Solitude, Intersectionality, Eco-Judaism, and Community in the writing of Kathleen Alcalá

Courtesy of Alfredo Arreguín, for Raven Chronicles Press

In The Deepest Roots (U of Washington Press 2016), her memoir/study of sustainable living in Bainbridge Washington, author Kathleen Alcalá invites us into an intense childhood memory:

Imagine that you live on an island. We all did it as children, jumping from cushion to cushion in the living room or from bed to bed without getting our feet “wet” on the floor. We had a box of Ritz crackers or Junior Mints for supplies, and we had to build a little shelter out of blankets to protect ourselves from the elements. (The Deepest Roots 3)

The remembered childhood game, as Alcalá describes it, is complex and dynamic. Each cushion-island is a safe home-base perhaps, but it is temporary; it is isolated and uncomfortably small and is therefore — following the logic of the pretense — not a place that you want to stay for long. That means you’ll need to keep hopping to the next home-base and the next. There is something nomadic built into this island play.
Cultural context also shapes what we think when we think about islands. 

When some people think of an island, they envision that cartoon-image of a man standing on a tiny sandbar with a single coconut tree… I think this image is based on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, in which a man marooned on an island waits and waits for rescue, in the meantime showing his rugged resourcefulness. . . Colonial stereotypes aside, most people who live on island by choice, and may have spent generations growing up with scarcity — as well as the abundance — of an isolated lifestyle. (Deepest ix)

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In her preface to the Bainbridge book, Alcalá warns us against the standard white Anglo-European view of islands. Such a view poses an all too limiting binary question: is the island a discovered paradise, or the space of exile, aka a desert island? Are we explorers or castaways? Alcalà rejects that either/or politely but firmly. Instead, she suggests that islanders belong to a third category — neither settler/colonizer nor shipwreck survivor, but rather island chooser. That person, as the author describes them, is someone who wants and seeks out “an isolated lifestyle.”

As a former Manhattanite, who now lives on another island (Whidbey Island), I am curious about Alcalá’s use of “island chooser” (which applies to her as well, as an inhabitant of Bainbridge Island). I am wondering how the image of the islander might provide a possible clue to her writing, which, in addition to The Deepest Roots, includes: The Desert Remembers My Name, a collection of personal essays; three historical novels, Spirits of the Ordinary, The Flower in the Skull, and Treasures in Heaven; and the short story collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, as well as numerous uncollected stories and nonfiction pieces. It is notable that while Alcalá is prolific, she tends to write smaller rather than bigger; she seems most at home with short forms, like the short story and the personal essay. Even the novels are relatively slim. But the oeuvre is gem-like, compacted, and compressed. There’s a lot to it. Volumes in fact. 

Granted, islands seem like a strange place to start to talk about a Jewish author. Certainly, islands do not figure prominently in traditional Jewish literature, despite the fact that there is a well-known island joke featuring a highly industrious, marooned Jew:

A Jew was shipwrecked alone on a desert island for years and years. When he was finally rescued, the ship’s crew discovered that in his time on the island, he had built a life for himself – a shelter, access to food, and TWO synagogues. 
The puzzled rescuers asked him: “If you’re alone here, why do you need two synagogues?”
“Simple,” he answered. “This one is where I pray. And that one over there is the one I wouldn’t set foot in.” (Kol Ami, Canada)

The joke works because it dramatizes an essential dialectic at the heart of Jewishness as many (primarily Ashkenazi?) Jews understand it. Even shipwrecked, Jewish identity retains its double desire for solidarity and disagreement, for asserting social construction – in this case imagined – and individual exceptionalism – also imagined. 

But the joke also asks us implicitly to envision what will happen to these two synagogues and this islander, next. Will the shipwrecked builder really leave his impressive island development, or will he perhaps invite the sailors to stay, if only so has to have congregants who will NOT agree with him, as well as congregants who do? This situation begs more questions. Are the new inhabitants Jewish already, or will they need to study for conversion, and if so, how will that happen? Without a rabbi, who will decide who is Jewish and who isn’t? 

What does any of this have to do with the writing of Kathleen Alcalá?  

On the face of things, very little. Alcalá mentions islands specifically only once. What’s Jewish about her work? Well, that’s a more complicated question. 

