Journal/Pensamientos / Latin American / Non-Fiction

Disappearing with word and image

The photograph in black and white of of the main square in Cusco spreads across two pages of the magazine, you know which one, crowded with people from foreground to the back of the image, where the cathedral stands. I am reading about journeys, this is a travel photo-essay; I am looking at the figures noticing their black hair, short, glossy, and I am thinking about travel because soon I will be crossing the skies above the Andes myself on the way to Chile and I will remember once again that I have never been to Cusco and I must, once before I die, but I am distracted. I get distracted over and over, leafing through the magazine, the figures– I think– I say to myself– the people crowded in this huge expansion are men. Then, I begin to peer carefully into the photograph until I count one, two, three women’s faces out of hundreds and hundreds and decide to stop because it is too important that I write this.

I have been coming upon these moments over the years and choosing not to write because other themes emerge quickly in my foreground and I end up writing about other topics instead, not about how many women I see in photographs everyday, and besides, these are things we have already discussed and discussed over those same years, many times before. In meetings. In writing. In conversations. In informal, quotidian, inconsequential observations. We move on. We have done this already. Let the new generation take a look at these images and see if it matters just as much, if it means the same as it used to, if it is really time to move on.

Pero, ¿por qué inconsecuente? Actually, I do feel as though I need to puzzle this out, today, instead of thinking about something else. It is because the theme of women being present in a spoken and evident manner just came up the other day, while planning a literary and academic talk by Latin American women writers with my colleagues. We planned the event precisely because we wanted to have a round of readings and talks by women writers, because even in 2016 there are stretches of time when we attend talks and readings and seminars, etc., directed and presented by men that include only men, and in academic settings we crowd the lecture halls just the same way as face after face in a photograph of people gathered by the hundreds around the Basilica cathedral in Cusco but we don’t see ourselves. That is why we planned the new event, our event,  organized by four women academics to present four women writers, and knowing, perhaps that afterwards the weeks will turn into months and many events will follow when the writers will be men and no one will feel the need to point out that fact. It will be the same as the photograph, there may not be a context in which to raise it, a reason, an audience for the question, or ultimately the energy to raise the question again, after so many years. Should we not have said something before about how many conferences and seminars feature men, almost exclusively? Did we not talk about this for the past 70 years of the second wave, and for ever before that?

This is why I do not often choose to focus on the way we disappear, in word as well as image, because I think I have probably talked about it too much already and perhaps I want to talk about other things– or perhaps because the topic has been discussed enough and we all want to talk about other things: how many lesbians do I see? Could all the proposed names for a panel belong, amazingly enough, to Black women? Do we have two applicants for a job who identify as trans? Is the amazing part that no one has said anything or that we are all so delighted we dare not, in case it turns out to be a dream?

O, Academia, ¿por qué me interné por tus pasillos a mi edad?! Whatever I say, sometimes, sounds so dated to my own ears I cannot imagine how it must sound to my younger colleagues, thirty years younger than I, and haven’t we been here before? Just the other day I read an essay by linguist Deborah Cameron, on the disappearance of the word women in discussions of gender violence, for one. What happens if we delete the word women? Will the context become obsolete before violence ever actually ends? But I understood as I read– it was like gazing into this photograph– if I raise this now, am I stuck in a time loop without being able to sail forward into our exciting 21st Century when we can theorize beyond the body, beyond human and beyond race, beyond gender and beyond the state, the calamitously outdated state, beyond language and beyond the grammar exam I have just prepared for my beleaguered students?

On the photograph, the eye travels from right to left, across the faces of men in the foreground and up toward the bells in the towers of the 17th-century edifice. It is the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, I remember, and soon I will be opening another tab on this screen to research more details about the architecture, but perhaps not. I happen to know it is la catedral de la Virgen de la Asunción, and though that is all I remember, it is enough to provoke a slight smile because just as in the photograph there will be many hidden ironies on the day of these talks, when the writers speak about writing, about writing in Spanish and English, writing as women, and how it is not any different than writing as anything else. Or, as immigrants. But we had to bring the writers together this way, to name the talks after escritoras which becomes women writers in English because writers alone hides the fact of their gender, and besides that, we also had to mark the narradoras as Latin American– a fact we assume is evident in Spanish, but not necessarily. Yet we decided to play with the word and ended up with Latin-A-méricas, attempting to signal a trajectory and an experience, shall we say myriad experiences that in the end have written the books and brought readers to the texts. Colonialities and many Americas, languages and not just single englishes or spanishes, genders and not just a single genre.

After all this the photograph that begat these thoughts has already changed in my memory, but the impact of the image remains. It will stir up much that I thought buried and I thank the photographer, Sebastián Liste for the photo in the Times Magazine. And I close with the image of the flyer for the upcoming talks that have preoccupied me and my colleagues and will jostle many listeners this fall. And we will not yet disappear.


Talks on September 30 and November 4, 2016 (design Eduardo Roncal)

at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Lounge 4116

365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10016

The PhD Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages


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