I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Select Equity Group Series on Playwriting
Like most Chicanas, I first met Cherríe Moraga through her published words. For me, this encounter happened through her now mixed-genre classic text, Loving in the War Years. I had been reading as much Chicana/o literature as I could devour my post-undergraduate summer of 1995—I was raised and schooled in Tejas. Still, my generation was deprived of exposure to these necessary works during my formative educational years. But some encounters are worth the wait. To say that reading Moraga’s work at the age of 22 (the summer I came out) cured some wounds, made me feel less crazy, and saved my life might seem like hyperbole to others with a plethora of art and literature speaking to their specific experiences. But in short, my little dyke heart fell in love.
Moraga is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Many times, she has been called the first “out” Chicana lesbian published or produced in theater. In all of her works, there is an utter commitment to voicing the feminist, queer, indigenous, and radical politics that counter the ongoing practices of colonialism. After having produced, directed, performed, and studied under Moraga and knowing her now as mentor and collaborator, I witness her daily practice of living by the same politics she espouses. This, I believe, is what makes her voice original, honest, and authentic. She continues to save my life, as well as the lives of those whose hearts and minds are enlightened by the fierce wisdom and poetic vision of her words.
Adelina Anthony How and when did you stumble upon playwriting?
Cherríe Moraga I stumbled upon playwriting after I finished Loving in the War Years, a collection of essays and poems—primarily autobiographical work—in 1983. When I got done writing it, there was this sense that I had been relieved of myself. And then all of a sudden this character, this person, started speaking. She turned out to be the “Corky” character in Giving Up the Ghost. It was first-person, but I knew it wasn’t me. She emerged effortlessly, and it was my discovery of character. She clearly had a body and spoke out loud, so I always knew it wasn’t fiction.
AA So you knew you wanted to see her onstage?
CM It wasn’t even that logical. All I can say is that an embodied character came to me. That’s how all of Giving Up the Ghost materialized. I used the play as an application for this six-month Latino playwrights lab, where we met with María Irene Fornés three times a week. And she loved it, she just loved it. I was so shocked.
AA (laughter) Why were you shocked?
CM I felt like I didn’t know anything about writing plays. What impressed me about Fornés was that she was not looking for a play; she was looking for a writer. So she found the material, the character, even the importance of the work worthy in that sense. I knew that’s what she was responding to because I never really started writing plays until I was in her lab. You couldn’t have entered playwriting with a better mentor; she absolutely let you find the work organically. You didn’t come in with plotlines. If you came in with plotlines she would throw you out of class. If it hadn’t been for her—maybe I would have eventually gone into playwriting, but it would have been a more circuitous route getting there.
AA It’s hard to imagine you not immersed in teatro, especially because you have this immense body of work. What had kept you away from theater?
CM Well, I was always attracted to it. In college, I signed up for theater games a few times. But I never got further than walking in, seeing the people, and walking right out. Most of these people had been in high-school theater. They were all white and very expressive. (laughter) I mean, they were free. They were freely expressive, and I knew I wasn’t free. I certainly wasn’t free in my body. They were making noises and physical movements—
AA And doing those actor exercises.
CM It was about privilege. They had the privilege to feel that they had the right to express themselves culturally in their bodies. So I walked out. But what I did do (laughter), which is typical, I removed my body from the situation and I took this class called “Theater of the Absurd.” Ionesco, Beckett, the Existentialists … . This, intellectually, excited me—that one could stage ideas. The philosophy of existentialism in relation to the theater of the absurd—that was fascinating to me.
AA I came to your work as a Chicana actor first. It appealed to me because this Chicana play had all the right elements, the chicanismos, la cultura. I never thought of it as existential because you rooted it in these cuerpos, these bodies. This still intrigues me, right up to our last collaboration co-directing The Hungry Woman, the Mexican Medea. I’m interested in knowing, did you ever explore taking your playwright’s body into the position of actor? Did you ever go back into an acting class?
CM Yes. When I came back to the Bay Area in 1986, I realized that I needed to learn more about theater, so I took this class called Script Analysis for Actors. I began to understand what the actor requires of the playwright, and whether the scenes I had written could be held up by bodies. Very soon after that I actually took an acting class, because I felt like I couldn’t ask an actor to do something that I had never tried myself. I had to know the risk involved. And for me, the risk seemed really high.
AA It is. I often wondered, Does she know what she’s asking an actor to do? You require such nakedness on the stage.
