Tag Archives: feminism

Borderlands, Wounds and Women: On Discovering Chicana Poetry

A guest post by Ph.D student Donna Maria Alexander on discovering her passion for Chicana poetry…

I first encountered the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana, Native American (Chumash), feminist, activist poet, and Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana, lesbian, feminist, activist theorist and poet, as a final year undergraduate student (BA English and Geography). I was researching an assignment for a

module on Race and Representation in 20th American Culture when I stumbled across Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Poem for the Young White Man Who  Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in a War Between the Races.” As I read this poem, my vision of America became undone and reconstituted with a more complex understanding of issues of race, gender, class and imperialism.

The majority of my studies in American literature in terms of race had focused on African American literature, from slavery to the civil rights movement. In support of my blossoming interest the module lecturer (now one of my doctoral supervisors) recommended several texts including Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa. Through this reading I developed a strong interest in representations of political, geographical and emotional issues in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Chicana poets. Anzaldúa’s well- known description of this area became the cornerstone of my investigation:

The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds forming a third country – a border culture. Borders are set up to define places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip among a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary (25).

In these lines people become cause and effect, imbricated totally within the mechanics of Cervantes’ and Anzaldúa’s poetry introduced me to 500 years of conquest and displacement and an entire canon of literature that had not previously come under my radar as a student. Of course I knew that Columbus’ arrival to the “New World” didn’t bring the splendour and kindness that people had been originally led to believe; I knew about the onslaught of conquest, partitioning subjugation that produced the America of today. However, I had not at that point been guided by education or my own curiosity to explore this any further. In “Poem For the Young White Man” Cervantes states

Every day I am deluged with reminders

that this is not

my land

and this is my land (36-37).

These lines express in very simple terms the complexity of imperialism experienced by Chicana/os: the confusion of displacement and nationhood paired with the desire for peace while being immersed in socio-political conflict. This tension of simultaneous belonging and exile is a compelling feature of much Chicana literary and artistic expression. The Chicana, lesbian, feminist theorist and writer, Gloria Anzaldúa states

This land was Mexican once,

was Indian always

and is.

And will be again (25).

Again we see a tension between what was, what is and what should be, according to these two writers. In addition to this, both Cervantes and Anzaldúa’s quotes display some poetic techniques that appear to be deliberate to the subject matter at hand. For example, the line breaks in both poems express a resistance to imperialism and its resultant hegemony over Chicana/os in the U.S., while the irregular layout of Anzaldúa’s quote reflects on the complexity of the socio-political situation in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

In “Poem For the Young White Man” the phrase “my land” is given a line of its own, thus separating it from the negative “not” in the preceding line (36). So, the issue of ownership is highlighted and then reinforced by the line that follows: “and this is my land” (37). The “and” here links the two lines, while the repetition of “my land” as well as the internal rhyme with “and” strengthens Cervantes’ ideological hold over her own identity and position within the U.S. just as the final line of Anzaldúa’s quote denotes a positive movement towards indigenous autonomy of place and self.

Given that poetry, to quote Scott Griffin, “is able to deliver, with just a few lines, the full range of human emotions,” I undertook doctoral research on the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa due to the elaborate interstices and overlaps of the emotional topography of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that they construct through poetry. In return I have gained a (re)education in the history, politics, geography and literature of the Americas that in the words of Paul Jay have “multiple points of emergence that converge, clash, and reform themselves along the borders of various cultural zones” (182).


Works Cited:

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2007. Print.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981. Print.

Griffin, Scott. “Poetry: Why it is Important.” Youtube. Youtube. 5 March 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.

Jay, Paul. “The Myth of ‘America’ and the Politics of Location: Modernity Border Studies, and the Literature of the Americas.” Arizona Quarterly 54.2 (1998): 165-92. Print.

Donna Maria Alexander is a doctoral candidate in the School of English and Department of Hispanic Studies, University College Cork. She is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Her core research focuses on contemporary Chicana poetry. Her broader research interests include American literature, film and television, feminism, and geography. Before undertaking her doctoral studies in 2010, Donna completed a BA in English and Geography and a MA in American Literature and Film. She has articles published in FIAR and American Studies Today and blogs at Américas Studies. Her Twitter handle is @americasstudies.


