Seeing Latina/o Studies Through Denise López’s “Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora”

“Photography is more than a technology for announcing presence. It also represents an opportunity to visualize alternative dynamics of power.”

20 de abril de 2017

Michael Cucher

This review of Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora focuses mainly on two themes within the book and how these themes resonate with other scholarship in Latina/o studies. The first concerns the use of the term “contact zone” and how Dr. López’s analysis of works written in and about New York City contributes to scholarship on similar themes, such as the (sometimes violent) intermingling of people and cultures in the Mexico-Texas borderlands. This review also discusses how Dr. López’s analysis engages with photography as a metaphor not only for announcing the presence of Caribbean women against centuries of historical erasure and exploitation, but also for imagining alternative relationships of power in order to visualize different, more egalitarian futures.

Texto completo:

First, thank you for the inviting me to say a few words about Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora, a book that is relevant not only to what we do in our department, using literature in English to teach critical thinking and writing, but also to my own scholarship. With this in mind, I begin by situating Dr. López’s book in conversation with other scholars who work with literatures at the intersections of nations, languages, cultures, and the visual.

In her work on the Mexico/Texas borderlands, for example, Chicana historian Emma Pérez coins the term “the decolonial imaginary” to challenge narratives of US history and culture that privilege Eurocentric trajectories of migration and militaristic models of male heroism. Pérez uses the decolonial imaginary to describe, and to create, a space for stories about women of color, Indigenous peoples, and queer desire. Similarly, Dr. López’s Photographic Memories foregrounds Caribbean women living and working in “ex/isle” (a term she borrows from Elaine Savory) in New York City. Referring to the city as a “contact zone” (following Mary Louise Pratt), she recognizes the city as a place not unlike the Mexico-US border, where cultures clash and come together, often in violent ways, while forming something new. Like Pérez, Dr. López demonstrates that making visible these stories of struggle, heartache, and triumph requires the inclusion of critical perspectives that proceed from the knowledge and experiences of the historically marginalized.

Visual imagery can be a useful tool for reconsidering and recovering these perspectives, and López is in good company when she foregrounds the transformative potential of the photograph. In his work on the Mexican Revolution, John Mraz points out, “Photographs testify to the presence of groups often absent from written histories, such as women and children” (Mraz 9). Centering young women in her study, López advances a related argument concerning the use of photographs in literature. Drawing on theorists Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag (among others), she suggests that women authors from the Caribbean use photographs to “reassert their presence … [and]to acquire visibility in a place which intends to keep them at the margins of society” (López 23). In her analysis, the four novels in Photographic Memories become insurgent and empowering cries of presence against obscurity, erasure, and exploitation. Taking her cues from them these authors, López uses the visual metaphor of photography to reveal the power in looking in her insightful studies of author photos and cover art, as well as text.

But photography is more than a technology for announcing presence. It also represents an opportunity to visualize alternative dynamics of power. This is what López suggests in the following description of the young protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, the subject of her second chapter: “by turning the camera unto others and becoming an active agent, rather than a passive subject … Instead of being anyone’s object of affection, [Lucy] intends to create her own reservoir of memories” (103). In this excerpt, Kincaid’s protagonist uses photography to reverse the power of the gaze (or the power of looking), and López demonstrates that Caribbean women are not simply objects to be looked at, but active subjects who look, analyze, critique, and create. This is not news to the people in this room, of course, and this is precisely what is important about López’s work. Photographic Memories and the arguments about literature within it are a testament to the nuanced and diverse contributions to global culture for which Caribbean women have too long been underappreciated. On one hand, this book challenges centuries of visual representations of Caribbean women as mute, exotic objects of desire. And in our current political moment, it confronts the surveilling gaze of the Trump administration, increasingly inhumane and anti-Latina/o deportation policies, and devastating budget cuts proposed here at the UPR. I conclude my brief comments today by asking you to consider photography as a metaphor for López’s intellectual labor in the following passage from her conclusion, where I believe she describes her contribution to the current moment. In her own words (and remember, I’m reading photography as a metaphor for her book’s work here):

Photography as a form of artistic expression provides guidelines to conceptualize an existence between, at least, two nations, two sets of cultural codes, and two languages. It becomes a means to evaluate the past and recognize present circumstances to begin to comprehend how both play a role in the future of those involved. Most importantly, photography helps to envision a different course of action for many who struggle to survive as “ex/isles,” that is, women who are residents of the United States, but with familial connections to the Caribbean. (150-51)

Thank you, Denise, for your book. I look forward to continuing to learn from it. Thank you all for listening.

Works Cited:
López Mazzeo, Denise. Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora. Centro de Investigación y Creación, Universidad de Puerto Rico en Arecibo, 2016.

Mraz, John. Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons. University of Texas Press, 2012.

Pérez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History. Indiana University Press, 1999.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routlege, 1992.

Savory, Elaine. “Ex/Isle: Separation, Memory, and Desire in Caribbean Women’s Writing.” Winds of Change: The Transforming Voices of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars edited by Adele S. Newson and Linda Stong-Leek, Peter Lang Inc, 1998, pp. 167-177.

“Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora”, 2017

Book Launching “Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora”

Department of English in the School of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

Reseña biográfica:
Dr. Michael Cucher is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English in the School of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. His teaching focuses on the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and power in US literature and visual culture. His research focus is Latina/o studies, and his current writing projects range in topics from representations of Jewish masculinity in Latina/o literature to the pedagogical uses of social media, such as Twitter. His forthcoming publications include the article, “Picturing Fictional Autobioethnography in Norma Elia Cantú’s Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera” in MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature of the United States.

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Palabras clave:
Literary studies, Photography, Caribbean women, Latina/o studies