Have the conservative Christians on the Texas Board of Education got you down? Has the board's partisan bid to impact national social science curricula made your blood boil? The antidote might just be Micaela Campos--a Chicana baby dyke with a long memory and a thirst for vengeance.
Micaela is the heroine of Emma Pérez's latest book, Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory. Set in 1836, the novel follows Micaela's quest for justice in the violent aftermath of the Texas Revolution. Passing as a boy on the road, Micaela meets a variety of memorable characters--including Clara, a beautiful and sophisticated multiracial woman who just might want to settle down with the right butch.
Forgetting the Alamo is a finalist for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award in the category of lesbian fiction. In preparation for the awards ceremony next month, I spoke with Dr. Pérez--novelist, historian, and queer theorist--about telling the stories of people who have been left out of the history textbooks.
Paige: You are both a historian and a novelist. I was wondering if the story of Micaela and her family was inspired or influenced by any particular historical narratives of Tejana life during the Texas Revolution?
Emma: First, the archives don't really reflect what I was seeking: love letters between Tejanas in the early 19th century. I did look in various archives in Texas, the Nettie Lee Benson and the Barker at UT Austin as well as the Bancroft at UC Berkeley. Of course, I was also conducting research for my history book but in the back of my mind, I was also searching for Mexicana/Tejana/lesbian histories.
I grew frustrated and decided, I'll write a novel that reflects the lives of Tejanas who are for the most part omitted or erased from "Texas" history.
My interest in the early 19th Century battles is founded in having grown up in Texas in the early 1960s at a time when racism, sexism and homophobia were not even recognized as "real" in the region, that is, not by those with institutional power. At grade school, I remember being asked by my 4th grade teacher how I felt about the Battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto and if I was glad that Anglo Texas had eventually beat the Mexicans, making Mexican Texas a Republic. I was in the 4th grade. My response: "I don't know. I don't have all the facts." I still remember that day well and I suspect that may have had something to do with becoming an historian and with wanting to write this novel from the perspective of a Chicana Tejana lesbian.
The stories in the novel also emerge from the stories I used to hear growing up in Texas from my abuelas and abuelos, tias, tios, cousins, etc. In other words, oral tradition is a big part of my culture and community, hence, I used what I heard but fictionalized it, of course.
Paige: Micaela's narrative voice is so distinct and compelling--and butch! Can you talk a little bit about how you first began to hear her voice and conceive this narrator?
Emma: Oh, what damn good question, Paige. Micaela's voice took years and years. Yep. It did. I wrote the novel first in an epistolary form; remember, I was interested in discovering love letters between a Tejana baby butch and a beautiful "señorita." I place that in quotations to mark the manner in which U.S. history usually wrote about Mexican women in incredibly objectifying ways. I wanted to undermine those historical narratives, the ones that could not see Mexican Tejanas as women desiring other women.
At first I didn't hear Micaela's voice. I heard other voices. I think Miss Elsie came to me right away and she came clearly and with purpose. So did Ursula, Micaela's mother as did Agustín, her father. Then, there was Jedidiah Jones, all happy, dapper and arrogant as a Mexican/Anglo. But, I was still having trouble locating Micaela's way of expressing herself without sounding too cliché.
After the epistolary draft, I wrote the novel again in the 3rd person. I threw away those 200 pages as well. Then, after a really good writing workshop and reading Billy Bathgate, I found her voice. The first paragraph of the novel came to me and I said to myself, finally, you're here Micaela. Thanks to the diosas. She was always a part of me but finding her speech, that was the hard part. I do love her though because she is philosophical about her life, her journey, despite being so naive about love. And initially, she is a "baby" butch. She takes her time realizing that she has to mature enough to be up to the kind of butch that Clara needs and wants. And that she so wants to be for Clara.
Paige: This novel explores so many different conceptions of family. As a femme lesbian mama, I felt a satisfying identification with Micaela and Clara's desire to make a family together, but at times my identification felt like a guilty pleasure. I kept worrying that I was projecting some anachronistic form of desire into the past.
Emma: I love your anachronistic desire because that is precisely what I hoped would resonate for queers, lesbians, and transgendered bois too who identify with Micaela/Lorenzo.
And yeah I guess having my own family had a lot to do with that rewrite too. Not until after my daughter was born--she's 3 1/2 now--was I able to write about that the way I did.
Plus, all we can do is understand the past through our present anyway. But I understand your concern because we don't want to "impose" our present on the past. Hard not to, though. I mean, it's precisely because of who I am today that I was able to write this story the way I have.
And I happen to love femme lesbian mamas.
And butch daddy-mamas--one of the many ways my baby girl refers to me: Daddy-Mama.
Paige: Forgetting the Alamo is part of the picaresque tradition--Micaela references Don Quixote several times. But the story that kept coming to mind for me was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In some ways, your novel kind of picks up where Twain left off; you explore some of the disastrous consequences that happened when enterprising white boys "light out for the territory," to quote Twain's famous line. What's your relationship to Twain?
Emma: Thing is, Twain bores me. Yep. I said it. Read Tom Sawyer as a kid and all that het boy drama did not engage me. I was a BIG Louisa May Alcott fan, however. Read everything by her that I could find in my small town library, and have read Little Women many, many times. Jo, of course. It was all about Jo, who really married a woman in my mind.
Paige: Finally, I have to ask about the villain named Rove. Did you intend for readers to experience the novel in part as an allegory for present-day politics?
Emma: YES!!!!!!!! You got that right, girlfriend! Walker too. I mean, George W? The W stands for Walker. And Rove gets away. Free to roam. Sound familiar? Not to mention the immigration, anti-Mexican, close-the-border arguments being made by the far-right and not-so-far-right. Bush was in office committing all his "crimes" while I was writing and rewriting this novel. Rove was his right hand man, as you know. Bush even used the "line in the sand" metaphor from the Battle of the Alamo to get us into war, as I recall.
And as an historian, I have to say that I believe we're always immersed history's implications. All of our relationships, our way of life, regional differences/likenesses--all are what they are because of the histories we have inherited. So, I had to write Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory. To honor the voices of those who have been ignored, erased, neglected.
h/t to Mr. Adam Miller for helping me prep for this interview and talking me down from a TBOE-induced panic.