The Lady Doth Protest: Conference Report

‘The Lady Doth Protest…’: Mapping Feminist Movements, Moments and Mobilisations

FWSA Biennial Conference

University of Nottingham

June 21st-23rd 2013


Playing on Shakespeare’s oft-(mis)quoted idiom, ‘The Lady Doth Protest’, the FWSA’s biennial conference welcomed a varied and international audience to the University of Nottingham for a three-day conference from the 21st-23rd June 2013. With the theme ‘Mapping Feminist Movements, Moments and Mobilisations,’ this conference aimed to analyse the history of feminism on the global stage to its continuing significance in times of austerity and international political unrest. ‘The Lady Doth Protest’ functioned as a truly interdisciplinary space to discuss feminism within the academy and in activist movements, featuring three keynotes from leading activist-scholars, an advocacy and activism roundtable headed by The Feminist Library, AWAVA and WLUML, and a three-day interactive exhibition from Music & Liberation: Women’s Liberation Music Making in the UK, 1970-1989. If this wasn’t enough, the organisers also arranged evening entertainment with the raucous Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, a Queer Feminist Burlesque Collective who will be performing at The Fringe this year, and a film screening of Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, a poignant documentary directed by Dagmar Schultz. It is a feat in itself to review the sheer breadth of activities on offer so in an attempt to be brief I will focus on the panels I attended. To hear more on the entertainment, exhibition and activist sentiments of the conference, I direct you to Donna Marie Alexander’s review here.

At first glance the four-parallel panel programme looks impressive, if a little overwhelming. Across the weekend the diversity of papers was clear. From panels on negotiating neoliberalism to spirituality and feminism, ‘The Lady Doth Protest’ interrogated feminist pedagogies, critical ontologies and the practical exploration of ‘new’ feminist questions. With such a rich programme one might feel in danger of missing out on all the conference had to offer, however, the organisers thought of this too. For the benefit of attendees and non-attendees alike the organisers arranged bloggers and live-tweeters to be stationed across all panels, and at routine points these summaries were uploaded onto the FWSA conference website.

Championing each day the FWSA arranged a keynote address from an established activist-scholar. Introducing day one, Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London) explored the act of space invading in feminist history. Puwar examined the use of sound, speech and singing as a protest device in feminist past to feminist future(s). On the second day Professor Nadje Al-Ali (SOAS, University of London) spoke on protest, mobilisation and change in the Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring.’ Al-Ali discussed the contributions and marginalisation of feminist and women’s groups in times of wider national unrest. On the third day Professor Diane Elson (Emeritus Professor, University of Essex) shifted the focus to the UK and the current impact of austerity measures on women and children. Chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG) Professor Elson presented WBG’s economic analysis and revealed the disproportionate effects of austerity for women and single-parent families. The keynote addresses, while diverse in content and methodology, ultimately united on one key issue: women’s voices continue to be silenced world-wide. To hear more on the keynote addresses, visit the FWSA blog.

As for the panels I attended, these were focused on literature and engaged with the politics of the page. Presenters discussed iconic pop-feminist texts from Greer to Moran, post/feminist representations in the fiction of Michèle Roberts and the rape/revenge film, and the destabilising function of Judith Halberstam’s ‘queer art of failure’ in trans* fiction. Other presenters looked beyond the fiction page and located moments of feminism in South Asian autobiography, while others problematised the gender-equalizing resolution 1325 in the United Nations and its revival of Hegel’s ‘beautiful soul.’ Engaging, thought-provoking and well-presented, I left the conference with actor Will Rogers’s words in my ears: ‘A man only learns in two ways, one by reading and the other by association with smarter people.’

Yet still, the literature panels were sparsely attended in relation to other panels focused on the social sciences and activism. There are positives and negatives to arranging panels by discipline and both were felt.  The creator of ‘The New Academic’, Nadine Muller, who was presenting at the event, accurately summed up some of the drawbacks.

nadine muller 2
nadine muller 1

For me as an early postgraduate researcher not presenting at the conference, a smaller audience has its advantages. Smaller audiences make it is easier to approach other attendees and it can often transform stuffy question sessions into more fluid conversations. At the close of the conference it was the questions raised in these panel discussions that stuck with me. How can we define women’s writing when many women writers reproduce the same patterns of marginalization? Does writing have to rely on didactics to be defined as feminist? Why do we do what we do – what is the political potential of literature?

When we turn our gaze to these questions that so often appear at the forefront of our minds as scholars and feminists we are reminded of the importance of feminist conferences as critical forums that challenge our ideas as much as they support them; before the lady doth protest, the lady doth question. The FWSA’s 2013 biennial conference excelled as an intersectional feminist space that presented not only important emerging research but important difficulties, new and old, within feminist activism and the academy.

Michelle Green

University of Nottingham

The F Word in Contemporary Women’s Writing: Conference

‘The F Word in Contemporary Women’s Writing’ will be the fourth biennial conference of the PG CWWN. It will be held at Queen’s University, Belfast on the 4 – 5 April 2013. The conference keynote lecture will be by Prof. Diane Negra (University College Dublin), and an Early Career Workshop, led by Dr. Helen Davies (Teeside).

Conference registration is now open.

Find out more…