Alcalá employs a writerly sensibility that seems – at first glance – the diametric opposite of the islander in the aforementioned Jewish joke. Where the Jewish islander is chatty, aggressive, slightly self-aggrandizing, ambitious (to a fault [two synagogues?]!), and of course argumentatively judgmental, she is a self-deprecatingly humble describer and narrator, understated to the point of hermeticism, despite the author’s insistence on the importance of clarity (“A Woman Called Concha” in The Desert Remembers My Name 116). 

Which means you really need to pay attention.

The opening essay of Alcalá’s nonfiction collection, The Desert Remembers My Name (U Arizona Press, 2007) gives you an apt, if intricate idea of whom you are dealing with. It’s a quietly elegant introduction to the world of the author, that mystifies as much as it explains.

The title of the first essay, “My Week as a Mexican,” seems self-evident. But it isn’t. 

Alcalá’s procedure follows up on her seemingly straightforward title; she performs a set of complex maneuvers, even as she informs you that she’s just telling you some simple facts about herself. The essay asserts, qualifies, retracts, and then asserts something else. 

For example, the author tells us (facetiously?) that she knows she is Mexican because her parents said so (some Jewish readers will hear the echo of a similar conversation with their parents and children regarding their Jewishness). Having made this statement, she immediately qualifies it; the family isn’t exactly Mexican; they are in fact citizens of the United States, and thus Mexican American.  But then the qualification itself is nullified:

But my parents said this too [Southern California] was once part of Mexico. My father would say this with a sweeping gesture, taking in the smog, the beautiful mountains, the cars and houses and fast-food franchises. When he made that gesture, all was cleared away in my mind’s eye to leave the hazy impression of a better place. We were here when the white people came, the Spaniards, then the Americans. And we will be here when they go away, he would say, and it will be part of Mexico again. (“My Week” in Desert 3))

David Ramirez Alcalá’s sweep of the hand in the family house on a San Bernardino California street erases national borders and gestures towards an identity of color that exists both before and after American and European imperialisms. Somewhere else, the younger Alcalá tells us, is being invoked. She can’t quite see it but senses it is there. 

The first paragraph of this essay certainly points by ironic understatement to the actual experience of Latinx US residents on the West Coast, who are routinely called “Mexican” whatever their country of origin, even as the diction of the piece recognizes the author’s own privilege as a highly educated person with actual US citizenship. Yet, the essay does not unfold as a harsh critique of the nation state as such, although the father’s reported statement clearly deconstructs the historical logic of borders. At the same time as Alcalá calls into question the meaning of the dividing line between Mexico and the US (and between all such lines of demarcation, by implication), she also lovingly remembers her annual visit to Chihuahua, where for a week or so, she can actually live out her Mexican identity without shame and without anxiety as she plays and talks with her cousins. 

But here comes another qualification. These remembrances are emphatically not nostalgic announcements of the author’s solidarity with her relatives over the border. Alcalá tells us that she loves her relatives but notes that they are very different from her and that their lives eventually diverge dramatically from her own. 

Near the end of the essay, a new assertion arrives. During a visit to Mexico City, a cab driver asks the author if she is a Christian. And it is in the closing paragraphs that the densely layered history of her family is invoked: 

I proceeded to tell him the story of my mother’s family, Jews became Catholic, became Protestants, as a way of gently telling him that I was not Catholic… Now I think he may have asked because I did not cross myself upon entering the car, something most of his fares probably do if only out of sheer terror of the Mexico City traffic. (“My Week” in Desert 7))

With characteristic understatement, Alcalá drops the history of her crypto-Jewish family into an aside told to a cabdriver. She then pivots away from the revelation, transitioning into a comment about why most Mexicans (who are predominantly Catholic) cross themselves when boarding a cab in Mexico City. 

And there, tucked away at the very end of the sentence, is a little joke. The Jewish author reveals herself – to both the cab driver and to us, readers — by her visible lack of terror when entering the objectively terrifying taxi.  

With this same mixture of pathos, critique, and quiet, often sneaky, humor, the subsequent essays progressively uncover layers of multiple identities – American, Mexican, Native American, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. But what remains in the reader’s imagination is less the information, than the domestic pictures associated with it. We visualize the apartment that the author and her family shared with the recalcitrant boys of the San Bernardino Mountains Optimists Boys Ranch, and we visit the house, where Alcalá as the youngest, slept in a bedroom closet so small that its door had to be left ajar to accommodate her crib. Later on, we witness a strangely melancholy annual Thanksgiving reunion presided over by relatives singing mysterious, sad songs in Spanish. We watch the author herself as a young child alone in a cornfield devouring the raw kernels corn, mimicking the birds she had been sent out to frighten away. And finally, we are told of Alcalá’s first conscious memory – that of an iron gated property, with a vast garden and fountain that belonged once to her family, but where she is not permitted to enter. 

