disseminate and make use of her ideas. Anzaldúa’s theory of borderland and mestiza identity as a fuller and richer theory of difference, self, and culture has been broadly deployed across disciplines and in classrooms. Now, in many classrooms across the country, students read excerpts or chapters from Anzaldúa’s text Borderlands.
Particularly within these anthologies and collections, Anzaldúa’s work functions primarily in essayist fashion. Although readers of Anzaldúa’s work have much to learn about her particular experience of mestiza identity, her work also shows that the act of writing itself assists individuals in coming to know and express the complexities of identity. In the two chapters I will examine below, readers see Anzaldúa’s narrator explore the intersections and intricacies of multiple aspects of her identity. It is this ability to explore and investigate – to think in writing – that characterizes Anzaldúa’s writing in these chapters as essayistic. Conceptualizing these two chapters as essays allows for several benefits: acknowledgement of the ways that narrator and voice are constructed, attention to how form is crafted and purposeful, and awareness of how the inclusion and negotiation of multiple discourses drives the knowledge possibilities of the text forward.
An understanding of the essay can thus supplement our readings of these complex texts. In my essay below, I will argue that essays exist as knowledge possibilities in addition to real, material texts composed and constructed by writers. As Theodor Adorno noted in his influential piece “The Essay as Form,” the essay functions as “an arena of intellectual experience” in which knowledges can be brought together, tested, and complicated (161). Feminist writers from Wollstonecraft to Woolf, de Beauvoir to hooks, have often turned to both the category of experience and the genre of the essay to explore ways of knowing grounded in a deep skepticism of received knowledge, disciplinary divides, and false binaries. The essay as a genre then, and the fluid, hybrid forms Anzaldúa composes, serve as key texts through which to consider feminist epistemologies. What ways of knowing do writers offer via their texts? How can feminist knowledge strategies exceed traditional, often linear, argumentative or narrative structures? And how do these texts thus offer possibilities for knowing ourselves, our identities, and our worlds otherwise?
This article explores two chapters from Borderlands/La Frontera: the most frequently anthologized chapter, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” and the seldom anthologized following chapter, “Tlilli, Tlapalli / The Path of the Red and Black Ink.” The chapters are juxtaposed in order to elucidate Anzaldúa’s powerful contributions to gendered and racialized identity theories and, moreover, to illustrate how theory and practice combine in her writing to offer a specifically feminist epistemology. In essayistic fashion, I provide close readings of each chapter to exemplify the affect of reading and negotiating the threads Anzaldúa weaves together. Tracing the non-linear essayism of Anzaldúa’s chapters, my essay likewise picks up ideas, stories, and observations in order to put them into suggestive conversation. In addition to providing a broad sense of her writing style, commitments, and thinking across multiple chapters, I juxtapose Anzaldúa’s two chapters in order to compare the argumentative work of Chapter Five with the more narrative, descriptive, embodied writing of Chapter Six. In each reading, I pay close attention to the hybrid dynamic of the writing in order to illustrate how Anzaldúa’s text engenders powerful knowledge opportunities through feminist writing practices.
Writing as Counter to Traditions of Silence: Mestiza Identity in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”
Gloria Anzaldúa’s writing is well known for challenging readers to push against the limits of what they know about specific contexts and situations. Anzaldúa allows readers to experience, to some degree at least, what it is to live in the physically and linguistically “bordered” world of Texas. Anzaldúa’s fifth chapter of Borderlands begins with the metaphor of the narrator’s visit to the dentist, establishing the chapter’s central motif of “taming a wild tongue.” For the dentist, the narrator’s tongue is too unruly and disobedient. It keeps getting in the way and the dentist notes that “something must be done” about it (53). Reflecting on this experience, the narrator notes that for those who speak up against injustice, “Wild tongues can’t be tamed. They can only be cut out” (54). This opening metaphor sets the stage for the analyses and arguments Anzaldúa constructs regarding the importance of language, linguistic identity, and cultural identity. Although Anzaldúa often summons memories, stories, or short anecdotes like the one above in order to illustrate her points through drawing on different types of knowledges, Chapter Five is primarily characterized by its critical scrutiny of the borderlands that the narrator occupies. In this vein, the beginning anecdote about the dentist is followed by a quote from artist Ray Gwyn Smith which, centered on the page, reads, “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” Beginning with a personal narrative and moving to an interrogative citation, Anzaldúa creates a hybrid structure which resonates with her exploration of linguistic identity. This fast-paced textual layering continues in the next three paragraphs. In the first, the narrator relates a childhood altercation with her Anglo teacher who admonished her for speaking Spanish at recess. In the second paragraph, the narrator quotes her mother’s desire for her children to speak English without an accent, a desire which coincided with the goals of the local schooling systems. Here, we are introduced to the mixing of English and Spanish text within the dialogue spoken by the narrator’s mother: the mother’s first sentence is in English, but is followed by two sentences which are completely in Spanish except for the last word “accent” which is in scare-quotes due to its English insertion within a Spanish sentence. Finally, with the third paragraph Anzaldúa ends the chapter’s first short section declaratively with three sentences reading:
Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancó la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out. (54 )
In addition to constructing a hybrid text that moves between different types of written expression, Anzaldúa’s piece adds a level of hybrid complexity by simultaneously moving between multiple languages in order to make a strong, polemical statement.
