Conocimiento Lunar / Lunar Knowledge
Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality
By Gloria Anzaldúa, edited by AnaLouise Keating
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 271 pp., $25.95, paperback.
Reviewed by Romana Radlwimmer
“When I am writing at night, I’m aware of la luna, Coyolxauhqui, hovering over my house. I envision her muerta y decapitada, ... una cabeza con párpados cerrados…. But then her eyes open y la miro dar luz a los lugares oscuros.” I have been reading these opening lines of Gloria Anzaldúa’s recent book Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro over and over, imagining the fragmented Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who rose up into the night sky to became the moon—her lunar knowledge touching Anzaldúa, shimmering through her, reflecting back to the many worlds we inhabit, reaching me, reaching us, years later, years ago, the same moon, conocimiento lunar. If I had been able to ask her about her vision of the moon, she’d probably answer that we are “all strands of energy connected to each other in the web of existence.” Now, more than a decade after Anzaldúa’s death, her dissertation project, Light in the Dark, continues and synthesizes the life’s work of the acclaimed Chicana theorist and writer.
Ever since the 1980s, Gloria Anzaldúa contributed significantly to international debates on borders, textuality, spirituality, sexuality, activism, knowledge, and the links among them. Her most prominent ideas, such as La Frontera, Mestiza consciousness, in-between-worlds—her notions of fluid, hybrid, decolonizing identities and their challenges and potentials in a patriarchal world shaped by the consequences of colonialism and imperialism—rested on and referred to, the South Texas borderlands where she was raised. “My body is sexed,… is raced,” she wrote. “I can’t … e-race my body.”
She demonstrated that Chicana forms of knowledge are useful frames of reference for understanding the experiences of marginalized, silenced—subaltern—groups in the United States and throughout the Americas. She expanded the epistemologies of the global South to a worldwide scale, going beyond western feminist cultures and writing by interweaving fiction and theory, and bringing Spanish and Nahuatl words into her English-language writing. Light in the Dark adds to her previous writings on embodied knowledge, self-expression, and existence in all kinds of (physical, spiritual, metaphoric) borderlands. Anzaldúa builds bridges among heterogeneous, contradictory realities, employing what she calls her autohistoria-teorías: personal theoretical approaches to living and writing. She prefers these to the academic illusions of scientific objectivity and distance; through them, the Chicana theorist can comprehend the philosophic nuances and epistemological significance of everyday experiences.
Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) was a shifting point for Latina thought. As a feminist intervention, it challenged the patriarchal, nationalist undertones of the Chicano movement and destabilized outdated categories, while avoiding the traps of binary thinking and postmodernist evasion—yet did not undermine the movement’s achievements. Soon, Borderlands was cited as the central reference for discussions of the border. “[I]t didn’t matter which database” researchers “went through, the result was always the same: Gloria Anzaldúa,” writes María Socorro Tabuenca-Córdoba (in “Twenty Years of Borderlands: A Reading from the Border,” Güeras y Prietas: Celebrating 20 years of Borderlands / La Frontera ).
Nearly thirty years after the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúan thought remains inspirational. The daily doses of mass-media normality, which paint complex power structures in simple black and white, have created an ongoing need for “new ways of knowing,” Anzaldúa wrote, capable of dismantling destructive “prevailing modes.”
The essay, “Let us be the healing of the wound,” the first of Light in the Dark’s six chapters, sets the tone for book. Reflecting on the world-changing impact of the 9/11 attacks and their political aftermath, she examines how to deal constructively with the traumatic occasion, especially as “each violent image [is] repeated a thousand times on TV.” She proposes a shift from violence and revenge to harmony and healing, explaining that “[i]n estos tiempos of loss, fear, and confusion the human race must delve into its cenotes (wells) of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern” in order to achieve a “collective consciousness” with “the power to counterbalance the negativity of the rest of humanity.” She suggests that the lessons we learn from such conflicts, arising out of “multiple and conflictive worldviews,” can help us to cure current and future wounds. These lessons are, first, to acknowledge that we cannot control if and when such terrible events happen, but that, second, it truly matters how we react individually and in our communities to them. Anzaldúa sees our artwork and our imagination as possible “attempt[s] to achieve resolution and balance where there may be none in real life.” She writes: “Let’s begin by admitting that as a nation we’re killing the dream of this country (a true democracy) by making war,” and asks us to “stop giving energy to only one side of our instinctual nature, to negative consciousness.” Opting for compassionate interaction instead of fury is part of what Anzaldúa calls conocimiento, knowledge, and it bears the spiritual imprint that suffuses her whole philosophy.