In most, if not all of these essays, Alcalá portrays herself as separate from the world around her. She is the solitary, determined researcher delving into the dark recesses of her family past, despite the resistance of relatives, particularly her mother. She is the baby in the closet, the child amidst the corn, and in one essay, she charmingly portrays herself as a studious, introverted girl who prefers living concealed in a tree, like the fictional character, Rima of Green Mansions.  

And yet, the author also recognizes the ambivalent position of those who choose to remain hidden as well as her own complicated position to concealment as a writer. After all, writers reveal what has been hidden. Writers share what is secret. 

But how to share a history made up of secrets? How to share multiple histories of what has been hidden and/or erased? As the descendent of Spanish Jews as well as the possessor of multiple ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities (along with an Evangelical Protestant upbringing), Alcalá repeatedly asks herself and her readers a series of difficult questions.

First, how do we write about issues related to Jewish intersectionality in a responsible and multi-faceted way? Second, how do we write about these matters historically, in terms of a lost but not quite forgotten past? And third, how do we write about a concealed Jewishness which is also and at the same time Mexican-ness and Native American-ness, touched by both Catholic-ness and Protestant-ness in a way that opens up to many kinds of readers, who may or may not have a connection to any of these traditions? 

Her work, as a whole, offers these answers. The writer, Alcalá suggests, can best do justice to this fragmented, disassembled (and at times dissembled) past by means of short descriptive segments, memory fragments, and stories about what is missing or about what is mis-recognized. Misrecognition is, for example, the prime focus of the title story of Alcalá’s short story collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, (Calyx Books 1992), which features a mysterious soon to be dead (white) American appearing on a woman’s doorstep in a Mexican town. But this writing must also focus on characters who live on self-created internal or external islands, and/or who are themselves displaced, who – like the remembered children in the Deepest Roots – hop from place to place, looking for something that is not there. Or maybe the mysterious something is there, hidden right before their eyes, as Alcalá Sr suggested when he waved his hand over the entirety of his Southern California neighborhood. 

Nowhere are these concerns about Jewish intersectionality and how to represent it more at work than in the first of Alcalá’s novels, the critically acclaimed Spirits of the Ordinary. This is a “dazzling” story, in the words of Rigoberto González, who pens the foreword to this new May 2021 edition, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the book’s original publication by Raven Chronicles Press. 

Recounted in shifting third person, jumping effortlessly in and out of the heads of a host of different characters, Spirits is an extended magical realist tale, clothed in the guise of historical fiction. Taking place in late 19th Century Saltillo, and in the Northern Mexico/Texas border area, the novel explores the adventures of the extended Caraval family, as well as the people they connect with. The narrative language is delicate, restrained, and crystalline. At moments you will think you are reading German Romanticism; the work of Joseph Von Eichendorff in particular leaps to mind. Recognizably Romantic tropes such as mining, alchemy, dreams, and starkly beautiful landscapes are also hallmarks of Alcalá’s story that continually hovers on the edge of the fantastic, tipping over only occasionally into the visionary. Peppered through the chapters are “canticles,” psalms translated and adapted into Spanish and then into English, both renditions facing each other on the page. We are reminded continually that, although we are reading in English, other languages swirl beneath the surface of the writing. 

The apparent hero of the book is prodigal son Zacarías, who is aptly named after both the Torah prophet and the New Testament father of John the Baptist. Zacarías is the child of two Jewish parents, and he identifies as Jewish, but he lives uneasily in both Jewish and Christian worlds. Obsessed with mining for silver and gold, Zacarías continually rebels against the expectations of everyone who cares about him, in particular his well to do Catholic wife – who wants him to go into her father’s retail business – and his own father, Julio — who would like him to be a Jewish scholar rather than a prospector. 