It is important to notice, however, that whereas in the second paragraph the Spanish was contained within the mother’s dialogue – marking it as speech and as expression closely tied to identity and thus, in some ways, both expected and innocuous – in the above quotation the Spanish text is asserted by the narrator and takes its place alongside the English text. This shift is important as it marks the shift from Spanish as tied to an individual’s way of speaking to a heightened reliance on Spanish to communicate the argument of the piece. The use of Spanish not only assists the English text in making a point, but moves beyond what English is able to express to include other dimensions and meanings more ably present in Spanish. Here, for example, the Spanish text allows the narrator to shift both the tone of the paragraph from a legal diction to a more personal tone, while at the same time more directly implicating those Anglos “with innocent faces” as those who attempt to censor language. This progression in turn sets up the paragraph for the concluding sentence which circles back to the opening metaphor of the wild tongue, here asserting that only violence can “cure” such wildness.
This hybrid style – marked by changes in types of writing and argument, as well as changes in language usage – results in a text which weaves together multiple threads in order to approach a central idea. An example of this hybridity occurs in Chapter Five’s next section, entitled “Overcoming the Tradition of Silence.” The structure of the section consists of a range of writing I will explore below: an introductory epigraph in Spanish, a longer paragraph, a shorter paragraph, a short poem written by Jewish writer Irena Klepfisz, and lastly, a very short paragraph of two sentences. Each of these sections of writing is held apart from the following section by a space break; this usage marks this section as unique from other sections in the chapter which utilize white space less consistently and more sparingly. As critics such as Julie Jung have argued, space breaks are used purposefully to resist linear transitions and thus, make readers “listen” better.
The beginning epigraph in Spanish sets the tone of the section and introduces the tropes of dark, light, and shadows as well as the feeling of being buried by silence. The use of the three line epigraph entirely in Spanish establishes an alternative to English-only usage. In addition to specifically calling on women to enact a feminist confrontation to the tradition of patriarchal silence, it also enacts a possible way to counter the “tradition” of silence through alternative and confrontational language usage. Moreover, the three line epigraph accelerates the amount of Spanish the reader encounters. The following long paragraph heightens this movement since its first sentence is also written in Spanish, however the trend of this paragraph is to introduce cultural sayings and phrases, which are then translated or contextualized by the English text within the paragraph. Here, the English text serves the purposes and meanings of the Spanish text: the two languages are integrated within sentences, the narrator moving back and forth between the two as she establishes the litany of phrases used to denigrate women and their speech.
The following short paragraph – the third piece of text among the five which constitute the section – elaborates the patriarchal nature of discourse through the narrator’s recollection of the first time she heard the feminine plural of “we,” nosotras. This paragraph concretizes the idea that women can be culturally degraded and minimized through language. Thus, the cultural experience of women is given specific weight by the narrator’s remembrance of being struck by the use of nosotras. Via a turn to personal example, the personal evidence is then further sedimented as the tone shifts to a more academic, claim-based argument: “We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse” (54 ).
Juxtaposing this more argumentative discourse is the following poem, by Jewish writer Irena Klepfisz, which also makes interesting use of white space:
Formally, the shift to poetic language and form extends the narrator’s ability to move between shifting discourses and types of writing. The use of white space within the poem accents the themes of language aridity and visually invokes the forgetting of languages. This use of white space thus also provides a formal bridge to Anzaldúa’s use of the space break. In this section as a whole, silence is invoked on the page through space break – patches of speech and ideas are simultaneously held apart for contemplation even as they are joined under the section title “Overcoming the Tradition of Silence.” In this way, each part of the section seems a step in breaking that tradition, overcoming silence via its individual speech act. Yet things are not quite so simple, as the narrator points out in the two sentence concluding paragraph of the section: “Even our own people, other Spanish speakers nos quieren poner candados en la boca. They would hold us back with their bag of regles de academia” (54). Even as the narrator seeks to build an illustrative and suggestive argument suggesting how silence might be overcome, the text seems discontent with resolving too easily or sacrificing the complexity of the dynamics surrounding language use to simplistic, or overly hopeful, lines of thought.
