Cristina Rivera Garza: A Humanities Scholar on the Edge
On a Thursday evening, I joined a Humanities on the Edge webinar. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and now a Masters student, I have been to many of these lectures before — usually, I attend them at the beautiful Sheldon Art Museum on UNL’s campus. This year, I clicked a Zoom link.
Humanities on the Edge is a lecture series cofounded by Willa Cather Professor of English & Film Studies and Department Chair of English, Marco Abel, and Roland Végső, Associate Professor and Vice Chair of English. The speaker of the evening, Cristina Rivera Garza, was the first lecturer to have their talk be held over Zoom in the 11-year history of the lecture series. Wonderfully, the lecture’s online webinar format meant global accessibility, with some participants tuning in from Mexico and some from Sweden, according to Marco Abel.
The topic of this year’s, and next year’s, lecture series is “A World of Migrants: Displacement, Decoloniality, Necrocapitalism.” Luis Othoniel Rosa, an Assistant Professor in UNL’s Department of Modern Languages, was credited with recruiting Garza for the series.
Cristina Rivera Garza is a Distinguished Professor in Hispanic Studies at The University of Houston and is the Director of their Creative Writing Program in Spanish. Garza’s lecture was titled, “Writing in Communality: An Aesthetics of Disappropriation,” and was heavily framed around the work of her 2020 book, The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation.
Garza spoke to knowing what it is like to be, as the lecture series title evokes thought of, “on the edge.” Garza has spent her life and career on the edge of genre borders, geographical borders, and aesthetic borders. Her scholarship sits on the border of the line that divides the constituency of the inside and outside of academia. Pulling away from the "ivory tower," Garza made sure to emphasize that the line of thinking she would discuss lives outside of theory. It lives in practice – in communities.
When we are writing, we are never alone.
If I had to give a one-sentence summary of my “takeaway” from Garza’s lecture, the above would be it. Garza’s lecture was engaging and relevant, speaking to the myriad of voices that have come before us, and exist with us, that we inevitably engage and are surrounded by each time we compose.
As a writer, I was excited by the implications of Garza’s words. Garza emphasized that central to the idea of writing is the idea that we do this together. When we write, we are in connection with others, and to be in connection and interacting with others is always politically relevant. Speaking to a key word of her lecture, “disappropriation,” Garza underlined that literature is, historically, an exercise in appropriation – we are always working with materials that are not our own. Even when we are writing about ourselves, we are operating through shared language. Even putting pen to the paper is enacting larger worldly mechanisms. As I am writing this article on Garza’s lecture, I am pulling on her knowledge. As I compose in a Word Document, I am pulling on the knowledge that others have given me of this writing space. As I write in a journalistic narrative style, I am pulling on knowledge that is not my own. We write in the constant company of others.
A consideration Garza brought forth, with this point of appropriation in writing brought forward, is that once we, as writers, realize that we obey and submit to materials that are not our own, we have to interrogate that experience. Drawing upon the scholarship of Judith Butler, Garza put on the shared webinar screen: “the account of the I is, too, inevitably, the account of the we.” Garza’s description of “writing in communality” meant exactly this – we are bound together by our life experiences and thus, of course, also by our words and our writing. Then, Garza introduced the idea that exposes this, that allows us to interrogate this and honor this: disappropriation.
Garza defined disappropriative writing as “exploring and making visible the textual layers of other people’s writing,” then listing some facts about disappropriative writing practices:
· "Disappropriation brings voices forward”
· "Disappropriation unearths the layers of plurality that precede “individual” production”
· "Disappropriation exposes community work, work in collaboration, work in communality”
· "Disappropriation announces communal work (rather than denounces) in aesthetically compelling ways”
Disappropriative writing, then, considers all of these things. Our writing, even single-authored writing, is multivocal. To participate in disappropriation, we must acknowledge, listen to, and engage with the voices that come before us and exist beside us. Doing so puts a writer in constant debt to those communities and to their collectives.
Garza defined communality by saying, “community becomes communality when a relationship with the land is not based on property but mutual belonging.” Garza’s work uses the language of communality, then, to resist the methods of appropriation that align so heavily with production-oriented ideas on writing, and to focus the practice of disappropriation on the reciprocal relationship communalities embody.
Every time we write, we are both connecting and part of a connection. As writers, we don’t need solitude to write, we need each other. Garza reminds us of this and gives us a framework for this fact’s engagement: disappropriation by writing in communality.
Garza, Cristina Rivera. Book cover. The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation. Vanderbilt University
Garza, Cristina Rivera. “Writing in Communality: An Aesthetics of
Disappropriation.” A World of Migrants: Displacement, Decoloniality, Necrocapitalism. University of Nebraska-
Lincoln Webinar. 18 March 2021. Lecture.
Hawley, Anthony. Humanities on the Edge. Digital Poster. Date unknown.