Raquel Gutiérrez is an arts critic/writer, poet, and educator living in Tucson, Arizona. Gutiérrez is a 2021 recipient of the Rabkin Prize in Arts Journalism, as well as a 2017 recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Her/Their writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Art in America, NPR Music, Places Journal, and The Georgia Review. Gutiérrez teaches in the Oregon State University-Cascades Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program.
Raquel Gutiérrez and Chloe Alberta, a Zell Fellow in fiction at the University of Michigan, met to discuss Gutiérrez’s first book of prose, Brown Neon, an ekphrastic memoir that considers what it means to be a Latinx artist during the Trump era. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Chloe Alberta (CA): Brown Neon is your first book. Congratulations!
Raquel Gutiérrez (RG): Thank you.
CA: Some of these essays had been previously published as standalone works. When and how did you know they needed or wanted to become parts of a bigger project? How did this creation of a larger whole change how you understood the individual essays?
RG: The thing about certain publications, most publications, is that you are in some way working with an editor with a particular set of criteria for the publication itself. For my experience with a website like, say, Open Space, which is the arts blog for the Museum of Modern Art, there were things that wouldn’t make it into that version of the essay for that readership. And so, I think when you have a particular audience, or the editors are in some way beholden to their audience, you publish a version of an essay that is speaking to that audience. So, for the book itself, I was able to elaborate, go deeper in certain aspects of my vantage points. Whether it was a queer one, a Latinx one, or all the vantage points just kind of collapsing into one. Or making more lyrical flourishes, other lyrical experimentation. That makes it back into the book. So, the book itself, I think, the connective tissue is around pacing, the way that those essays feel like the waiting stations, the depots in between points of travel. Anchor points, map points, points of rest and respite. A point where you can catch your breath. And so, I knew that in the way that an editor chips away at the things—like, no, we don’t want this, no, we don’t want that, no, we don’t need this—I sort of bring it back into the space of the essay for the book itself.
CA: Among many other things, this book is a travel memoir. We don’t just see many different places in the southwest in these essays; we actually get in the car and go there with you. Did thinking about this movement in the content of the essays affect how you thought about the movement or flow of the book as a whole?
RG: It’s funny. When I see “travel memoir,” I’m like, Gosh! I guess so. Because you think of travel writing as white people telling other white people, “Hey, you should really do this part of India, the yoga is lit,” or whatever. So, when I see travel in relation to my own writing it’s a little jarring. But I guess it is writing about traveling, and maybe I don’t read enough, or maybe there isn’t enough writing from writers of color—Black, indigenous, people of color, narrating modes of mobility. What does it mean to move? And the car thing: I think I was sleepwalking through structuring the book in the sense of: How am I gonna do this? I guess I can just do it the way that I would a road trip. What am I seeing, how am I experiencing these really unpredictable scenarios? And needing to find ways to communicate that, although I’m traveling through particular parts of the Southwest, maybe it’s not smart that I do—but I’m doing it anyway. So, in terms of movement or flow of the book as a whole—or the way that the book is arranged—you can distill it down to the way we experience that moving panorama outside of your driver side window, or passenger side window. And it’s true, because on many of my travels I’ve always taken photos, and the way the light changes on any given horizon—whether you’re looking northward or westward or southward and so on—those moments are these flashes of clarity, or flashes of beauty, or flashes of understanding—that there’s so much more beyond whatever problem I’m dealing with that day, or whatever heartbreak I’m dealing with in that moment, wanting to find ways to convey that on the page. So, yeah—I think that was definitely an intended desire for what I wanted the book to do for the reader.
CA: In “A Butch in the Desert,” we see you finding out that Jeanne Córdova and David Bowie died on the same day. You talk a bit about the impact of these losses on larger communities, as well as the minutiae of your own grief. Balancing the big and the small, celebrity and friend, personal and societal is something this book does really effectively. How do you think about that balance as you’re composing an essay?
RG: Well, when I write an essay it feels like: Oh, man, I’m just sort of in my own head, in my heart. I’m in my sort of emotional affective state. And that’s fine and all, in the sense that you home in on the personal. But the personal is always in some ways imbricated by the societal context at large, so I can hone in on my stuff, then I’ve got to pan out and see how my stuff is informed by what’s happening in the larger cultural societal moment. Is what I’m experiencing some sort of symptom of the zeitgeist? Is what I’m experiencing some ailment of the zeitgeist? Or, if I’m recollecting a particular memory, is my particular memory somehow impacted by having grown up in the Reagan era? I think it’s necessary to get into your experiential memory—those historical, personal granules—but then to think about how those granules are situated in the larger sandbox of life. In the end, it was very curious that you have these two powerful figures, especially powerful figures at a very localized level—and not to say that Jeanne Córdova was only local to Los Angeles, because anyone who has studied or is aware of twentieth century lesbian history is conscious and aware and studied on Jeanne Córdova’s contributions. But that’s not a lot of people, right? And Jeanne in some ways predates David Bowie, and David Bowie’s generational influences. But for me it was really overwhelming to experience those losses, and just feeling like—Oh my God, my childhood, my adolescence, my young adulthood. All of this is coming into some sort of stark relief, the very real fact that death changes us all.
CA: The essay “Stuck in the Adobe” (one of my favorites!) is a really physical essay. There’s mud, bricks, blood, hands, and feet interacting with various bodily and earthly materials. Woven in with the story of you making adobe bricks with the artist rafa esparza is a loss of love—the end of a relationship. You write: “It was finally my turn to help him make bricks, a practice that had always scared me off with its demand of intense physical exertion. But I was there, ready to sweat and ache, to find a way to stave off the spasms of want that haunted all of my days that year.” The physicality of this work seems to act as a kind of healing here. But writing about loss is a less physical act, it’s a lot of staring at a screen. It’s cerebral. I’m curious about your thoughts on writing as an act of healing, and if it feels different to you than some of these more embodied expressions of grief we see throughout the book.
