- IntroductionPasts, Presents, Futures
The Western Literature Association’s fiftieth anniversary conference in 2015 marked an opportunity to think about, through, and across the field of western American studies. While a milestone conference inevitably recognizes foundational moments in our field’s formation, it also calls us to engage with current concerns and imagine forward. Hosted by co-presidents David Fenimore and Susan Bernardin at Harrah’s, the quintessentially Reno casino hotel, participants gathered at what Will Lombardi dubbed “WestEdge”—a place that resists easy placement. Reno is many Wests, after all, alternately defined by juxtapositions, edges, and movements. Reno’s urban river edges aging casinos and borders states and bioregions; the city has served as a through line for histories of multiethnic labor and for movements of emigrant trails and railroad lines, pasts and “futures” of booms and busts. Musician and comics artist Arigon Starr (Kickapoo and Muscogee) and Choctaw writer LeAnne Howe gave performances in Sammy’s Showroom, built by Bill Harrah for famed African American singer Sammy Davis Jr. within the confines of regional and national white supremacy. The central presence of Indigenous arts and scholarship at this conference underscored that everywhere our conference meets is Indian Country, in this case Washoe and Paiute homelands. Writer and musician Willy Vlautin’s keynote appearance made visible and audible the gritty understories of edgy urban Wests. Posthumous recognition of foundational Basque American writer and journalist Robert Laxalt recognized Basque histories of immigration and home-building in the intermountain [End Page xi] West, yet another understory in popular lexicons of the American West. Several panels organized by José Aranda featured Latino/Chicano Wests, including one in collaboration with the Latino Research Center (Emma Sepulveda Pulvirenti, director) honoring the first anthology of Latino writers in Nevada. The many ways we could locate this conference’s presence in Reno speak to the definitional complexity of western American literary and cultural studies, past, present, and future. How do our various locations inform the critical lenses and languages we use? The histories and inheritances we draw from? The conversations we might have, or be unable to have, across our differences?
To foreground these questions about the tenses and tensions of the field, its many-stranded pasts and future possibilities, the conference featured three linked plenaries—Genealogies, Keywords, Methodologies—that are the focus of this special issue. At their core, these sessions were driven by the five staples of journalistic inquiry with an added sixth “w”: who, what, when, where, why, West. Perennial questions related to the “us,” the “we” of the Western Literature Association, seemed especially present at the Reno conference, as did the question of where we are when we talk about “the West.” We conceive our “field” here as the intersecting and at times incommensurate bodies of knowledge that express the organization’s critical enterprise and institutional purposes. If a commemorative or anniversary issue might be expected to strike a celebratory tone or consolidate critical trends, and celebration is warranted to be sure, what the fiftieth annual conference suggested additionally was the benefits of openness to lines of thought and to critical histories that disrupt whatever “our” common sense might be.
To recognize the exclusions, omissions, and erasures in any project defined as western American studies is to risk invoking the figure of the “killjoy.” In her influential essay, “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” Sara Ahmed names the problem of being seen as the problem when calling out systems of oppression, including misogyny and sexism. She writes, “feminists are read as being unhappy, such that situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists, rather than being [End Page xii] what feminists are unhappy about” (67). In the context of western American studies, what happens when dissent, interruption, or intervention are perceived, subconsciously or not, as complaint? Rephrasing Ahmed, what is needed for the western killjoy toolkit? How do we engage in core questions of the field while also working toward transforming it? How might western American studies refuse to function as a field of containment, one that incorporates rather than reckons with minoritized histories and...