|Embracing Borderlands: Gloria Anzaldúa and Writing Studies
Andrea A. Lunsford
How did Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s work affect you and your work?
When I wrote to Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa in early 1996 to ask if I might talk with her about the relationship between her work and the disciplines of rhetoric and writing studies and postcolonial studies, she didn’t say “no” right away, but she wasn’t very enthusiastic either. After all, rhetoric and writing studies have a long reputation of being deeply complicit with colonizing practices of reading and writing (and speaking too, for that matter): you must read this, not that; you must write this way, not that way. “Especially in composition,” Anzaldúa pointed out, “rules are very strict: creating a thesis sentence, having some kind of argument, having a logical step-by-step progression, [this] goes all the way back to Aristotle and Cicero. . . .”(“Toward” 6). She was equally chary of postcolonial studies, saying she had grown impatient with trying to understand Homi Bhabba or Gyatri Spivak and just didn’t have time to decipher the codes they and others seemed to depend on and demand that their readers acquire.
I persisted in my request, however, and eventually was fortunate enough to spend a day in face-to-face conversation and engage in many phone calls and back and forths as I transcribed and edited an interview that eventually appeared in a special issue of JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory called Exploring Borderlands: Postcolonial and Composition Studies (referred to here as “Toward”).
My path toward that remarkable interview was a long one, beginning in the mid- 1980s when I first came across This Bridge Called My Back and, later, Borderlands: La Frontera. I knew instinctively—viscerally—that I had encountered a voice that would be very important to me and to my field of study, and as I read and re-read Anzaldúa’s work, I began to understand the depth of that instinctive recognition. As a child in the rural hills of Tennessee, I grew up speaking a mountain dialect that I later learned was “incorrect,” the language of hillbillies or “ridge runners” as the hill folk were often called. To be sure, I was speaking a form of so-called “standard” English that for the most part followed the “rules” but that bent them through the use of regionalisms and the kind of colorful metaphors and similes that characterized my grandmother’s speech (to her, the kitchen cabinets would always be the “upper division” and prices were resolutely “high as a cat’s back.) When I got to graduate school, I brought with me a strong southern accent and remnants of my Tennessee dialect, and in my second term a fellow student said “my goodness, I need to apologize to you. I thought you were not very smart at all—well, you know, because of your accent.” So while I certainly never experienced the kind of linguistic terrorism Anzaldúa describes in her work, I resonated strongly to her description of it. In addition, I was drawn, from the moment I first read her, to her own voice and to the gorgeous way she worked with words, weaving them into strands that seemed like a lifeline of hope and resilience, of strength and clear-sightedness, of wit and wisdom. From Anzaldúa I learned most directly that all people have a chance to create and recreate themselves and that they can do so best through and with collaborations, those deep interactions with others through which we shape ourselves and our worlds. In 1988, when I had an opportunity as Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication to address members of the central professional organization in rhetoric and writing studies, I drew on what I’d learned from Anzaldúa for the title and substance of my speech, “Composing Ourselves: Politics, Commitment, and the Teaching of Writing.”
I carry many enduring memories from the days I spent with Anzaldúa in 1996, but none with more staying power than this: late in the afternoon, over tea, Anzaldúa turned the tables on me. I’d been asking her questions all day: now she had some for me. Leaning forward, she looked steadily at me in that direct way of hers and said “So who is the Andrea you want to be seven to ten years from now? It’s important to know since you are already creating her.” It is now a little over ten years since Gloria Anzaldúa asked me that question. I have thought of it every week or so since and have tried to grow into the person I thought of that day. As you see, I’m still trying to do so in that careful, conscious, deliberate way Anzaldúa often modeled for us.
How did Anzaldúa’s work affect your discipline? How did her work redefine your field?
As I’ve already suggested, so much of what Anzaldúa has to say dwells on coming to voice and on being heard, especially from a position within long-marginalized spaces. Surely this is what first touched a nerve with rhetoric and writing studies, a field that had struggled for recognition and for a hearing since its revival in the late 60s and early 70s. By the time I completed my Ph.D. in the late 1970s, a major flowering of scholarship in rhetoric and writing was well under way as the development of a number of graduate programs drew enthusiastic students to them. But these programs were always marginalized within English studies, always secondary to literary studies in ways that were oppositional when they should have been complimentary. This struggle for disciplinary status and recognition was part of the lengthy culture wars within English, and those in rhetoric and writing studies worked determinedly to lay out a rigorous research agenda and then to build graduate programs, found journals and book series, and create conferences worthy of disseminating the new knowledge being developed in the field. In this atmosphere, Gloria Anzaldúa’s work sounded a call those in rhetoric and writing responded to immediately: here was a voice we recognized, one that gave us (and continues to give us) the courage of our convictions.
And what were those convictions? Certainly not the ones Anzaldúa sometimes associated with the field, the gate-keeping, exclusionary, colonizing principles associated with stereotypical English schoolmarms. While those standardizing tendencies have always been evident in the field, they ceased to be defining forces shortly after the mid twentieth century. Researchers in rhetoric and writing were at the forefront of those calling for increased access to higher education, for closing what K. Patricia Cross and others called the “revolving door” (admit students in large numbers and then drum them out, usually through the introductory English or Math classes) and replacing it with a welcome sign accompanied by support services aimed at making sure those who entered college had a good chance of succeeding. The 1974 Students’ Right to their Own Language document, developed over two years and disseminated by the Conference on College Composition and Communication, contained a detailed rationale for recognizing and valuing the home literacies of all students while offering them access to the so-called language of power and prestige.
