By Perry Vasquez / AGITPROP
Bill Nericcio’s work as a writer and theorist of cultural studies extends from the semiotics of Speedy Gonzalez to the film career of Rita Hayworth to the influence of the Homeric tradition on the Chicano novel. For Nericcio, the fluid barriers between high, low and Mexican and American cultures offer irresistible opportunities to thread his sharp observations through the often overlooked gaps in what we perceive to be the impermeable walls of cultural identity.
To his many students, Nericcio is best known as the director of the cultural studies graduate program known as MALAS (the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences) at San Diego State University–the program, known as the “MA in Curiosity” is an interdisciplinary studies program open to undergraduates with degrees in all majors. Additionally, he serves as a Professor of English and Comparative Literature and a member of the faculties in the department of Chicana/o Studies (CCS) and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS).
Some of his works include his 1998 illustrated exposé on Speedy Gonzales, “Autopsy of a Rat: Odd, Sundry Parables of Freddy Lopez, Speedy Gonzales, and Other Chicano/Latino Marionettes Prancing about Our First World Visual Emporium.” Nericcio’s primary ongoing critical work is an illustrated history of Mexican and Latina/o stereotypes, Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” In America.
Nericcio is presently putting the finishing touches on EYEGIENE for UT Press.
AGITPROP: I thought I’d get your interview started off by asking you to expand on the program you teach in and your professional focus.
BILL NERICCIO: I am always out of focus, confused, on the march–that’s my obscure answer just to start things off. I teach in various guises at SDSU–I am an English professor, to begin, but I usually end up teaching lower and upper-division classes that are a mish-mash of 20th and 21st century cultural studies–novels, movies, critical theory, photography, oil painting, theatre, the web…. you name it, I teach it. The only rule of thumb for me when it comes to what is “literature” is that it somehow conveys a story. From gossip on the street, salacious hieroglyphs in the men’s room, advertising on the side of a bus, anything is fair game. My official title these days in (and it’s a mouthful) Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Chicana/o Studies, & Latin American Studies–but I also serve as Director for a Cultural Studies MA program called MALAS–The Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences; and I work as an Editor for San Diego State University Press. Too many sombreros for this profe!
AGITPROP: So let’s turn to the topic of Chicano lit since that is one of your primary topics of expertise. I’m reading Homer’s Odyssey right now and am interested in how contemporary chicano authors who address the migrant experience construct their crossing narratives. Is there any connection, conscious or otherwise, between Chicano lit and the epic tradition of the Greeks?
BILL NERICCIO: “Cuando lleguemos, cuando lleguemos / When we arrive, when we arrive”…. the words, pulled out Tomas Rivera’s y no se lo tragó la tierra might have come from the mouth of Odysseus, on his epic return journey to Ithaca, to his olive-tree bed with besieged Penelope. But the words from Rivera’s cacophonous, chaotic novel–really a treasure trove of migrant narrative shards–are a haunting elegy. He goes on, the truth of is we’re tired of arriving, that we “never arrive”.
Rivera’s words signal the ambivalence of the migrant worker’s life–like and totally unlike Kerouac’s On the Road, it is a journey fraught with danger, filled with change and alienation. Odysseus knew all about the changes that migration bring, even for the hero. While Homer’s hero is more Don Draper than suffering undocumented migrant, Odysseus does share with our sojourners of the Americas an intimate knowledge of the costs and benefits of becoming diasporic, becoming other. It’s funny, I am the end results of Mexican and Sicilian sojourns, with crossings of the Rio Grande and encounters with Ellis Island firmly tattooed on my skin and imprinted on my psyche. Perhaps that’s why I teach Ulysses by Joyce, The Pillow Book by Greenaway, Flirt by Hal Hartley, The Century of Wind by Galeano, and City of Night by John Rechy–all are tales of displacement and knowing (and self-knowing).
AGITPROP: Can you tell me a little more about Rivera’s novel? Who is the main character? WHere is she or he from and what sets him/her off on the epic journey?
BILL NERICCIO: The unnamed itinerant protagonist of Rivera’s singular project is a sojourner, a traveler, a seer, sufferer. He is an invisible boy, to riff off of Ellison’s singularly inspirational novel, and he’s a little bit crazy. Or, better said, Rivera’s child ends up mad, under a house, waving at imaginary doppelgängers hanging out in palm trees as a result of his experiences and synapse/soul scarring witnessings. It is an avant garde novel, told with multiple voices and radical POV shifts; but the anecdotes are drawn from recent history with unattended migrant children burning to death and others shot for needing water. The novel speaks to the extremes of the Mexican American/Chicano experience in the United States and, at the same time, embodies the postmodern aesthetics of late 20th century fiction.