As I’ve shown in the analysis of this section, hybridity exists not only as the central content of the piece – the inquiry and difficulty being explored – but appropriately becomes the concomitant form of the writing. In order to discuss hybridity, it seems it is necessary to view and write the world through hybridity. And as the narrator of Anzaldúa’s piece suggests, solutions, peoples, and interpretations are multiple; no easy alliances can be found in such a population as “our own people” or “Spanish speakers.” Indeed, the rest of Chapter Five does much to articulate the stratifications within populations which have been mis-viewed as singular or unified. Among the differences Anzaldúa explores are the multiple languages Chicanos speak as well as the relationships between Spanish speakers as they negotiate which language to speak to whom; the history of Spanish linguistic change in response to other languages, populations, and geographical realities; the relationship between linguistic and ethnic identity, the pressures of acculturation, and the accompanying emotions of shame and low self-esteem; and issues of identification and hybrid mestiza consciousness. Alongside these informative and argumentative sections, Anzaldúa includes personal reflection and narration about her place within these cultural fissures and borders, including a section devoted to the visceral memories that define the narrator as Chicana and the difficulty she experienced relaying this identity to an often hostel and limiting Anglo world. Thus we see that Chapter Five works largely to enlighten the reader through an assemblage of written expression, even as it ultimately relies upon argumentative, declarative, and expository rhetoric to make its points.
A summary of the final pages of Chapter Five will illustrate the diverse and dialogic discourse strategies Anzaldúa deploys in constructing a hybrid, essayistic text which summons multiple lines of thought and expression to erect its arguments. The final section of Chapter Five – Si la preguntas a mi mamá, "Qué eres?” – begins with a centered epigraph: "Identity is the essential core of who we are as individuals, the conscious experience of the self inside" (62). Fittingly, this last section explores the competing ways Chicanos have tried to establish a sense of identity – national, racial, linguistic, spiritual, emotional – even as they "straddle the borderlands" both physically and in terms of how they, and others, understand identity. Using the metaphors of both eagle and serpent as a way to illustrate surpassing borders, Anzaldúa chronicles how the Chicano population identifies multiply – Mexican, mestizo, Raza, tejano – each inflecting or accentuating a particular aspect of identity. Such identification is necessary to combat the narrator’s feeling that “I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one” (63).
The coining of the name “Chicano” therefore served as an important catalyst for distinguishing Chicanos as “a distinct people”: “Now that we had a name, some of the fragmented pieces began to fall together – who we were, what we were, how we had evolved. We began to get glimpses of what we might eventually become” (63). Anzaldúa writes, “One day the inner struggle will cease and a true integration [will] take place” (63). Accordingly, this paragraph continues in Spanish, posing questions and asserting the Chicano’s own identity struggles, thus fully integrating Spanish and English in order to imagine such integration on the page. In the conclusion to Chapter Five, Anzaldúa deploys fewer space breaks, resulting in a prose-style that builds momentum and ties together the multiple narratives, examples, and claims made. The conclusion thus establishes both a sense of unification and a sense of alterity; Chicanos are held together by their differences and this realization and recognition of difference is crucial to hybrid identity. What Anzaldúa has shown us through her text is just this: that the “fragmented pieces” of identity and subject position can begin “to fall together” into persuasive argument via a hybrid textual form which makes room for multiple ways of knowing and expressing the self.
Writer as Knower, Writer as Conjurer: Bodily Writing and Knowledge in “Tlilli, Tlapalli / The Path of the Red and Black Ink”
In Chapter Six, however, Anzaldúa complicates the ways of understanding identity she has already established. If in Chapter Five a sense of mestiza-hybridity serves as the primary trait of identity, in Chapter Six this sense radiates to a specific aspect of the narrator’s identity – that of a writer, and a writer influenced significantly by her Indian heritage and its culture. If Chapter Five primarily occupied a historical, cultural, and rhetorically argumentative space, Chapter Six filters these perspectives through more personal, narrative, and reflexive writing. The diverse formal structure mimics the chapter’s move toward a more personal and specific exploration of identity through its increased use of non-English writing, often present in longer pieces of text (the longest is a three-paragraph, half-page block of Spanish.) Here, the use of more Spanish builds on both the trust the narrator has established with the reader in the prior chapters and the strategies that reader has developed for engaging both Spanish and English written text, including dialects. As Chapter Six spirals in to examine the more particular individual identity of the narrator, increased reliance on Spanish within the text enacts the writer’s communication and way of being a writer in the world.