CM I always write for a body. I mean, if my mouth can’t do it, it will not be written. You were saying it felt like there was a lot of risk involved—I’m the one at risk because it hasn’t been written yet. The first level of risk is very private; most of the time I feel I’m writing against a silence, against a taboo, against what has not been written; and if it has been written, there’s no reason for me to write it. And then I actually say it and get up and walk around and do it.
AA So you are using your body.
CM I’m just not brave enough to do it onstage.
AA How have you managed to balance the risk-taking with what I would assume is a certain backlash or misunderstanding about your feminism or the indigenous perspective in your work?
CM Or a certain understanding. (laughter) I conceptualize myself as a Chicana writer. When I began to write for the theater, I knew that I needed to be grounded in a community in order to be able to cultivate the writings that were inside of me. It’s part of having a body. When you and I directed The Hungry Woman together, there was no greater feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment than to witness another Chicana lesbian in the audience seeing herself, her desire, her heartbreak, her ansias, her dreams reflected. That is the ultimate high. It says that we’re not crazy, and we’re not alone. Everything I write, even essays, really has an oral quality. I am a body articulating these thoughts, which implies that there is another body on the other end that hears them out loud—if only in her head. She is my auditor-witness.
I know that often my unwillingness to culturally translate my subjects’ experience to the mainstream, and really believing in the integrity and universality of the untranslated experience, can make my work fall on deaf ears. So an enormous amount of rejection happens. Those rejections can come from a lot of places, even among the Chicano Arts communities. I think that my depictions of women are very dangerous, and not just those of lesbian women. I’m looking at both women and men, and I’m questioning prescribed notions of desire, which is dangerous to everybody—heterosexual women, gay men, all of us.
AA But it’s too simple to say that you’re just exploring desire between bodies. Your female characters have always desired not only each other, but also the idea of nation and land. And yet desire at times is selfish. A huge portion of your work deals with the concept of sacrifice and offerings.
CM Well, you’re right that when I talk about desire, I’m not just talking about sex. The desire is always for freedom. The dramatic conflict usually revolves around a character trying to free him- or herself up, so it’s a little contradictory, because it’s our desires that also imprison us, so there’s the play. (laughter)
AA The conflict of it all.
CM But sacrifice comes in when you’re talking about freedom. Adrienne Rich has that great line, “Every woman’s death diminishes me.” It’s like, I can’t be free if my people aren’t free. This is the axiom of freedom fighters, and what is a freedom fighter? They are fighting not just for their individual freedom, but for a collective freedom. It’s the opposite of individualism; there is always this reciprocity, a collective relationship to people and our environment. So the plays show characters in pursuit of this kind of freedom.
As a lesbian, I realized when I was young that if I was going to be free to act on my desire, it meant that I would have to be free enough to come out into the world about it. I feel blessed in the sense that early on, I was given this very real conflict. I had to ask myself, Do you want to be free? Okay, then, this is your road, and if you free that up in yourself, then you can get what you want, which is a woman to love you, and vice versa. So it was a very literal kind of question at age 19, which lays the groundwork for all future acts of freedom-making. You and I, when we talk about nation, we’re talking about a pueblo, a people who have forgotten who they are, so if you want your people to be free, if you want Chicanos to be free, then they have to remember who they are, that they have a pre-conquest state. They have to remember that second-class citizenship, and the lie of immigration illegality, are obstacles to their freedom.
I may write work with those kinds of thematics, but then what does the individual do to achieve that kind of nation? You have to sacrifice, and what gets sacrificed is the ego. You have to let go of a certain level of pride and competitiveness to achieve something grander, which for you or me or any of us may mean less economic success, and just that we have to sit down with people we may not like and make so-called revolution.
AA Talking about the Chicano and our position here in the US, there’s a split now within the Chicano community: there’s the community that is very rooted in indigeneity, then there’s the more acculturated Chicano middle class. Your insistence on our cultural integrity lends a certain tenacity to your work. In light of the middle-class aspirations that are so seductive for us and that allow cultural amnesia to set in, it seems that this idea of remembering as an act of resistance, or as you coined the phrase in your essay, “the (w)rite to remember,” directly confronts the willingness of some in our community to forget. I say this because I see a lot of Chicano plays and performance art that employ indigenous symbols but lack deeper meaning. We’ve allowed ourselves as comunidad to use them without meaning.
CM Appropriate them.