AGITPROP: This is a fascinating and reminds me of the story of Martin Ramirez. Ramirez was a young Mexican who fought in the Mexican revolution and was traumatized by his experiences. After the conflict ended he wandered across the US/ Mexico border and wound up in an asylum where it was discovered he had artistic talent. Benefactors provided him with simple art materials and he went on to lead a creative but institutionalized life drawing and painting. Not all odysseys end well and when they don’t, at least in the cases of Rivera’s fictional protagonist and Martin Ramirez, the subject seems more suited to the role of the artist instead of the hero. Do you have any thoughts on this reflection?
BILL NERICCIO: I love that you bring up Ramirez–I have always wanted to write about his work. You can see in his illustrations this ambivalence toward odyssey, towards travel in general: with movement, consequence, change, transformation, but with the danger that this dis-placement bring danger/violence or, as in his case, “asylum” (both meanings of course: safety, for the displaced refugee, but also, incarceration within the walls of a policed asylum). You can see this tension unfold in his drawings–two here are to the point:
Here in the first, the train tracks between beckoning tunnels promise no exit, no egress, almost, no movement, the lines of the mountains leaving the spectator in a Escher-like stasis.
In this possible self-portrait, Ramirez, or someone like him, sits at a drawing table–is he dreaming of the train, of movement, of escape, of diaspora, or does he contain it on the page, in a drawing, in art. You’ve got me thinking now of the cost of diasporic transmogrification–how the ‘skin’ that is left behind carries the trace of an unrecoupable soul.
AGITPROP: When I see the word transmogrification I always associate it with the most excruciating images. It’s a very powerful idea when placed in relation to the human body. I’m reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. It’s profoundly sad.
BILL NERICCIO: Transmogrification always raises the ante. You’ve got transformation, right. And transformation squared is metamorphosis. And metamorphosis cubed might be Transubstantiation (as a recovering Catholic, I have to go there). But all of them pale in comparision to transmogrification, a monster of a word. Joel-Peter Witkin’s uncanny tableau disturb to the point that I sometimes gasp–their marriage of photography, set-design, performance, and more are disturbingly wicked. These days, when I write or think about transmogrification, I am either teaching works like William Burroughs Junky, the Velvet Underground, Neuromancer, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Lydia Yuknavich’s Chronology of Water–works where narcotics are the focus, and substance-propelled metamorphoses are the name of the game.
In contemporary art, Tara McPherson, an avatar for Pop Surrealism, comes to mind first–most obviously in works like “Trapped in the Narcissus Gaze”, but perhaps more hauntingly in pieces like “Dark Matter Witch.” I think, also, of your work, especially the Coatlique piece(s) and the work of Raul Gonzalez III. In “Benito” (produced with Elaine Bay), we experience a radical transmogrification of an iconic Mexican figure (left)–the late great Benito Juarez. A fixture in school rooms across Mexico, he is reborn and de-faced (literally) in Gonzalez and Bay’s iteration:
The transmogrification is radical and 21st century–the face is effaced, obscured, over-written… it’s still Benito Juarez and it is not. In lieu of face, we see a tag, a street tag, graffiti. A quick study might suggest some sort of statement about Mexico, it’s history, politics, etc. But I think more is afoot here–some sort of attempt on the part of the artists to update a ubiquitous cultural commodity and radically re-imagine it displaced in various ways (and frames)….
AGITPROP: Can you tell us about what you are working on these days?
BILL NERICCIO: The biggest ongoing project is the traveling Mextasy exhibition. Mextasy is a gallery version of my book Tex[t]-Mex . The next exhibition is at Adrian College, Adrian, Michigan this August and I will be traveling out there in early September for a lecture and closing celebration/party as well. After that, the horizon is hazy, but it may be traveling to Oregon later in the year and then on to Oberlin College in 2014.
As far as publications are concerned, I am busy revising and editing (and designing to a certain extent) my follow-up book to Tex[t]-Mex entitled Eyegiene: Permutations of Subjectivity in the Televisual Age of Sex and Race (also with the University of Texas Press). Like Tex[t]-Mex, Eyegiene focuses (pardon the pun) on issues of representation, but here the gaze is not so much targeted at Mexican and Latina/o representation. You can get a taste of the book here. After that, I think I will turn to Technosexualities (a work originally developed as a graduate seminar and undergraduate class here at SDSU) before moving on to shorter critical works on Salma Hayek and Gilbert Hernandez.
When I am not writing or designing (I do most of the webmastering and cover design for SDSU Press and Hyperbole Books), I am running a Masters Program in Cultural Studies called MALAS for SDSU. We recently celebrated the program’s silver anniversary and I love the freedom I have to curate intellectual madness there–my students come from all over the planet and the country, all with different majors and backgrounds.
AGITPROP: Thank you Bill, for talking with us!
BILL NERICCIO: Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with you and your readers!
Perry Vasquez is a San Diego multidisciplinary artist who contributes articles to the website Agitprop. He teaches art at Southwestern College and is a member of the multi-media arts collective Border Corps.