Part of the work of Chapter Six is thus to provide a range of metaphors and descriptions for understanding what it means to write and what it means to be a writer. These descriptions range across a spectrum of positions for the writer, beginning with situating the writer as a worker, a crafter of language: “Picking out images from my soul’s eye, fishing for the right words to recreate the images. Words are blades of grass pushing past the obstacles, sprouting on the page...” (71). The verbs used here highlight the range of writing activities, from the more purposeful “picking out,” to the tentative “fishing,” to the spontaneous “sprouting.” Anzaldúa seems to embrace the multiplicity of writing and its processes, writing:
Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer – a lot of squiring, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where I kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen. (72)
Anzaldúa characterizes writing as both waiting and crafting to multiply the ways that we think about writing. Indeed, her passage works to define one perception of writing followed immediately by “its opposite.” Often writing involves struggle – defined or sensed – “coming up against all sorts of walls.” She writes: “That’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be” (73). Writing is not only a way of doing or of communicating, but a way of oscillating between ways of understanding, making meaning, and interpreting. This process of struggle thus complicates the hold one way of writing/knowing, or its opposite, can be reified into binary opposition. Meaning making oscillates between the muddy terrain of worse and better, and, as we will see in the next section, subject and object, writer and text.
Chapter Six thus illustrates the ways that writing necessitates multiple relationships. One of these relationships is that between feeling and knowing, between the conscious and the unconscious. Anzaldúa points to the image as a key intermediary: “An image is a bridge between evoked emotion and conscious knowledge; words are the cables that hold up the bridge. Images are more direct, more immediate than words, and closer to the unconscious” (69). The latter sentence seems to express the ability of the image to tap into and capture something about an idea or emotion which may not be as readily expressed in words. These images and words can then be woven together: “This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance” (66). Anzaldúa writes:
If I can get the bone structure right, then putting flesh on it proceeds without too many hitches. The problem is that the bones often do not exist prior to the flesh, but are shaped after a vague and broad shadow of its form is discerned or uncovered during beginning, middle and final stages of writing...The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will...Though it is a flawed thing – a clumsy, complex, groping, blind thing – for me it is alive, infused with spirit. I talk to it; it talks to me. (67)
The sense of negotiation in writing acts as the primary metaphor for this description, yet it is worth noticing how little control the narrator feels she has over the piece. The piece is unwieldy since the form – the bones – cannot exist prior to, or as distinct from, the “flesh.” Instead the writing process itself – the stages she refers to – allow the form to emerge from a “vague and broad shadow” to something more distinct and meaningful. This movement between the bones and the flesh – between, less gracefully, form and content – simulates the movement between writer creating a dialogue with the world around her. As Anzaldúa concludes, when writing, “I am playing with my Self, I am playing with the world’s soul, I am the dialogue between my Self and el espíritu del mundo. I change myself, I change the world” (70).
Arguments Otherwise: Thinking Through Feminist Epistemologies with Anzaldúa
A primary way that writers change the world around them is through the interaction of their written texts with readers. As theorists such as Louise Rosenblatt have noted, meaning making is a process enacted between readers and texts, and thus by extension – writers. Anzaldúa writes, “My ‘stories’ are acts encapsulated in time, ‘enacted’ every time they are spoken aloud or read silently. I like to think of them as performances and not as inert and ‘dead’ objects (as the aesthetics of Western culture think of art works)” (67). Here, Anzaldúa extends her written text beyond a static object, beyond a static meaning to be ascertained, to the broader concept of an “act.” This definition is significant in the way it allows Anzaldúa to imagine the relationship with her reader and for the way it allows her to characterize the experience of reading as less linearly driven. Encapsulating texts, readers, and writers into a performance space suggests a more complex system of relationships then merely “writer writes” and “reader reads.”
Such a system of interpretation – multi-faceted, overlapping, collaborative – guides the way Anzaldúa problematizes traditional binaries which have shaped the interpretation of art:
In the ethno-poetics and performance of the shaman, my people, the Indians, did not split the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life...The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform the storyteller and the listener into something or someone else is shamanistic. (66)
Here Anzaldúa differentiates her cultural perspective from writers of “Western” traditions that tend to divide – art from practice, form from content, male from female. For Anzaldúa, the reader is not strictly divided from writer. Although texts navigate and shape the relationship between reader and writer, the reader and the writer are not held apart at separate poles with the text moving in only one direction. Instead, both the storyteller and listener – and by Anzaldúa’s example, writer and reader – are “transform[ed]...into something or someone else.” Here both reading and writing are processes that rest on change – the transformation of perspectives, ideas, understandings.
