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Elsie Palmer Payne. BUS STOP. Ca. 1943. Oil on canvas. 30' x 25'. Courtesy of the Buck Collection, Laguna Hills, California. Although Payne’s black woman bus rider from 1943 may seem somewhat more downcast than Coleman’s contemporary travelers, Payne’s Los Angeles of the 1940s was filled with a variety of women workers, painted in bold colors. Revising Wes te r n C riticism th r o u g h Wa n d a C o lem an K r is t a C o m e r The Los Angeles I know, the way I grew up in it in the ’50s, doesn’t exist in literature yet. . . . Everybody I know is writ­ ing about Hollywood or Orange County or Beverly Hills, but they are not writing about the Los Angeles I grew up in. So in a sense I have a stake here. I like cars, I like driving, I love the freeway. I am very much a product of the environment, but I feel like I’m trapped here the way you feel like you’re trapped in any kind of ghetto, any kind of prison. You just don’t have the choice, you don’t have the option [to leave]. —Wanda Coleman, Los Angeles Times Interview (1982) She likes cars. She loves the freeway. She is thoroughly preoccupied with issues of space and mobility. What more signature affec­ tions could register contemporary poet Wanda Coleman as an “L.A. woman” and also as a westerner? And yet when it comes to writing about western culture— and here’s the complication— writing as a black feminist from Watts, Coleman discovers more than one ghetto is hanging her up, entrapping her. For what critical tradition sustains a “California girl” or imagines Southern Californian women as other than bikinied nonintellectuals? Not a western tradition, nor traditions associated with African American, feminist, or Los Angeles literary cul­ tures. In order to speak, Coleman must create some new literary land­ scape, some new western cultural space, but out of what? What new plots, aesthetic philosophies, or narrative strategies will articulate the immobilities that govern the relationships to western spaces faced by Coleman and her female poetic subjects? How, in a culture given over to the car and to the assumption that all bodies move equally easily through space, is Coleman to represent characters whose mode of mobility is walking or riding the bus? This exploration of Wanda Coleman’s career, some of her early poetry, and the troubles she causes literary critics, is adapted from a book chapter which considers relationships among the city, California, the West, and women writers. The book, as a whole, offers a survey of 3 5 8 W A L 3 3 ( 4 ) WINTER 1 9 9 9 what I call “the new female regionalism”— western writing by women dating from about 1970 to the present.1 In the tradition of much western literary criticism, it proceeds via a series of landscape studies and draws upon the conceptual apparatus of cultural geography to do so (see, for instance, Kolodny, Norwood and Monk, Quantic, Thacker, Wyatt). But because my subjects are the most recent of western writers and because, moreover, these writers show unmistak­ able engagements with postmodernist thought, practice, and politics, I also necessarily draw from that dizzying genre of postmodern geog­ raphy (Harvey, Rose, Soja). And here is where many western critics will want to take abrupt leave of me. But I ask them to hold on. We have more in common with post­ modern geographers than meets the eye. For geographers talk about issues of space, spatial relations and the ways that spaces negotiate a culture’s power structure, its value system, its assumptions, secrets, and dreams (Gregory, Kirby, Lefebvre, Massey Space). Doesn’t this kind of thinking sound familiar? Western critics, from Wallace Stegner on, have bemoaned northeastern regional chauvinism as well as challenged its right to gatekeep national literary culture. As early as 1963 and as late as the 1990s, Stegner urged western writers to defy north­ eastern cultural prescriptions and to present western subjects— or in the language of postmodern geographers, western social spaces— as every bit as legitimate...


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