Left: Mario Grill; Right: Frederick Luis Aldama
Frederick Luis Aldama is a cognitive cultural studies scholar and one of the leading figures in Latinx Studies. His work is therefore of central importance to our research at the Narrative Encounters Project.
During a visit to The Ohio State University in April 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Aldama. We spoke about his work as well as potential developments in cognitive literary studies focusing on Chicanx literature. Here is the first part of the interview. The second and third part will follow in separate posts.
PART I: Setting the Tone and Cognitive Cultural Studies
MG: In both your teaching and scholarship, you use narrative theory, cognitive science, and insights from Latinx and Latin American cultural theory. What would you say are some of the benefits of working on the intersection of these disciplines and cultures and how can such interdisciplinary cross-fertilization enrich our understandings of ‘the other’?
FLA: First, let me say thank you, Mario, for this interview and for clearing the space to talk about this. Okay, so something happened when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley that came into sharp focus as a graduate student at Stanford. I was extremely excited about Latinx literature and film and the study of it but I wanted to get at the kind of roots, the deeper, say, foundations of where creativity comes from: how we can create as Latinxs and as human beings generally. I wanted to understand better how is it that our brain has evolved the capacity to imagine, to sculpt a story imagined in the mind, then to realize materially this story either through typing of fingers to create words on a page, using sound and cameras to make a film, or using pencil and paper to geometrize narratives in the form of comics.
How do we begin to get at an understanding of the foundations of creativity and storytelling? Well, first of all, cognitive sciences has made tremendous breakthroughs in this area; it’s no longer a deterministic science. It is an exploratory and richly expansive science. The neurosciences, especially the subfield of neuro-aesthetics as informed by the advances in neurosciences, has been also extremely fruitful. With these research advances, we can understand better how we create and how our brains/minds work to step into storytelling schemas and then radically revise those schemas. Whether you are in a movie theater or reading a comic book, today we can better understand how perception and our senses translate information into both emotion and intellectual imaginative responses. To get at this knowledge foundation I had to go the sciences.
As far as narrative theory goes, well, already as an undergraduate at Berkeley I was drawn to courses taught by Seymour Chatman. Of course, these supplemented important courses on Chicanx (taught by professors Alfred Arteaga and Genaro Padilla) and African American literature (the late Professor Barbara Christian). As an undergraduate I found Chatman’s attention to story and discourse extremely generative; I also found Professor Robert Alter’s courses on style extremely productive. The tools and concepts of narrative theory allowed me to go beyond just character or thematic analysis. It allowed me to see not only how authors give respective shape to their Chicanx narratives but also how they build signposts into their fictions that, once the text is in the world, are co-constructed by readers like myself. Narrative theory continued to be an important part of my conceptual diet as I moved increasingly into the study of Latinx films and comic books. It continues to inform my writing and teaching, deepening an understanding of all of the shaping devices that are used by creators to make stories interesting, engaging, and alive. Narrative theorists over time have been able to refine and add to the kind of periodic table of shaping devices so that we can kind of see better what is going on both in film, comic, and literature. It’s not surprising that I found myself gravitating toward narrative theory. It’s the natural space for kind of analysis that I was hungry to use in my work and in my classrooms as a professor.
MG: You bring us to issues and debates regarding cognitive cultural studies. This approach is often criticized for focusing too narrowly on the interaction between a text and a single, highly abstract reader, neglecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of the actual audiences. What do you think of this critique and how would you argue against it since this is coming up again and again?
FLA: Anytime you mention “science” someone is going to have a quick knee-jerk reaction. For them, science is a stand-in for universals and essentialism that has been used to erase regional, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual differences. It will obliterate the intersectionalities and specificities that make up our vary varied human condition. With long histories of science being used to justify racism, sexism, and homophobia, believe me, I get it. Today, we’re seeing something new, as I already mentioned. We can go to the cognitive sciences to explore and enrich in non-deterministic ways. Indeed, these insights can bolster our positions against racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
But let me take us to one of the deep reasons why I found my way to the cognitive sciences. I wanted to insert myself into the foundations of epistemological equations. The foundations that we have evolved as a species for thousands of years; foundations that have allowed us to create a multinetworked brain that allows our emotion system to interface with our prefrontal cortex when we create fiction, for instance. I am asking questions that are at the foundations—the roots, if you will—of who we are, how we are in the world, and how we create and transform the world.
