Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Linda LeGarde Grover on the merits of time-honored oral tradition and contemporary fictional storytelling.

Recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth

Although I didn’t know it at the time, The Road Back to Sweetgrass began during a visit to an elderly Ojibwe man’s house some years ago. Invited by the old man’s son, a friend and I arrived with a gift for the elder—a box of tea bags.

Like the fictional young Sweetgrass characters of the 1970s, we felt daunted by the demands in our young adult lives, desperate for direction and the privilege of spending time in the presence of age and wisdom. Uncertainly we knocked; shyly we tried the door. He welcomed us with the graciousness of royalty and the humility of a saint. Margie and Theresa, who would not make their presence known to me until years later, walked invisibly inside with us.

The elder, born during the Assimilation era, had experienced Indian boarding school life, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the birth of his own children into postwar peacetime. We visitors were born on the cusp of the federal Termination policy and had lived an existence that paralleled, and regularly intersected, that of America’s baby boomers. The occasion, in retrospect, was historic, the bridging of two eras and the passing of history and knowledge from one Native generation to the next by way of time-honored oral tradition. Yet what Ojibwe-style mawadishiwewin visit, filled with periods of comfortable and thoughtful silence, is not?

Not long afterward, the elder passed away. The tenderness of the afternoon, however, continues as a presence in our lives, including the recounting of history through the stories of the people and places in The Road Back to Sweetgrass.

The mythical Mozhay Point Indian Reservation is in northern Minnesota, a place of deep snow and shaded green summers; of wild rice, maple sugar camps, and duck hunting; of the lakes and land allotments of the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac reservations, to which the Mozhay people and terrains have similarities. Some things have changed during Margie’s and Theresa’s maturing (and my own), but the spirit and essence of days past are at least as real, or more real, than the occasional cell tower or parking lot added to the landscape since the 1970s or 1980s. Recreating small iron-mining towns, reservation border towns, and Mozhay Point homes in the Sweetgrass stories is a task that is not difficult at all but rather a pleasurable visit.

The characters in The Road back to Sweetgrass represent many Ojibwe people of their time, but they are fictional. The federal Indian policies and historical events, however, are real, and their effects on individuals, families, and communities profound and long-lasting. Having lived during those times, I have found that capturing and containing these events through fictional storytelling is the least painful and, possibly, the only way to recount them that maintains the dignity of the characters. I do believe that they should be recounted.

Surely the stories exist to be told.


Linda LeGarde Grover is associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe. The Road Back to Sweetgrass (available next month) has been awarded the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award; Grover has received the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, whose previous recipients include Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler, and Toni Morrison.

"With the grace of a dancer lifted by spirit and grounded in the well-worn earth beneath her feet, Linda LeGarde Grover tells a circular tale of life on and off the Reservation. Generous, ironic, and often gut-wrenching, The Road Back to Sweetgrass is at its large heart a book about the power of home and the inexorable connections between land, people, and stories."
—Danielle Sosin, author of The Long-Shining Waters

"History, humanity and humor—these things always impress me when I read Linda LeGarde Grover’s fiction. In this deeply moving and healing book, we are drawn into a communally told story that shows generations violently separated, yet held together by the cord of place and culture and by many, many acts of love."
—Heid E. Erdrich, author of
Original Local

"A gorgeous read, an extraordinary novel!"
—LeAnne Howe, author of Shell Shaker

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sexuality in school: LGBT issues are not the exclusive concern of LGBT students.

Associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto

When lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues emerge in schools, it is often as controversy. Battles over sex education, worries about young children reading picture books about same-sex families, outrage at boys taking boys to the prom, lawsuits over gay-straight alliances, and concerns about transgender students finding appropriate bathrooms: all these examples suggest that LGBT sexuality and schooling don’t mix.

It is only under the blandest of covers that LGBT sexuality is smuggled into schools. Anti-bullying programs have made space for LGBT students but only on the condition that the gay student be identified as a problem that needs to be fixed. Depression, suicide, academic failure, bullying and harassment—if we follow the logic of anti-bullying campaigns, this is the experience of being LGBT in school. This construction of the lonely, suicidal gay teen props up educational programming, curricula, and legislation across the country.