These core principles of the field resonate strongly with Anzaldúa’s work, which is one reason why her essays and books are so widely taught in rhetoric and writing programs, from first-year writing classes through graduate seminars. Chapter 5 in Borderlands, “How to Take a Wild Tongue,” and especially the discussion of linguistic terrorism, captures one of the driving forces within the field of rhetoric and writing: giving students the opportunity to explore their own voices, to be heard by a wider community, to take pride in their language and take pride in themselves.
But Anzaldúa’s work also raises challenges for the field. The paradigm shift writing studies underwent as it moved from a focus on finished products of writing to the processes that brought those products into being, for example, tended to reify or even essentialize students: for over a decade researchers worked on “the” writing process, studying it in individual and diverse students, to be sure, but nevertheless slipping all too easily into assumptions about and characterizations of “the” student writer. It is impossible to read Anzaldúa without questioning such assumptions. As a result, I see her and her work as very important to the turn from process to social construction in writing studies and to later “post process” theories of writing and writers. From ethnographic studies of highly diverse individual learners, such as Marilyn Sternglass’s longitudinal study Time to Know Them, to Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness or Cheryl Glenn’s A Rhetoric of Silence, the best work in rhetoric and writing studies is deeply indebted to Anzaldúa’s challenges.
Anzaldúa’s work also influenced and underscored writing and rhetoric’s view of writing and reading as deeply social activities, a move that led to studying collaboration and practices of co-authorship and group writing. Anzaldúa, of course, collaborated on a number of her projects, working with an architect to design her home, with artists in creating her children’s books, with co-editors and co-authors, and with many others. “I think,” she says, “that there is no such thing as a single author. I write my texts, but I borrow the ideas and images from other people. Sometimes I forget that I’ve borrowed them. . . . I do the composing, but it’s taken from little mosaics of other people’s lives, other people’s perceptions. I take all of these pieces and rearrange them. When I’m writing, I always have the company of the reader” (“Toward” 19-20). Scholars of writing and rhetoric were among the first in the Humanities to challenge the widespread disregard for texts produced by multiple authors, and Anzaldúa helped to inspire and sustain that work. Today, the digital revolution makes even more vividly clear how much of what we write and read and view is collaboratively produced—and how badly we need robust new theories of writing that will account for, accommodate, and help shape such practices (see Laddaga). In pursuing this goal, especially as it calls for collaborating across diverse cultural and linguistic borders, Anzaldúa’s work provides a solid foundation on which to build.
How do you envision Anzaldúa’s writing and theories influencing the future directions of your discipline?
I have already begun to address this question in terms of Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking work on subjectivity and agency. Her insistence that individuals carry many others within themselves is brilliantly illustrated in what she calls her nosotras concept: “Now there is no such thing as an ‘other.’ The other is in you, the other is in me. . . . So when I try to articulate ideas, I try to do it from that place of occupying . . . the territory of my past and my ethnic community, my home community, the Chicano Spanish, the Spanglish; and the territory of the formal education, the philosophical/educational ideas I have internalized just by being alive” (“Toward” 8). Scholars of rhetoric and writing are among those working to craft new theories of agency that will accommodate Anzaldúa’s vision, of a subject that is not constructed wholly from without nor the product of radical indivudalism, but something beyond such dichotomies, something on the mestiza borderlands of Anzaldúa’s world. (Toward this end, see Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s analysis of agency in the texts and person of Sojourner Truth: “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean,” a keynote address presented at the 2003 Association of Rhetoric Societies meeting.)
I also see Anzaldúa’s work as foundational for a project that has engaged the field of rhetoric and writing for several decades: the issues surrounding language use mentioned earlier in regard to The Students’ Right to Their Own Language document and related debates. Certainly this field helped lead the way in insisting that dialects of English are not inherently superior or inferior and that dialects of English are not inherently superior or inferior to one another. But for most of the last thirty years, this conversation has focused on recognizing and valuing students’ home languages and using them as bridges to fluency in the range of English usually referred to as “standard.” But Anzaldúa’s brilliant mixing of dialects, languages, and genres has helped to take this conversation to the next level. Following on work such as Geneva Smitherman, Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” Chris Schroeder, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell’s ALT.DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy, and Peter Elbow’s “Writing in the Vernacular, scholars have begun a new examination of the hegemony of “standard” English in the academy and, indeed, to publish work written in other discourses, such as Lee Tonouchi’s “Da State of Pidgin Address.” The next decade will see much more exploration of using mixed dialects and languages within academic discourse, and I am excited by the prospects of further opening up this discourse to new and multiple voices, new and multiple ways of seeing and knowing the world we inhabit together.
At the end of my time with Gloria Anzaldúa, I asked what her “wildest dream” would be for a young girl who wanted to grow up to be a writer. “I would hope,” Anzaldúa said, “for her to have a peaceful community in all the different words, in all the different cultures, in all the different realities. I would hope for her to be a true mestiza.” She went on to say that such a dream didn’t seem possible right now. “To live is to struggle. Life hurts,” she said. But we can mitigate that hurt n a society where a little girl “can pursue her interests and her dreams without being too much constrained by gender roles or racial law or the different epistemologies that say, ‘this is the way reality is.’ I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. But I hope so. Sometimes I think so.” In my estimation, Gloria Anzaldúa’s life and work went a good way toward making it happen. It is now up to the rest of us to take up the challenge, and it is my hope and my conviction that the field of rhetoric and writing studies will do its share of this most necessary work.
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