But Julio’s motivations are themselves problematic. He repeatedly engages in Kabbalah from behind the locked door of his study in a remotely situated house (itself a kind of island) — reordering the sacred letters, less to hasten the coming of the Mashiach (a dominant kabbalistic hope) than to use their potential magical power to surveille, control and re-order the actions of his son. For Julio, Judaism has become a solitary secret, the innermost workings of which he conceals even from his observant wife Mariana, who has been silenced by a traumatic incident that she suffered as a young adolescent.  

Both father and son are clearly islands unto themselves. While Julio remains a literally and figuratively closeted figure, Zacarías is drawn to other people, yet he is compelled even more strongly by a quest for something beyond him. A metaphorical island hopper, Zacarías cannot bear to stay in one place for long. He keeps on moving in a relentless search, even as he grows into a more complex and self-realized person. He eventually becomes, not just a prospector, but a builder, a healer and a biblical storyteller, who amasses a multi-tribal community in the mountains, before it disperses under threat of a tragic military invasion. 

But as compelling as Julio and Zacarías are, the more intriguing characters of Spirits of the Ordinary do not identify as male. Zacarías’ wife Estela and his mistress Esmeralda are remarkably independent people, who are fiercely devoted to family and to business respectively. Both are passionate individuals, who desire and love but who also know how and when to let go. Women able to feel intense pleasure in a myriad of different experiences, they move through the novel with ease and increasingly certainty. 

Then there is Zacarías’ “disabled” mother Mariana. While her husband anxiously analyzes his dreams, pores over his kabbalistic plates and over-prunes the garden outside the house to the point of near obliteration, Mariana effortlessly develops her own sign language which she uses to communicate easily with Julio and Zacarías. She communes with birds, crochets and experiences visions on a regular basis. At one crucial point in the novel, Mariana glances casually at the water in the fountain outside her house (the famous family house and garden that Alcalá referred to in The Desert Remembers My Name). As she gazes beyond the fountain to the garden, she is able to view the entire world and its people in miniature:

Mariana watched the little figures, tracing their journey across the garden, under the rose bushes, along the grooves in the paving stones that formed a pattern of water from the overflow of the fountain. Eventually she decided that it functioned as a sort of map . . .

“What do you see, querida?” he [Julio] called to her one day as she regarded the flagstones beneath the delicate, fern-like leaves of a jacaranda.

“I’m just looking for designs,” she said, “as you do.” 
“For order? For resolution?” he asked. 
“For beauty,” answered Mariana, holding up her crochet work. (Spirits 148-9)

The crochet pattern that Mariana is creating literally connects its green thread with the fallen leaves from the tree above her. Looking at her, Julio wants to lie down in her lap and rest. He senses that she has re-created a primal unity that peoples of the Book will recognize as the proverbial original paradise. 

In a gesture that reminds readers of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant re-telling of the Garden of Eden story (“She Unnames Them”), Alcalá rediscovers and re-places creation literally in a character’s front yard. A kabbalistic maneuver if ever there was one. It’s all here already, Alcalá suggests. But you have to be willing to see it. Under the feminine gaze of the wise woman, the almost decimated front yard becomes a garden, and that garden encompasses the world. 

This moment is particularly significant because Alcalá is already signaling her concern with ecology, with our relationship with the earth and how we engage in it. Julio wants to control the garden so much he almost destroys it. It’s notable that he wants to “weed out” the plants and animals that are endemic to the region. He, the hidden Jew, is, ironically, behaving like a conquistador, a colonizer, imposing a foreign will on a landscape, and in so doing, killing it. Later in the book, Zacarías will make a final trip to visit his parents, and he will inform his father tellingly that “our relationship to nature is not that of the gardener to the garden, but that of the rose to the garden, or the corn plant to the corn field” (203). 

This exchange looks forward to The Deepest Roots, whose penultimate chapter stresses collective action and is titled “What We Can Do Together.” But already in Spirits, Alcalá has brought the reader – without our necessarily realizing it – into the realm of Eco-Judaism, and to an implied view of Jewishness that is spacious, nimble, complex and communal, at once local and global, multilingual, non-ableist, and ecologically aware. 

The author is also pointing – precociously in this novel of the late 90’s – towards a nuanced view of gender expression. If Mariana functions as a prophetic seer, not unlike her almost namesake Miriam, who was struck dumb for daring to act like her famous younger brother Moses, there are three other seers in the novel who bear mentioning.  

