PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

“It was like coming home… only to no home I’d ever known…”
Sam Baldwin, Sleepless in Seattle

I talk about existing in the liminal spaces of identity. I am Latinx, and I am White. I have, as Albert Memmi called it, the face of the colonizer and the colonized.

Liminal space, if you are not familiar with the concept, is the space between. It is the space that is not easily defined. If you stand in a doorway between the kitchen and the living room, you are in neither room, and in both, and in a wholly new and unique space. Liminal spaces are often portals from one dimension to another and can feel unsettled and unsettling.

The idea of liminal space in Western thought and literature is often portrayed as portals, pathways, or doorways that separate different realities – look at Grimm Tales, Mother Goose, Hans Christian Anderson, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum to name a few. But, in Western literature the realities are kept separate by the power of  liminal space.

But, in many Latinx narratives, liminal space doesn’t separate Oz and Kansas. Instead, realities exist, cross-over, intermix and influence each other in  constant dance. Think of La Llorona, or almost all of Isabel Allende’s books. These are the stories where familiar realities co-mingle with magic and become more than either one is capable of alone.  But, only a few can see, recognize and live within these spaces.

Isabel Quintero (author of Gabi, Girl in Pieces) and Zeke Peña explore one such artist in their graphic novel biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide. The book is written in sparse, detailed prose, using black and white images that call to and emerge from Iturbide’s photos. They also selected a few of her photos.

This is a biography of art, but not of the artist. There are few details of her youth, and personal life. Instead Quintero and Peña provide an open space for Iturbide’s photos to be studied and seen and felt.

I’d seen some of her photos in museums or art books, both in Los Angeles and in Sonora. I remember feeling confused about the work – it is beautiful and stark and rich all at the same time. She captured the Sonora desert, a place I was too young to remember but that I can sense in the back of my mind. My father admired her aesthetic voice, but was never sure her work was feminine enough. Her photos show the unrelenting beauty and majesty of the desert but she also showed people.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novelShe has a series that focuses on an area of East LA and photographed Cholas being proud and poor, trapped by the dream of the United Stated, and standing powerfully together.

Her photos were full of people, animals, nature and sky, objects and space. Iturbide’s most famous photo is called Mujer Ángel. I clearly remember seeing the image and feeling the warm wind, the grit in my shoes, the sweat running down my neck. I was transported to the Sonora desert, behind a woman in a flowing white dress, with a black, lace mantilla, walking through the rocky desert carrying an enormous boom-box. While describing the photo Quintero quotes Iturbide, “It’s like this: when I look at a subject, the subject must always look back. Must always agree with the shot … That is the only way I will take a photograph. It is complicity.” Peña uses parts of the image, reimagining aspects and angles of the photo to recreate, or perhaps to create for the first time, the moments just before Iturbide’s shutter clicked and an image was transported from that place to the page.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novel

I grew up in Southern California and spent time in and around Nogales (both sides of the border) and in the Sonora desert when I was a kid. When I read PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, I feel that world again. Her photography exists in that space between, and within multiple realities. Reading this graphic novel gave me back glimpses I have forgotten and allowed me to see parts of me that are often hidden but always felt.

Trans People Aren’t Mythical Creatures

In research we often provide what is referred to as a positionality statement. It helps our readers understand who we are, how our experiences and identities effect our understandings of the subject we are writing about. Positionality statements help avoid the fiction that research is neutral. In the age of #OwnVoices I have come to realize, or maybe I have come to admit to the realization, that I believe an author’s identity, community, and experiences informs the work they produce.

Mermaid.jpg

Librarian Angie Manfredi (@misskubelik ), Tweeted out about a book she wasn’t crazy about. Here is a link to the entire thread. “Our library copy of JULIAN IS A MERMAID has finally arrived and it is adorable but I NEED everyone in to acknowledge it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC – it might not even have been published.” The book was written and illustrated by Jessica Love, a White, cis, woman.

