Caribbean women

Response to Denise López Mazzeo’s "Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora"

The history presented here in the form of a photograph is not narrative or chronological but juxtaposed... we have only symbols.
Presentacion de Photographic Memories Denise Lopez Jessica Adams Michael Cucher
2017-03-20
Resumen: 

This review of Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora focuses on the significance of the author’s critique of the cover images of books she analyzes in the larger context of analyses of migration. It suggests that through her focus on photography, López ends up pointing to a possible means of bridging the gap between the material world and the abstract world of language. In keeping with López’s focus on the importance of images in written texts, this review analyzes the cover of Dr. López’s own work.

Texto completo: 

Just before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, I was living there and, among other things, working on a project about Haitian art with a couple of friends who had left Haiti years ago. They spoke of their native land in terms that I could appreciate, but didn’t fully understand—it was a site of longing, of imperfect belonging, a place they yearned for but could experience most fully in their minds, in their memories, because since they had left it had changed, and since they had left, they had changed.

Then suddenly I was a migrant of sorts as well, traveling unexpectedly, completely unprepared. Evacuating hours before the hurricane hit the city, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to go back to a place I loved. And when I did, I found that even though the city was still there, the place I had left was gone forever.

So as I read Dr. López’s introduction to Photographic Memories, in which she shares some of her own personal experiences with migration, I felt the strong emotional pull of her account of what had drawn her to contemplate women’s experiences of Caribbean migration and the concept of exile.

In the book, Dr. López is compelled especially by the images that collect around experiences of migration—traces of sites collected and created during the process of moving bodily between known and unknown. And as she considers these images, she foregrounds the materiality of the book itself as object, as artifact. “[T]his work explores the complex interactions between image and language that play across the space of literature,” she writes. “I conclude that the photographs on the cover art and the images described in the texts aid the writer in capturing and contextualizing as with the lends of a camera, the living conditions of female migrants” (22). For example, she describes the photographs on the covers of two editions (Spanish and English) of Esmeralda Santiago’s text When I Was Puerto Rican as ‘nostalgic’ (114), “romanticized” (116), representing “a bygone era” (115) that was “just an illusion” (116). The cover of Santiago’s book literally illustrates the way in which she has looked back at “home” while engaging in the struggles associated with becoming a person for whom that term would never, on some level, be singular.

At the same time, Photographic Memories insists upon its own physicality. As we learn in the introduction, its cover depicts its source of inspiration—the author’s mother, who is thus the source not only of the book as a physical object but also of the author herself. The cover image, created by the author, reaches back both into the past of the ideas within its pages, and into the past of the body that created it.

As we look at Photographic Memories, the book regards us in return. The woman we see there considers us with an uncompromising gaze. Her own future is as yet unknown, unwritten. She’s looking at whoever was behind that camera decades ago, of course—but in this moment it’s our eyes that look back. Know me, she seems to say. Here. Now. The spaces around her are vertiginous. There’s a man on a staircase—going down, or perhaps up, into his own future. The twin towers hover at one edge— maybe a snapshot from a long-ago run of the Staten Island Ferry, aggressive counterpoint to the striped-awning brownstone. The contents of the documents undergirding these images are to be guessed at, assumed, but not read, precisely.

The history presented here in the form of a photograph is not narrative or chronological but juxtaposed, and we are forced to accept that we have only symbols. The meaning of life does not unfold logically, in chronological order, but—as Foucault suggests in The Archaeology of Knowledge—appears through attempts to explain proximity. We don’t have access to the meaning of our chronologies except through the backward glance, except as we are able to devise languages that represent temporal progression without, necessarily, “progress.”

As Dr. López points out in the case of Esmeralda Santiago and the other writers she examines, the lived reality of migration is not linear. There’s a constant circling back, reiteration: “For Caribbean writers ‘home,’ in both physical and psychological respects, becomes a site of recovery where connections and associations between past, present, and future events are possible in the quest to create subjectivities,” she writes (146). Maybe it’s more like geologic time—a matter of accretion, sedimentation, uplift.

As Dr. López investigates the images within novels about migration, her text presses upon us an awareness of language striving for materiality—an endless and futile goal that I think may be at the heart of the quest to write. Writers of fiction will never succeed in bringing the “truth” of experience fully to the reader. No matter how crystalline their prose, no matter how imagistic, their words will reach for the physical world endlessly. Writing about migration underscores this striving for something that may not exist, that may never have existed. The language of migration and exile circles around memory, and perhaps ends up creating a kind of raw wrenching of memory and of history in order to shape an identity to take into the future. As Dr. López writes of Santiago’s proud identification with “la mancha de plátano” of the jíbaros in When I Was Puerto Rican, “[I]t seems as if Santiago’s naiveté at a young age which, according to her, runs through adulthood, favors the adoption of an old-fashioned and untruthful stereotypical representation of the life of ease jíbaros led” (122). Such are images that stand in for dreams.

At the same time, perhaps the images referenced in this volume have something in common with photographs of war that Susan Sontag describes in Regarding the Pain of Others—as they present moments of suffering, of pathos, of struggle, we who look upon them become simply mute, impotent witnesses, absorbing into ourselves vivid accounts that we can neither touch, aid, nor speak to.

Yet foregrounding the connections between the intellectual and creative work and the substantive shape of the book itself, in its focus on photography as embedded, as enfolded within text, as Dr. López does here, points to a bridge between materiality and the abstract world of language. As Barthes writes, every photograph contains within it “the return of the dead” (9).

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. 1979. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. 1969. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon, 1972.

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

Arecibo, 2016.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

 


Cobertura: 
"Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora", 2017
Fuente: 

Book launch "Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora"

Colaborador: 
Department of English in the School of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
Editor: 
Umbral.

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.
Presentación del libro Photographic memories
2017-03-20
Resumen: 

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 knowledges 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.

 


Cobertura: 
"Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora", 2017
Fuente: 

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

Colaborador: 
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.

Editor: 
Umbral.