 The first is Corey, a white female photographer who travels the West in drag, recording the beauty of the wild places before they disappear. A literal witness to the conquest of the West, Corey encounters two other remarkable characters: the identical twins Manzana and Membrillo, siblings of Estela. The twins have decided early on in their lives to refuse gender classification and they become famous water seekers (“diviners”), who remain both inter-dependent and adamantly non-binary all their lives. 

Like Mariana, Corey, Membrillo and Manzana possess the ability to seek out and perceive hidden essences, as well as to create connections with like-minded others. These characters look forward to Alcalá’s subsequent novels, which explore, as author Rob Johnson puts it, “other hidden people” (Desert 146). 

The Flower in the Skull (Chronicle Books 1998) traces the experiences of three female descendants of the Opata people, a complex network of tribes, repeatedly colonized, attacked, and dispersed by Spanish and Mexican powers. The first narrator is Shark Tooth, who will be renamed Concha and who continually mourns her homeland even as she realizes she can never truly return to what was. An unwilling island unto herself, she remembers, all the while surviving as best she can, raising her daughter while she cleans for a family resonantly named Moreno (the name in some Spanish circles for people with Jewish heritage). Here, Alcalá asks the reader to consider the connections between dispersed peoples – what they have in common, and what differentiates one story from another – even as she amplifies the courage and resilience of American History’s most forgotten actors, indigenous women. The past survives through them and their abilities as storytellers, as Rosa, Concha’s daughter observes:

She never used the old language in front of la Señora, but waited until we were alone. She did not want Mrs. Moreno to think that she was una india cruda.
But as my mother spoke about these things – the planting, gathering palm and weaving it in the hu’uki, the ceremonies and fiestas that marked the passing of the seasons in her village – she became a different person. My mother seemed to expand from the quiet demure woman I knew into someone larger and daker. When the language of the old people peppered her speech, she spoken with a confidence I never heard in her Spanish. Her face was different, and she moved her hands in a different way when she told the old stories about the old ways. (Flower 81).

Rosa’s description of her mother makes it clear that when we share our past, we create bridges of memory, and through stories even the most displaced people create verbal causeways, joining us to each other. Concha and her descendants refuse the silence that cultural/linguistic isolation tries to impose. At the end of this novel, a second photographer appears, seeking the traces left by Corey in Spirits, and the novel ends with the invocation of narrative exchange (Flower 180). 

Treasures in Heaven (Chronicle Books 2000) continues Alcalá’s interest in solidarity among and between women. The third novel explores the hidden history of the feminist movement in Mexico and its connection to the seeds that eventually produced the 1910 Revolution. And in this third novel, we rediscover Estela, Zacarías’ estranged wife, who has created an entirely new life for herself in Mexico City. Yet, she seems happiest near the end of the novel at the family table of her relations, with whom she has just been reunited:

People began to show up, one by one, smiling young women who looked like Blanca and Gustavo, and giggling children who had come to see the exotic aunt from Mexico City. Noé returned with the trunk and stood and sat politely as was required of him, until Blanca’s youngest, a schoolteacher, a little younger than Noé, returned. Then Noé joined him on the street to smoke. He and his one unmarried sister still lived at home with their parents. The house and courtyard began to fill up with women talking excitedly, children running and playing. (Treasures 190)

Appropriately, Estela’s youngest son is Noé, named for Noah, the quintessentially displaced person, the survivor of the remnant, the builder of the ark, the seafarer, and the maker of the first covenant. 

At the end of The Deepest Roots, the author hears a similar party going on in the distance. It’s coming from Suquamish Village, the Native American community across the water from Bainbridge. Is the horn she hears a conch, a zuzuvela or a ram’s horn? She wonders but is not sure.

But whatever the vessel, it’s a call to action. In her astonishing and complex writing, and with increasing urgency, Kathleen Acalá invites us to form a new covenant: one that we make with each other, and with the land that we share. Under such an agreement, we are not islanders — as the women and nonbinary characters of her work have understood — but rather global and local citizens gathered around the same large table. As at the Passover table placed next to an open door, we are enjoined to welcome and be welcomed by: people hidden, not so hidden and completely revealed; people who consider themselves Jewish, not Jewish, not very Jewish, possibly Jewish, and kind of Jewish; people who identify as White, Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander, of Color, as well as all and any combinations thereof; people who speak a variety of languages; people who express a multitude of gender identities, including but not limited to LGBTQIA+. Together, and only together may we share – what we hope will be — a world of sustainable plenty.   

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