Against Normalization / Contra la Normalización: An Interview with John Chávez

Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing (Counterpath, 2014), edited by Carmen Giménez-Smith and John Chávez, brings together poetry, fiction, and critical writing by twenty-one writers, along with critical introductions to each by peers and partisans. From experimental poets such as Rodrigo Toscano and Mónica de la Torre to prose writers such as Joy Castro and elena minor, the collection showcases a wide range of literary practices from diverse locations and identity-positions, resulting in a rich tapestry of truly new writing, a must-read for anyone interested in innovative directions in American writing and the cultural politics of what one hopes might soon be—contra Trumpismo—a post-gringo USA.

Angels is not just another ‘best of’ collection or a mere corrective to mainstream canons, to be placed on the shelf next to similar anthologies of ‘hypenated’-American lit. It’s not interested in discourses of neoliberal multiculturalism, wherein ‘difference’ is merely a set of identity markers and recognizable content meant to blithely celebrate Latin@ culture (as if that was ever a static formation). Rather, it is an intervention into such received notions, both about identity in the US today as well as the possibilities of literature to complicate, resist, and counter the racist and neo-colonialist tendencies in US culture at large. At the same time, it is not a programmatic collection of unified messaging or overtly political poems and fictions; rather, in its reach and expansiveness, its complex multi-hyphenated-worldviews and multi-national/multi-racial experiences, the book demonstrates how Latinx writers transcend simplified classifications or expectations, thus revitalizing not just Latinx literature, but literature itself.

The anthology is but one of several recent irruptions of new perspectives on Latinx writing, such as On Poetics, Identity & Latinidad: CantoMundo Poets Speak Out (edited by Rosebud Ben-Oni), a collection of conversations with Latinx poets published by Essay Press, and online interventions by the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo and others that, in challenging dominant institutional powers and notions of the avant-garde, have opened up spaces for writers and critics to rethink (and hopefully undo) discourses about ‘ethnic poetry,’ identity politics, diversity, and broader issues of cultural practice and politics. Given the current debates around issues of identity, representation, experimental writing  and its institutions, etc., Angels of the Americlypse is a timely illumination of an expansive field of writing that pushes well beyond stereotypes of “latin@ writing” to showcase literary practices that trouble received notions of identity and belonging, tradition and innovation, Amerika and its Americlypse. 

My thanks to co-editor John Chávez for taking the time to respond to a few questions about the anthology.

David Buuck: One of the striking arguments of both your introduction and several of the writers is the frustration with—and resistance to—the expectations of a US mainstream for marginalized writers and artists to perform their identities, as “cultural attachés” in your words, providing ‘local color’ for an audience looking for touristic pleasure rather than a radical decentering of power and privilege. By focusing on more avant-garde writers, who tend to resist such demands, the book works through and against what contributor Daniel Borzutzky calls the “hazards of representation,” refusing to play the role of what Gayatari Spivak calls the “native informant.” At the risk of asking you to perform that role yourself (I am after all a white cis-male asking you to discuss your editorial poetics and politics in this context!), how do you feel the collection argues against—or looks beyond—these kinds of traps (ie the expectations to perform one’s identity for the center) for Latinx writers?

John Chávez: It’s very important that your readers are aware I am one voice speaking among many. Not for. But among, by which I mean in association or connection with and surrounded by many. As such, it was and is important that the anthology embraced such a spirit as well. None of us as editors, critical writers, or poets and prose writers, speak definitively for the whole community. To this end, it’s important to note that some in the publishing world have erroneously privileged writing of “local color” and of “native subjectivity.” If we go back to the moments of renaissance in all the communities represented here, we’d see that the spirit of resistance has continuously existed. Rather than be assigned an identity, the community in all its complexity has historically asserted its identity. Thus, the “trap” exists around us, tries to compartmentalize us, and at times has aimed to gentrify us. By gentrify I mean, as Rudolfo Anaya points out in his essay “Take the Tortillas out of Your Poetry,” the gatekeepers who conceived of and set the trap have frowned upon the inclusion of Spanish, of code-switching, and of the intermingling of other Spanish influenced, informed, or resistant-to-Spanish languages. In other words, we have been and are invited to the literary conversation if we adhere to its rules. This anthology, on the other hand, aware of these rules, elides them in the service of providing the reading world a community of literary artists who defy easily arrived at consumerist tags. It is this elision that makes us proud of the writers we were able to include. We champion their work because their work is very important. And we feel their work should be important to many communities, no matter the label, no matter the identity game, no matter the politics. In the end, it’s the way that literature lives within people and people live within literature that creates substantive dialogue and change.

DB: How did the complex cultural politics of anthologization factor into your decision-making? You make clear that the book is not a ‘best of’ collection or privileging a specific aesthetic tendency, but it is subtitled “An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing”. Given the scarcity of such counter-canon collections, I imagine y’all might have felt an additional burden or responsibility for your choices. Am I wrong in my presumptions?

JC: I don’t know that Carmen and I felt a sense of additional burden for our choices; rather, I think we felt a sense of opportunity and with opportunity comes responsibility. Our responsibility, given the page count of the anthology, was to try to be as inclusive as possible. We wanted the anthology to be polyvocalic, to embrace multiple perspectives, to be transversal in its poetics. By transversal I mean we wanted to include voices that would intersect each other, that would create new resonances, new reverberations. We wanted to create a mosaic that firmly situated knowledges and histories, which have often been subjected to the sentence and silence of history, front and center so that each writers’ work would be not merely a discourse of resistance but one of centrality. To this end, we often forget as a collective body that we are and have been actively inoculated from these particular kinds of voices, and from their impending ethical and political impact. All one has to do is look at the current political climate, the state of this country’s presidential campaigns, and they will understand the imperative for such an anthology to exist.

