Friday, October 20, 2017

Chicano Studies in Norway: Interview with Lene Johannessen

Guest Post by Lucrecia Guerrero

Lene M. Johannessen

Lene M. Johannessen is a Professor of American Literature and Culture in the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen, Norway. She is the author of Threshold Time: Passage of Crisis in Chicano Literature (Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2008) and Horizons of Enchantment (U Press of New England, 2011). She has edited and co-edited numerous books on American studies. Emerging Aesthetics Imaginaries, co-edited, is forthcoming from Lexington Press.

Lucrecia Guerrero

LG: Please share with our readers how you were first introduced to Chicano literature and which authors you read?

LMJ: Normally one chooses one’s Master program according to the specialization in the BA degree, but for various reasons I had two majors in addition to English: Spanish and Russian.  On the advice of one of my Russian professors I decided to go with English. However, I thought it would be a shame to just ignore my two other “languages,” and my supervisor at the time suggested I look into Mexican American literature as a way of at least making some use of Spanish. After reading around a little, it would be Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory that got my attention. This was both because of the controversy which at the time surrounded the book, but also because I saw a really interesting way I could bring my third major, Russian, into the mix. This went via Mikhail Bakhtin’s work, which I had read a little in the original.
Of course, doing research for a MA thesis on Hunger of Memory inevitably included doing research in the burgeoning field of Chicano/a studies. Among the authors I read back then were mostly the canonical writers, Gonzales, Rivera, Paredes, Anzaldúa, Anaya, Castillo, and all provided wonderful encounters with what was for me a new tradition.

LG:  Did you continue to read Chicano/a authors on your own or did you follow a directed program?  Which authors most appealed to you initially, and why?

LMJ: It was really only during the work on the MA thesis that I became acquainted with Chicano/a lit; on our readings lists in both undergraduate and graduate courses in the English program this literature was not included. I think that one reason why Rodriguez appealed back then was the universality of its appeal, across temporal, geographical, racial, gender boundaries, which I think still holds. The other writer specifically I was attracted to was Tomás Rivera, himself one of Rodriguez’ critics of course, but it was a similar aspect of his And the Earth that stood out, a poetics of community and singularity that can stand on its own no matter what political, social and cultural parameters you come to it from.

LG:  As a scholar you read with an objective and analytical mindset; also, as a Norwegian, Chicano/a literature is “foreign” to your cultural and political experience. Both of the aforementioned factors, it seems to me, distance you from the narrative and increase your reading experience as an “outsider.” As such, I wonder if you have ever found yourself pulled into a story by universal themes and identifying with the narrative on a personal level? How would you say your experience reading Chicano literature differs—if indeed it does—from reading “mainstream” U.S. literature?

LMJ: The question about outside-ness is actually one I have thought about a lot. It is a question that goes into the foundations also of how we think about aesthetics. When I got the PhD position here in Bergen (in Norway PhD grants are advertised as four years positions, integrated into daily department life, and they are and were few and far between!) it was to do a project in Chicano/a literature. In the course of the PhD years I never found my position as an “outsider” to be much of a problem. In some ways, quite the contrary. In the 1990s, Chicano/a studies, as many other so-called “ethnic studies” programs could be quite politicized, in the sense that ideological frameworks also tended to work their sometimes domineering way into questions of aesthetics and aesthetic function. This was something I didn’t really have to take into account in my own readings, and this is mostly because, don’t forget, from where I stand, Chicano/a lit is American literature. What I mean is that all American literature is equally “foreign” or familiar to me as a Norwegian.
            Chicano/a lit is, to me, one of a number of components, expressions, if you will, that circulate within the field of Am lit as different manifestations of regionalist perspectives within the larger region. Chicano culture and aesthetics find its place among the multiple components that make up American (and the Americas’) literatures and cultures – a composite that in its turn already comes tangled in drawn-out networks. So, from a non-American perspective, from “afar,” Chicano/a presents itself not essentially unlike how Chinese-American, African-American, Southern, Midwestern cultures and aesthetics do –the products so-far of historical vectors in what Doreen Massey calls a “space of loose ends and missing links.”  In a sense, looking at American literature this way is to see horizontally, to see the various articulations of irreducible historic-cultural beings constituting differently formed threads in a large and complicated fabric within the geographical body we know as the United States.
I guess this also answers your question about whether reading Chicano literature differs from reading “mainstream” U.S. literature? I would say it does not, because that assumes we know the mainstream, and, honestly, I don’t know that I do, unless we have in mind writers like Faulkner (who is a Southern writer first and foremost).  

LG:  As a professor of English, I believe you have included Chicano/a literature, as well of that of other minorities, in a U.S. literature survey course.  On the syllabus I reviewed, the Chicano/a selection is Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes. First, what factors led to your selecting this particular work? Second, what special preparation, if any, do you give your students in order to help them with the reading? And last, have you noticed your Bergen students reacting differently to Chicano/a literature than to the more traditionally taught U.S. literature?

LJM: One thing students must have is a general sense of the historical and cultural routes that lead into first Mexican American and then Chicano literature/culture. But again, from their standpoint, this is not essentially different from how the same applies to all American literature. I mentioned Faulkner: without a sense of the mesh of routes he writes in and from, the depth and drama of Sutpen’s “design” in Absalom, Absalom! is not graspable.  So, too, with e.g. Rivera’s And the Earth Did not Devour Him: without an understanding of the history of migrant workers in the US Southwest, the book’s true power goes unnoticed.
When I include Chicano/a authors I consequently make sure the students also read history. I chose Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus for several reasons, but most importantly because it is essentially a coming of age story. The novel is an excellent example of the universality of literature, because it is through genre and poetics that the story lures the students into a landscape packed with tropes in American culture generally, and in California society specifically. It is also painfully timely, what with the “beautiful wall” and talk about immigration and deportation that have intensified again lately. In its portrayal of the anxieties of immigration I think also it I transposes well to other places, for instance Norway.  

