Sunday, October 16, 2011

La Nota in Chicana/Chicano & Latina/Latino Writing by Amelia M.L. Montes

The book and the Footnote!

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book review essay section, Alexandra Horowitz lamented the impending disappearance of the essay footnote due to e-books, ibooks, other various electronic book-scrolling texts where there seems to be only room for the page not the footnote. Footnotes, if they survive at all, “are shunted off to the end of the text, relegated to being mere endnotes,” she writes. As endnotes, who takes the time to flip back and forth or “click” back and forth if you are electronically reading?

I kept thinking about this in regards to fiction: specifically Latina/Latino and Chicana/Chicano fiction. Electronic essay readers might (emphasis on “might”) be more likely to take the time to stop and click for endnotes, but fiction readers might not want to lose the momentum as they journey through a narrative. Is this rush in e-novel/e-short story reading a condition of our contemporary moment in history? Must we electronically click “next page” without much time given to contemplation that a lengthy novel with footnotes can provide? I suppose, like Horowitz, I fear the death of creative meandering in literary texts. And yet, there are a number of contemporary writers who are not giving up the footnote just yet.

Barry Lopez’s short story “Rubén Mendoza Vega, Suzuki Professor of Early Caribbean History, University of Florida at Gainesville, Offers a History of the United States Based on Personal Experience” is only one paragraph long (and note the length of the title!). However, Lopez’s short story paragraph has fifteen footnotes (longer than the story) plus a bibliography.

When Sandra Cisneros’ epic novel, Caramelo, was published in 2002, Canadian reviewer Allan Cogan wrote: “What on earth is one to make of this big sprawling exuberant novel? . . . Cisneros just has so much to say that she even has footnotes at the end of some of the 87 chapters so she can squeeze in some more information that may or may not be pertinent to the narrative. Thus, in one footnote, we read about President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 ordering the U.S. marines to invade the port city of Tampico. In another we read a short dissertation on Mexican telenovelas.” What’s to complain about? I see the inheritance of traditional American literature mixed with Chicanismo in such footnotes.

The nineteenth-century writer, Herman Melville, elaborates (in one of his many footnotes) on the polar bear in Moby-Dick (the chapter is “The Whiteness of the Whale”) and in the next footnote, his character is remembering the first time he saw an albatross, connecting such a sight to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In Latin American literature, I think of Jorge Luis BorgesFicciones with all his resplendent footnotes that lead us into a labyrinth of the human condition. If these footnotes become “end”notes, how can Ficciones or any other text preserve the author’s intent?

Five years after Cisneros’ Caramelo was published, Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) began her review of Junot DíazThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by writing, “a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel.” The “not-so-brief” refers to “sprawling” footnotes that inform the reader, for example, of Dominican history (namely the Trujillo dictatorship) while also presenting the reader with a meditation on the mongoose in another. For Diaz, his footnotes and wild ride of a narrative take the reader on a fictional journey of migration, loss, assimilation, resistance. These are what footnotes do. They work to expand the story, to place the characters (and the reader) in a historical moment.

And true that there are some readers who are averse to the footnote because it looks messy on the page or they just want a simple and uncomplicated narrative. Horowitz quotes the English playwright, Noel Coward (1899-1973): “[H]aving to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” If indeed our reading world becomes completely e-texts and the footnote is de-noted, then yes, it will be like having to go downstairs. But for footnotes in general (on the same page) it doesn’t have to be like leaving the room. Creative play with pausing and discovering multiple facets of text only heightens the experience. (Pobrecito Noel Coward.)

When looking at Diaz, Cisneros, Borges, Lopez and other writers who use the footnote (I didn’t even mention Manuel Puig) Latina/Latino and Chicana/Chicano writers are creating a visual map of diaspora. It is exactly in those footnotes that readers become privy to the details of wrenching loss, of forced assimilation, of immigration, of what history books omit regarding Mexican and Latin American influences on North American culture, geographic spaces, ethnic identity, language, sexuality, and law. The footnote can do this with humor and with subtle bittersweet beauty.

I am encouraging all Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino novelists, short story writers, non-fiction writers to take up the footnote and all readers to linger and enjoy them.

An aside (kind of like a footnote): For all my protesting, I must admit I do own an Amazon Kindle e-book, but I have yet to read a novel on it. I use it mainly for reference texts—dictionaries, encyclopedia-type texts. Hopefully the actual “hold-it-in-your-hand” text will never go away and I will be able to continue happily perusing footnotes between printed leafy sheets. We’ll see. But in the meantime, I need to write this ode in praise of the footnote! Thank you Alexandra Horowitz for getting me started.

Alexandra Horowitz


msedano said...

And then there is the blog comment. A footnote / endnote to the screen page. Now to capture the nostalgia for typing research papers and failing to allow enough room for the footnotes and having to retype the page! Thus, the Endnote.

Jaime Puente said...

Great post! I am a reluctant e-reader user (I've tried to adopt it for my course readings). I have the same issues with e-books that I have with endnotes in a printed book. Flipping/skipping to the back is cumbersome to find a note. I much prefer footnotes. How that would work in a digital version of a text still needs to be ironed out, but I think it is possible that the digital footnote could take footnotes in a whole new direction.

I'd like to change Cowards quote to say something like:
"[H]aving to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love [and being greeted by an unexpected addition to the party]."