Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cruel Work: Chris Chen Interviews Wendy Trevino

This is the second part of an interview published in The New Inquiry.

Chris Chen: I wanted to ask about how you see your writing navigating an often unacknowledged and sometimes quite stark divide between what could be called a politics of culture versus a culture of politics. Your recent chapbook seems committed to puncturing the myth that the collectivities organized by and through race are politically homogeneous—an assumption that’s partly the legacy of older cultural nationalist movements in the US. You write, “So much violence/Changes relationships, births a people/They can reason with. These people are not/Us.” Nevertheless there’s a transient, migratory “we” that’s threaded through the poems and seems to flicker in and out of view. Could you talk a little bit about that “we”?

Wendy Trevino: I think it’s important to understand that the racial categories we’re talking about are historically a European colonial imposition first and foremost, a “we” defined not by us—who might have less in common than not. These categories made “us” legible to colonizers, slavers, capitalists, the state—whoever or whatever enforces this “we” from the outside and often through violence. I can’t help but think about how the transatlantic slave trade abducted groups of people who spoke different languages, with different religions and traditions, and imposed on them—those who survived, that is—a single identity that didn’t exist in that form before the trade.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. This “we” is also negotiated by us, too. In 2014 when Latinos in Salinas, CA rioted after police killed three migrant workers in three months, and other Latinos representing local unions and nonprofit organizations responded by forcefully suppressing even anti-police slogans in an attempt to control who and what was represented—these are the kinds of negotiations I’m talking about. For those on whom a particular identity is imposed, “we” will encompass people with shared and opposed interests, friends as well as enemies, and intra-group relations of power. All of this plays a significant role in determining who represents “us.”

So “we” is negotiated internally within groups, but these negotiations are tied to externally imposed categories and expectations that change in order to maintain existing relations of power. I think culture can often obfuscate the politics of those negotiations. This is a serious problem if our aim is the eradication of racism.

CC: Cristina Beltrán has recently argued that older attempts to organize Chicanx politics around a vision of pre-political cultural unity has often come at the cost of painting political disagreements within the movement as the result of contamination or tokenization by whiteness. “In the Chicano movement, feminists were consistently accused of representing a destructive force coming from outside the community,” Beltrán writes, “In other words, Chicana feminists were not simply wrong about gender relations—they were falsas (false ones), no longer legitimate members of the community. Accused of being cultural traitors creating conflict and fragmentation, Chicana feminists were often on the defensive.... The belief that shared culture could produce a unified political perspective was compellingly inclusive, but it turned disagreement into betrayal.” Beltrán is writing about 60s and 70s-era US political movements, but I wanted to ask for your thoughts on how you see literature and art as a site of conflict around the promotion of racial authenticity as a political ideal.

WT: Recently, a mural featuring gay, lesbian and trans Chicanxs was destroyed by arson in San Francisco’s Mission District. On social media, one of the arguments against the mural was that it was an appropriation of Cholo culture, downplaying the homophobia earlier expressed with posts like “Keep that shit in the Castro” and attempting to delegitimize the Chicanx, Los Angeles-based artist, even as the Chicanxs online used words like “n***a” the way Latinos in the Valley use the word “guey” to refer to each other. I think there were good arguments to be made against relatively upscale art galleries as a leading edge of gentrification and the artists who agree to show work in these galleries, but those were not the arguments that were being made here.

CC: This raises the question of the role that art, literature, and music might sometimes play in “artwashing” gentrification or commodifying past social movements. The closing of the nonprofit art space PSSST in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles after a coalition of locals mounted a campaign against galleries that, despite showcasing Chicanx art, were seen as driving up rents in the area—a process some have called “gentefication.”

WT: I think a little background on Galeria de la Raza, the art gallery that installed the Mission mural, “Por Vida,” might be helpful. The gallery has been around since the early 70s and rumor has it that it is currently having trouble securing a new lease. I don’t mean to suggest that the gallery is incapable of facilitating gentrification or commodifying political movements. I just mean to say the position of Galeria de la Raza is different from that of The Broad and PSSST. At least in the sense that the latter are new to the neighborhood so to speak and well-funded—in the case of The Broad, by a real estate mogul and in the case of PSSST, by a “secret investor” suspected to be more interested in real estate speculation than art.

I also want to point out that paintings, sculptures and installations in art galleries are quite different, in terms of how works of art are owned, displayed and preserved, from a mural in a neighborhood. It’s a lot easier for a person who lives in a neighborhood where there’s a mural she finds offensive, to appreciate or destroy it, while there may be artwork in a neighborhood gallery of which the person never becomes aware.

I think you could say that what happened to the “Por Vida” mural in the Mission demonstrated a refusal to think about or consider gay, queer, and trans cholos. It is sad to me that the idea of gay, queer and trans Latinx (specifically Chicanx) being part of cholo culture was so offensive that a person would burn representations of them and be supported by so many in doing so on the grounds that there are no gay, queer or trans cholos. And that there would be this assumption that “obviously” the artist must have appropriated cholo culture. Nevermind that cholo culture has roots in Southern California, where the muralist was from. Nevermind that the appropriation of Latinx and Chicanx culture in the form of food by establishments like the Taco Bell and Gracias Madre, both in the Mission, which exploit mainly nonwhite workers—almost all Latinx in the kitchen. These establishments pay them nowhere near enough to live in the neighborhood, but this hasn’t yet resulted in them being burned down.

CC: Finally, I wanted to ask about what you’re reading, watching, or listening to these days. Also, are you working on any new writing or publishing projects?

WT: I’m currently working on a manuscript for Krupskaya Books called Cruel Work, after a 2014 conference, by the same name, at Mills College. Like Brazilian, the entire manuscript is made up of sonnets, but this time, the sonnets focus on feminist organizing and racism and there will be multiple sequences. I’m also reading books like Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt. I keep coming back to Lucy Parsons.

I’m still not done with the kind of reading I was doing for Brazilian. I still want to read The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz, for instance and I’d like to learn more about the 21st century border, which involves the cartels in a way it didn’t in the 90s when I last lived in the Valley.

I read contemporary poetry pretty regularly. I’ve really enjoyed the work of Tongo Eisen-Martin lately. What he does with the “city poem” is incredible. I’m lucky enough to be friends with Oki Sogumi and Laura Martin—their work “speaks to me” in a way that always makes me want to write back. I feel similarly inspired by my friends in general—there are too many to name here. Also, I really liked Daniel Borzutsky’s Memories of My Overdevelopment, Diana Sue Hamilton’s Universe, Raquel Salas-Rivera’s oropel / tinsel (especially the title poem) and Jasmine Gibson’s Drapetomania. Hannah Black’s Dark Pool Party is really really good, I must say.

Finally, me, Oki Sogumi and Josh Baltimore have been talking about starting a press for the last year and we are finally getting started. The name of the press is Spoilsport Editions. We have a few manuscripts that we’re looking to publish including work by Josh Baltimore and Laura Martin. Stay tuned!

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