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Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies--Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004

From: American Quarterly
Volume 57, Number 1, March 2005
pp. 17-57 | 10.1353/aq.2005.0004

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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 17-57

The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004

Shelley Fisher Fishkin

This address is dedicated to the memory of Gloria Anzaldúa, who passed away last May. With her death, I lost a friend. The world lost a brilliant theorist of the arbitrariness of borders and the pain that they inflict, of the harsh realities of internal colonization, and of the challenges and delights of embracing multiple psychic locations. Anzaldúa saw the border between the United States and Mexico as "una herida abierta, where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture." She was unwilling to reject any part of herself to stop the contradictory voices that buzzed through her head. ("Me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio," she wrote.) But the miracle of Borderlands/La Frontera is that she transmutes the buzzing into a site of creative energy: she wrote, "En unas pocas centurias, the future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms; it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures."

The last time I spoke with Gloria on the phone, she was helping me pinpoint the location of the fields in which she had picked cabbages and broccoli as a child. I'd been asked to write a book in a new series that Oxford's trade book division and the National Park Service were launching. Each book would examine landmarks, historic sites, and historic districts on the national register through the lens of the history and culture that informed them. Mine was to be the one book on literature. I welcomed the idea of linking public history and literary history for a popular audience, and liked the fact that they planned to market the book to high schools around the country. I chose some sites Oxford expected me to choose—like the Whitman house in Huntington, Long Island, the New Bedford Historic Whaling District of Melville and Douglass, and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. But they had not expected to find chapters focused on the immigration station at Angel Island or Wounded Knee, South Dakota—places that also inspired and shaped key chapters of American literature. They were puzzled from the start by my chapter on literature of the Texas-Mexico border, whose anchor sites were four historic districts on the national register. The Park Service's records, I was told, didn't indicate that these sites bore any connection to American literature. I told them I could make those connections even if the Park Service hadn't. I said that this chapter, focusing on the writers Gloria Anzaldúa, Américo Paredes, Jovita González, Tomás Rivera, and Rolando Hinojosa, would be one of the strengths of the book. Were these writers really important enough to deserve a chapter, Oxford asked? I told them that books like Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera and Paredes's George Washington Gomez were some of the most important works in twentieth-century American literature.

When the final copyedited manuscript came back, however, key passages from a number of primary texts were gone—dozens of bits of the literary past that I had carefully reconnected to the physical landscape that had shaped them—including a major poem of Gloria's. At first I thought it was just an issue of length, so I made cuts elsewhere to allow the material I cared about to be restored. But I quickly learned that they wanted what they'd cut to stay cut. They had no intention of including the parts of Gloria's stunning poem "We Call Them Greasers" that they had taken out. The poem is about racism, sexism, and brutality on the border; it culminates in a rape, a murder, and a lynching. Not appropriate for our target audience, they said. In the end, I withdrew the book.

During the last year, I've had occasion to think about the sanitized version of American literature that Oxford...

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