RG: Well, the thing about writing is that you’re sort of writing, rewriting, revising aspects of whatever traumas—the range and gradations of traumas—that one experiences and is trying to push through, versus avoid, or jump around, try to skip over. And so, writing in some ways is very much going through it and sort of picking it up, and sort of seeing from different angles. My grief, my loss, my sadness, my trauma. If you look at it this way, the light hits it in such a way. Or if you look at it this way, the light hits in that way. Or the prismatic ways in which you’re able to look at it when you’re writing through it, writing about it, writing with it. So, there’s many approaches to pain. I guess depending on what preposition you use, right? Are you in it? Are you beside it? Are you with it? I think the prepositional dynamic is an interesting mode of entry into your pain because it just makes you slow down with it. You’re sitting in the room with it, you’re staring at it on the screen, and all of the ways in which it ignites a range of responses to it. It could be, you know, for all you Taylor Swift fans, it could be cringey, or it could be just acknowledging, Oh, okay, well, that was a mistake I made, and I really made that passionately, and I don’t think I could do that again. And now I know why. The pain is its own set of revelations. You’re just like, Oh, so that’s what’s in Pandora’s box. Got it. Never doing that again, or I’ll do that differently next time. Writing as an act of healing? I definitely feel a lot better. I feel a lot different. But also, that’s time, too; the time and distance allows for that. But I think we’re always in these moments, where somehow, something triggers our ability to go towards it, find proximity, and that pain feels fresh and new. Or we have the opposite response to it. Does writing it feel different than some of the more embodied expressions of grief? For sure, yeah. We write to offer our cautionary tales right to others, or to offer our miseries as modes of identification and solidarity.
CA: Along similar lines of writing and physicality, there’s a lot of activism in these pages. In “Do Migrants Dream of Blue Barrels?” you write about volunteering with Humane Borders, driving around the desert near the Mexican border replenishing water at the water stations the organization maintains. What are your thoughts on writing as activism? What kinds of good can and can’t writing do, how does it differ from putting your actual body on the line for a cause? Do you think writers and artists have a responsibility to think about this potential for influence and activism?
RG: Well, first, right off the bat, writing isn’t activism. Activism is activism. Writing about activism is just narrating the story, the missions behind these projects. So, I don’t consider that essay an activist project. I think of it as illustrating some of the work that happens in the region that I live in and my encounters with these activist projects in different ways. And it’s just a gesture towards it. If I really wrote about what I knew, I would put a lot of people at risk. So, this is more just like: This is a town. And this town is known for its history of hosting one of the biggest communes outside of places like Northern California. This is a town where the residents are hassled by the Border Patrol for coming in and out just because they happen to live eleven miles north of the border. These are people who don’t have fences in their backyards and leave coolers out in the backyard with sandwiches and water for people who happen to need them. And Tucson’s a big city—this is where those activists who get arrested and prosecuted have to sit in trial, at this courthouse in downtown Tucson. So, in some ways, it’s more just trying to chronicle these things as they come and they go. Tucson’s a really interesting place, in the sense of its wild, wild westness. It’s one of the oldest settlements in the Western Hemisphere. I mean, this week we had a professor get shot and killed on campus at the University of Tucson. In a building that I’ve taught next to, a building that my partner currently teaches catty corner to. It’s just like, My God, you know? And it’s a hydrology professor, right? Hydrology—it’s water, water usage, and the way water also figures politically in Tucson. These are points of entry, of connection, of conflict, and I think writing about it doesn’t necessarily make it an activist project. That’s something I get from the writer, Sarah Schulman, who has written about the history of ACT UP, and the history of organizing around AIDS and displacement in New York over the course of the last thirty years. This is writing. My writing isn’t activism. Activism is activism. So that’s the wellspring of clarity, I guess, that I’m trying to sip from in responding to this question. But to talk about that other question—do you think other writers and artists have a responsibility to think about this potential for influence and activism? I think smart artists and writers will do it. In the sense that they are interested less in their CVs and exhibition records, and more about liberation and a desire for equity. So, I don’t know about responsibility. But if they’re smart, if they have clear political commitments and values, I think these are missions that we’re all down to shoulder.
CA: So many of these essays contain unanswered questions. Like literal, on-the-page questions. I noticed this especially in “Do Migrants Dream of Blue Barrels?” which has entire sections composed of questions. These essays don’t seem to be as concerned with answers or a particular thesis as they are with exploration and openings. How do you think about containing an essay, then, so it feels like a body in itself, so it isn’t just endless openings?
RG: If you have openings, they suggest that a closing is somewhere there on the horizon, and I think it is somewhere there on the horizon. I guess I would have to die. [Laughs.] I’d have to find a way to wrap it up, close up, and from there come up with my findings. I have to sort of set up an essay in that way because I’m not writing as a researcher, I’m not writing as somebody who has X amount of time to come up with X amount of resolutions. Or just like: Our findings say that this water, the aquifers X, Y, and Z—this is how much is left. That’s not what I go in and do. It’s more about reflection. I guess it’s about framing, in the sense that you can only really focus on what’s in the frame. So, I guess maybe build stronger frames, and always go in there suggesting that this frame is still incomplete, but it’s what we have, or it’s what the artist has given us, or it’s what the crisis has given us, or it’s what the death of a parental figure has given us. So we set out, we embark again anew, or we sort of sit with the thing that we have learned through whatever is in the frame.