Now, of course, these are going to express themselves uniquely, as uniquely as each of us are a unique person in this world. But if you start at the ends of the branches, your work will forever be infinite. It’s fine to work at the ends of the, say, many thousand branches that have grown from the roots, but one might never get at the foundations that I’m interested in knowing more about.
So, bottom-line is: Yes, we are all born with innate capacities for the growing of a language faculty (I am totally on board with Chomsky), long and short term memory processes, the growing of emotion systems and so on. And, yes, these innate capacities will grow in extraordinarily unique ways within specifics of time and place; they will grow into the many different personalities that make up the world. Those are definitively shaped by things like your race, your ethnicity, your gender, and as we grow and come into, our sexuality all of these things are going to inform and shape the kind of expression of this universal stuff that we all share.
MG: This means that you would also agree that fictional narratives invite our readers to step into the imaginary shoes of a character that is slightly or uniquely different from them and allows them to see what such a life may be like. Would you say that all ethnic American literary texts do so using the same methods? Or, are there distinct differences in how this happens, for instance, in Chicanx or Latinx literature to be more general?
FLA: Yes, you are right, I mean basically literature, film, comics all invite anybody to engage with them on a deep level: to co-create and co-imagine. Of course, different creators might have different ideal audiences in mind. With someone creating a specifically Chicanx comic book superhero, there are going to be elements that anybody can step into and understand and feel. There are also going to be, depending on the degree of will and specificity on the part of the creator, things that an outsider to Chicanx culture might not get. And, different creators decide if they will or how they will educate outsider readers.
Coco (2017) is a good example: It had a huge, deep, appeal with Chicanx and Mexican (in Mexico) communities and families. In fact the big numbers in terms of box office sales came from our communities. At the same time, it also appealed to many many non-Chicanx and Mexican audiences. When we create, we can make a narrative fiction we can have a singular, restrictive ideal audience in mind. We can also have multiple ideal audiences. And, at the end of the day, because we share common ground in terms of our faculty for imagining, feeling, and thinking, no matter if more restricted or expansive in terms of built-in ideal audiences, narrative fiction always opens its arms to everybody.
PART II: Identity and Borders
MG: When analyzing Coco or any Chicanx texts there’s the use of multiple languages and how this enriches Chicanx narratives in ways that we might not find in other ethnic American literatures. I’m thinking of how Chicanx narratives construct through and across Spanish and English double-identities. Along with this, do you believe that Chicanx fiction creators have aesthetic representational or political responsibilities (or opportunities) to inform readers from around the globe about the complexity of Chicanx cultural rituals, subjectivities, and experiences. Might this help shape and deepen non-Chicanx readers’ understanding of Latinidad in ways that push against negative and destructively stereotypical mainstream narratives of Chicanxs?
FLA: I think it is up to the individual Chicanx creator to decide how they want to use language to create their respective narrative fictions. Sometimes you see, especially with children’s literature by Latinx authors, where they are like: Okay, here is the story and because Spanish is so much a part of Latinx everyday life, they decide to reconstruct their narrative with codeswitching and interweaving Spanish in with the English. They decide to shape their narratives in and across translingual linguistic acts. However, even here we might see a publisher come down and say: “We want a glossary because want this book to appeal to more than just the Latinx families and kids”. So, they impose certain kinds of, say, discipline on a creator. So yes, there is all sorts of ways that Latinx creators use language to shape their narratives—along with an equal number of ways that these same creators can be constrained when publishers insist that they should create to educate general readers about our language and our culture in non-organic, say, ways to the narrative.
Now, there are authors, especially in the earlier moments of Chicanx literature, but we see it today, where the use of Spanish in the novel is immediately contextualized, so you understand if you are a non-Spanish speaker. A phrase will be mentioned in Spanish and then right next to it will be in English the narrator or the character indirectly defining what that phrase is. It is another form of glossary, but it indicates to readers like me that the ideal audience of the book might not be a Chicanx bilingual or codeswitching reader but maybe one that is dominant English or even to the point where they are monolingual English. So, there are all sorts of variations on this.