LG:  In Threshold Time: Crisis in Chicano Literature you discuss how a literary canon—in this case, that of the U.S.--reflects how the dominant cultural chooses to see itself.  Minority literatures continue to be ignored to a “significant extent,” you state, because these literatures “do not fit [that] desired projection of self.”   
            For geographical and historical reasons, the roots of Mexican and Chicano/a cultures grow deep and inextricably intertwined with those of the greater U.S. culture, yet those roots that bind also twist into knots that have yet to be worked out.  In your opinion, do these conflicts, and likely contradictions in perception of the past, make it more or less likely that Chicano/a literature will be welcomed into the literary canon?   

LMJ: I honestly don’t know, although my own instinct is that there eventually isn’t much of a choice. The problem with talking about a literary canon in the first place is that we are talking about a cultural canon, which means talking about cultural heritage and legacy. And right there, and especially now in the US, I don’t see how there can be any agreement on much of anything. The polarization we have seen intensifying is all about definitions and heritage, which brings back the question of region again: maybe it makes more sense to think in terms of regional canons, although even then any kind of consensus would be hypothetical. If the canon aims at helping us understand our present by anchoring itself in e.g. literary works from the past, then the question pops up again: whose past, and when? This is explicitly or implicitly part of Chicano/a literature now as well as then, if only because the Borderland figures prominently in so many works, including your own, like for instance in the story “Even in Heaven,” wouldn’t you say? A similar concern was a thread in Rodriguez’ Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and is one that has to be addressed. Ultimately any discussion of a canon is a discussion of identity, and, well, I’m not terribly optimistic that that discussion goes well. We are thrown back to the Preamble, right? “In order to create a more perfect Union … “ It’s a work in progress.   

LG:  You’re currently working on a new project which goes into detail on “aesthetic imaginaries.” I believe you are particularly interested in the connection and development of the latter within Chicano/a “borderland” literature. In layman’s terms, please explain the term and its relationship to this literature. Is there more you would like to share about this upcoming project or another?

LMJ: I like thinking about aesthetic imaginaries because it has the potential of making out the contours of that tricky bridge between how we imagine our ways of fitting together - our claims to place, sense of origin etc., how these imaginations are given shape in various aesthetics, and how ultimately these both constitute and are constituted by something more real, which is the imaginary. In this project I don’t think I will be focusing on Chicano/a lit specifically, but it is still very early in the process. I hope by next year to be closer to getting funding to a thoroughly interdisciplinary project where questions of diaspora, tradition, and nostalgia are being posed from perspectives of film, curating, anthropology, digital culture, and a wide range of literary studies, all in relation to the challenges that trail aesthetic imaginaries. What Eliot calls the “present moment of the past” seems to me to provide a path that more generally applies to comparative studies, and a kind of “threshold” thinking. I am however working on another book that “reads” various locations in California as performative, among them Chavez Ravine (Dodgers Stadium), Fort Ross, and Chinese Camp, and what I find so fascinating in this project are the incredibly “messy” routes that crisscross the state from so early on, and, again, how their traces all speak to that present moment of the past.   
  • Johannessen, Lene M. 2011. Horizons of Enchantment : Essays in the American Imaginary. University Press of New England. 166 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58465-999-0.
  • Johannessen, Lene M; Sillars, Stuart; Dipio, Dominica, editors. 2009. Performing Change: Identity, Ownership and Tradition in Ugandan Oral Culture. Novus Forlag. 230 pages. ISBN: 978-82-7099-552-3.
  • Johannessen, Lene M. 2008. Threshold Time: Passage of Crisis in Chicano Literature. Rodopi. 204 pages. ISBN: 978-90-420-2332-1.
  • Johannessen, Lene M; Sillars, Stuart John; Dipio, Dominica, editors. 2008. Performing Community. Novus Forlag. 275 pages. ISBN: 9788270994991.
  • Johannessen, Lene M; Cahill, Kevin M. editors. 2007. Considering Class: Essays on the Discourse of the American Dream. LIT Verlag. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-3-8258-0259-2.
  • Rønning, Anne Holden; Johannessen, Lene M., editors 2007. Readings of the Particular: The Postcolonial in the Postnational. Rodopi. 262 pages. ISBN: 978-90-420-2163-1.
  • Grønstad, Asbjørn; Johannessen, Lene M., editors 2005. To Become the Self One Is: A Critical Companion to Drude Krog Janson's A Saloonkeeper's Daughter. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 210 pages. ISBN: 82-7099-405-7.

Essays (relevant to Chicano/a studies:
"Regional Singularity and Decolonial Chicana/o Studies," Routledge Handbook of Chicana/o Studies," eds. Denise Segura, Francisco Lomeli, Elyette Benjamin-Labarthe, Routledge. Forthcoming 2017.
"Poetics of Peril," CounterText, special edition Thinking Literature across Continents, Edinburg University Press. Forthcoming.

“Russia's Californio Romance: The Other Shores of Whitman's Pacific," in The Imaginary and Its Worlds: American Studies after the Transnational Turn, eds Laura Bieger, Ramón Saldívar, Johannes Volz,University Press of New England, 2013.

"Postcolonial Palimpsest: Hybridity and Writing,"  Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literatures. CUP 2012

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