There are many reasons to be critical of this formulation, even as we insist that LGBT students, teachers, and families deserve protection from harassment and bullying in schools. At the very least, we need to recognize that everyone in school, gay and straight, has a relationship to LGBT sexuality—gay issues are not the exclusive concern of gay students. Teachers, staff, parents, and students have lesbian and gay relatives, watch TV shows with LGBT characters, have opinions about the movement for marriage equality, struggle with their sense of boy-ness and girl-ness, and experience their desires as less fixed than the categories gay and straight might allow. This is the terrain of LGBT sexuality in schools and it is larger and more complex than anti-bullying campaigns imagine.

For those of us who do identify as LGBT, educational equality means something more than freedom from harassment. We deserve to see our lives represented in the curriculum, we need to be able to fall in love with our best friend and realize it was a terrible mistake, we need access to stories about our future selves that include the promise of love and acceptance—in short, we deserve the right to an ordinary life—full of love, loss, disappointment, crushes, friendships, and dreams of ordinary futures.

I began thinking about this right to an ordinary life in Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. At the end of that book, I offer five ways we might expand our thinking about LGBT sexuality in schools. In the book, I name the list ‘a reluctant manifesto.’ I call it "reluctant" because I don’t normally like to prescribe actions. But, in this case, I felt like there were some small gestures of welcome that had the potential to create enormous change. Here, then, is a summary of the ‘reluctant manifesto’:

1. There is no magic bullet to cure schools of homophobia and transphobia; no one program, no matter how comprehensive, is enough.

2. And yet, everything counts—policies, programs, warm gestures, well-chosen readings, an unexpected smile, impromptu discussions, and formal professional development all have the potential to create positive change.

3. We need to hear the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender spoken out loud, in many different contexts. We need chances to practice saying lesbian and gay with each other, so that the terms themselves don’t feel like slurs.

4. LGBT issues need to be seen as larger than the problem of bullying. We need to talk about LGBT issues when we talk about families, falling in love, seeing movies, having friends, and surviving the trials of ordinary life.

5. Our efforts to protect and support LGBT youth and families need to happen in concert with improving the working and learning conditions of LGBT teachers.

When I read this list, it all seems so modest. But spending time in schools, most recently as part of a storytelling project called “Beyond Bullying: Shifting the Discourse of LGBTQ Youth and Sexuality in U.S. Schools,” I recognize how far we still have to go. When schools cordon off LGBT issues in sex education and debates over mental health, LGBT students might be safe from the most extreme kinds of harassment, but our imaginations suffer. We all need to work to create the conditions in schools for conversations about LGBT sexuality, love, family, friendship, communities, and cultures in ways that go ‘beyond bullying.’


Jen Gilbert is author of Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. She is associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto.

"Sexuality in School is an excellent contribution to youth studies and sexuality studies, and provides a fine link between queer theory and educational studies, as well. Jen Gilbert’s use of psychoanalytic theory gives us challenging ways to grapple with and revel in the difficulties of education, the subjects of sexuality, and the uncertainties of youth and age. Her work shows that these difficulties pervade teaching and can invite educators to try to understand the challenges of desire, hospitality, and possibility. By combining her fine theoretical analysis of controversies (a term she problematizes nicely) and her intricate discussion of the relationships of desire that structure learning, Gilbert gives us a way to explore education in general, but also to more fully understand the particularities of youth and sexuality.
—Cris Mayo, author of LGBTQ Youth & Education: Policies & Practices

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections on Jacques Derrida, born on this day in 1930.

Founding editor, Posthumanities Series at University of Minnesota Press

On this occasion of what would have been Jacques Derrida’s 84th birthday, it is worth reflecting once more on the resonance of his work for our own moment—a resonance that depends not only on his own remarkable body of writings, of course, but also on the continually changing contexts in which his work is read and reread. As Derrida himself often reminded us, the relationship between text and context is forever shifting, and it confronts us with the qualitative asymmetries and amplitudes of difference that obtain between the individual reader or writer and the manifold complexity of the text itself—its material, political, ethical, and affective dimensions, the historicity of its being written and (re)read.

