One of the joys of studying literature is to open a beloved text, read its pages, and discover a new idea or pattern in writing.

Kelli Zaytoun, a villager who teaches literature classes and heads the English language graduate department at Wright State University, has spent her career studying Gloria Anzaldúa, an academic, writer, activist, and poet whose work focuses on feminism, queer theory and Chicano literary theory. . Zaytoun’s recently published book, “Shapeshifting Subjects: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Naguala and Border Arte”, which analyzes the Anzaldúa concept of the naguala, the shapeshifter, and places the naguala in theoretical conversations about subjectivity.

Zaytoun, who has a background in women’s and gender studies but is interested in coalition psychology, said Anzaldúa’s writing contained something she hadn’t seen in other books. written.

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“I was interested in Anzaldúa’s work because she said she was unabashedly interested in inner life, self and selfhood,” Zaytoun said. “At the same time, Anzaldúa viewed the boundaries of the self as being very permeable and expansive.”

Anzaldúa, who died in 2004, wrote fiction, non-fiction, essays, children’s literature and poetry. His best-known work, the semi-autobiographical “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” centers on the Chicano Latinx experience. Anzaldúa also co-edited “This Bridge Called My Back”, a collection of essays written by radical women of color; “Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative Perspectives and Critics of Women of Color; and “This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation.” In 2015, Duke University Press published Anzaldúa’s latest work, “Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality”.

Zaytoun’s book, “Shapeshifting Subjects,” includes a critical examination of Anzaldúa’s writing throughout his career, expanding the lens of “Borderlands/La Frontera,” which is most often critiqued and anthologized. The first chapter introduces the naguala as a feature of Anzaldúa writing that has been overlooked in critical conversations. Focusing on theories of self and subjectivity, Zaytoun asserts that the naguala of Anzaldúa offers a new type of subjectivity, which forms bonds between the human and the non-human. In other words, subjective experiences that are often considered individual experiences can extend beyond a person, according to Anzaldúa.

In the second chapter, Zaytoun analyzes the appearance of the naguala in Anzaldúa work, focusing on Anzaldúa work as a decolonial practice. Zaytoun expands the scope of her book in the third chapter, describing how elements of the naguala of Anzaldúa can be found in the writings of Arab-American feminist authors such as Evelin Shakir.

Villager Kelli Zaytoun’s book, “Shapeshifting Subjects,” was published by the University of Illinois Press on June 14 this year. (photo sent)

“I want to honor Arab-American writers because they do important work and have a fairly recent and unique history in the United States,” Zaytoun said. “One of the things I wanted to do was look at the kind of things Arab-American writers do that look like Anzaldúa. They write about their experience of reconciling different identities. ”

The fourth chapter examines how Anzaldúa deals with trauma, or “writing from the hurt,” a practice that is used in conjunction with naguala to heal personal and generational trauma.

In the conclusion, Zaytoun offers insight into the power of a decolonized imagination – an opportunity to remake identities, reshape relationships, and rebuild social justice coalitions around who we want to be. She explains how art is a vector of decolonization in the minds of authors and artists like Anzaldúa. Artistic expression, writes Zaytoun, is a way to remake culture and change conversations.

Like the shapeshifter found in Anzaldúa’s work, Zaytoun said the focus of his writing has shifted as the nation goes into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The book took a turn toward examining trauma,” Zaytoun said, reflecting on his research on trauma and its relationship to individuality.

“I recognized that Anzaldúa’s writing was really driven by her relationship to her own trauma,” Zaytoun said. “This is where most of his writing begins.”

Besides the pandemic, Zaytoun said she was influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly local protests and public acts organized in response to the murder of George Floyd, a black man killed by police. While illustrating how Anzaldúa responded to trauma through her experience as a frontier artist, Zaytoun said she wanted to give readers the opportunity to imagine how this work – reimagining experience to decolonize our own experiences – occurs. now.

“I think what Anzaldúa was trying to do was take his readers on this journey. It’s not just an emotional or psychological journey, it’s a physical journey,” Zaytoun said. “You have a bodily response to your story, and that’s something I wanted to draw attention to.”

Zaytoun said the Black Lives Matter marches and public art displays in response to the murder of George Floyd are an example of such bodily responses to history, showing a response to the trauma that sparked the formation of a coalition and an action that resulted in the indictment of the officers. who murdered Floyd.

“These marches were really important in speaking truth to power, but there was so much emotional energy and power in the making of signs, banners, social media posts and other artwork,” Zaytoun said. “All of those things were important to collaborating and moving forward, and I wanted to draw attention to that.”

One of Zaytoun’s aims for his book was to explain how Anzaldúa’s work could be useful to both scholars and activists.

“I think we can learn from Anzaldúa’s efforts to build bridges,” Zaytoun said, referring to an essay by Anzaldúa titled “bridge, drawbridge, sandbar, island.” In the essay, Anzaldúa considers how each object has its own purpose and how people – especially those working across identity groups – take on the characteristics of each as they work to build coalitions and movements.

“Sometimes you are a bridge, sometimes you have to be a drawbridge and isolate yourself within your particular identity group,” Zaytoun said. “There are also sandbanks that are connected to land, but they are precarious; and sometimes we need to isolate ourselves and be on an island where we feel safe.

Zaytoun said all of these forms are important for social justice work. Building a coalition with others requires a healthy dose of self-examination and the ability to take useful tools from one’s past and discard what is no longer relevant. Zaytoun said his analysis of Anzaldúa’s work also shows the danger of romanticizing the past.

“We cannot revive the past. It is dangerous to do so, especially if this past is violent,” Zaytoun said. “[Anzaldúa and other] border artists have a cultural awareness — they know they are in colonized spaces. They are building something new by honoring ancestry, but also incorporating the particular cultural moment in which they are working.

Zaytoun’s book does not seek to provide a reimagined reality, but offers a reading of Anzaldúa’s works that show Anzaldúa’s process as a shape-shifter and frontier artist. Citing Anzaldúa’s essay “Now Let Us Shift”, Zaytoun writes that the journey of an author or artist is one that recalls pieces of the soul to the body, an act witnessed by readers and art consumers.

“Readers, as critical witnesses, continue the writer’s journey as they engage with the writer’s words and are inspired by them to create their own art and other acts,” Zaytoun writes in the conclusion. “Informed by their own lineages, wounds, and present moment, readers take on their own particular work, their personal and collective path to transformation.”