Just as the written text does not move in a singular, linear direction from writer to reader, Anzaldúa’s writing moves between and among times and spaces. Such movement is made possible by the essay’s ability to transcend strict narrative logic and spatio-temporal expectations. As critic Diana Fowlkes writes, “Anzaldúa demonstrates the usefulness of recognizing simultaneity of many borders and then consciously mingling their effects, rather than allowing them to render her divided within herself and thus immobile” (118). In so doing Anzaldúa is careful not to minimize or obscure differences; instead she moves between categories and borders, using the metaphor of herself as a crossroads. Through such intermingling, Anzaldúa participates in a long tradition of essay-writing technique. Yet her use of multiple narratives, types of writing that exceed the traditional voice of an essay narrator (such as lists, poems, colloquialisms, etc.), and most particularly the hybrid form her essay engenders push the boundaries of what may be normally recognized as an essay. Fowlkes names this style of writing “complex identity narration...involving an interlacing of autobiographical narrative with historical, political, philosophical, cultural, linguistic, spiritual, and psychological analyses and syntheses” (108-9). Anzaldúa describes her writing as “autohistoria... a term I use to describe the genre of writing about one’s personal and collective history using fictive elements, a sort of fictionalized autobiography or memoir; an autohistoria – teoría is a personal essay that theorizes” (“now let us shift,” 578). Although many of these discourses have historically been deployed by essayists since Montaigne, Anzaldúa’s particular assemblage of different types of language and discourse in her essay-chapters makes visible the range of possible essay writing. Most importantly, Anzaldúa figures this writing as a knowledge possibility grounded in theorizing the personal and deploying it not only as singular reality, but instead as a framing and narrating tool.
Thus, in addition to exploring the spectrum of writing and expression the essay form engenders, part of the work of Borderlands seems to be to balance more argument-driven chapters (such as Chapter Five) with alternate structures and styles of argumentation. As Anzaldúa writes, “Let us hope that the left hand, that of darkness, of femaleness, of ‘primitiveness,’ can divert the indifferent, right-handed, ‘rational’ suicidal drive that, unchecked, could blow us into acid rain in a fraction of a millisecond” (69). Through acknowledging and countering binaries like these, Anzaldúa polemically poses “challenges to dominant models of knowledge formation,” especially those which privilege “singular subjectivity” and rely on “the Cartesian and positivist scientific models” (Fowlkes, 111). Moving beyond binaries of subject and object and their concomitant beliefs regarding objectively ascertained knowledge of the world via the scientific method, Anzaldúa’s writing suggests multiple ways to access, describe, and understand the world around us. If Chapter Five works to articulate “a form of subjectivity ...[that is] flexible, [and] complexly defined” as Fowlkes suggests, I contend that it is Chapter Six, and its juxtaposition to Chapter Five, that presents feminist alternatives to both knowing and representing reality (108).
For example, although Chapter Six begins similarly to Chapter Five – using a series of short paragraphs which lead with a narrative anecdote and an epigraph – the “argument” of Chapter Six is much more tentative, exploratory, and seemingly grasping as it seeks to articulate what it means to be a writer and what it means to tell stories. Apparent in the motif of the popular Mexican story of an appearing and disappearing phantom dog, this transitory and speculative approach comes to stand at the end of Chapter’s Six introductory section through the repetition of the phrase “It must have been then”: “It must have been then that I decided to put stories on paper. It must have been then that working with images and writing became connected to night” (65). This repetition uses recollection as a type of heuristic to try to figure out when the narrator learned to both write stories and to associate stories with the night. Yet although repetition often serves to ground an assertion more forcefully, the repetition of the speculative “must have been” (as compared to the simpler and more direct “was”) serves instead to highlight the tentative nature of this conclusion. Compared to Chapter Five – a chapter erected to move from exploration of hybrid linguistic and ethnic identity to argumentative legitimation of such identity – Chapter Six continues in an explorative vein, using the motif of groping as a central epistemology of the piece. Instead of presenting an argument about the left hand “of darkness” and “of femaleness” as alternatives to right-handed, rationalist ways of knowing, the method of Chapter Six is to describe this darkness metaphorically.
Thus, as Anzaldúa searches among metaphors to describe the writing process and the ways the writer is defined by acts of writing, the struggle of writing is embodied by both the violence of the imagery and through the process of searching for metaphors and descriptions. That is, Anzaldúa exhibits the difficulty inherent in writing through not making an easy correlation between writing and “what it is like” – no one metaphor can accurately describe or suggest what it means to be a writer. Instead, the process of accumulating and shifting the many aspects of what writing is like for the narrator allows the act of writing to gain complexity and a visceral quality. The images the narrator turns to – the “pulling of flesh,” “teetering on the edge” of an abyss, the squeezing of her own throat between her hands – convey the pain of the act of writing. Anzaldúa turns to the metaphors of writing as a “blood sacrifice” and a “live animal resisting” to suggest the struggle that writing necessitates and that fishing “for the right words” demands.