Nowhere is this dynamic on display more intricately and suggestively than in the occasion of the republication of Derrida’s text Cinders in the Posthumanities series some twenty-seven years after its original appearance in French—a fact that relies in no small part on the unusual nature of the text itself, which has been characterized as a kind of prose poem, by turns beguiling and inviting: here a wisp of smoke, there a burnt fragment, leading the reader to an end that is also a beginning. That beginning, for Derrida, was his experience of being haunted, as he put it, by the phrase il ya a lá cendre (which translates, already a little beguilingly, as “cinders there are”)—a phrase that Derrida circles back to time and again in this text, tracing its first appearance in the front matter of La DissĂ©mination in 1972, and apparitions of the phrase earlier and later (and in different guises) in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968), Glas (1974), and The Postcard (1980), among others. Here, Derrida reveals that the cinder is “the best paradigm for the trace,” and “not, as some have believed, and he as well, perhaps, the trail of the hunt, the fraying, the furrow in the sand, the wake in the sea, the love of the step for its imprint.” The attentive reader will already hear in this declaration an anticipation of Derrida’s conjugation of “trace” and “track” in one his last texts, The Animal That Therefore I Am. And after the publication of Cinders, it wouldn’t be long before another important figural and conceptual topos in Derrida’s work—of flame, fire, ashes, and spectrality—would be explored on a much larger canvas, first in Of Sprit: Heidegger and the Question, and a bit later in Specters of Marx.

The weave of ashes, flame, fire, and ghosts that we find in is bound to have an even more profound resonance for us than its original appearance in 1987, not least of all because of the fact of Derrida’s own untimely death nearly ten years ago. In that light, these words (taken from roughly the mid-point of the text) are haunting indeed, as they bear upon and, as it were, personify Derrida’s complex investigations of archive, voice, the technology of writing and inscription, and the living: “He will of course die someday,” Derrida writes; “and, for however brief a time, the little phrase has some chance of surviving him, more a cinder than ever, there, and less than ever without anyone to say `I.’”

But the largest and most far-reaching change of all—one that makes this most writerly and gestural of Derrida’s texts take on a gravitas heretofore unknown—is the accumulation of an increasingly influential body of writings in the intervening decades under the rubric of what has come to be called “biopolitics.” That body of work by Foucault, Agamben, Haraway, Esposito, Sloterdijk, Butler, and many others—to which Derrida would later make his own contribution, of course, in texts such as “Faith and Knowledge” and Rogues—forms a kind of vast echo chamber for Derrida’s mediations on voice, testimony, flame, holocaust, and spectrality in Cinders, which now emerges (as I attempt to elucidate in in my introduction to the text) as a quite unique contribution to the biopolitical literature, even within Derrida’s own corpus.


Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. In addition to having written the Introduction to Cinders, his books include Zoontologies and What Is Posthumanism?, both from Minnesota.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of the U.S. interstate highway program and its cities.

A Los Angeles freeway in 2009. In his new book, Eric Avila digs into the
cultural history of the U.S. interstate highway program.
Image via Creative Commons.

Professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA


Avila is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, which takes a hard look at the ways in which America's interstate highway program divided cities at the same time as it connected them, cutting through and destroying countless communities. Avila chronicles a wide range of urban experiences, including Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, Baltimore, Miami, Boston, and St. Paul.


Contrary to what one might expect after reading this book, I actually like freeways—when they work, that is. Yes, I am mindful of how the glut of cars can degrade the urban experience and of how it exploits the planet and its resources, but as a native southern Californian, I still crave those rare moments when L.A.’s freeways aren’t jammed to capacity, when you can actually move through the city with awesome speed and convenience. Such moments behind the wheel, even if they don’t come that often, remind me why freeways were built in the first place: to enable drivers to bypass the city’s bustle with amazing speed and efficiency. The freeway and the automobile, after all, were built upon a uniquely American premise of freedom—a twentieth century freedom of the individual to move, to accelerate, and to maximize the technological potential for unfettered, autonomous mobility.

