Where I am from

Cathedral at dawn. Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Cathedral at dawn. Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

By: Nancy Hanna

“Where I am from”

I am from cobble stone roads, forgotten dialect, paletas de leche, burning sun of Guerrero, my mother’s strong hand gently holding my own.

I am from explorers who crossed a cold sea, a century gone by, stories untold, teeth in a jar, dress hat on the top shelf, untouched and dusty since my dad’s been gone.

I am from the loquat tree, whose branches embraced me like arms when I cried, and supported me when I climbed higher for the tastiest fruit of all.

I am from a sunny Christmas morning, a pink bike with a white banana seat, Sonia by my side racing on her sparkly purple bike.

I am from the creek, waiting for the moonrise to catch Mr. Toad, while sharing deep secrets, giggling about boys, enjoying Sonia’s company and the warm Santa Ana wind.

I am from racing up the embankment, my brothers by my side, relishing the moment, being pushed down while by brothers wrestled then the echo of my brother’s voice “King of the Mountain” sang in my ears.

I am from Tucker’s Grove Park, where the metal playground equipment spun round and round and round.

I am from Goleta Beach, where wave diving was swimming class and I can’t touch the ground meant swim.

I am from long drives where memories play out like movies, every summer from Goleta to Guadalajara I memorized landmarks and counted the stars.

I am from the Spanish cathedrals that would not let me in, I laughed to loud, my hair was wild, and my shorts were not allowed

I am from travelers and dreamers, from stories shared while enjoying café con leche y pan dulce.

I am from the hail, the screaming voice of tía as she pulled the laundry off the clothesline while being soaked and pummeled wishing she could block hail like a super woman.

I am from the lighting and thunder that woke me, energized me and made me feel alive.

For Whom the Eye Rolls

By Benjy Malings

My mom recently moved from San Diego to Portland, so now I venture up north about once or twice a year. I mostly spend my time doing what most would expect – reading, eating, and drinking coffee. This last visit, for spring break, happened to correspond with a particularly busy workweek for my Mom, meaning I was left with a significant chunk of free time where I was to wander the city.

Of course, my version of wandering ended up being a rather safe one- once again, I found myself perusing the same bookstore for hours on end. I had had a particular one in mind this time around, a perfectly pretentious shop known, hilariously, as “Mother Foucault’s” (I had attempted to visit on a prior trip, but was forestalled due to the site acting as host for a child’s birthday party, only adding to the charm).

The store was, naturally, only open for a brief four-hour window that day, so I headed over as the first event of my day. The store was almost completely empty, save for a a couple of employees discussing the merits of sending their respective children to a university over a trade school (“it’s the only sensible option in this economy. You can learn a helluva lot more making chairs and reading poetry on your own time than you could wasting hours in a classroom.”) I made my way through the store slowly and deliberately, anticipating – as I always do – the moment where divine inspiration strikes my consumer decisions. The philosophy section was a critical theorist’s heaven, a welcome respite from the usual smatterings of Plato and Kant. The fiction section was arranged in no particular order, without much thought given to whether a book was in English or in its original language, whether it was new / used / antique.

But perhaps more striking than anything I could find on the shelf was the boy who had just entered the room, declaring that he had recently dropped out of high school, was on his way to Mexico, and was looking for “a good book to read”. I rolled my eyes at the vague request- clearly not as experienced of book-shopper as I, betraying his lack of education almost immediately. When pressed for a more specific question, the boy simply said: “I dunno. I like Hemingway”.

This seemingly innocuous comment took me to a dangerous place. I immediately scoffed to myself; because of course he would request a Hemingway book. What else does one request when they are a white male traveling alone, eschewing their education, and attempting to experience some quasi-religious moment of self-realization?

The bookseller recommended A Farewell to Arms, which the boy had never heard of to that point. By now, I was seething. A poser, that’s all this boy was. Someone who had heard Hemingway’s name in passing, perhaps in a movie, and took on the artifice of the literary aesthete armed nothing more with an empty name.