AA We self-appropriate. Of all your plays I feel The Hungry Woman is where your lifetime of work coalesces. What were those awakenings that happened for you as a writer, where you realized that it wasn’t just about taking metaphors or symbols from indigeneity, but making them something of value, something for us to live by?
CM That’s a big question.
AA I’m only going to ask you big questions.
CM There’s a gross misinterpretation now among Chicanos of what it means to be part of a pan-indigenous movement. As a community in the ’60s and ’70s we saw ourselves as indigenous to the Americas, and got a certain sort of personal and collective pride out of that perspective. We were here before the gringo, and our second-class status was not a natural fact. But I think for me, and for many of us coming of age in the ’70s, what I had imagined would become a progressively free country has become the opposite. We have a media that supports little critical thinking, and we have an educational system that supports the corporate-funded viewpoints of the media, to a level I could never have dreamed of. I came of age as a writer within the context of the political movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In that context, I understood that art was about progressive change. So even if today there’s no visible movement on the street, that’s still my occupation as a writer.
So my job became to look at the philosophies and the worldviews that I thought allowed for a viable future. Having children really radicalized me in that sense, where you have to ask yourself, what are you teaching them? You say to them, go out into the world armed with these thoughts and these values. But every time I looked to the US for something to teach my children, I came up with nothing, except how to profit. The values that have been sustainable for me have come from my Mexicanism, and as I began to investigate that more and more, I found that the values I really upheld were actually indigenous to the Americas. And it’s not that they all came out of my mother’s mouth or my grandmother’s mouth, but sometimes they came out of just plain action, what I had observed on a daily basis.
For example, what I learned regarding a child’s place in relation to an elder, which in my experience very much countered the sort of youth culture, competitiveness, and individualism of US society. How one deals with one’s elders is one example of familia, and that family wasn’t necessarily mom, dad, and the kids, the nuclear family, but there was a sense of intergenerational reciprocity. And a kind of accountability too, to this community of people. In that sense it required courage to be who you were. In the larger view, I feel like my increasing commitment to looking at indigenous American values, economic structures, and even the relationship of how one makes art in that context is rooted in the fact that the purpose of stories, from an indigenous perspective, is to create metaphors that provide a structure you can live by. That’s what myths were originally about.
AA So story is medicine.
CM Yes. And my job as a writer, then, is to cure. I’ve talked about that for years, and I can be misguided and I can be wrong, but the impetus or the energy behind my work is servirle de algo. It’s worth something: you put it out there because it will do something, just a little something, that might slightly alter this nation’s death wish. So indigeneity, as limited and faulty as my process is in this regard, is on one level an oppositional position to the nation state of the United States, and on the other level, a reclamation of what our people traditionally subscribe to and live by, in terms of values. And when you’re talking about that, it’s not nostalgic or retroactive, but instead it’s trying to see what shapes and forms from the past work for a future strategy of survival and flourishing. So that’s all in the work. Even now, as I’m working on a new play, The Mathematics of Love, I had thought I was done with Malinche [the Aztec woman who served as the translator, advisor, and slave-mistress to Hernán Cortez in the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519], but Malinche has come back up again, and it’s because there’s some kind of historical reckoning still going on. I don’t know how to write a contemporary play without this ancestral reckoning.
AA I’m glad you brought up The Mathematics of Love, which is based on your mother in the last years of her life, because the theme of motherhood is so prevalent in all of your writings. You discuss motherhood with such raw honesty from both the position of lesbian daughter and butch mother. Is this the story you’ve been writing all your life?
CM Yes. The play reflects the classic paradigm of the brown woman and the white man, like Malinche and Cortez, like my parents. One of the first published poems I wrote begins with the line, “I’m a white girl gone brown, to the blood color of my mother, speaking for her.” So in many ways this play is a reiteration of that line in a dramatic and extended narrative. I think as lesbians, we have to do a more immediate reckoning in terms of our relationships with our mothers. For better or for worse, you’re there on a visceral level, re-encountering your questions of daughterhood and how one loves a female. This is one of the most taboo things about being a lesbian and one that I explore in a memoir I just completed after my mother’s death in 2005 And the Tribe Goes With Her. That when you’re a grown-up woman and you make love to a grown-up woman, it gives you enormous insight into the grown-up women of your childhood, what they needed, and what they got or didn’t get, their fulfillment or lack thereof. And the very emotionally intimate relationship I had with my mother really impacted how I loved adult women as an adult lesbian.
AA And how you wrote about them.
