This is the presentation I gave about #TacoLiteracy at the 2016 Watson Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, October 2016.
This is the PowerPoint for my RSA 2016 Presentation on autoethnography exploring my educational trajectory via family archives and literacy research. In this short version, I focus on language loss across generations with excerpts of interviews from Roberto and Anna Alvarez about their early experiences learning English in Bisbee, Arizona during the 1950s.
Had some technical issues at #RSA16 with audio, but here’s the interviews with the family, both excerpted from longer interviews with the Alvarezes.
Pg. 3, line 46, written: no my wife was a permanent
Change to: nomi wi was permiso
Pg 4, line 10, written: & buy many things . . . if law requires
Change to: & buy mushos things . . . if law quiera
“get home & you just want”
5, line 5, written: giving illegal immigrants the privilege to grab legally
change to: giving the globe the illegal privilege to grab
5, line 11, written: another point abt. beaners
change to: another point specifically abt. beaners
5, line 18, written: & when illegals try to get licensed
change to: & when they try to get licensed
“boots on the ground”
4, line 4:33, written: 4:33raising many nirvana’s I
change to: 4:33raising many nirvanas I
8, line 7:15, written: 7:15& I know where the illegals eat—where they sell their labor
change to: 7:15& I know where they eat—& where they sell their worth
pg 8, line 8:21, written: 8:21illegal drunk driver w. no lights & no
change to: 8:21drunk driver w. no lights & no
9, line 10:49, written 10:49, written: 10:49does not scare you—they I had a blast
change to: had a blast
9, line 11:16, written: 11:16At Contestame jobs in Shelbyville—we don’t have
change to: 11:16at Contestame jobs in Shelbyville—we don’t have
10, line 13:24, written: 13:24warned you abt. their—
change to: 13:24 warn you abt. their—
“Appalachicanos . . . brownly”
12, line 6, written: to illegal aliens I—
change to: to . . . I
12, line 10, written: nearly 300 percent increase in illegals—
change to: nearly 300 percent increase—
13, lines 12-13, written
professional federal government c
ompletely abdicated its
professional federal government
completely abdicated its
13, line 25, written: & i know—i
change to: & I know—I
15, lines 11-12, written
to illegal aliens yesterday & today—
hundreds of illegal aliens have got to this search—
yesterday & today—
hundreds have passed on this search—
15, line 33, written: okay—my spleen—red white & blue—good somebody from the preaching . . . he either . . .
change to: my spleen—red white & blue—good from the preaching . . . either . . .
17, line 16, written: be four you begin to deal with this fear because it’ll be very
change to: before you begin to deal with this fear bc. it’ll be
17, line 18, written: we know that someone’s alive can . . .
change to: we know that someone’s alive & can . . .
Houston television station, with some supportive comments from a clear taco master.
And this one, “so-called taco literacy class”:
*Coming Spring 2016*
In recent years, there has been a steady increase of interest in the transnational migrations of Mexican food popularized by television food shows and travel journalism. In addition to the immense number of trade publications and cook books, important social justice issues in regards to multilingualism, migrant labor and digital activism, to representations of Mexican cooking in film and literature, and to the translation of indigenous cuisine for corporate consumption in different contexts have also become topical. This course will examine transnational community food literacies, and how these connect stories of people build publics across borders. Students will explore the history and networks of Mexican and Mexican American food in the United States writing about recipes as well as rhetorics of authenticity, local variations to preparation or presentation, and how food literacies situate different spaces, identities, and forms of knowledge.
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano
Tortillas: A Cultural History by Paula E. Morton
- Students will begin by writing their personal connections to Mexican food, their preferences and their sense of what Mexican food means culturally as part of American and global cuisine.
- Students will engage with the history of a particular dish of their preference and further research into the topic connected to variances, local varieties, and the movement of the dish to different locations.
- Students will engage the global perspective of the Pilcher text with the national context of Arellano tied to local, Kentucky responses and varieties of Mexican food.
- Students will engage a digital platform to blog reactions to texts and to publish their fieldwork and research into local Mexican restaurants.
- Students will produce reviews for three local restaurants focusing on the dish from Assignment 2.
M’ijo, mis sueños ya mero se completan,
my first son has created his own life,
living a life I never had,
I have given you a roof, food, and clothes,
now it is your choice,
to see a world I never saw.
M’ijo, my home is far away,
ya mero se termina mi vida aquí
we are leaving you,
just as a mother bird leaves her children,
our lives are back in our home
this is your home now, not ours.
From my parents’ words I know
there is an unknown world that awaits me,
without guidance, it is my choice,
without a goal, it is my failure,
without a voice, I am alone.
This is the advice I gave myself.
The poem above was written by 18-year-old KUL member Marco shortly before he graduated high school. In this poem, Marco channels the voices of his parents in the first two stanzas, which connect to his own voice that emerges in the last stanza, as a son becoming a man living a life from the sacrifices of his parents to move ahead in life and attend college. The poem initially took shape from a writing exercise that asked each student to bring family photos to write about in order to practice description. Flipping through his cell phone, Marco found two photos of his parents taken individually, and from these he built his first two stanzas. The poem has balance between voices, but also a rhythmic quality that affects the voices mingling with one another into the half-lines’ final repetition in the last stanza. Marco’s parents planned on returning to Mexico shortly after he graduated, and this gives much of the emotional weight he experienced writing this poem.
Initially, Marco was hesitant to share this poem with members of KUL because he thought it was too personal. He eventually did share it, though, and it became a favorite poem for readers of the student anthology. After sharing it, he realized he was not alone in this experience, as all the KUL students had deep familial connections that stretched across nations.
The photograph writing exercise draws from research into cultural memory and the role photography can play in articulating it. Annette Kuhn argues photography is useful to connect social and individual memory of stories. Looking at images, according to Kuhn, “Personal and family photographs figure importantly in cultural memory, and memory work with photographs offers a particularly productive route to understanding the social and cultural aspects of memory” (283). Writing can pave the route for negotiating social and individual memories, and these family artifacts can become sites for conducting family research and photovoice literacy learning.
While photovoice literacy projects are designed to speak to individual and cultural memory and to community resiliency, bilingual photovoice literacy projects do this in a unique way. Projects like these that look beyond the surface of students’ communities, that delve deeply into communities as funds of knowledge appropriate for academic inquiry should be welcomed into language arts classrooms of all levels.
Indeed photographs can speak for the past, but they also have the power to give voice to the future. Rather than look to the past for stories in the photographs for this writing exercise, Marco turned to the present and future, seeing his story as a part of his parents’ story, as an additional chapter in the family history. One also senses in the poem the struggles of emergent bilingualism, as the voices of the poem gradually speak more English, arriving at the poet’s voice by the final lines.
Another KUL student felt inspired by an image to create a work of non-fiction prose. A senior at the time and now a student at a local community college, Eliana found inspiration from several images of her mother working to prepare tacos during a county fair. Eliana’s piece entitled “A Day I Will Never Forget” moved from the photographs of her mother toward a specific narrative involving an accident she witnessed, one that forever shaped her appreciation for her mother’s central role in her family. This is the text in full:
A Day I Will Never Forget
I started to look for my mom as soon as I heard the explosion. I could feel fear creeping up every part of me. I caught a glimpse of my mom, a tear came streaming down my face. It seemed as if in the blink of an eye, everyone ran towards her. I stood there in shock, feeling like a complete idiot for not being able to help her out. Do something! As my mouth filled with a bittersweet taste, I ran toward my mom. By the time I got to her my face was soaked in tears.
“Help her, somebody help her!” someone screamed.
“Someone get some water!”
“Help! Help! Ayuda!”
I cried out to her, and she told me not to be scared. But how could I? Only fear, that’s all I felt, for the one who I loved most in this world.
Flashback to a few months earlier, July 2008. The fair was coming up and my mom was investigating what she needed to become a food vendor. She knew this could be a big way to expand the Mexican restaurant she had built by herself. All I knew was that she was going to need a couple thousand dollars to pull off the whole thing. Since she had met all of the legal and health requirements she needed, it was time for my family to get prepared for some hard work up ahead. We were first-timers to all this commotion selling food at the fair. After spending a whole afternoon and night setting up our booth, we were ready to start selling authentic Mexican food.
One of my mom’s friends offered us his gas broiler so we could roast al pastor visible to the public. My mom didn’t think twice in accepting the offer, but none of us knew what we needed to be very careful setting up this sort of appliance. Since it was a last minute addition, we hooked it up as best as we knew. On the fourth day of the fair, we were still having a lot of trouble with troubleshooting all the business we generated. Our food was a hit, but we were completely new and still learning the ropes. Other vendors had the advantage of the years of experience. My mom was turning the al pastor when suddenly a loud explosion caught my mom on fire. Before I could even analyze what had just happened someone else had already come to the rescue and put her out.
Sometimes I would just lie on my bed and cry and reproach myself for not running to help her when it happened. I would pray to God and ask him why mamá? Mamá? It killed me inside to even think about the pain she was going through. I wish it would have been me instead of her. All along I had never realized how important my mother was to me until this happened.
Why do tragic things have to happen for people to understand the importance of others? After the accident, my aunt took care of my mom. My brother, sister and I went to work at the restaurant. We couldn’t afford to have it closed down, especially with all the expenses we had to cover for my mother’s care. While we worked I knew it crossed everyone’s minds how my mother took on so much every day at work. It took three of us to do all the work she did on her own. I was amazed. I admired my mom’s strength. She had the courage to get up every day and go to work for out well-being even if it meant she had to be in pain. That’s something worthy to look up to.
A short while after this tragic experience, I knew that I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, and I wanted to become someone with a bright future. It is for her that I want to accomplish great things in life and further my education. I want to be someone that inspires many people, just like she inspired me.
Eliana’s text had complex narrative features, including shifting points of view, multiple voices, and a creatively organized timeline with a flashback sequence. Like Marco’s text, Eliana focused on her family, and as she composed the text, she practiced storytelling, and later sharing this story in the published KUL venture. Eliana used Spanish in this text sparingly, save for when describing the food dish called al pastor and the affiliation of her mother, Mamá. Combined with the images, the story became Eliana’s tribute to her mother, and also a compelling portrait of a family coming to grips with a disaster and moving forward together. Eliana’s photovoice composition took the shape of a story, but a story that also became an expressive family artifact. Like Marco, Eliana’s family photographs triggered a stream of writing. Of the several pieces she included in the KUL anthology, she experimented with genres, points of view, and bilingualism.
For younger students, photography can produce similar expressive, social narratives by learning about communities in local spaces like work and schools and the domestic spaces of families. Ten-year-old Lisa composed the following text at VBL by researching Google images for a memory she had in mind about her family (see Figure 5.1). In this case, Lisa imagined the photograph that she would search for, and what she found she included here. Below this, she gave her reasoning for the image. The text reads:
Horses are fun to ride. I rode a horse last year. My dad used to work at Churchill Downs. I rode Stephanie and Susie when I was eight. I rode Dandy last year. I fed them grapes and they liked it. My whole family likes horses too. I like donkeys too. Susie was black. Stephanie and Dandy are brown. I would like to have my own horse someday.
Figure 5.1: Lisa’s photovoice text about horses.
Lisa connected her father’s work history to her passion for horses, including the names of specific horses and experiences at one of the most famous racetracks in the world. The memory of Lisa’s experience triggered images in her mind of the horse she found for the accompanying image. Another layer to this project would be for Lisa to research family photographs for more history about her family’s connections to the horsing industry in Kentucky, directly examining further personal links to horses.
These images when joined with interviews from family members can become narrative starters that build on stories that speak to family strengths—in the case of Lisa, of experience working in the horsing industry, as well as first-hand experience with many horses, jockeys, and owners. An archive of family photographs could become a storehouse for practicing description through writing while conducting additional fieldwork research. Photography assignments connected to writing should also encourage additional photographs. In the example of Lisa, this would mean encouraging new photographs of horses or even timeline exercises that build on a series of photos in sequence. Because she composed this in English, I would also invite Spanish into the project, including transcriptions from interviews conducted in Spanish.
These projects that begin with photos, fast become ethnographic projects—projects that have the potential to tap into the local community and engage students with their lived experiences as they become critically aware of the reflexive nature of researching their lives. In other words, when students begin to research their own local positioning, they do so from a research stance, trying to make strange their sense of the everyday. This reorientation of participant observation and action results in the narrating their own and others’ stories in a new way as students learn to negotiate their voice and their authority and gain confidence in representing elements of the communities and expertise from their lives. David Bloome envisions potential directions for classroom ethnographies in the future where students “become ethnographers of their own communities”:
The students are taught the methods, concepts, principles, and language of ethnographic research, and the traditional skills of reading, writing, calculating, drawing and other traditional classroom learning practices are redefined by the students’ engagement in ethnographic research. In some of these teaching-learners-to-be-ethnographer programs the students gain awareness and appreciation for their own and others’ cultures and communities. In other cases, students develop an understanding of how to approach academic learning through the inquiry processes of ethnography. In still other cases, students examine how social and political problems in their communities affected their lives and the lives of their families and other community members. Students in such programs become active agents who used the knowledge they gained to reframe academic learning to make the cultures of the communities visible, and to engage in action-oriented service projects. (Grenfell et al. 24)
Such projects envisioned by Grenfell engage parents and local communities in conversations about educational goals, motivations, and the ways reading and writing are used expressively in the community literacy projects. As with photovoice examples of Marco and Lisa, emergent bilingual students bring a wealth of community experiences and resiliencies that can cultivate positive attitudes toward schooling uncovered by research that makes person-to-person contact. Language arts teachers of all levels stand to gain when engaging students’ communities in classrooms and organizing writing projects that fit the practices of emergent bilingual communities.
Does it to you? Does it make sense?
Then the speak English song:
From Chapter 7, Fieldwork Projects and Language Learning in Communities
I started to chat with two friends, fourth graders Lili and Maria. I had helped both with homework at VBL on different occasions. The two were examining an informational brochure from the city for parents about registering children for kindergarten. The brochures were bilingual and on display near the entrance of the library. I sat with the two as Lili read the Spanish page aloud to Maria. Maria sounded out words with her friend as she read her own copy of the brochure. I also read portions of the brochure in Spanish with pronunciation assistance from both Lili and Maria. Neither of the two had younger siblings registering for kindergarten, but both wanted to practice reading.
Seeing this as an opportune moment to read together, I scanned the room for any books we could pick up to read together. I noticed a library book someone had left in the homework space, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. After quickly asking around, it seems someone had not shelved the book—to our great fortune. I brought the book to our trio, and I asked Maria and Lili if they had ever read these poems before. Both Lili and Maria shook their heads.
In the previous chapter, I described ethnographic poetry of Ms. Mason as a model for educators to creatively and critically compose social relations with communities and local voices, and from learning from dignity of all students and their families. Based on the experience with Lili and Maria, and where the event moved next, I composed the following poem. The was based on a homework help encounter between the two students and me. We worked as a trio on the poem, moved between languages reflexively, and had an engaging conversation. This poem entitled “fieldnote” attempts to capture the arguments about emergent bilingualism I make in this book, synthesized into poetic music and narrative movement. The poem also tells a story about bilingual learning, community building, and educational mentorship. I wrote the first draft the same evening after homework help at VBL.
two fourth graders
in tandem, Lili & Maria,
our trio reading poems.
We shared one book
all wondered at an illustration
of two curious children peering over
the edge where the sidewalk ends
perhaps peering into a cavernous gap:
And Maria— “Ay dios mio, their perro is going to fall.”
Today: poetry. Everyday: poetry.
Bueno, vamos a leer. Together let’s go:
rhythms bouncing Germanically
to some spot where all roads end
basta ya no más
no street begins
but some nouns growing naranjas
and prepositions brillando as crimson crystal
y purple pajaros resting on conjunctions
y los verbos scattering in wind smelling
And Lili— “I think the poem in the fields or the finca.”
And Maria— “I think wind and begins kinda rhymes.”
Trio of laughter. Juntos pues.
You like to speak Spanish?
And Maria— “With mi mamá and papá, yeah. But not with my teacher.”
Your teacher habla español?
And she— “Tries to speak to me, but I don’t like to talk to her in Spanish because estamos en la escuela.”
When do you speak Spanish?
And Lili—“Solamente en la casa or con mis amigos.
Pero a veces here too when I talk to Maria’s mom.”
And Maria—“Me too, when I talk at home, but I talk to my brother in English and Spanish, but more English.”
And Lili—“And sometimes to chamaquitos.”
But why do you like to speak Spanish with me?
And Maria—“Because you are nice, and you speak both.”
I think I speak more English than Spanish, como ahorita, verdad?
And Lili—“See you are doing it, eso me gusta.”
Ándale that’s one for the code.
Our last stanza
and juntos we stepped slowly
through the measure following arrows
over rapid lines
back from that grammatical park
ojalá que to someday return
bringing back regalos from another syntax
and dutifully sharing lexicons.
What about those arrows and measured walks?
And Lili—“Because it’s the camino to the place to see the picture on the front.”
Returning to the cover.
And Maria— “Claro que yes.”
And Lili—“To the end of the calles too.”
And Maria—“Pobre perro.”
Maria and Lili formulated their own poem responses,
and they read their poems
as they turned their backs to the gap
at the end of the calles.
the parque is like the forest
y los arboles son bien verdes
and we go there on Sundays sometimes
and have barbacoa and we visit
Applause from her audience.
hablo español and English con mi familia
y mis padres están orgullosas de mí
porque tengo buenas notas
y tengo muchas metas y me dicen
con ganas mijita porque tu futuro
es nuestro futuros.
After this I asked
both to write a paragraph
comparing the poems. Maria
sped through her writing
pointing to español in both poems
and familia at the beginning
of the journey to where the calles end.
Lili sighed and stared at her page
and Maria would pause and cheer her friend
and they both finished their paragraphs together
and read them juntos.
Lili’s mother said hola and Maria and I
said hasta luego to Lili and then her mother
I asked Maria why she helped Lili.
“Because she gets mad that she can’t write and read like me. But I like to help her because she’s my friend.”
But you don’t give her the answers.
“No because the teacher told me when I help people you don’t give them answers.”
You like to help people.
“Mostly the little ones I read to them because it’s fun.”
I think I know what you want to be when you grow up, but what do you want to be?
And Maria—“A teacher.”
I published the above poem for the community literacy journal Reflections, an academic publication devoted to community literacy and service learning. “fieldnote” has actual transcript quotes from students and gives a lyric account of the literacy event. The choice to write about this event became present when thought about the poems we read with one another. Why couldn’t I write a poem about how as a trio we read poetry together and bilingually? On this ordinary night of homework help at VBL, I recounted the interactions I had with students in narrative form to begin this chapter, but the ethnographic poem above from the experience with Lili and Maria has a different feel, and also a different audience. I composed the poem after the initial fieldnote I composed directly when I returned from tutoring. The fieldnote became a piece of data for analysis, and also for expression, as I saw another audience for the arguments I wanted to make—similar to what I make in this book, but in a different way and with different ends, and bilingually. This creative and critical reflection has elements of translanguging inherent, and bilingual dexterity. As I opened this chapter in narrative mode telling of an ordinary evening at VBL, the transition to the poem signifies something different, aestheticizing the ordinary but also reliving a moment based on experience. The poem becomes a call to action in its action of a moment of shared learning. The interactions, I emphasize, were an ordinary evening of homework help at VBL, a few hours of my evening, but a wealth of language learning and mentorship.
Transforming the fieldnote into “fieldnote” made perfect sense, and the event itself was rich with language play, community, and social meaning. The poem allowed me to further explore the human connection to a literacy event, as the driving narrative of the text. Creating such texts are important for my own development as a bilingual writer, but also to perform the bilingual experience. In Language Across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools, Django Paris describes the stance of humanizing research, “a methodological stance which requires that our inquiries involve dialogic consciousness-raising and the building of relationships of dignity and care for both researchers and participants” (9). The stance also implies data representations that equally account for the dignity of communities and sense of care between student researchers and the communities they come from and study. For educators it’s also practice to consider for themselves as they write deeper into how communities affect us personally and as members. Producing creative texts based from experience ask educators to think critically about where our lives come into contact with students in impactful ways outside the bounds of standardized learning. As a creative project, poetic explorations can also gain from bilingual play and musicality of imaginative writing drawing from teaching experiences.
In analyzing narrated magical events in the realistic mode of narration, Wendy Faris considers the magical realist genre as demonstrating instances of what she forthrightly terms “defocalization” (43-59). In this essay I look to critique Faris’s use of the term defocalization in a contemporary American magical realist text, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. I argue that Faris uses the term focalization too loosely, especially when making claims that magical realism’s defocalization serves in “focalizing a genre,” doubly transporting the term to some critical place away from narratological analysis as she misappropriates the narratological term focalization for a Bakhtinian analysis of genre hybridity and reader response criticism (with a twist of post – modernism and structuralism). Analyzing focalization in the two magical realist texts examined here will point to a more narratological methodology of understanding how focalization operates in the magical realistic mode of narrative. In the end, I examine how focalization functions in the particular case of Plascencia’s novel, and then symbolically interpret this from the critical lens of postcolonialism. My aim is to demonstrate that an analysis of focalization is a particular methodology that furthers elucidation of critical theory and interpretation, and not to be mistaken for an interpretation in and of itself.
Introduction: Magic and the Genealogy of the Genre
The logic of the magical realist literary text proves a certain illogic that “enchants the ordinary” — to reword the title of Wendy B. Faris’s thorough study of magical realism’s “remystification” of narrative. Indeed it’s true that one could also think of this, perhaps, as defamiliarizing commonsensical logic of narrative, or the given logic of practice by which individuals come to establish genre and narrative expectations, especially the mode of realism as a stylistic historically-constructed “standard” from which other genres deviate. And for Faris the magical realist mode defamiliarly represents reality (and/or perhaps fantasy) in literary narrative in ways distinct from other twentieth-century schools of non-realist genres, such as surrealism, dadaism, or even the concrete poetics movement of the 1960s. Historically Faris makes various distinctions as to how aspects of the “irreducible element” of magic mixes with realism to complexly compose into something both beyond and between modern and postmodern literary aesthetics, and in effect, I think, both connecting and detaching magical realism from aesthetic movements enunciated from the dominant western literary “world” canon of Europe and the U.S.A.:
The magical, irreducible elements in magical realism inherit modernism’s search beyond the rational into the unconscious, but they bring more than an individual’s hidden scenarios to the postmodern surface of the text. [. . . T]he autonomy of discourse that magical realism implicitly proposes through the irreducible element means that it mediates the modernist organization of the world’s chaos through art and the postmodern occlusion of the world by text. (Faris 33)
This is to say, that magical realist texts, specifically those of the “third-world” or minorities in the “developed” areas of the globe, do liken to what dominant European and American literary critics and intellectuals deem as both stylistically modern and postmodern — “modern” in encyclopedic “organization of [. . .] chaos” and extensive genealogies and postmodern in embracing multiplicity and representing intertextual chaos as bricolage; yet magical realism Faris argues is a genre both completely dissimilar from each “aesthetic” while congruent. Historically the magical realist aesthetic — that associated with The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Pedro Paramo — is something that gains mass popularity worldwide after the second World War and gains flourishing worldwide readerships for Latin American writers during the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, she claims that Latin American magical realist writers historically drew inspiration from experimental European aesthetics of the early 20th century:
[. . .] Latin American magical realist writing grew out of the first wave of postcolonial romantic primitivism, which affirmed the sense of usable, natural, and indigenous past but had not yet articulated a distinctive style in which to portray that sensibility. It thus developed as a response to the conjunction of indigenist and avant garde modes, and through a combination of Latin American and European inspiration. (33)
As briefly pointed to earlier, the modern features Faris points to are of narratological epistemology — questions as to how readers know how to generate character out of psychological depth, and through multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives, and how this complicates traditional realist modes of representation. Indeed, magical realism did emerge out of the “first wave of postcolonial romantic primitivism” that sent European artists seeking aesthetic inspiration from Africa, Asia, and the indigenous Americas, but in the Americas it was also a time historically when intense popular nationalism, civil wars, revolutions, and foreign economic domination systematically plagued nations into what we today recognize as neoliberal market reforms (Harvey; Hershberg and Rosen). Reverence for indigenous past — nicely illustrated in the philosophical aesthetics of Vasconcelos or Paz of Mexico — often served to ideologically unify the popular identity of the public during turbulent political contexts. The indigenous also was something to be celebrated for its “primitive” aesthetic untainted by civilization, for its beauty artistically for art’s sake. And for intellectuals in the Americas from Argentina to Canada the entire above, but with the underlying truth of an indigenous identity distinct from Europe, but also mixed with Europe. Thus claims Faris, magical realist literary aesthetics
responded to the questioning of the novel of the land by writers influenced by European and U.S. modernism and surrealism, and their consequent production of a more psychological realism in the 1930s and 1940s, together with a revalidation of the land and culture of Latin America. (33)
That revalidation of land and culture sounds like what Mignolo would term as re-conceiving the locus of enunciation, or horizontally opening up a space from which to speak and address the plurality of voices that dominate all markets, to be distinctly heard and identified as well. Certainly this is something to celebrate, and I think Faris does in a very postmodern/post-structural/Bakhtinian sort of way. I shy away from terming her analyses as narratology, though, since I feel her schema are rooted more in questions of poetics and genre.
Faris’s “five primary characteristics of the mode” of magical realism are of course grounded in a poetics of magic, but her final three would appear to be of the narratological order:
- Magic—“irreducible element” (7) / allegory, fantasy
- Phenomenology of the world—the ‘realism’ in magical realism / “reality effect”
- Reader doubts perspectives of events—focalization & defocalization
- Narrative merges different realms
- Narrative disturbs time, space, identity
While I can certainly identify with her narratology in her claims for numbers four and five, I have some hesitations with number three, in particular by how she uses the term “focalization.” In Ordinary Enchantments, Faris harnesses the prefix de and applies it to the narratological term focalization without really conducting a narratological analysis that furthers any understanding as to how focalization — as used in studying narrative and not genre — functions in magical realist texts. In this essay, I will attempt to give a brief survey of the narratological term focalization while further critiquing Faris’s notion of defocalization. I will also illustrate focalization in a contemporary American magical realist literary text, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. With this text I show that focalization in the magical realist mode cannot be reduced to a single term such as defocalization, because focalization in narratological study is a complex process of relations that best serves literary analysis when treated as such. Faris does make strong analysis of other aspects of narratology such as fabula and story, but her analysis of focalization has narratological gaps.
Survey of the Narratological Analysis of Focalization
In 1972 Gérard Genette first coined the narratological term “focalization” in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method while describing the intricacies of roaming points of view in the dynamics of Proustian narrative. Genette probed Proust’s complex weaving of narration and character, and the ways in which a narrator who is not one of the characters meanders in and out of the point of view of one, or in and out of the “focus of narration” as Brooks and Warren term it. Focalization, he assesses, best serves to complicate and elucidate how narration and narrator distinctions operate in narratives. In his chapter treating “Mood,” he dedicates five pages (189-194) to focalization according to a “three-term typology” which relates to the points of view represented in narrative. Using equations garnered from Todorov, he symbolizes the types of focalization as such:
Narrator > Character
Narrator = Character
Narrator < Character (189)
The first equation corresponds to an omniscient narration where “the narrator knows more than the character, or more exactly says more than any of the characters knows.” This is what Genette calls “nonfocalized narrative or narrative with zero focalization.” The second equation the narrator “says only what a given character knows” and thereby he classifies this as internal focalization, which is either 1) “fixed” in terms of miming restrictions that prevent omniscient knowing (basically being trapped by one’s point of view), or 2) “variable”, as in when different narrators become focal characters, such as in Madame Bovary or As I Lay Dying, or 3) “multiple” when variations of focal narrators/characters evoke an event several times from different focalizers (or focalizing agents), as in the film Rashomon. The third equation, finally, describes when “the narrator says less than the character knows,” or a narrative of external focalization. External focalization has the tendency, according to Genette, of “carrying circumspection so far as to become a riddle”. Two examples of external focalization are Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (189-190). Genette also notes that the “commitment as to focalization is not necessarily steady over the whole length of the narrative,” as narratives tend to vary in relation of who sees/knows and that which is to be seen/known.
In writing only a few pages explicitly dedicated to discussing focalization, perhaps Genette did not recognize the critical importance the term would have in literary study in ensuing years. In the foreword to the 1980 English edition, Jonathan Culler writes that Mieke Bal strongly critiques Genette’s use of focalization to “cover two cases [internal and external] which are so different that to treat them as variants of the same phenomenon [. . .] weaken[s] his important new concept” (Genette 10). For Bal, Culler claims, Genette’s survey into internal and external focalizations should not be considered as instances of point of view but as distinct points of view that gain and lose certain narratological advantages when analyzed in conjunction. According to Bal focalization is the relation between “the vision and that which is ‘seen’ perceived” (Bal 100). These terms do not, according to Bal, “make an explicit distinction between, on the one hand, the vision through which the elements are presented and, on the other, the identity of the voice that is verbalizing the vision” (101). Thus the absence of distinction births her oppositions for the study of focalization and results in the primary point of emphasis for her in Narratology.
Bal’s “Story” chapter structurally opposes focalizor (the voice verbalizing) and the focalized (the object or vision) to provide the essential framework to considering focalization and its significance in terms of the restrictions in knowledge that characterize textual gaps readers react to (Iser), or restrictions that characterize textual limits that fluctuate within the course of any given text. At the same time, Bal points to how such gaps or limits insinuate readers into a large degree of narrative susceptibility due to the limits of visibility. She writes:
The significance of certain aspects [of a story] cannot be viewed unless [. . .] linked to focalization. Moreover, focalization is, in my view, the most important, most penetrating, and most subtle means of manipulation. (Bal 116)
The manipulation Bal refers to is that of vision and isolation of perspective, and it is strongly tied to emotion, similar to what she calls the manipulative effect of photography and film (102). The emotional manipulation Bal argues allows ideology to slip in, at times, unbeknownst to the reader/viewer. Yet we ought to explore further where she comes to arrive at this conclusion before fully understanding where she takes on this visual rhetoric in conjunction with the critical tool of focalization (indeed an analysis akin to something like the Situationists). Her definition of focalization, to begin with, acknowledges the relational aspect of agency/subject and vision/object in narrated visible space. She writes,
Focalization is the relationship between the “vision,” the agent that sees and that which is seen [. . .] A says that B sees what C is doing [. . .] focalization belongs in the story, the layer in between linguistic text and the fabula. (112)
For Bal, focalization falls between grammar and story order, as another essential element in the formation of narrative, or as another limit that brings “focus” to the text, of “who allows whom to watch whom” (ibid.). Focalization is the ways and means of presenting information from some narrative presence’s point of view. When considering film narrative, for example, focalization can be pinpointed by answering the question whose point of view orients the current portion of filmic information. Or: Whose perception serves as the source of information? Yet “perception” is here used as quite a general term, and this is where Faris makes headway in considering the narratological ramifications of magical realism, because perception indeed can include actual as well as imaginary perception (such as visions, dreams, or memories) and other states of consciousness. Below is a diagram from Jahn (1999) that helps to conceptualize the narratological understanding of focalization:
In the above, the limits between the line distinguishing “W” world from “V” field of vision are important to point out, and, of course, the relation between “F1” and “F2.” The relation of “W” to “F1” might also has the significance of following the same Todorov equation cited by Genette, where “F1” stands for character and “W” stands for narrator. As I mention, the limits of the field of vision point to the limits of perception, and thereby to the limits of subjectivity at achieving objectivity. Bal writes that “perception depends on so many factors that striving for objectivity is pointless” (100). Indeed, Genette also notes that focalization is “essentially [. . .] a restriction” (Genette 192). Plascencia plays with this idea in The People of Paper by failing to focalize omniscient narration through the character of the Baby Nostrodomus who has the ability to stand outside the limits of the field of perception by telekinetically blocking his thoughts from the omniscient narrator. In the book, the sections dedicated to his point of view are censored by black columns, visually indicating that text exists outside the field of vision that will never be glimpsed.
The position of “F1” in the diagram is also that of what is termed the focalizor. The focalizor is the agent whose point of view orients the narrative text. A text is anchored on the focalizor’s point of view as it presents the focalizor’s thoughts, reflections and knowledge, his/her actual and imaginary perceptions, as well as his/her cultural and ideological orientations. Returning to Bal’s claim about ideological manipulation, we see this in that the focalizor’s orientations serve something like the lens (“L” in the diagram, “the eye”) through which one perceives the world, or the limits of agency amid strong cultural and historic determinations. That the focalizor can also perceive imaginary perceptions, however, is especially poignant when understanding what Faris theorizes as the “defocalization” that occurs in magical realist narratives. While Faris’s idea has interesting implications, I think she may have taken too many liberties in exploiting what she describes as focalization’s “indeterminacy”. She relies heavily on what she terms “perception” and then connects this to the defamiliarizing strategies of disrupting reader expectations of the realistic mode. Her use of defocalization is problematic as well insofar as she neglects to consider the relational aspects of perception and character in her definition of focalization, including ideological and cultural orientations. For example, she writes that
defocalization creates a narrative space of the ineffable in-between because its perspective cannot be explained, only experienced. Within it, one does not know quite where one is, what one is seeing, or what kind of voice one is hearing. It is therefore a space that figures a sense of the mysterious within the ordinary. (46)
Perhaps this means that the focalizor’s limited field of perception expands to magical realms? And is this not confusion between the focalizor and the reader’s genre expectations? She perhaps better explains what she means when she writes that a magical realist narrative “infuses reliable portraiture with visionary power” (ibid.). But then I’m confused at what — narratologically speaking — she means when she argues that in magical realist texts, “the narrative is ‘defocalized’ because it seems to come from two radically different perspectives at once” (43). Focalization in fiction and in all visual aspects of artworks is by nature defined by limits of perception. What Farris points to in regards to magical realistic narratives are the de-limitized borders entrapping perception, though too within limits, though limits that seem limitless. Certainly I can assent to the sense of limits within genres and the establishment of a “legitimate” or “standard” canon of texts enunciated from powerful centers of learning in the USA and Europe, but in the study of narrative, I’m not certain how this plurality of limited and unlimited gazes comes together except under the conditions of a discussion of genre. As for a narratological understanding of what I would think defocalization might entail, I would imagine that — as in photography or film — that adjusting the lens would focus and defocus the visual perception of “F1” to “F2” and the field of vision.
A more narratological approach to the study of defocalization would pursue a less genre-bound interpretation of intertextuality and more of a limited relational understanding of elements with the text in question, and from here, it seems, make generalized conclusions about texts in similar or different genres. I will point out, though, more recent study into the cognitive aspects of narrative consider imaginary perception to be considered as being fully co-equal with ordinary perception. This view makes a virtue of the fact that it is often impossible to tell whether a perception is based on “real” sensory input, on imaginative processes, or on a combination of the two. In fact, the very lack of exclusivity in this case usefully stresses the functional interplay between ordinary and imaginary perception. This as well would be worth further study in conjunction to magical realism as a narrative mode.
Focalization and the Colonial Gaze in The People of Paper
To reconsider how focalization functions in magical realist literary texts, let us consider a contemporary novel concerning the Chicano experience in postmodern southern California. Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005) presents an example of what Genette calls the “autobiographical type of narration” dealing with real or fictive autobiography. In The People of Paper Plascencia is a focalized character explicitly mentioned and also a character focalized as another character named Saturn. The text is an example of the fixed-variable form of interior focalization according to Genette’s tripartite model. In terms of the magical element in the text, one can plainly see this in the multiple magical occurrences assumed as phenomenologically natural: a man who can create life from folding paper, a woman whom he makes and the series of her failed sexual love interests who cannot negotiate intimacy without destroying her or suffering paper cuts, and an infant — a presumed reincarnation of Nostrodomus — who reads minds and communicates via telekinesis. Magic is also at the essence of the novel’s narrative as characters become magically aware of their place as characters in a novel written by Plascencia.
The novel experiments with a plurality of perspectives; the mantel of aura, the focalizor’s limits in focalization, indeed are hard to pinpoint with the multiple points of view narrating similar events in successive order. Each page of the novel varies in the number of columns per page, and each column serves as a differently focalized character narrative with different character perception limits. Some of the columns are in first person, others in third, but the column dedicated to Saturn is recognizably the “omniscient” third-person narrator. The novel, without a doubt, exemplifies the plurality of perceptions which Faris celebrates in magical realist literary texts. Yet this self-awareness of focalization is something that becomes central to the colonial struggle characters in the novel face. The members of El Monte Flores wage a war against the gaze that narrates their lives. Such a narrative tactic is indeed a way of refocusing focalization self-reflectively within the narrative, but is far from what Faris means by defocalization.