The first full paragraph of Chapter Six’s final section, “Something to do with the Dark,” is particularly striking in terms of the images Anzaldúa deploys to convey not only the act of writing, but her existence as a writer. It reads:
The toad comes out of its hiding place inside the lobes of my brain. It’s going to happen again. The ghost of the toad that betrayed me – I hold it in my hand. The toad is sipping the strength from my veins, it is sucking my pale heart. I am a dried serpent skin, wind scuttling me across the hard ground, pieces of me scattered over the countryside. And there in the dark I meet the crippled spider crawling in the gutter, the day-old newspaper fluttering in the dirty rain water. (72)
A number of powerful, bodily images emerge in this passage. The first is the image of the toad, an entity in its own right which both uses the writer as conduit or host and somehow betrays the writer. Perhaps it is not the same toad which betrays, however, since the narrator here uses the phrase “ghost of the toad that betrayed me,” suggesting through the imagery of the ghost that a previous toad was the one that enacted the betrayal. In terms of writing, this spectral toad may be a previous idea, communication, or piece that did not develop or exist as the writer intended, thus resulting in betrayal. Through betrayals such as these, or through the process of having her life-blood sucked, the writer transforms into an empty shell (dried serpent skin) and an injured entity (crippled spider) devoid of meaningful content (day-old newspaper). Incapable of self-directed movement, the “wind scuttles” the writer’s sullied body through the dark, any words that are left now bleeding into one another in the “dirty rain water.”
The images in this passage are in dialogue with familiar perceptions of writing, although not in simplistic ways. Here, writing consists of letting an idea – a toad, in this case, which lives “inside the lobes” of the brain – out. Although in this rendition the process is only marginally controllable – thus the narrator’s somewhat fearful recognition that “It’s going to happen again” – part of this account rests on the notion that something inside the writer exists prior to the writing and that this “something” is what is transmitted onto the page. Yet the toad cannot exist fully without the writer; it changes and strengthens itself through a parasitic “sipping” of strength from the writer’s veins and heart. It is intimately connected, even dependent upon, the writer’s material, bodily being. And in turn, the writer is transformed by the process of writing, momentarily spent and figured as a host of “pieces...scattered over the countryside.”
This process of transformation dovetails with Anzaldúa’s assertion that “in reconstructing the traumas behind the images, I make “sense” of them, and once they have “meaning” they are changed, transformed” (70). Yet the ways Anzaldúa provides to “make sense” of things also provides a challenge to how many readers imagine sense-making to work. Oscillating between what might be described as linear rationality or argumentation and what can be recognized as feminist or non-Cartesian driven epistemologies, Anzaldúa makes use of multiple knowledges and ways to write across experience.
Critic Megan Simpson describes such work with her term “language-oriented feminist epistemology.” Simpson is particularly helpful in summarizing the differing investments of feminist epistemologists. Simpson carefully differentiates her approach of language-oriented feminist epistemology from feminist standpoint epistemology which, by her reading, relies too heavily on a powerful/powerless dichotomy as the basis for claiming that feminists have a distinct (and superior) vantage point toward knowledge based on their experiences as women. By contrast, language-oriented feminist epistemologists are skeptical of such binaries due to their acknowledgment that knowledge is linguistically shaped; certain powers are maintained not by material conditions themselves, but by the linguistic rendering of gender resulting in many shifting locations and relationships. Thus, language-oriented feminist epistemology uses language as the primary tool through which structures of knowledge and knowledge production can be investigated and questioned.