Ultimately, it is like such identity categories as Latinx or Chicanx or Blatinx or GuaMex-Irish (me) where I am not going to ever say you should be calling yourself Latinx or Chicanx etc. It is up to you and how you want to self-identify. It is the same thing with literature, or any kind of creation. I am not going to say you need to have Spanish in there because that is a part of our culture and if we do not, we are going to be losing that. If you are a Chicanx author and if you want to write in dominant English or dominant Spanish or codeswitch or do a translingual creation, hey that is up to you.
I will say this, however. We are seeing more and more fiction coming out of the Latinx community of writers where it is the idea that Spanish or codeswitching is somehow a cultural marker as a thing of the past and now it is much more an aesthetic device. It is used as much as a shaping of the story in terms of a comma, syntax, word choice image as you have seen in English in the history of literature forever. Today we see Spanish codeswitching, translingual play as an important organic shaping device in the making of Latinx fiction. Junot Díaz’ Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and my Long Stories Cut Short are really good examples of the use of translingual play as subtle markers of Latinidad and as powerfully generative shaping devices in terms of their aesthetics.
MG: Wouldn’t the exclusion of the bilingual create a sort of border? This is something you also argue in your recent Latinx Studies: The Key Concepts (2018) which you edited with Christopher Gonzáles. Here you discuss several different themes and areas connected to Latinx Studies and also highlight why Border Theory is so essential in every discussion on Latinx identity and also for Chicanx identity. For instance, you explain that “one key development in Border Theory is how an understanding of the border can lead to greater understanding of identity” (25). So both physical and mental borders in that way create something that established either distance or closure between people, communities, or even your readers. This is when you also mention that Border Theory’s “commitment to issues of the border, now an issue of incredible volatility thanks to the Trump administration’s dogged resolve to build a border wall, the vilification of undocumented Latinxs among rightwing politicos and politicians in the United States, the continued barriers to equal access to resources and due process for Latinxs, and the commitment by the Trump administration to pursue an anti-immigration, ‘America First’ agenda will ensure the vitality of this much-needed area of study.” (27). We see constantly the Trump administration’s villainization of US Latinxs and Mexicans. Do you think cognitive cultural studies can add to the pursuit of tearing down such imaginary and concrete walls and borders?
FLA: That is a pretty layered and complex question. Let me start by saying I never understood why the United States has been so aggressively anti-bilingualism. In our earlier talk I said it is up to the creator and it is but in terms of education of our children and children that become adults, this country, it should be like Québec or Switzerland or other countries around the world where you have two extremely significant languages operating on a daily basis. Why don’t we have Spanish on our cereal boxes alongside English? For everybody school from the very beginning should be, there should be Spanish and English and not just languages thrown at kids like in High School which is a disaster. Why is this? Because of course communication allows for understanding, allows for the movement and contact of people not based on fear but on comfort and from comfort can be learning and from learning can be creation. Yes, it is crazy that we live in a country that does not have every single sign on the street in Spanish and English and on our cereal boxes and in our schools and bilingual teachers trained.
MG: But it does happen in several cities or states?
FLA: Yes and especially in the Southwest, but not as a federal mandate. We should be able to flow between our languages in all national spaces. Not allowing for the growing of bilingualism everywhere and for everyone is like cutting off a limb.
Antibilingualism and specifically anti-Spanish has become part of the ideological trigger-space for “Make America Great Again” propaganda; this idea that somehow English is pure and the civilized language and using Spanish or “that Mexican” is dirty and evil, the latter of course also attaching itself to brown bodies in the US. This all plays in to Trump’s administration which is all about triggers and language and brown bodies and this idea of invading hordes and etc.
So yes, a borderland’s sensibility comes in and through language and culture and history—an understanding that we are connected to our brothers and sisters, our families, our communities, not only through language that reaches across borders, but also through shared histories of conquest and then survivance. There is a lot of communality between someone like me who is Guatemalan, Irish, and Mexican and someone who is who is Puerto Rican, or Cuban, or Dominican. Borderlands as a hemispheric space of coming together in healing along with the recognition of a shared wound: colonization.
PART III:Moving us Toward a Tomorrow
MG: Thank you for that very insightful response and you mention a lot that has diminished and discriminated certain communities. That is also something you argue in your Conversations on Cognitive Cultural Studies with Patrick Colm Hogan (2014). Both of you agree that such narratives depicting issues such as racism, sexism, and classism educate their readership to some extent as well instead of just being ‘the’ negative story that cannot be told because they contain several words or aspects that are highly questionable today. As I can tell so far, you would agree that this also holds true for Chicanx narratives. Is there a chance that those narratives enable readers to better understand those characters and cultures they encounter in these texts by looking at more perspectives than just the negative ones but also trying to see the bilingual aspect as something that is not just there for aesthetics?
