The Garden Girls as Performative Text
“So what about meaning,” I asked. “Can words by meaningless?”
“Well, what do you think?” Fuchsia fired back.
I told her it was arbitrary. “Half of what we say we don’t know
Because most of us are figuring it out as we go along.”
Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez writes in her book El Teatro Campesino: “The great-man/text-centered/chronological-linear approach, a construct predominantly in Eurocentric history and print culture obscures more than it reveals.” Her own writing emerges in dialogue and each chapter reveals facets of that dialogue. She has been guided more by a concern with the dynamics of the El Teatro Campesino’s creative process than with a gathering of discrete facts. When she met Felipe Anu, who worked his whole life as a migrant farm worker, he talks about the significance of memory in learning stories and in no particular order.
“Well, perhaps I would get one or two bits from a clown. And tomorrow . . . I would get another bit . . . And I would get ideas from the street . . . and my friends would tell me a joke, I would memorize it . . . It would stay in my head . . . and this is how I developed my sense of style.”
Broyles-Gonzalez constantly affirms this shared communal nature and the process of free and constant sharing repudiating the dominant culture’s linear approach. She positions her work “. . . within the Mexican working class tradition, orality and oral culture.” I position The Garden Girls Lettersand Journal in a community of women, engaged in an ongoing saga, weaving words through simultaneous conversations.
Clove was the one who preached against knowing where you’re going. “That’s not art,” she said, “that’s not living the creative life. If you want adventure, then you’ll have to give up planning ahead.”
Of course I can’t do that, not right away. I would have to plan ahead regarding not knowing for the rest of my life.
Can I render my personal transformation becoming an artist, a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual process in words alone? My life does not have a linear overview. To present it linearly obscures its complexity. By creating an experiential reading the body is involved in the production of meaning. The order is not rigidly fixed but subject to change dependent on numerous factors; the reader, the environment, the reader’s response. The reader creates her own pacing, ritual, rhythm or beat. An active reading occurs, a performance language of reading, a visual art, a performance art, a literary art.
When does it happen? When does the voice of authority arrive, the thinking and speculating end and the assertion begin?
“Look at your hands,” Clove said.
“I think you mean it,” Rose said.
“Of course I mean it,” Clove said.
“Look at your hands, Rose, it’s all in your body, in the way you walk, the way you smile, the way you think. Look at your hands, take a deep breath and you’ll find the words.”
Sue-Ellen Case did not organize her book, Feminism and Theater, along either developmental or chronological lines. Instead she organized it like a sampler of techniques, theories, positions, issues, explorations and practices. Each chapter is complete in itself, allowing the reader either to read it in order or to pick out single selections. She introduces new ideas such as personal theater as a means of extending the limits by considering the experiences of women as definitive. Like Broyles-Gonzalez she presents a connection between a social movement and performative art.
Case reveals how “women have excelled in the personal forms of dialogue: letters, in the sphere’s of written communication, and conversation, in that of the oral. This personal dialogue is created by partners in production rather than by an absent author.” Personal conversation is not removed from life. It operates by enactment, and engaged dialogue, rooted in everyday life, the dialogue of present time.
“Can,” Lavendar asked, “intimacy occur without sex?”
“Well of course,” Echincea, Nettles and Clove responded quickly, with authority.
“How?” I asked. “I know about intimacy in sex. That place of getting close, real close, face to face. Where you can feel and smell the breath. Where you can see the tiniest hairs on the stillest arm. Where you can climb inside another’s rhythm. Where you have no other thought, but the thought of that tender moment. Where one’s pleasure is the pleasure of another.”
Case reminds us “performance art produces its own genre where women can perform their own unique experience. Women choose personal sites for their performances, explore new relationships to their own bodies and to their bodies of work.” I have begun to look at my life as perfomative, my writing as an artist’s book, my letters as collaborative performances, myself as expert. The Garden Girls Letters and Journal is performative text on the page and is meant to be experienced. What if the reader claimed her power to ascribe meaning and that meaning was valid? What if the reader is not meant solely to understand only the author’s meaning but is encouraged to create meaning in much the same way we try to ascribe meaning to a conversation we just happened upon? This approach invites investigation further into questions of authority, power and questioning. Can I be inserted in the body of my work? In the Garden Girls I use the first person as a form of liberation from the impersonal and to expose layers of personal experience.
“And you don’t have intimate friends?” Clove asked. “You don’t follow the breath of your girlfriends, never letting your thoughts wander, your eyes dart? You don’t watch her closely when she talks, noticing the newest gray hair, the slightest wrinkle in her cheek? You don’t hear the tiniest creak in her voice and cackle in her smile?”
I intend The Garden Girls to be considered as experts, in the moment, without a history that precedes them. When Broyles-Gonzalez interviewed longstanding members of El Teatro she discovered “they had never been viewed as legitimate interpreters or experts of their own work and life experience.” If we don’t contextualize our work, someone else will. In order to substantiate the necessity for contextualizing ones own work Broyles-Gonzalez asks us to consider: “In seeking to characterize El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdes, kiddingly described it as ‘somewhere between Brecht and Cantiflas,’. . . and was promptly taken at face value by many critics . . . (who) avidly seized the European reference to Brecht . . .while discounting the Mexican reference and tradition.”
“Is your writing always so erotic?” Clove asked.
“Only when I get close to the bone,” Rose answered. Getting close to the bone is where passion rode. Close to the bone in a simple conversation.
El Teatro relied on a distinctly chincana/o aesthetic to affirm an alternative social vision.” For the Garden Girls to affirm an alternative social vision their form is as significant as what they have to say. Broyles-Gonzalez frequently emphasizes this fact. “In reality oral culture is typically not just spoken words but words defined by their life in the world, hence inseparable from the context and from the body and voice that utters them.”
The Garden Girls’ personal dialogue plays out best to personal friends. The question then becomes who is not a friend and how do I broaden my friendships to be more inclusive? It’s the conversations and the dailiness of life that the girls are perfoming via being read individually, as letters, in no particular order, leaving open opportunity for the performative aspect by reader. Broyles-Gonzalez emphasizes, “Oral culture is by definition situational and not abstract . . . and involves not only words, but the entire body engaged in the dailiness of life.”
“When does talk become sex?” Clove asked.
“When the writing is close to the bone where the passion rides.”
Rose was frustrated, to say the least. She knew by the way her words paused, by how she was so careful what she spoke.
Broyles-Gonzalez considers art as social action. The art as object approach consumes, by means of various literary theories, without consideration of the social conditions of the writer or the reader. When we look at the text linearly with an expectation of knowing what came before and significant character development, we can never truly experience the intimate connections between the texts and the actualities of human life and the activity that results in text. Isn’t it equally valid and interesting to wonder about the suffering that went before? What is left unsaid is as interesting and vital.
Like Leslie Labowitz’s performance art piece Sproutine where she waters her plants, nude, leads her audience to her garden, reads to them from The Secret Garden and feeds them sprouts, Broyles-Gonzalez wants to place the concept of orality at the center ot El Teatro. The Garden Girls seek to come to terms with their own self identity and place the concept of orality at the center of their letters to provide a necessary retreat, an opportunity for momentary surrender.