In her book-length exploration of several language-poets, Simpson notes the ways that language use characterized as hybrid or innovative is tied to commitments to complicating gender inequalities and constructions. Anzaldúa’s writing throughout Borderlands works intimately to problematize staid epistemologies through its hybrid sensibility marked by the accumulation and juxtaposition of different discourses. Like the writers Simpson considers, Anzaldúa uses
modes of inquiry which... involve a feminist inquiry into authority. Always indeterminate, open, resisting closure, this writing performs interpretive, expressive, dialogic acts that require both reader and writer to participate in the ‘untraceable wandering / the meaning of knowing’ – the reader and writer are engaged with language and with one another. Thus both assume dynamic roles as participants in the making of meaning. (Simpson 11)
The spectrum of writing styles, discourses, and modes of inquiry and expression Anzaldúa employs thus open up a spectrum of possibilities for what types of knowledge are possible. Moreover, such hybrid writing and feminist epistemologies create a more highly engaged relationship between reader and writer. As theorist Eve Wiederhold suggests,
innovative style poses a challenge to comprehensive, coherent articulations of what writing is or should be...Asking readers to attend to the “the text” and the cultural strategies that direct how texts should be read effectively unsettles an entire structure that informs conventional understandings of how writing bears upon knowledge, reality, meaning, and communication. (110)
The range of knowledge possibilities is most visible in the noticeable style shift between chapters, Chapter Six providing alternate ways of making arguments, describing reality and experience, and forging connections between reader and writer. In many ways, then, reading Chapter Six allows us to re-see the more familiar Chapter Five and question how each chapter works differently. Reading in this way we can notice both the clear juxtaposition of how writing can embody different epistemological projects, as well as the ways that both chapters rely on the essayistic movement and hybrid composition necessitated by the subject of hybrid identity.
Like Simpson, Wiederhold advocates a reading process that opens up the rhetorical relationship between reader and writer, allowing readers to “see double,” a position which “maneuvers the reader away from the obligation to either ‘stay in control’ or ‘make sense’ according to immediately recognizable standards” (118). Such a reading practice opens up a feminist space where, when reading in dialogue with Anzaldúa, “the point is not to ‘get to the point,’ but to attend to the relationship between politics and form, to always ‘keep an eye on’ the ways form informs meaning, and to notice when and how interpretive acts adhere to social norms that regulate writing and reading” (118). Such reading practices foreground the multiple axes of meaning making and the ways that form persists integrally across those axes. Paying attention to Anzaldúa’s hybrid embodiments of writing, for example, would allow readers to “attend to the simultaneous beauty and weighty obstruction of form itself; the ways organizing categories that help sort through and make sense of the mystery of composing also establish conceptual boundaries that regulate and constrain” (120).
A particular strength of Anzaldúa’s work, then, is the way in which “form” and “content” necessitate one another – bleeding into and shaping one another – thus clearly subverting this long problematic binary. More than an object lesson in hybrid form, Anzaldúa’s essays make visible the generic and linguistic boundaries that shape our acts of reading and composing and in turn shape our perceptions of the world around us, including our identity positions. As Anzaldúa assesses her own work, “I see a hybridization of metaphor, different species of ideas popping up here, popping up there, full of variations and seeming contradictions” (66). It is these very “different species of ideas” rendered through “popping up” here and there throughout the hybrid form of her essay that provides such rich ground for investigating the ways that, as Adorno suggests, the essay fulfills an intellectual and epistemological promise. The epistemological promise for Anzaldúa – and those who value her work – exists in the range of knowledge practices and relationships she makes visible, questions, and complicates. Moving across linguistic boundaries and subverting binary structures that have long plagued feminism – male/female, rational/non-rational, subject/object – Anzaldúa widens the scope of available feminist discourses and epistemologies we use to better understand and represent ourselves and our identities as gendered and racialized beings. Rhetorical and metaphorical, narrative-based and argumentative, critical and embodied, these feminist knowledges challenge us to expand our practices of feminist reading and writing. By changing ourselves we then might, as Anzaldúa hopes, change the world.
Adorno, Theodor. “The Essay as Form.” New German Critique. Vol. 32 (Spring 1984), 141-71.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
—-. “now let us shift...the path of conocimiento...inner work, public acts.” this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating, eds. New York: Routledge, 2002, 540-78.
—- and AnaLouise Keating, eds. this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Fowlkes, Diane L. “Moving from Feminist Identity Politics to Coalition Politics Through a Feminist Materialist Standpoint of Intersubjectivity in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” Hypatia 12:2 (Spring 1997), 105-24.
Franke, David. “Writing into Unmapped Territory: The Practice of Lateral Citation.” In Phelps and Emig, Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric. Pittsburgh: U Pitt P, 1995.
Howe, Susan. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP and UP of New England, 1990.
Keating, AnaLouise, ed. Entre Mundos / Among Worlds: New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005,109-120.
Jung, Julie. Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
Moraga, Cherríe, Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981.
Phelps, Louise Wetherbee and Janet Emig, eds. Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric. Pittsburgh: U Pitt P, 1995.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: the Transactional Theory of the Literary Work .Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994.
Simpson, Megan. Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing. Albany: SUNY, 2000.
Wiederhold, Eve. “What do you Learn from What you See? Gloria Anzaldúa and Double-Vision in the Teaching of Writing.” in Entre Mundos / Among Worlds: New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa. Keating, AnaLouise, ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005,109-120.