For a long time I hesitated to write about Julián, a picturebook is about a boy who dreams of being a mermaid, transforms himself, and his abuela who upon seeing him dressed in a headpiece and flowing train, takes him to what I can only describe as a drag parade (the mermaid parade in Coney Island *1). The book and the author are being talked about, and will most likely win many book awards.

I did what I usually do when I’m wresting with a book that features identities or communities or content that I am unfamiliar with. I asked people I trust. I shared my thinking with them, and I listened. In many ways this essay is more about the conversations I had and continue to have while trying to come to terms, rather than some sort of clean conclusion. *I will be adding footnoted changes to this post as they happen. 

When I first read the book I thought it was beautifully drawn. Full of soft colors, and gentle edges. Like fine pastels rubbed into expensive paper. There is a lushness to the images. When reading it I saw the care of the illustrator for her art, but I also so her Whiteness, her straightness, her cis-ness. I felt it in my bones and I could not shake the fact that I did not like the book. It was like eating a big meringue – sweet, technically beautiful, but it left a cloying, unpleasant taste. I wanted to name the taste, to objectify it, to explain it, to defend my dislike. I didn’t want to simply say “It isn’t an #OwnVoices book”. That was a convenient reason but not a complete one.

Literacy is a social act, and I find that my reading of the world is better when done in collaboration with others who do not share my view of the world, my history, or my identity. So, I talked to teachers who are Dominican, to librarians, and finally, to a trans girl named Indigo.

Stacey (not a pseudonym) is a teacher and she’s Dominican. I asked her about the book because I knew I needed to get handle on the language used. There are differences in the ways Latinxs speak and act within our communities and I didn’t want my Mexican-ness to over-ride the Dominican-ness that the White author was trying to capture. Stacey’s response was helpful. At first I asked about the physical features of the women, their dress, the ways they moved, and the shoes they wore. “I found that the story depicted Afro-Carribean culture pretty well. From the shape of the abuelita, her head scarfs and dress, to the figures of the other characters, I didn’t see anything problematic.” 

Stacey was generous, and she shared an unprompted idea with me.

I may of completely misinterpreted the theme, but I don’t know how likely it is for a Caribbean grandma to to take her grandson to a drag show and give him pearls after catching him in drag the first time. I think this story minimizes the real struggle LBGTQ members face in Caribbean culture where many of them are not accepted by society as they are in America. 

The ease in which Julián’s abuela accepts and encourages him to show his whole self might be something the author put into the book as a wish or hope. But, by creating this almost immediate acceptance, Jessica Love negated the real struggle so many Latinx LGBTQ people must go through. Is that is the message the author is trying to send? Probably. But, it lands flat to me. For me, this comes from a place of privilege that would rather a mermaid trope carry the message and ignore the very real issues at work.

Which lead me to a completely different Stacy and her colleague who helped me think about the whole mermaid deal. Stacy Collins (@darkliterata), who can be found over on the blog Medal on My Mind. I had lots of questions about the book.

Was this some sort of Trans Tail (Get it? Tale … like a story? and Tail like a mermaid? Sorry, I had no choice, the pun had to be written. I don’t make the rules). I get that there is a transformative narrative to mermaids, but if we are looking at a picturebook about a trans girl, or a gender fluid child, then why is Julián gendered on the very first page as male? Public librarian and friend Kazia Berkley-Cramer (@cateyekazia) pointed out the gendering thing and the fact that it continues throughout the book, even when he puts on a fancy headpiece, tablecloth tail, and big bauble-pearls his abuela hands over to complete his ensemble. She also wanted me to know that families are finding this book helpful and that isn’t nothing. But, for me, I keep looking at this book and I don’t think it is about a trans girl, or a gender fluid kid. It is really about a boy dressing up as a mermaid. Stacy Collins very aptly pointed out, “A fish tail is not inherently feminine, unless Julián wants it to be.”