Why on earth was I so angry? After all, I myself am a major fan of Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises being a profound moment of self-reflection in my own life. I had read Hemingway only a few years prior, and yet I was internally mocking this boy, holding him to my own impossibly high standards.There is a way in which we hold our cultural tastes- be it cinematic, culinary, or musical- as our ultimate markers of self-definition. They are that unimpeachable set of material artifacts that we can point to say; hey- here’s why I’m special. I’ve spent years cultivating mine, constantly eschewing what I saw as outdated, mainstream, or simply juvenile, in order to constantly appear abreast of the confluence of modernity and class. It, of course, appears I’ve lost something along the way. Literature speaks to us at all different points in our lives, and can be life changing and even life saving. To deny this boy the privilege of reading Hemingway, who speaks such soul-crushingly honesty regarding the experiences of an isolated form of masculinity, would be nothing short of a crime. My own demands of personal authenticity were likely unrealistic in this situation. If you’re not constantly tripping over yourself to appear trendy and relevant, what bother do you give toward appearing overtly mainstream?

And, most importantly, how blatant of a misreading of Hemingway would one have to produce to assume that one should define themselves in the eyes of others, in the eyes of invented cultural standards?

Obviously, none of this occurred to me at the moment. I checked out at the counter with my translated works of Caribbean fiction and my biography of avant-garde composers, my superiority only bolstered by the naiveté just witnessed.

Had I taken a second to overcome my own ego, I think I would have stepped right up and told the boy everything I could about my own experiences with Hemingway, the authors that I’ve experienced since, and how deep down I was envious of the freshness and newness with which he was about to experience a true classic.

Benjy Malings

What Makes an Author?

By: Zsasha Flores


Kurt Vonnegut is an author most famous for his novel Slaughterhouse-5, a staple in the postmodern canon. He was a counterculture darling with even the New York Times labeling him, upon his death, “the counterculture’s novelist.” However, Vonnegut’s public persona was not genuine, rather it was a carefully calculated and brilliant case of self-marketing.

Young Kurt Vonnegut
Young Kurt Vonnegut

The picture of above is of Vonnegut during his army days. Before the publication of Slaughterhouse-5, Vonnegut was a straight-laced and clean-shaven. Vonnegut knew his counterculture audience would not take kindly to his  mainstream appearance; therefore, he manufactured a new persona. He grew his hair out and began to look scraggly; he became what one would expect the author of a postmodern, satirical, sci-fi, stream of consciousness novel to resemble.

Vonnegut’s rehashing of his public identity begs the question- What makes an author?  Furthermore, would his novels have failed had Vonnegut not looked the part?

Vonnegut is likely right. It is doubtful his 60’s hippie audience would be drawn towards a satiric novel about war written by someone who looked like he belonged to the orthodoxy against which they were rebelling. Slaughterhouse-5‘s semi-autobiographical aspects would not be revoked regardless of  whether Vonnegut adopted his eccentric demeanor or not; however, readers would not be receptive without it. What does that say about society and literary circles? It seems that it is not enough for an author to simply put out compelling work; he or she must look the part too.

Vonnegut died April 11th, 2007 at 84. So it goes.

Finding Hope in the End

Still from Adam Shecter: Last Men
Still from Adam Shecter: Last Men

By: Zsasha Flores

Since the passing of the new millennium, there has been a revival of the dystopian genre. There has not been as high of an output of dystopian literature since the tumultuous 1960′s. However, its resurfacing has been followed by a reformation of the face of the dystopia. 1984 and Brave New World are unanimously considered to be the epitome of classic dystopia. 21st century is no longer reserved for adults. Young adult versions of dystopia, particularly series, have the highest output. The protagonist of the most popular dystopia of the decade is not a 30 something man, but a 16 year-old girl. Dystopia may start to be given a feminist spin. It is definitely no longer reserved for adults and, hopefully, is longer just a man’s game.

