Book cover of "Understanding Johny Rechy": includes a black and white photo of Johny Rechy sitting at a desk with a typewriter facing the photographer

Interview with María DeGuzmán, Author of Understanding John Rechy (University of South Carolina Press, 2019)

Please tell us about yourself and what prepared you for the work you accomplish in Understanding John Rechy?

I first learned of John Rechy’s work in 1990 while auditing a graduate course taught by Costa Rican-born, US-raised literary critic Juan Bruce-Novoa (1944–2010), Professor of Latin American and “Chicano/Latino” [the phrases used then] literatures and cultures, film studies, and critical theory at the University of California, Irvine when Bruce-Novoa was a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. I had completed my M.A. and was researching and writing my way toward a Ph.D. in Harvard’s English Department while also serving as a teaching assistant and experimenting with conceptual photography. My dissertation advisor, the Jewish Canadian scholar Sacvan Bercovitch (1933–2014), encouraged me to audit Bruce-Novoa’s course (I had already completed my official coursework). Bercovitch was a specialist in Puritan literature and author of many books including his 1975 The Puritan Origins of the American Self, a study that focuses its argument about the invention of this “American Self” on Cotton Mather’s biography of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Up to that point, I had taken courses in Latin American literature, Peninsular Spanish literature, and “American” Literature as an undergraduate at Brown University in the mid 1980s. At Harvard, I had completed courses in Anglo-Saxon poetry to postmodern U.S. literature to obtain my M.A. in “English and American Literature.” But, I had never had the chance to formally study the literary production of Latina/o/x writers engaged with U.S. experiences. So, I decided to audit Bruce-Novoa’s course. At the same time, beyond the context of any university course, I began to read the works of queer Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. I first encountered their books in New Words, a groundbreaking feminist bookstore that opened April 6, 1974 in Somerville, Massachusetts.

I recall that one of the main texts in Bruce-Novoa’s class was his own RetroSpace: Collected Essays in Chicano Literature, Theory, and History published by Arte Public Press in 1990, the same year that he came to Harvard. In that book, I discovered his essays “The Space of Chicano Literature” and “Canonical and Non-Canonical Literature.” Both of them mentioned John Rechy. The former discussed his 1963 novel City of Night as an example of Chicano literary and artistic space, a necessary response to the chaos of cultural negation and exclusion. The latter one, on the canonizing processes within Chicana/o literature itself, stated: “Another Chicano novelist, John Rechy, had published three novels by 1970, two of which (City of Night and Numbers) had attracted international notoriety among readers and reviewers, yet his were not taught in Chicano courses then and for the most part they are still excluded … The greatest stumbling block was the blatant homosexuality of the characters. Yet … Rechy had written the most searing denunciation of U.S. society of any of the Chicano novels written by 1970” (133-35). According to Bruce-Novoa, another stumbling block for ready inclusion in “the Chicano canon” was Rechy’s handling of ethnicity: “He neither asserts nor denies it, but rather lets it exist as one element in the protagonist’s background” and “[a]t the same time Rechy revealed the irony of homosexuality’s close link with machismo, undermining the chauvinistic stalwart of the male dominated [Chicano] Movement” (135). These tensions and contradictions caught my eye as did the name “John Rechy,” which gave no linguistic clue to Rechy’s Mexican and/or Mexican American heritages. “Rechy,” that people sometimes pronounce “Ritchie,” sounded Scottish to me. In fact, it is. Although his parents were both from Mexico, his paternal grandfather was a Scottish man born in Spain.

I, a queer, multiply hybridized subject of Anglo-American and Spanish empires with a reputedly cuarterona Puerto Rican paternal great grandmother, made a note to myself to read Rechy’s writings and whatever scholarship I could find about them. I started with City of Night and was instantly hooked by the opening sentence: “Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night … America at night fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness” (9). My mind was whirling with thoughts and questions about definitions of “America” and portrayals of “American” selves, about consent and dissent, about inclusions and exclusions, about belonging and not belonging, about the continuities and discontinuities between the New England Puritan vision of “the errand into the wilderness” and this other equally potent vision emanating from the underside of the United States, from los de abajo, from El Paso in Southwest Texas, of “America as one vast City of Night.” This whirlwind of questions funneled my path into Latina/o Studies and toward Rechy’s oeuvre.

 

Would you please tell us about the contribution(s) that Understanding John Rechy makes that will be of interest to the readers of Latinx Talk?