It is important to point out (which I neglected to the first time this was posted) that Kazia was, overall, an advocate for the book. Her reasons were simple and compelling – her patrons. In her library she keeps the book in the “myself” section and Julián is a Mermaid provides her patrons with a character that they can watch come into being as without being chastised. In the first posting of this piece I neglected to give Kazia’s point a view much air. Probably because it departs from my own, but the fact is, there is a scarcity of books that show any kind of gender fluidity or flexibility with gender roles without punishment. That is a huge concern and, in that case, this book can do good things. (*4)

And, that is an issue I keep running into with this book. It isn’t clear what, if anything, Julián wants to express because this isn’t really Julián’s story. It is Jessica Love’s story, a story of a young Dominican boy, playing dress up or constructing himslelf, as imagined by a White, cis woman who brings her identity to the work, and with her identity comes her outsider’s gaze.

And, I think that is what bothers me the most. It isn’t JUST that Jessica Love isn’t a trans person of color. It is that there is no where in the book where I am not aware that this is another book about looking AT a trans body. The transformation of the body is a huge fixation, almost a fetish, for cis folks. We just can’t seem to get that it isn’t only about changing the body. Being trans is too complicated to reduce to a single idea or experience – not matter how hard we try as cis folks to make it just about the ONE THING (*2). The intrusive gaze on Julián’s private transformation wasn’t obvious to me. Instead, a young woman pointed it out to me and in that moment I knew the truth of it.

Indigo, a 16 year old trans girl (ugh, when do teens stop being boys and girls? I still call my sons’ friends boys and they are 15 and 16, so I’m going to stick with girl) who tweeted out under the Children of the Glades twitter handle dropped a truth bomb that continues to stick with me. They are a group of teens that identify as “Florida Seminole & Miccosukee” who are reading children’s and YA literature and giving scholars, teachers, librarians and other literary gatekeepers some enormous things to think about.

Indigo 2Indigo looked at the objectification of yet another “brown femme” body and felt danger there. Do I think that is what the author meant? No. But, it is more important to listen to what Indigo saw and felt as she read. I’d love to ask Indigo about the way she was reading this image – what gave her the creeps? Was it the heavy lidded eyes, so often associated with “bedroom eyes”? The fact that Julián is nearly naked in his tighty whities? Maybe the blush on his cheeks? When I start reading, seriously reading this image with this and some of the other commentary Indigo put out on Twitter, I began to get an inkling. I suspect the issue is the intimacy we, as outsiders, read and bear witness to seeing Julián build his gender representation from the world of his grandmother’s house.

I had a lot of things I wanted to ask Indigo. She was generous in her critique, to let it out into the Twitter-verse for all to see and I feel especially lucky that I saw it, read it, reached out to her and the other Glade teens.

I have a lot of things I still want to ask Indigo about, a lot of books I want to know what she thinks of, like Alex Gino’s new You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P. , and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. She was excited to find out that my main interest is in comics and graphic novels, so there was a whole world that was open to us to talk about … especially the new Captain Marvel movie!

But I can’t.

I can’t because she’s gone. Because, like too many queer teens and too many Native teens, and too many two spirit teens, she saw no way to survive, to move forward (Twitter announcement) . As Alexis:18 writes, “Indigo made a split-second decision that stopped her transitioning life. I know she wanted other Native 2SQ [two spirit] teens to get there.”

And so, selfishly, I mourn (*1) Indigo’s death for what I lost. Mourning for her, a teen so close to my own son’s age, feels too large and hard for me to do all at once. For her friends and family, I cannot begin to know how they feel. If I am affected by the loss of her potential, they are living with the gravity of the loss in ways I cannot know.

So, yes, Jessica Love wrote and illustrated a book that may or may not be about a young, gender fluid child, trying to find their way in the world. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this is simply not her story to write, and in the act of writing the book, she once again laid claim to what was not hers.

Rest in peace and power Indigo.