FLA: This is another complicated question. When I wrote Long Stories Cut Short, I purposefully wrote it both in English and in Spanish and I worked with the press to make sure that they did not put walls up between the two. So, a flash fiction will appear in English and it will, without a page break, run right into the Spanish. You will still see the title of it in Spanish followed by the flash fiction in Spanish, but the two stories will run into each other. The typical bilingual move in a book is to have the story in Spanish on one page and the identical story translated into English on the opposite page as a kind of education tool. That is not how we exist in this country as Latinxs. No matter what degree of fluency in Spanish or English, one way or another Latinxs in the US are surrounded by both. It is important that Long Stories Cut Short conveyed this linguistic hemispheric borderlands space. I think the closer we can get to the distillation and aesthetic reconstruction of what actually happens in our communities and in our families as Latinxs, the more enriching the experience will be for everybody.
As I mentioned before, creators can choose to create a storyworld to edify someone who does not know the experience; or they can choose to tell the best dang story about these sets of characters that are going to be as detailed and specific about their lives and their emotion systems, and their ethics that will create a rich story about this Chicanx family or protagonist etc. The latter option is where I would go. Like a García Márquez or a Faulkner or a Díaz, the more you go into the kind of depth and detail of a specific place, of a specific character and their movement within that storyworld space, it will eventually reach back out into a kind of connection with many, many people outside of that experience.
So yes, go deep into it and that includes language, that includes cultural references, it includes details all the way down to socks and shoes and the kinds of nails you use to build a house etc. Then it will reach back out to a general or more broad audience. If you start your creation thinking you want to appeal to everybody, it will likely fall flat. We see that with Hollywood movies all the time. They are factory-created, and they very often try to appeal to everybody out of the gate and they might entertain you for two hours while you are eating your popcorn, but you don’t go back to them. The ones that you go back to really understand and to experience again and again are the ones that deep-dive into the specificity of the human condition.
MG: The idea of going deep into the experience also brings me to my final question because you have hinted on several ideas that you deem important and that need to be further explored. There has been research on texts by Chicanx writers and there has been conducted from a cognitive cultural studies perspective, chiefly in your own work and also by other scholars such as Christopher González in his recent Permissible Narratives. The Promise of Latino/a Literature (2017). Are there any elements you would like to see explored in future research? Are there specific tropes and issues that need further investigation?
FLA: In addition to González’s book there are several others. I think of Ralph Rodriguez’s Latinx Literature Unbound (2018) and Ylce Irizarry’s Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (2017). What I like about these books is that they move us toward a tomorrow in terms of what Latinx literature is doing and might be doing and why it might not be doing it, why authors might not be creating in the ways that we would hope they might be creating.
Let me be more specific: One thing that I have noticed in Chicanx Literature and also in all levels, from children’s literature all the way through adult literature, is that we do not have much of a tradition of fiction that calls attention to itself. We have People of Paper (Salvador Plascencia, 2006), Victuum (Isabella Rios, 1976), and a couple of Alejandro Morales’ novels like Waiting to Happen (2001) where there is experimental play. I just put together a volume of essays on Giannina Braschi’s work The United States of Banana (2011) and Yo-Yo Boing (2011). Braschi really pushes the envelope on storytelling by stretching our gap-filling capacities and immersing readers in Spanish and English for pages and pages. I would love to see more of that.
We are writing this fiction. It is just that publishers tend to impose straight-jackets on Latinx creators. They are like, “No, right now what is selling is like the ghetto narrative, now what is selling is the tortilla recipe story. So, unless you are going to write those, we are not interested in publishing you”. So, we go knocking door to door, hoping that someone will publish our work because it does not fit into these predetermined narrative molds. González’s notion of the permissible narrative captures this well. González also identifies a long tradition of outre Latinx authors who created “challenging narratives” who resist what is deemed permissible. I’d like to see our impermissible narratives get into the hands of readers. Until this happens, our sense of a Latinx creative futurity will be stalled.