Of particular interest to readers of Latinx Talk may be the overview of Rechy’s literary life in Chapter 1 as well as Chapter 4 on Rechy’s experiments with “intermedia” in the novels The Vampires (1971), The Fourth Angel (1972), Rushes (1979) and Bodies and Souls (1983). Though “intermedia” is not specific to Chicanx culture, I suggest that Rechy’s intermedia techniques draw, in a subversive, queer manner, on the vernacular, syncretic indigenous and Catholic traditions and spirituality of Mexican American communities of the Southwest—for example, on the processions of the Penitentes that he would have witnessed growing up in El Paso, Texas as a child. Of even greater interest to readers of Latinx Talk may be Chapter 5 on Rechy’s contributions to women-centered narratives and the Chicana feminist canon in his novels Marilyn’s Daughter (1988), The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1991), and Our Lady of Babylon (1996) and in his memoir About My Life and the Kept Woman (2008). I focused on his women-centered novels as they constitute a major part of his corpus that has not received adequate critical attention. I argue that his decolonial Chicana feminist representations of women indicate the fact that he has long understood the relationship that exists between misogyny and homophobia (against gay men as well as against LGBTQ+ more generally). The oppression of women and trans women (for example, “Troja” in Marilyn’s Daughter) is not just about Latinx communities; it is, in Rechy’s work, also about the larger U.S. culture.

 

What motivated you to do this kind of work?

I was motivated to write Understanding John Rechy because even though many outstanding scholars have written articles on aspects of his work and even though Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez and Beth Hernandez-Jason edited and published in 2015 (through the University of Alcalá de Henares in Spain) The Textual Outlaw: Reading John Rechy in the 21st Century, the first critical volume of essays devoted to his works, no monograph existed examining the full spectrum of his category-defying, borders and boundaries crossing corpus. In the summer of 2019, two scholarly books on Rechy’s works emerged: mine, titled Understanding John Rechy (University of South Carolina Press) and another, The Body of Work: John Rechy’s Sensual Poetics, written by Michael Bucher and published in Germany in an American Studies series.  Bucher’s book, published while my book was at the printer’s, focuses on what he posits as the tension between Rechy’s “lapsed Catholic” sensibility of loss and a “camp” or “sensual” one, a tension that Bucher claims characterizes Rechy’s poetics. The fact that until 2019 scholarly monographs were not published on Rechy, a writer producing many different genres of writing since the late 1940s and the author of more than fifteen novels, is itself significant. It is symptomatic of how Rechy’s work could not be fully appreciated within the lines of disciplinary boundaries. It calls for and necessitates the compound lenses of not only interdisciplinary scholarship, but furthermore of a scholarship open to ways of thinking, feeling, writing, and being that cross boundaries of genre, media, and a lot else—that defy containment.

It was Rechy’s artistry itself—wrought by an outsiders’ outsider—that dared me to take on the challenge of writing a book in the “Understanding Contemporary American Literature” series (founded by Matthew J. Bruccoli and edited by Linda Wagner-Martin). I was indeed eager to see Rechy’s work included under the rubric of “American” literature. It deserves to be there as much as under any of the other rubrics, such as “Chicano” or “LGBTQ” or “queer Chicano,” by which it has been examined.  But, that desire for inclusion, particularly within the national “American” rubric, can be a trap as well. And so, I was especially pleased to be able to demonstrate the myriad ways that he not only borrows from and repurposes aspects of canonical Anglo American writers (such as Poe, Mark Twain, Henry James, etc.) and British writers (John Milton, Henry Fielding, etc.) but, furthermore,  pulls in elements from the cultural production of many cultures and time periods—Mayan mythologies, Mexican foundational fictions, stories from the Greco-Roman world, Middle Eastern biblical narratives, late medieval and early Renaissance Italian literature as well as French literature, Hollywood, European, and Mexican film, African American and Mexican music, classical music from Eastern and Western Europe, and much more. In creating and sustaining this combinatorial mélange, he volatilizes closed-circuit definitions of “American” with his transnationalism and with his attention to the pandemonium of sounds emanating from the streets.

 

What aspect of the Latinx Talk project does your book most align with? (Note: Latinx Talk is an online, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed, and moderated forum for the circulation and discussion of original research, commentary, and creative work in brief and diverse formats such as essays (500-2000 words), multimedia presentations, podcasts, and short video. We believe in providing a space for Chicanx and Latinx Studies ideas, research, and creativity that may foster critical dialogues).

Latinx Talk is committed to interdisciplinary research, commentary, and creative works of interest to academics, community members, and to the general public. It resides at a crossroads of form, genre, audience, and demographics, “multiple Chicanx and Latinx communities” (see “About Us”). Similarly, this book Understanding John Rechy was written for “The Understanding Contemporary American Literature” series that calls for its volumes to be guides for students as well as nonacademic readers on how to read certain contemporary writers by “explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives” (Series Editor’s Preface). Each book of this kind is limited to 62,000 words. Within strict parameters of length and structure, Understanding John Rechy provides general readers and scholars alike with a comprehensive introduction to Rechy’s oeuvre. It examines his male homosexual odyssey and identity quest novels as cultural critique; his true fictions; his synesthetic, boundary-blurring genre experiments with intermedia; the heretical, “sexual outlaw,” and feminist existential imagination of his works; and his investment in music. The study explicates the many techniques Rechy employs and the multiple cultural, literary, cinematographic, and musical traditions he draws from and hybridizes to represent those historically marginalized and oppressed in the United States not as exceptions to the body politic, but, instead, as constitutive of it.