The revolution of dystopia is logical given the tragedies that have been faced in the past decade. In addition to tragedy, technology has always been a frequent fear in the genre. Technology becoming integrated into everyday life provides new fears; there has been a re-envisioning of Big Brother. The Patriot Act and the having the whistle blown on NSA spying has provided inspiration. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story comes to mind. Unlike Big Brother, we are complacent in our loss of privacy. Our obsession with technology overrides our interest in personal freedom. It also contrasts with the classics because it is not projected into the future and reliant on new technology. Super Sad True Love Story is frightening because it is set now and is unsettling because much of it seems uncomfortably possible. Our increasing technology also increases our scope of tragedy, far surpassing the borders of the U.S. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in upcoming novels and the effects living in a post 9/11 world will further enhance the genre. However, the doom and gloom of the genre should not be cause to fret. Dystopia serves as a warning not a predestined reality.

Dystopia is constantly evolving. Though not synonymous with the depiction in Brave New World, in vitro fertilization has become a reality. As reality evolves so must dystopia because as our previous fears become our realities new projections occur. Despite its evolution, several themes will persist within the genre: oppressive government, sexuality, violence or lack thereof. As long as power and corruption remain, the dystopian tradition will persist. Considering how thoroughly these tyrannies are ingrained, the dystopian tradition will persist. Viva la distopía!


The Fiction That Keeps Us Afloat

By: Lia Johnsontumblr_mwu7aaGwG41s3hf6yo1_500Sculpture by Bruno Catalano

Source: http://green-label.com/art/human-figure-sculptures-bruno-catalano/

               I’ve finished reading approximately two non-curricular books on my own since starting college. As a lover of literature, this figure is concerning. It seems to both represent a slow decline into intellectual apathy and spit in the face of the information age. Centuries of human brilliance are out of copyright, freely available, and even more ideas are being shared by contemporary thinkers free of charge. I feel as though beyond my crowded, unread bookshelf lies an invisible library stretching back to the fires of Alexandria. And yet I type and type and twiddle my thumbs, I wait to have the time when I know very well that time is continuous and constant despite my skewed student’s perspective.

It’s not like I’ve been doing nothing—in fact, I know exactly where this time and energy for leisure reading is going. College has strewn excerpts over my desk in bent and crumpled waves of white, and I’m feeling like Ahab poking the water for his whale. All these texts are hideously underlined, passages marked with fat messy five-point stars and references to other authors. The connections are clear and maddening. They can be viewed through each other, or extrapolate on each other, or change each other’s meaning just by stuffing new words into the observer’s analytic vocabulary. Something elusive has bit my leg indeed, and I’m out for blubber.

But it’s exhausting, this thought trip provided by remarkable professors in a challenging department, where words matter most. While the generally accepted definition of rhetoric is something along the lines of “the art of effective or persuasive means of writing or speaking”, Rhetoric as a discipline throws all faith in absolute definition out the window. We read snippets of Marx’s Capital, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, etc. and not for analysis of devices either. Language here has taken a look inside itself, though only through the lens of language. While that subjectivity of perspective may appear futile, we learn that it’s no reason to toss out the Canon for a pinhole.

It’s all about understanding the optics. Not to create a new and perfectly unoppressive language, but to adjust our own to see the picture a little closer to life, and even set the camera down every once in a while. I feel like I was born and bred with a fisheye, all events and emotions blown up and cartoony at the center and distorted out of relevance at the edges. As I grew older, life felt telephoto, focused on things out of reach with no conceivable image of the present. Now I feel the hope of zooming out instead of in, a slow and agonizing journey towards 50mm, aperture widening all the while. And it feels good. It feels purposeful. It feels closer to the human eye as it’s meant to feel. But it lets in so much light, and it lets you see dangers closer than you would’ve imagined.