With healing as a primary goal, Anzaldúa looks to the ancient narrative of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, who is killed and dismembered by her mother’s warrior-son. He throws her head into the sky, where it becomes the moon, and her mother can see it and take comfort. Anzaldúa is “aware of la luna,” aware of Coyolxauhqui, aware of the fragmented, colonized feminine body and soul—and of women’s power. “Like Coyolxauhqui, let’s put our dismembered psyches … together in new constructions,” she writes, and through this “interweaving of all minds and hearts and life forces” create and live “the collective dream of the world.”
Coyolxauhqui is an image for the artistic, epistemological, and transformative processes that Anzaldúa discusses throughout the rest of the book. In “Putting Coyolxauhqui Together,” she contemplates the writing process. From the moment of the first “vague longing for form” when “the potential story calls,” the interactions among the writer, her writing practice, and the text lead her through exhausting landscapes of experiences, excavations, and emotions: “Just a couple of more drafts and you’ll be done, but you’re feeling a lot of resistance. Why do you always run into a stone wall when bringing the work to its final completion”? she asks herself. She proposes a literary philosophy in which literature is conceived not as an object that we read and study but rather as a living being with its own will and its own body (made of words). This metaphoric, personified understanding of literature pictures a relationship between author and text that breaks down hierarchies. It is not only the author who makes decisions on how a text evolves; the words themselves also have the power to lead the writer through a creative journey.
Anzaldúa’s final chapter, “now let us shift,” is a masterpiece of feminist decolonial epistemology. Anzaldúa shows the difficulties that can arise in processes of knowing, and theorizes seven stages of how to overcome them:
1. El arrebato, a rupture in one’s worldview
2. Nepantla, being torn between ways
3. The Coatlicue state, not wanting to know about new understandings
4. The call, acceptance of the new worldview
5. Putting Coyolxauhqui together, the creation of new personal and collective stories
6. The clash of realities, a negotiation between the new worldview within old realities
7. Spiritual activism
The concepts of “spiritual activism” and “nepantla,” which are so important in Anzaldúa’s work, are significantly expanded in Light in the Dark compared to former versions. Spiritual activism means to shift from old to new realties by uniting activism and spirituality, integrating contemplation, awareness, and empathy into the daily routines of professional and academic work. Spiritual activism enables us to fight for a cause yet to let go of anger and maintain compassion. It is enacted by nepantleras, people who occupy borderline spaces, who create bridges between diverse kinds of knowledge, and who encourage others to perceive the webs of connections between everybody and everything. Moving from the intricate Tex-Mex-rootedness of Borderlands to the more spiritual, historical-mythical, liminal negotiation zone of Light in the Darkness, Anzaldúa continues her examination of in-between spaces. Her concept of nepantla enables multiple thematic and stylistic lines to intersect, defining possible spaces of cultural transformation.
The process continues; each end is a hopeful beginning. Light in the Dark, which is, for now, Anzaldúa’s “final completion,” leaves us “dreaming” of “another story.” And in fact, Anzaldúa’s archives, at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Austin in Texas, promise more unpublished beauty, which will shape the future of Anzaldúan thought.
Light in the Dark should really be considered a critical edition, since it includes extensive appendices with alternative versions, correspondence, and other documents. In a preface, editor AnaLouise
Keating explains how she organized the archival material and details the reasoning behind her many decisions. Keating explains that her role as a friend, writing comadre, and editing colleague of Anzaldúa’s motivates her work, and that their relationship gave her a “solid understanding” of Anzaldúa’s “personal aesthetics—the emphasis she placed on how a piece sounds and feels.” These descriptions do not claim an interchangeability of editor and author, but are loyal to Anzaldúa’s principles: the embodied personal perspective, the spiritual component of intuitive knowledge, and collective arranging and writing processes. “To be in conocimiento with another person or group is to share knowledge, pool resources …, seek input from communities,” writes Anzaldúa.
Newly published, posthumous texts implicitly pose questions of before and after and what if and who with. Some of them remain open, creating constructive tensions. Keating says, for example, that some of the papers she found in the archive, such as a table of contents, were “finalized.” However, as her archives prove, Anzaldúa constantly re-elaborated her notions, journeying through numerous textual designs. Who is to decide whether or not newer versions would have followed? Anzaldúa’s original dissertation papers remain closed to scholars; as long as this is the case, her textual legacy will persist under the mysterious aura of posthumous knowledge politics (and concurrent polemics of security measures and / or power positions). Until then, this long-awaited book stands powerfully for itself, “guiding me home.” Anzaldúa’s poetic words of lunar knowledge are a must read; their “light is my medicine.”
Romana Radlwimmer has a PhD in Latin American Literatures from the University of Vienna. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Departamento de Estudos Românicos of the Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal, and currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Latina/o Studies Programo of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.