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Reading as Responsible Dialogue in Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters
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[O]ne voice is not enough, nor two, although this is where dialogue begins.

In Letter Thirty-Two of Ana Castillo’s epistolary novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), the Chicana poet protagonist, Teresa, recalls her return to writing after having been silenced by an emotionally abusive lover:

Then one October night, she has finished a fifth of rum alone and dares to take out the poems she wrote in another life, before him. The voice of a woman who rebelled . . . calls to her with muffled shouts.

She begins the methodic process of gathering the pieces of that woman, like the jagged pieces of a broken china vase, and glues them together, patiently, as neatly as she is able.

(118)

This letter—like all the letters that make up the book—is directed to Alicia, a white artist, feminist, and Teresa’s best friend. Teresa’s letters to Alicia are lyrical and intimate, recounting their travels in Mexico and elsewhere and analyzing their relationships with each other, with men, and with America (in the broadest sense). None of the letters follows a standard form; they differ dramatically in style, tone, and content. Letter Thirty-Two is distinctive because it is one of only two in which Teresa writes of herself in the third person.

The shift from first to third person reinforces the sensation of being shattered that Teresa recalls, a sensation figured in the “jagged pieces of a broken china vase.” Teresa is, however, not only shattered in this passage; she is also multiple. There are at least three Teresas here: the self-possessed, feminist Teresa of “another life” who speaks with “muffled shouts”; the shattered Teresa, attempting to piece herself together again; and the Teresa writing retrospectively about the act of recovery in which the second Teresa is engaged. Such multiplication makes it possible for Teresa to figure as reader, writer, and textual subject. Teresa writes about reading her own poetry and recounts the self-referential reading experience as one in which she speaks to herself in a plural voice.

Commenting on the intimacy among reading, writing, and identity-formation, this passage figures the plural, active, and self-reflexive reading practice solicited by The Mixquiahuala Letters. Reading is presented as the creation of coherence out of fragments, and surely, this is one way to describe the experience of reading Castillo’s novel. In a “note to the reader” that precedes the letters, Castillo announces that “this is not a book to be read in the usual sequence.” She then invites readers to choose among three narrative paths—one “for the conformist,” one “for the cynic,” and one “for the quixotic”—or to read the letters individually. In this note, Castillo recognizes her readership as multiple and engages readers as coauthors. She also acknowledges that, in the practice of “piec[ing] together” (n. pag.) a story, readers are also piecing together themselves, as Teresa does in the scene described above. The narrative path they follow bestows upon them an identity.

It is not rare for readers to read a text out of order, skipping passages, re-reading others, or flipping to the last page first.1 What is unusual is the invitation to read in these ways.2 Non-chronological reading typically signals a reader’s refusal to join the “authorial audience” that seeks to interpret a text in keeping with authorial “intention” and historical context (Rabinowitz 20–42). In the case of The Mixquiahuala Letters, readers depart from narrative chronology under the direction of the author. The only unauthorized reading is one that moves through the letters chronologically. Even if readers choose to read in order, the undated, often impressionistic letters—indicative of the vagaries of memory—offer up narrative coherence unwillingly.

The emphasis on readerly agency implicit in Letter Thirty-Two and in the structure of The Mixquiahuala Letters can be understood in part as a response to the postmodern “death of the author” (Barthes 142). Making aesthetic use of the insight that originality is impossible, Castillo creates original art, fulfilling what John Barth identifies as the paradoxical role of the postmodern writer. Castillo retains her role as authorial “virtuoso,” managing the movement of...



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