I feel as though this change in perspective has made fiction even more necessary to read, though time’s got me in a crunch. I need language to dictate me out of my own reality. I need willful suspension of disbelief, desperately, to keep me from falling when Rhetoric pulls the rug from under me. The rug causing so much static friction: the impossible dilemma of language’s limitations to convey reality. Otherwise, I’m trapped in definitional impossibility, suspiciously deconstructing, adjusting ISO and aperture and shutter speed to the specifications of philosophers born in a different world with different tools and neglecting the fluidity of the present image.

If there’s anything I should be suspicious of, it’s this thought-tripping. I’m starting to realize the advantages and disadvantages of thought structures and exclusive identities. Some ideas seed themselves in your skull, gulp up every last ounce of your attention, and pry your brain apart with new growth. They become essential, providing a new system of roots to support the wild synthesis of matter and energy we try to call consciousness. But so much is unconscious, so much is without words. It surely seems as though our little thought trips, the forefront bold lettered voice-in-our-head thoughts, really are us.

After all, we know the world through narrative. Our expressions outside of body movements are verbal, written, or produced materially. Any time we talk about ourselves as “I” is a confession of selfhood. The majority of novels and poetry are written in first person, and those composed in second or third merely suspend our disbelief of being addressed by the author. Visual art and objects contain some sense of story, existing as a moment captured or use intended. Even abstract art, considered the least adherent to normative structures of communication, physically evidences the artist’s movement in a way that tells us something about them in that moment of creation.

All this selfhood surrounds us, all these illusions of totality, and logically cogent theory is no exception. As we read more, as we manically connect ideas and develop our own personal means of making sense of the world, we must consider the constant play between conception and construction made illusory by the definitionalism in language and identity. We see the world, discover our needs, and use and develop tools to meet them. In this way, reality guides thought and thought breaks into physical reality. Produced reality produces us by passing environments, social structures, and means of communication to the next generation. This occurs precisely through their introduction as total reality to the forming human, whose desire to understand and inhabit their environment could not allow them to assume otherwise.

Now I’m typing and typing and twiddling my thumbs, illustrating the deconstructive structure of my own mind and hoping it has something to do with yours. Hoping the idealists aren’t right, that I’m not just in my own head, that I might escape this wildly analytic, youthfully presumptuous perspective that renders the world nearly unwriteable by providing a means of understanding writeability. That’s why I have to return to the narrative “I”, re-expose myself to the facets of fiction, stop adjusting the lens for a second to see light in a new way. Art captures life like a jewel captures light. What falls so innocently over everything is focused by skillfully angled cuts in hard material, reflecting and refracting, til mundane fluorescent glitters like the horizon. The horizon looks so sharp, a perfect line in the sky, though it’s just an illusion of perspective. The straight line is a curved line, the ocean is continuous and constant as time, and it’s time for Ahab to steer his search toward other seas.

The Adults in Children

by Alex Millen

There is an anonymous quotation about the power of children’s literature that renders the rest of this article inadequate and unnecessary: ‘Great children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but the adult in the child’. Through literature, then, a child has the opportunity to formulate ideas, emotional responses, engage in arguments that enable him or her to mature not through the inevitable passage of puberty or the lessons of their parents, but through the ever-expanding and diverse world of literature.

This is not to say that you should leave a child in a room with the Complete Works of Shakespeare and see if he/she comes out a glorious product of literature. Such an experiment is scary indeed. I am also not saying that a child with loving guardians and friends could never be an excellent human being if they didn’t pick up a book.

I would like to argue, though, that through literature a child has the opportunity to transcend the sometimes very limiting and limited confines of childhood. Who does not remember Mummy or Daddy saying something was wrong, ‘because I said so’? Being a child – and an adult, and the bit in-between – is a very confusing experience; an experience that can only be enriched by engaging in as many narratives of alternate experience as possible. Again, this is not to say that every 8 year old should beat themselves on the head with Anna Karenina until they are clever. God forbid. But surely the best way to learn how to be a human being is to see the mistakes of others, their heroic achievements and the structures within which they exist – through literature, this is possible.