CM Yes. So that mother stuff has been there all the time, and it’s always merged into the larger question of this image of the intractable woman of color. That’s what The Hungry Woman is about, that image—and she doesn’t have to be a Mexican or a native woman; I see the same thing with African-American women. When she becomes too indigenous, then she becomes dangerous in a society that’s asking her to forget. So the figure of the mother—and of course feminists have written about this for years—goes back to this primordial mother, which is pre-patriarchy. A figure like the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who has the power to give birth and take life away. That side of the woman that has rage and cannot be controlled by the culture of patriarchy is infinitely fascinating, and more than that, she poses a danger to the prisons of our self-denial and our cultural amnesia and takes us back to the questions of freedom. She becomes a freedom fighter. These intractable women I’ve known in my life aren’t necessarily healthy, because society won’t allow that. But they are mother figures who are fierce and dangerous and messed up. At the same time there is a kind of heroism there, and that’s why even the Greek Medea attracted me so much. It still compels me.
AA How is your current writing of the mother and your insistence on family impacting your work?
CM I’m seeing how one writes about family as more ancestral now. I’d thought it was enough to figure out the one you’re living with—
AA The making familia from scratch? (laughter)
CM Yeah. Like I thought it was enough to simply reckon with your blood family as a queer, and then I asked what it meant to form queer familia, which was based on the values that came out of our blood familia. And then I thought about questions of this larger familia, like tribe or nation. What happens is that in looking at our identity as indigenous people, it really sends us backwards in the best sense of that word. It’s like I’m having to look at history to come to terms with a future. Some of this for me came with turning 50, when I realized, as Linda Hogan writes, I am standing “on the other side of half a century.” That’s a damn long time. (laughter)
AA You’ve been around.
CM You start to see your own life as this little drop in a grand sea of time. Some of the questions become much larger, about generational concerns and the understanding or the belief—and I think I learned this from my sisters who practice in the Yoruba tradition—that your work here is not just to heal the people who come after you, but to heal your ancestors.
AA That’s a lot of work. (laughter)
CM Imagine how we have to reconstruct our thinking to allow for this viewpoint: the physics or the metaphysics of us being here on this planet now, while the past is simultaneously occurring. Our mundane sense of space and time is so limited. We have no idea really where future and past reside within the cosmos. But that line that we can heal our ancestors on the other side by the work we do here in this life made so much sense to me as an artist. What else are you doing in the act of making art but trying to heal a past? And when you think about us as survivors of a conquest, as survivors of colonialism, my god, what a task. It’s what the best native writers are doing in this country, trying to heal that legacy. As Chicanos or as Latino indigenous people, our work has a ways to go in really letting that consciousness affect how we write.
I began writing The Mathematics of Love about this vieja, this old lady character, very much based on my mother and father’s relationship. But all of a sudden this Malinche character came in through a collaboration I worked on with Ricardo Bracho, and Malinche wanted to stay. I thought, Well, of course she wants to stay, because she’s an Indian woman in concert with a white man, which is my mother’s history as well. I’m still in the midst of writing it, but I know that this staged meeting between the mother figure, “Peaches,” and Malinche has to do with historical memory. Peaches is this very kind of contempo, near-90-year-old Mexican American full of contradictions. She can’t really be reconciled unless Malinche’s reconciled, and they have to reckon with each other in the same play. The play is the site of reckoning.
AA Well, Malinche is the daughter that was betrayed.
CM Absolutely. And she was sold into slavery by her mother—that’s her history, or at least one version of the story, which is the version I’m very interested in.
AA Because it rings true, for so many of us. (laughter)
CM Yes, yes.
AA So let’s go back to our collaboration, The Hungry Woman. I’m curious how you felt in the role of co-director with me. Most people saw this as a new role for you, but seeing how you work with students, for my part, it was clear that you’ve been directing a long time.
CM I love directing. And I think you’re right, I’ve been directing for years, and I’ve always enjoyed it. I began to watch directors, and all kinds of directors, not just directing my own work, but seeing them directing other people’s work. For me, as a writer—a person who uses words to create image—the harder part is to allow the visuals to happen wordlessly on stage. María Irene Fornés was a master at this. I remember once when she was directing “Manuel” in Shadow of a Man, she wanted to visually represent his wife. It was chilling.
AA She was a painter.
CM Yes. I realized you can make movements be paintings. Other times, it just seems that so much of directing is pragmatic, like being a good traffic cop, simply knowing how to move bodies around the stage, which I really admire. I like problem-solving that way, when you start to see scenes as a series of moving pictures.