 

How is your book’s focus on the life of Mexican American novelist, essayist, and playwright John Rechy, his work and his legacy, in dialogue with current trends in Latinx and Ethnic Studies? For example, consider our recent publication of Ralph E. Rodriguez’s “Hammers and Home.”

Recent trends in Latinx and Ethnic Studies involve a concerted, multi-perspectival effort to come to terms with differences within (or among) difference—to take stock of and be accountable, both in a scholarly and ethical sense, to the diversity and differences within communities historically marginalized by dominate culture. One of the reasons I was drawn to Rechy’s work is that it does just that. Much of it was and still is ahead of its time, diving deeply into the ethnographic and auto-ethnographic work necessary for engaging with such accountability and, furthermore, creating original language and forms with which to give expression to the lived experiences, ways of being, and cultural productions of those invisible under potentially monolithic terms such as “Chicana/o/x,” “Latina/o/x,” “gay,” “queer,” or other labels. While some fear this endeavor may incite divisiveness and fragmentation (that possibility does exist), listening to the silences, repressions, and oppressions within, between, and among marginalized communities is crucial for building trust and solidarity between marginalized groups and thus generating more effective coalitions against systemic injustices.

Rechy’s entire body of work also continually probes the relationship of the “marginalized” to the dominant culture and those perceived as being of the dominant culture, for instance Anglos or, more broadly, those taken for “white” under a system suffused with coloniality and white supremacy (that aspires to a constructed whiteness naturalized and taken for fact). Important to remember is that many of the characters in Rechy’s novels have Anglophone names and that “white” men and women appear in most of his works. Rechy himself is a light-complexioned Chicano and bears a Scottish surname, though he also refers to himself as Juan Rechy, not merely as John Rechy. Actually, he was named “Juan Francisco Rechy” at birth. However, elements of passing and identity slippage have characterized his long life and artistic career. Nearly twenty years ago, I took up certain angles of these tensions in an essay, “Turning Tricks,” published in an anthology titled Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman (The University of Georgia Press, 2001). But, in addition to passing and identity slippage, Rechy’s inclusion of Anglo and/or “white” characters in almost all of his work indicates an abiding interest in the complex relations between the dominant and the marginalized, in showing how the marginalized reflect the dominant and yet also inhabit the dominant culture differently, subverting and transforming it from within while having to deal with the corrosive effects of the repressive conformity exerted by majoritarian culture.

In relation to these issues, I read with interest Ralph E. Rodriguez’s personal reflection piece (that also functions as a tribute to his own father), “Hammers and Home,” on Brownsville, Texas-born Chicano writer Oscar Cásares’s US/Mexico borderlands story “RG” from the 2003 story collection Brownsville. As Rodriguez explains, “RG” hinges on the lending/borrowing of a hammer between two Brownsville neighbors: a Chicano man (also the narrator), named “RG,” who lends his hammer to a white man, named Bannert (a Germanic-sounding name), who never returns it. Or, by the time he does, Bannert has accidently broken another of RG’s hammers and offers the long overdue first hammer to RG as a replacement for the second broken one. According to Rodriguez, the story dramatizes “complex codes of masculinity, race, neighborliness, and manners” that limit authentic communication between the two men and that prevent the Chicano narrator from asking, years earlier, for the return of his hammer. Rodriguez, who had an analogous experience with a neighbor when he lent her his deceased father’s cherished hammer, concludes his reflection with the hope that when irreplaceable things are broken by “others,” he can continue to celebrate and cultivate what has been lost and also hold himself open to the other so as not to close down the possibility for authentic communication.

What comes to mind for me is the understated quality of Cásares’s story, considering that the scenario of the borrowed hammer unfolds on land forcibly taken away from Mexico by the United States and from indigenous people before that. Rechy’s approach to these issues is not understated; rather the opposite, it glows, it burns, as in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1991) or his latest (also, one of his earliest), Pablo!

 

About the author

María DeGuzmán is Eugene H. Falk Distinguished Professor of English & Comparative Literature and Founding Director of the UNC Latina/o Studies Program at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has published three scholarly books: Spain’s Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (Minnesota Press, 2005); Buenas Noches, American Culture: Latina/o Aesthetics of Night (Indiana University Press, 2012); and Understanding John Rechy (University of South Carolina Press, 2019) as well as articles and essays on Latina/o/x lived experiences and cultural production. She is also a conceptual photographer, creative writer, and music composer / sound designer. She has published photography in The Grief Diaries, Coffin Bell, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Map Literary, Two Hawks Quarterly, Harbor Review, Alluvian, The Halcyone, Ponder Review, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, and streetcake experimental writing magazine; two creative nonfiction photo-text pieces, one in Oyster River Pages and the other in La Piccioletta Barca; a photo-text flash fiction in Bombay Gin (forthcoming); photo prose poetry in Landlocked Magazine; poetry in The Kentucky Poetry Review, The Cape Rock, and Empty Mirror; and short stories in Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature, Sinister Wisdom, and Obelus Journal. Her SoundCloud website may be found at: https://soundcloud.com/mariadeguzman.

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