Cristina Rivera Garza is one of the authors published during And Other Stories‘ year of publishing women. Which leads her to ask: is publishing only women unusual?
The decision to only publish men, and to do so for entire eras, has never taken any editor to the headlines of newspapers. It’s usual, after all. It’s expected. But when Stefan and Tara Tobler from And Other Stories decided to publish exclusively women authors, and to do so for only a year, all of a sudden they became a curious object of scrutiny—a treatment frequently reserved for the love lives of pop-stars or the scandalous behaviors of corrupt politicians. What a freak decision. How unusual.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, as new generations of women worldwide forcibly expose the cruel nature of the gender hierarchies (and binaries) that structure our daily lives, while many reject the possibility of being either physically disappeared or culturally erased, the decision to only publish women authors may appear unusual, but it is urgent. I am convinced that writing is a critical practice: true, bold, brave, formally adventurous writing should have the ability to change perceptions and experience; the disordering of the senses talked about by Rimbaud, inextricably linked with the disordering of everyday life as we know it. Producing unusualness, writing expands our sense of what is possible. Imaginable. Livable. Publishing women authors is not a minor component in this process.
Writing is an embodied practice. While romantic notions of authorship still represent the creative act as mysterious and inexplicable—if not altogether ineffable—I believe writing to be a practice connected to situated bodies in contexts shaped by uneven power relations. Conflict. Contestation. These power relations include, of course, gender, but also class and race, national origin and—as has become painfully clear in the Trump and Brexit eras—immigration status.
Those benefiting the most from existing hierarchies may not require an explanation for the disproportionate number of men in power, of heterosexual characters in movies and books, of white people in colleges and offices, of women murdered both in fairytales and on the streets of our cities. They may not even need to comment on the disproportionate number of books published by male authors, not in the nineteenth century but right now, in the early years of the twenty first century.
They may be able to go on with their lives as usual, because the usual does not trigger rage or anxiety, sentiments of powerlessness or the desire to radically alter the state of affairs.
The usual, in other words, is not an obstacle that looks into their eyes every morning, reminding them that they are out of place. Skewed. At fault. The usual does not place them on the tip of the abyss, inciting them to leap forward. Because the usual does not interrogate their place in the world, but rather confirms it, they may accept these situations as normal, even natural, reflections of mere biological and/or geopolitical differences that generate destinies some may find sad, or undeserved, but that are otherwise inevitable.
Our bodies are keys that only open certain doors. And when the doors we approach remain closed, blocking desires and promises, blocking even the view of both past and present, questions emerge. Relentlessly. Inevitably. Awareness is not optional but compulsory. Feminist thinking from the 60s and beyond has taught us that the personal is political, and vice versa. Critical thinkers and activists alike have shown us that it is relevant to create space in our writing and in our conversations, in our practice as dwellers on this planet; to introduce the question of accumulation, the question of labour, the question of the materiality of our bodies as we approach the usual.
While some may prefer to keep the body of the author and the work of the author in different files, claiming that good art does not distinguish between genders or classes or races, I am reminded that this is an operation as cruel as it is, frankly, impossible.
Interconnected as we are, affected by human and non-human life in their myriad layering, bodies are history embedded. Our bodies are time. Practice. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argued that the tale of the ‘I’ inevitably takes us to the space of the ‘you’ and, I´d add, to the terrain of the ‘we’. Once these connections are established as both material and constitutive, discussion about the embodied nature of writing has to lead to the denormalization of the usual, transforming it into what it actually is: a historical, contingent condition we can change. Unusualness is the site of our potency. Unusualness is writing.
Writing is a community-making practice. If we write, we write with others. Inescapably. If we write, we write about others, even when we write about ourselves in small diaries that remain hidden in locked drawers. Constantly borrowing from the language we share with entire and varied communities at once, when we write we acquire a debt—a real, material debt—with the practitioners of such languages. It’s an immense debt. It is, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argued in The Undercommons, a debt that is or will become unpayable. We cannot hide it or deny it. The only thing left to do is increase it. We should render it visible, in any case. Palpable. Far away from notions of social responsibility—which are often depicted as optional decisions depending on the ideology of each author—the debt I am talking about here is both undeniable and inescapable.
If we write, we are in debt. If we write, we owe. This debt transverses all writing; it shapes it. It gives it life. Legitimacy.
This debt is connected to bodies at work: gendered bodies, material bodies, bodies in conflict.
I agree with the Argentinian writer Josefina Ludmer in that I believe literature now exists in a cultural phase we can describe as post-autonomous. Literature’s cultural capital guaranteed its status as an autonomous field of inquiry and practice throughout the twentieth century. However, it had declined precipitously by the end of the millennium, changing too its sphere of influence and the accessibility of its resources. As Josefina Ludmer says, instead of discreet units wrapped in clearly delineated genres that presented themselves as imaginary worlds with a fragile connection to community, today’s writings ‘do not admit literary readings. That is to say, it does not matter whether they are literature or not. We don’t know either whether they are reality or fiction. They inscribe themselves locally and in everyday reality in order to “produce the present”, and this is precisely their relevance.’
I could have translated that last sentence of Ludmer’s as follows: Today’s writings inscribe themselves locally and in everyday reality in order to ‘produce the present’, and this is precisely how they make sense.
Making sense and becoming relevant are not opposing values here. Sense-making related to an alternative present may be as relevant as literature is going to get these days. Or ever.
Cristina Rivera Garza is an award-winning author, translator and critic, and the only two-time winner of the International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize (2001; 2009). She is currently Distinguished Professor in Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston. Her novel The Iliac Crest, translated by Sarah Booker, is out with And Other Stories in June 2018.
Image credit: Lisbeth Salas