The pursuit of this very modern freedom is shared across the lines of race, class, and gender. Women, workers, and people of color use freeways just like everyone else, for the demands of work and the need for pleasure. Freeways, after all, were not built just for the rich and powerful. In theory, interstates were built for everyone, but the consequences of their construction were dealt unevenly and The Folklore of the Freeway emphasizes the disparate impact of highway construction upon diverse urban neighborhoods. Thus one of the most surprising discoveries of my research for this book is that postwar highway construction was not an innocent enterprise—that like other forms of state policy and practice, it actually contributed to the racial fracturing of American society during the 1960s and beyond.

The use of race and ethnicity as a means of segmenting and distinguishing the people of a nation or a continent was invented in Europe some five centuries ago, upon the first contact between European and non-European peoples. In the four centuries of American history, race and ethnicity became indispensable tools to distinguish citizens from non-citizens and to justify the conquest of indigenous lands. Only in the twentieth century did we learn that race is not this fixed, quantifiable thing that can be measured within individuals and societies, but rather that it’s an intellectual invention, a conceptual tool designed to enforce difference and establish hierarchy. This concept has been used in pernicious ways throughout American history—to justify slavery, usurp western lands, restrict immigration, and as this book shows, to shape the landscape of our cities.

So in today’s cultural climate, when ethnic studies programs and scholarship are accused of fueling differences and divisions in American society, or when scholars and pundits plead for a “post-racial” society, we need to remember the enduring legacy of racial thinking and practice, especially within the concrete context of the urban built environment. Today’s cities were built upon yesterday’s assumptions and though it sometimes seems like we are moving towards a more just and equal future, racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of our cities.

I wrote The Folklore of the Freeway to help us see the American city—and its history—from the bottom up, from the very communities that bore the burnt of urban highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s. I believe we need to understand what freeways did to people within these communities, through their unique perspectives. This form of organic wisdom is absent from the dominant discourse of planning and public policy. I see the blunt expressions of racial pride and solidarity that have amassed in diverse communities around the invasive presence of the freeway as responses in kind to the racial assumptions that shaped highway policy and practice throughout the interstate era. As a professor of Chicano studies, I confess that I sometimes get frustrated with the scholarly practice of singling out this group’s history from that group’s, or the staunch insistence upon the unique singularity of one group’s history and identity. Several years ago, the great George Lipsitz taught me that race can only be understood relationally and that in the context of American history, it’s impossible to isolate the experiences of a particular social group from those of other social groups. Thus the history of interstate highway construction provided the perfect opportunity to escape the familiar conundrum of ethnic studies scholarship. By showing how the experience of urban highway construction in postwar America cut across the lines of race, class, gender and ethnicity, The Folklore of the Freeway, I hope, provides a model for future scholarship in ethnic studies, one that recognizes the centrality of racial identity and ideology as an active force in American history, while at the same time synthesizing the disparate experiences of diverse social groups and recognizing their fundamentally intertwined histories.

Note to reader: of course not every instance of the freeway and its folklore is accounted for. Readers might find their neighborhoods or their cities missing from the analysis; others might recognize overlooked aspects of freeway folklore from their particular communities. In a study of this scale and scope, I couldn’t capture everything, so there are some necessary omissions. But my hope is that this book can provide an entry point for comprehending the hidden linkages between structure and culture, between the concrete fact of the urban built environment and its interpretation through the subjective prisms of identity, language, and place.


Eric Avila is professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA. He is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.

"Eric Avila’s in-depth research and his sheer passionate commitment to the subject should make this one of the rare books that succeeds in replacing a widely-accepted narrative."
Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

"A must-read cultural history of the ‘invisible freeway revolts’ through which city people of color have demanded social justice in the midst of aggressive urban reforms. Avila provides timely lessons for scholars and urban planners, pointing us to pay closer attention to the aesthetic and expressive forms of these protests, so necessary to achieve spatial justice in American cities."
Arlene Davila, New York University