What I observed in you, Adelina, as a director, and learned an enormous amount from, are the kinds of techniques and languages you use to get an actor to emotionally arrive at a place they need to for a particular scene. My tendency as a playwright is to go directly into the scene’s intention. In rehearsals, especially when we were unable to get the actor to really “feel” the scene’s intention, I saw you abandon the text of a scene altogether and guide your actors through improvisation (sometimes nonverbally) to locate that emotion in themselves. I remember especially when auditioning VIVIS for the role of Medea, you had her first speak very intimately about her own son. She really opened up in a way we hadn’t seen before. Then you had her improv murdering that same son. It was amazing. Through that improvisation, we saw that VIVIS held within her the capacity to be a fearsome and tragic Medea. But in order to do that, you had to have the intelligence as a director to know what kinds of exercises or improvs might evoke in the actor the emotions you seek. I think that is rare. My experience is that a lot of directors may not have a complex enough emotional life themselves to find the heart of a scene in this way. In order to give that kind of direction, you have to have an array of emotions at your fingertips from which to draw upon and to understand how to manage those emotions theatrically. These insights come, no doubt, from your work as an actor, Adelina. My work is so highly charged that at times it is difficult to get the actors to go to those repressed places in themselves. Working with you, as a director, I really saw and admired your ability to get them there. Directing is fascinating to me because there’s so much to learn.
AA I appreciate your saying that I direct in a manner that’s rare, because my experience has been that emotion is something that directors in training and academia do not contend with—it scares them. They feel that you can traumatize an actor, but in fact, Chicanos are already traumatized bodies. (laughter) I can’t traumatize this actor any more than real life already has. I have found that those directors who can get you there as an actor are not separating emotional nuances from the intellectual ones, or the body itself. So back to the Chicano bodies: you’ve been working with all kinds of students for so many years. What does the teaching do for you in your creative process?
CM Teaching gives me hope. It’s a privilege to be able to teach people in any creative process, because you get the best part of a person. It’s the word creation that’s really important. I have not always had it as comfortable as this as a teacher. Comfortable, meaning that I actually have had a semi-permanent position at Stanford for the last nine years. Because of the way my artist-in-residence position has been structured and the kind of courses that I teach, I get a majority of students of color and lots of queer students. So somehow I’ve managed to be at a ruling-class institution without having to deal that much with the ruling class. Although everybody can have a place in my classroom if they’re willing to go the road.
AA Having been a grad student in your creative writing classes, I’d say that that “road” has everything to do with the autobiography.
CM Autobiography is always the grounding point or the point of departure in the writing process. I believe the best fiction comes through the truth of autobiography. There is no question in my mind that Toni Morrison personally drew from her own emotional experience of being the “free slave” in the 20th century in order to write the 19th-century slave narrative of Beloved. We are that grand as artists. I always teach through autobiography first, whether the genre of the course is playwriting, fiction, poetry, whatever. If we cultivate a relationship with autobiography, there is nothing to be afraid of in our writing and we can allow for whole stories that we’ve never experienced to enter our psyches, without censor, in the same way we are gifted in our dreams. Because we’ve opened ourselves up enough to receive those collectively unconscious messages.
AA After 25 years of teaching, you have certain methodologies that you’ve either discovered or borrowed, and incorporated along the way. Do you feel that you’re at a place as both creator and mentor where you have these set tools, or are you still inventing new ones? How do you bring them into your own work?
CM Well, I don’t know if it’s invention as much as honing skills and tools that work. I really feel that there’s so much more that I know now, but it’s also more difficult because my criteria have gone up about what is good work. What has happened for me is a greater consciousness about what is particular about my work, not just in terms of the content, but in my approach to writing and my voice. Maybe this is just the experience of being a woman of color writer or a lesbian writer, but I don’t feel that I have ever lost that creeping sense of self-doubt. I always struggle with the feeling that I do not have the right to do this, that I am not a club member or not entitled. Still, I feel ever-committed to recognizing and trying to get better at what I do that’s original, because doing that better as opposed to trying to get slicker or more conventionally acceptable is working toward a kind of critical edge in my work that’s not for the edge’s sake, but is simply where the best work resides.
Adelina Anthony, a Chicana lesbian, is a multigenre artist whose interests address queerness, feminism, and indigenous spirituality; immigration, cultural memory, and community empowerment through progressive education and transgressée art. In 2007 she will perform Bruising for Besos, a solo play developed in a playwriting course with Cherríe Moraga.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee