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Xicana* writer Cherríe Moraga’s latest collection of prose and poetry covers a lot of thematic ground. Moraga has always viewed and written about the world with a critic’s sharp eye, and the analysis in her latest book extends from the political to the personal: from 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama to her feelings on the emergent trans movement and her own relationship with Gloria Anzaldúa.
Moraga’s prose is characteristically trenchant and her stance unapologetic as ever. But there is a tender quality of reflection here, too, even nostalgia, that strikes a new note.
As with Loving in the War Years (2000) and The Last Generation (1993), prose dominates Xicana Codex (it has only 5 poems out of more than 20 pieces), but it is a prose deeply steeped in symbol, myth and cuento, and is more powerful (and at times, more poetic) than her verse.
In the title essay, Moraga admits that in the writing of her memoir about her son’s birth, Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (Firebrand, 1997), “I learned that a story well told is a story embellished and re-visioned.”
That experience led her to a new understanding of herself in writing; “I have encountered the ‘I’ of ‘character,’ who is and is not me, one which allows me the freedom of incorrect politics and a bravery not realized in my own life.” This admission at the outset of the collection is a helpful guide, for Moraga’s “I” ranges wide, and like Walt Whitman’s multitudinous voice, sometimes contradicts itself, resulting in rich interpretive possibilities.
Each essay title is followed by the year it was originally written, and often has an endnote explaining the transformations and revisions it has undergone from speech to text or first draft to final, highlighting the title’s claim to changing consciousness. In addition, Xicana Codex features 9 black and white illustrations by Celia Herrera Rodríguez, Moraga’s partner. It is not totally clear what the drawings add in terms of content, but they do position the book squarely in an Indigenous Xicana context.
“Indígena as Scribe: The (W)rite to Remember” articulates Moraga’s cultural nationalism, and her preoccupation with “remembering” Native American culture, most strongly. This is where Moraga says things like, “Toni Morrison didn’t write Beloved; her slave ancestors did” and “a nine-year-old kid doing a little hip-hop number…unwittingly remembers his ancestor’s call in the squeaky rub of his Nikes against the linoleum floor.”
These kinds of statements give me pause, and it’s easy to make arguments about why such a conception of culture or race might be limited or limiting. However, taken in the context of the rest of the essays, this sort of “essentialism” is easier for me to swallow. Remembering that the “I” here is a strategic “I,” crafting a narrative, helps. We can and should take Moraga seriously; we shouldn’t try make her fit into any Cartesian notion of what is strictly “possible.”
Particularly from an LGBTQ perspective, “Still Loving in the (Still) War Years: On Keeping Queer Queer” is one of the most moving essays in the book. Here Moraga reflects on queerness, gay marriage, and the emerging trans movement, disarmingly honest in her evaluation of these issues.
Moraga says she is “scared that the political agenda of the transgender movement at large and plain ole peer pressure,” may prevent “young people” from staying in that “queer, gender-ambivalent site for as long and as deeply as is necessary.” But even as she acknowledges her ambivalence about surgical transformation, Moraga confesses that her perspective is that of “a kind of outsider.”
Speaking to her “daughters and granddaughters of color,” she says:
[E]ven should you choose to transition into a man’s body, you must still hold on desperately to womanhood in the shaping of that masculinity. You must know that there is something about being born female from a female in a female-hating world that still matters.
This kind of honesty about her concerns and openness to learning more, to making space for this articulation of queerness, was for me one of the most powerful points in all of the essays. For Moraga, her fears and concerns are not a reason to exclude, to close ranks, or to ignore the very real challenges of being trans in this world. She concludes that the “young transman” is indeed “a member of [her] queer nation,” her “own blood boy.”
“[O]ne writes to refute the vanishing of a pueblo—queer, Native, Mexican, female,” Moraga says. Indeed, the sense of trying to hang on to, to remember, something vanishing is palpable in this book. It is a posture that Moraga strikes superbly, and the result is a strong articulation of resistance and, yes, hope, from one of the most important queer Chicana intellectuals of our time.
A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness
by Cherríe L. Moraga
Duke University Press Books
Paperback, 9780822349778, 232pp.