Footnotes of changes

  1. Updated: September 24, 2018 7:48 pm
    — Added Coney Island Mermaid parade
    — Tried to better explain grief.
  2. Updated: September 24, 2018 8:08 pm
    — Not surprising, I misrepresented trans experience in paragraph 5.
  3. Updated: 9/24/18 9:57 pm — many typos.
  4. Updated: 9/25/18 1:38 pm — added more information about positive librarian views

The Single Story of “Part-Time Indian”

Everyone agrees with Chimamanda Adichie when she warns of the Danger of a Single Story in her oft cited, taught, and shared TED Talk. The talk was released in 2009 and took the progressive world by storm – which means lots of sharing on social media, thumbs upping, and echoes of “absolutely” across micro-breweries and small batch coffee shops alike. On this morning (March 7, 2018) there are 14,607,326 views on the TED Talk site  putting her at #24 of the top 25 most popular talks of all times.

Keep in mind, this list is not about the TED Talks that have been produced, instead it is what we, the viewers and sharers watch and show that we value. There are 10 women and 15 men – if your reaction is “great!” please think about the fact that this is still less than half, and none are gender non-conforming. In addition, the list is ridiculously White. Like, I laughed and then I got mad, and then I started to laugh again but not in a good why WHITE.  Adichie is the ONLY Black speaker on the list and the ONLY Woman of Color on the list, and one of only two people of color, along with Pranav Mistry. In other words, TED talk viewers love the single story of people of color.

I bring this up because of there is an extremely popular single story about THE Native American experience published in 2007. You know the one. The author, Sherman Alexie has been shown to be a repeat sexual harasser. If you want to read through the whole  bunch of ugly go to Debbie Reese’s open letter.  She has done an excellent job collecting and cataloging the big deal.

I want to address the wailing I have seen that come down to “Well, if I can’t teach that book what am I going to do?!?!?!”

First off, DON’T PANIC. There are other books by and about Native Americans. Historical fictions, memoir, realistic fiction … all of it. The fact that you do NOT know about anything besides Alexie’s books is your responsibility. You had one book and you stayed with it. It was your comfort zone or Zone of Proximal Comfort (ZPC) (yes, that is a Vygotsky riff^). It is time to break out of your own ZPC and by doing so you are going to be able to  begin (or continue) dismantling the single story about Native American and Indigenous communities that is comfortable.

Here are some books that you should read and bring into your classrooms:

Trickster Cover

Trickster
Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

I reviewed this book 5 years ago and I still use it (here is a link). In my original review I wrote,  “The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.” and that pretty much still stands. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

NotYourPrincess_Cover

Looking for something for older readers? Look no further than #NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charlieboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale (here is my review). In my original review I wrote, “This is truly a multimodel text. The images are integral to this collection. They are not separate from the words. Instead, both interact in familiar ways and I found myself using the same kinds of strategies and skills I use to read graphic novels. Many of the photos feature Indigenous women looking directly at the reader, along with narratives that directly address the reader, thus breaking the 4th wall. This is a powerful choice to make, to draw the reader in and now allow the comfort of detachment.

If I ever get out

How about a buddy book, set in the 70s, for middle schoolers? If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth is that book. It deserves so much love, as well as a second or third read. Gansworth weaves music like Queen, David Bowe, and Wings into the lives of two pretty normal, if not completely different, teen boys. It is a quite and elegant treatment of Native American reservation life as nuanced, loving, and complicated instead of simply violent and desperate. In addition, there is a military kid, dads and sons, lots of conflict and a fair amount of cooperation.
Best of all there is a sequel! Give Me Some Truth will be coming out in May, 2018! Here is your chance to pre-order.

NR logoI’m reading and will be reviewing two books by published by Native Realities Press. They have been on my “to read” pile and I am finally getting to them. The first one is Tales of the Might Code Talkers which I have read and I will be teaching this semester. The second is a wordless comic, The Wool of Jonesy by Jonathan Nelson which a few of my students have read and been moved by the complexity and heartbreak of it.

If you want to do some of your own exploration, I suggest you head over to Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. There you will find what you have been missing because you have been resting, comfortably, in your single story.

 


^ Vygotsky was a psychologist who came up with a way of looking at learning with and without help. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which can be thought of as the difference between what a learner can do with no help and what they can do with help.