1. Reading Anzaldúa’s chapters as essays acknowledges the most significant way that her work has been anthologized and thus the material way her work is presented to many audiences. Moreover, reading Anzaldúa’s work as essays allows her writing to be read within the trajectory of essay writing over the last several centuries. Since her topic centers on identity – a central topic of many essays across time – the essay as a form provides the theoretical lens which allows readers to understand the narrating voice as connected to, yet distinct from, Anzaldúa the person. Thus, although essays in general often occupy the landscape of first-person narration and non-fictional content, the essay tradition also recognizes that a particular essay written at a particular moment may reflect some aspect of its author and her ideas but is always contingent on that specific place and time. In other words, the essay allows for – and in some ways expects – that the essayist may later change her mind or change her writing (the expression of her current state of mind.) The essay as a critical lens for reading and understanding a piece of work thus complicates a one to one relationship between author and narrator despite the intimacy of the two roles.
2. Throughout this article, I refer to the speaking persona or “I” within essays as a narrator in order to avoid the easy slippage – especially in creative non-fiction, memoir, or autohistoria writing – between author and the many narrators that author may deploy in writing, which, through their construction, do not map fully and easily onto the author.
3. Jung, in her recent text Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts identifies the use of space breaks as a key feature of multigenre texts, arguing that “breaks – signified by white space on the printed page – ...separate one genre from the next...where the inclusion of diverse genres adds another layer of “vocality”” to the already multivocal text (33). Jung’s assertion that the use of space breaks demands that readers use an increased and different attention is helpful and is the case, I argue, with Anzaldúa’s multigenre and hybridly linguistic text. However, I would also argue that holding the reader’s attention is not the only effect of such formal features as space breaks, as I show below in reading the space breaks as representative of the patriarchal silences the narrator seeks to overcome. Moreover, I would contend that the use of space breaks is not the only disruptive element of Anzaldúa’s texts and would point readers to the key examples of first, Anzaldúa’s mixing of multiple versions of Spanish and Spanish dialects alongside English and, second, her fierce, confrontational tone which can often be perceived as hostile by some readers.
4. Mestiza consciousness is perhaps the most familiar of Anzaldúa’s theoretical terms in circulation. Anzaldúa defines a particular goal of mestiza consciousness as “to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her prisoner and to show in the flesh and through images in her work how duality is transcended” (Borderlands 102).
5. The notable exception here is the space break which cordons off the final, complex, and powerful paragraph that positions the mestiza as the figure that will endure and adapt, while the dominant “norteamericano culture” will struggle to survive. Due to the limits of this particular article, I do not provide a reading of this conclusion; I encourage readers, however, to engage this significant passage, particularly its tone of both quiet patience and committed ferocity.
6. In addition to complicating and subverting hierarchies of gender, race, and language usage in Borderlands / la Frontera, Anzaldúa also tackles aesthetic hierarchies erected between East and West, high and low cultures and cultural objects, rationally-derived knowledge and other ways of knowing.
7. This complication of linearity extends to Anzaldúa’s use of footnotes. Although scholars such as David Franke have explored “lateral citation” practices used particularly by feminist writers, I would argue that Anzaldúa’s citation practices work not only laterally – to weave connections – but also non-linearly and privately, to ask readers to approach citation practices within essay writing with a meta-level awareness of the uses of those citation practices. For example, Anzaldúa’s blending of both the traditional academic approach to sources exists alongside personal reflections regarding when she encountered sources and what they prompted for her as a reader. Moreover, since in some instances Spanish phrases are translated in the footnotes (such as Chapter Six’s note seven) more often than not the non-Spanish speaking reader will turn to a citation hoping for assistance only to have this desire thwarted by a citation which resists translation (such as Chapter Six’s note six.) For more on lateral citation, feminist citation practices, and a description of vertical citation practices that Anzaldúa clearly complicates, see Franke’s piece “Writing into Unmapped Territory: The Practice of Lateral Citation” in Phelps and Emig, 1995.
8. The order of the narrative anecdote and epigraph are, however, in reverse order in Chapter Six as they have appeared in Chapter Five.
9. In other places, Anzaldúa complicates the direction of this interaction, suggesting that she can control what is inside of her by beginning with “words, images, and body sensations and animat[ing] them to impress them on my consciousness, thereby making changes in my belief system and reprogramming my consciousness” (70). At other times, she summons stories and emotions, asking to channel and convey them.
10. See especially Chapter 1, “Language-Oriented Feminist Epistemology” for a laying out of these terms and ideological differences.
11. Simpson here is quoting poet Susan Howe and two lines from her text Singularities (25).
And our tongues have become
dry the wilderness has dried
out our tongues and we have