I did not read as a child, and feel that I will be playing catch up for the rest of my life. It is one of my greatest regrets that I did not listen to my Mum telling me to read more. I lacked desire, which could only have been created – paradoxically – by reading great literature. I needed to know something was worth reading before I would read it. I would say: ‘I like reading, but I just need the right book’, as if only a few books were worthy of my attention. I had completely disregarded a limitless world of literature – except Harry Potter, everybody reads Harry Potter, right?

My point is that children need to know the value of reading and the only way that they can know this is if they read. So make them read. Don’t be content with a half-arsed attitude. It is easier than ever to switch off our brains, indulge in the instant sugary gratification of mindless games, social networking, all of which are available at our fingertips. It is not that these things should be avoided. Quite the opposite: they are necessary. But to indulge in them 24/7 without setting aside some time to read is a dangerous road to go down.

It is very difficult to talk about the necessity for children to read without sounding like you are telling people how to raise their children. A recent survey by the National Literacy Trust found that fewer children across the UK are reading in their own time, and one in five is embarrassed to be caught with a book. The last statistic speaks for itself.

If children are not reading, they are not given the opportunity to explore the adults inside of them. The world would be so much the better if these child-adults were given time and freedom to flourish. This is the power of literature. It is also the reason why my children, god help them, will suffer hours of nagging. They’ll thank me later (and if they don’t it’s because they didn’t read enough literature…)

Why Reading Makes You Less Racist

By Gianna Albaum


you gotta walk outside your life
to where the neighborhood changes
Willing to Fight, Ani DiFranco

We live in a segregated nation. The percentage of black children who go to integrated public schools is at its lowest level since 1968. And the statistics only confirm what we see with our own eyes: it wouldn’t shock any East Bay resident to find that the high schools in Walnut Creek are populated by white and upper-class students, while those in Oakland are perpetually under-funded and predominantly African-American. Why this happens is a question for the social scientists: they’ve studied racial segregation in education at length. They’ve diagnosed the causes and they know how to combat it. But we construct ivory towers for the academics and we lock them inside, blindly ignoring their findings.


Where the social scientists have failed is where the humanities scholars must step in. I’ve railed at length about the way To Kill a Mockingbird is taught in schools today — as though we all ought to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done in eradicating racism in the justice system. But another book that’s been widely circulated in university classrooms in recent years is Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz’s 2007 best-selling novel is about a Dominican boy named Oscar de Leon growing up in New Jersey.

Junot Díaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Díaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.” — Junot Díaz

The fact is, most of us didn’t grow up the way Oscar de Leon did. Most of us aren’t Dominican. Statistically, white people went to predominantly white schools. Despite claims that we live in a post-racial society and that social mobility exists to a meaningful degree, the extent to which Americans cross racial and socio-economic boundaries is minimal. But even if we can’t wave a magic wand and desegregate the United States, we can read books. Literature has the pseudo-magical quality of, as we say, transporting the reader into a different world. But this quality doesn’t merely allow students to revel in fantastical realms of dragons and unicorns — this quality is one of the most powerful tools society has to combat discrimination and intolerance. Literature allows experience of the Other to permeate our own consciousness.

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” — C.S. Lewis

At its most simple: literature offers a way to change the world when policy and politics have failed. 

I’m not trying to convert the lit majors, so here are some facts for the science geeks out there about what reading does to our brains and behavior.

The bottom line is that reading increases empathy. And in a segregated world where our experience of the Other is limited at best, reading is an incredibly important tool for fostering empathetic attitudes toward fellow humans and thereby creating positive political change.

Gianna Albaum blogs on issues related to literature and society for CLUJ.


For more posts on literature and race, click here.