In The People of Paper characters feel plagued with the omnipotent — albeit colonial — gaze of the narrator/author looming overhead and peering into their personal lives, and, worse yet, profiting with the stories of their lives as content for a novel. The novel’s two main characters are Mexican immigrants Federico de la Fe and his daughter Little Merced. They migrate to California from Las Tortugas (presumably in the state of Nayarit) after his wife Merced leaves him because of his compulsive bedwetting. Depressed and dejected, Federico de la Fe and his daughter embark on a journey of self-assertion in a stand against sadness in a story not their own. On the way to temporarily settling in El Monte, California, Federico de la Fe realizes that his fate has been at the hand of Saturn/Plascencia, who has determined his narrative against his will in order to be narrated into existence as a book to be sold for profit. He vows to wage war against Saturn/Plascencia, war for agency and volition and to be out of the plane of the “colonial” focalization of power. Federico de la Fe recruits the El Monte Flores (EMF) gang members as allies in his rebellion against the despotic power, a war “for volition and against the commodification of sadness. It is a war against the fate that has been decided for us” (53). He convinces other characters that a “colonial” gaze determines their reality, and finds solidarity with this group of cholos who also feel the weight of the gaze. Federico de la Fe convinces these disenfranchised youth to join him in an uprising by impeding Saturn’s gaze and concealing their private lives by covering their homes in lead in order to plot their war tactics in private:
Unable to see the notes that Federico de la Fe hid underneath the lead, Saturn had not foreseen this type of attack. De la Fe’s plan was to stump Saturn in the midst of the story, to hide their lives behind lead walls. (90)
The lead protective plating eventually leads to lead poisoning for all the characters waging war against the focalized authorial gaze. Symbolically, the resistance to the gaze becomes an ironic metaphorical representation of decolonial militant movements: “we are fighting a war against a story, against the history that is being written by Saturn” (209). The members of EMF who wage war against their author Saturn/ Plascencia are self-consciously aware of their roles in a novel. In a Borgesian way, this form of narratological “magic” creates a narrative that folds in upon itself, a textual feature of the postmodern aesthetic, and one narratologically complex in layers.
That Plascencia is a character in the novel explicitly mentioned further complicates this layered complexity. Whether referred to as Plascencia the writer or Saturn the tyrant, we should also consider this as a war against visibility or surveillance, against the focalized gaze where it magically turns upon itself in demonstrations toward liberation; and most certainly we should consider the war as a form of resistance against colonial status, a war against the colonizer’s power to — as Mignolo puts it — propagate “coloniality” and inflict the “colonial wound.” The fight for decolonization forms the writing of their existences, the narratives of their narrated lives, or even their magical liberation from the focalized gaze of power. These characters claim to be exploited by their author. Federico de la Fe declares his privacy — in effect his life — is violated as all control of his destiny has been stripped from him, as he is powerless to actively pursue his own self-determined narrative. As a textually colonized people, Federico de la Fe wearily admits that,
Right now, as I say this, we are part of Saturn’s story. Saturn owns it. We are being listened to and watched, our lives sold as entertainment. But if we fight we might be able to gain control, to shield ourselves and live our lives for ourselves. (90)
Federico de la Fe’s critical consciousness — so to speak — has been awakened, his awareness and drive to resist a life of helplessness and unhappiness empowers the fictional revolution against the author, a revolution satirically representing on one level historical colonial situations, those in which real people fight to be authors of their own lives, and on another the author’s predicament of controlling characters in narrative struggles. Federico de la Fe and his comrades appear to suffer from the “colonial wound” Walter Mignolo writes of in The Idea of Latin America. This deep-rooted feeling of inferiority and hurt is the result of being silenced — typically by violence either literal or symbolic — and having to live as the “other” character of someone else’s history, colonial narrative, or colonial gaze. For Latin America as a historical invention of coloniality and modernity for the benefit of market domination and imperial wealth and exploitation, being categorized as peripheral to a European or American locus of enunciation produces feelings of conflicting pain and self abnegation.
Conclusion: Defocalizing Dofocalization
I would not hasten to call my analysis of focalization in a magical realist text a study of defocalization. The use that term in my analysis of focalization in The People of Paper does not apply, especially not in the variety of magical “planes” of knowing, as I think that sort of magic has nothing to do with how focalization functions in this magical realist narrative, nor in others. There is no indeterminacy in focalization. This is a misapprehension of the term. We should think of focalization operating in all variety of narratives as depending on the narrative, whether of magical realism, realism, detective fiction, romance novels, and not in terms that warp the theoretical usefulness of the concept. Studying focalization teases out different significances for different narratives. In the case of The People of Paper focalization is at the essence of the narrative’s fictional war; characters are up in arms in the struggles to move from the “F2” position to “F1” in Jahn’s diagram given earlier (page 12).
Harkening back to Bal’s point about ideology slipping in to focalization brings me to my ideas into the usefulness of studying how focalization operates in narratives. Examining the ideological “lens” of the narrative greatly adds to the deepening of critical analysis. In the case of this essay, I have chosen to use focalization to focus on the postcolonial agenda I find most present in the novel, briefly connecting Plascencia’s war narrative to Mignolo’s historico-socio-cultural theories of struggle in the Americas. I think Faris’s own focalized gaze filters through a poststructuralist agenda that clouds the usefulness of studying and applying focalization as a narratological tool to develop more elaborate critical interpretations. Yet her study of the magical realist genre in general is quite intelligent and useful.
Finally I’d like to add what I think would be crucial for further study and application of focalization in narrative. I think it necessary to consider in relation to magical realist — or any other narrative genre in various media — the relationship between a narrator’s viewpoint between space and time and how this functions within the narrative. Examining memory – flashbacks and premonitions especially – and magic broadly conceived in these aspects will lead to more elaborate analyses of how magic and memory defamiliarize narrative sequencing or fabula, and will without a doubt remain more stable in focalization than Faris seems to think.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd ed. Toronto; Buffalo: U of Toronto P, c
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. New York: Crofts, 1943.
Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2004.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2007.
Hershberg, Eric, and Fred Rosen, ed. Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century? New York: New Press: NACLA, 2006.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, c 1978.
Jahn, Manfred. “More Aspects of Focalization: Refinements and Applications.” GRAAT: Revue des Groupes de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de L’Université François Rabelais de Tours 21 (1999): 85-110. 6 May 2009 <http://www.unikoeln.de/~ame02/jahn99b.htm>.
Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
Plascencia, Salvador. The People of Paper. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006.
Latino Male Success presentation delivered before the administrators of Kentucky Job Corps.