DB: Each author’s selection is paired with an introduction by another writer and/or critic, and also includes brief “aesthetic statements” about their work and concerns. How do you see these different approaches working together? Would readers be wrong to try to detect a broader shared poetics from the various author statements? Is there a ‘border gnosis’ (to use Walter D. Mignolo’s term) collectively emerging from these and similar writers?

JC: The critical introductions were included for a number of reasons. First, they were included to introduce the reader to an intellectual exploration of the writer’s aesthetic, from the point of view of the critical writer/critic. Second, the writer’s section was included to highlight the best of the writer’s submission. And, finally, the final section for each writer, which we at times referred to as the aesthetipolitical statement, was included so the writer could speak to, with, and through the discourse that created the depth of each section. Taken holistically, each individual section consisting of these three parts was meant to generate dialogue, highlight difference, celebrate diversity, wherever it converges and diverges in the anthology as a whole. This quality, too, lends to the anthology’s polyvocalic nature. Theoretically speaking, this quality also emphasizes alternative centers of enunciation. In other words, each section, and every section that creates the whole of the anthology, similar to Latin@ literature itself, is as diverse as the body of writers that comprise it. Ultimately, thinking from and thinking past colonial and postcolonial legacies comes something new, by which I mean a literature defined less by its “border gnosis,” or duality, than by its multiplicity. The writers celebrated here mean to redefine, move, and defy the very need for borders themselves.

DB: Since the book’s publication in 2014, controversies and arguments over identity and representation in US literature have intensified. Whether it be issues of appropriation in the moment of #BlackLivesMatter or the yellowface of a Michael Derrick Hudson or Kent Johnson, or the ongoing debates over how PoC and other marginalized writers might resist the often racist and anti-intersectional institutional constraints of the US literary ‘worlds’ (as well as the paternalistic discourses of liberal multiculturalism within the mainstreams), it’s clear that the kinds of issues writers in Angels are grappling with are not going to be transcended merely through new forms or content (not that anyone’s claiming that!). You and Carmen state in your introduction that you ‘collectively question the anxious need to patrol the borders of our identities,’ arguing instead for a multifaceted transgression of boundaries and borders (both literal and aesthetic), against notions of ethnic purity (which would have excluded several of your multi-racial and multi-ethnic contributors) or an oversimplified identity politics. How do you see the anthology and similar modes of writing in the context of these debates?

JC: At the center of this controversy is “privilege.” When one’s language, one’s identity (be in centered on sex, gender, ethnic origin, etc.), or one’s very place in public space, is or is not welcomed, is delegitimized, is disqualified, or is in a constant state of contestation, one understands what privilege or lack of privilege means. People of color, of the LGBTQ community, and of many other communities, know what lack of privilege means. Bodies and selves are patrolled, but we are aware that not all bodies and selves are patrolled equally. PoC and LGBTQ bodies’ inclusion in society, as meaningful, productive, intellectual citizens, is questioned, is subjected to acerbic and dangerous political rhetoric, is sentenced to the very sociopolitical structures that render their presence hierarchically and historically inferior. Thus, their language can be delegitimized. Their gender identity can be vilified. Their sexual orientation designified. All this by a society aware of the situation but, through their silence and indifference, seemingly unaware. To speak truth to power, to acknowledge that this kind of power exists, is important. Thus, for people who belong to communities of privilege to appropriate the conditions of the “subject,” to render such subjects’ consciousness as one’s own through mimesis, is troubling. Be it a microagression or overt aggression, such acts of aggression reify the system that makes these peoples’ lives so. Where the scaffolding of this social ailment cracks, they are seemingly there to fortify the structure; where it appears weak, they seemingly review the blue print and reinforce its unfastening; where social progress has made gains, they seemingly halt the very revision of a structure in need of repair.

Perhaps one cannot, as you point out, change the world through new content and forms, but I’d argue that one and all alike can acknowledge this literature as embodying the power to provide people with the space to unlearn, to delink, to decolonize. By unlearn I mean become aware of one’s place within such a structure, one’s privilege provided by the structure, and choose not be such a relay of power (here, read Michel Foucault). By delink I mean make an active choice to separate oneself from the prominent structure, all of its ailments, etc. And, by decolonize, I mean wake to the very facts and facets of their socialization, from the earliest stages onward, and decide their mind is not a space to colonize, to denigrate, or to liter with enmity. Instead, one might listen carefully to how these writers’ lives have been shaped by such conditions, and in so doing actively think through these writers’ disappointment and pain, to arrive at differential consciousness (here, read Chela Sandoval). One might find everyone is Other to oneself, but that otherness isn’t harmful, isn’t something to shame or fear; rather, that otherness is an opportunity to fully open one’s ear to the music that lies everywhere.

John Chávez is the author of the chapbook Heterotopia, published by Noemi Press, and a co-author of the collaborative chapbook I, NE: Iterations of the Junco, published by Small Fires Press. He holds and MFA from New Mexico State University and a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His poetry has appeared in Cooper Nickel, Diode, Notre Dame Review, Puerto del Sol, Tusculum Review, The Laurel Review, Palabra, Pilgrimage, and Zone 3. His first, full-length collection City of Slow Dissolve was published by University of New Mexico Press in 2012, and won the IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) Gold Medal for Poetry. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

David Buuck lives in Oakland, CA. He is the co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics (, and founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics. Recent publications include Noise in the Face of (Roof Books 2016), SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013).

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