Ángel Chaparro Sainz recently received summa cum laude marks for his dissertation “Contemporary Mormon Literature: Phyllis Barber’s Writing” from University of the Basque Country (Universidad del País Vasco – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He was kind of to answer some questions about his dissertation and Mormon literary studies in general.
How did you first come in to contact with Mormon literature?
At college. When I began my postgraduate studies, you had to follow three different steps. First one was going back to class. One year taking some new lectures, getting ready a few essays and getting good marks. Then you had to write like a little dissertation, a first attempt. People usually took advantage of it to write a chapter, or a couple sections of their future dissertation. Third step was writing the dissertation. In the first step, I took a lecture on Western American literature. There, the professor who was to become my advisor gave us to read a short story by Phyllis Barber and he told us a little bit about Mormon history. He also pointed out that nobody was researching the Mormons in Europe. Most of my fellow students were interested in Chicanos, Basque-Americans and so on. Me too, but I wanted to do something about rock lyrics from a literary perspective. I was not brave enough to propose that topic though and when I was desperately looking for a topic for the second step, I went upstairs and I told that professor that I was thinking about researching Phyllis Barber and the Mormons.
Why did you decide to do your dissertation on the work of Phyllis Barber? What about her work led you to decide that it was a viable project?
I say in my introduction to the dissertation that it was “by accident” that it was Barber whom I came to know first. And it’s plain truth. That first short story I read was “Mormon Levis”. I thought it was a pretty good piece of fiction, and some of the inner motivations of the story were a mystery to me. I began reading the rest of her fiction and I did not stop discovering new things and new mysteries that I wanted to resolve. But my conviction came after the decision. In that sense, it was a good love story, a real love story. It was not “love at first sight”. I had to work hard on that relationship, reading and rereading, making questions and leaving them unanswered. I found a literary body which was complex and compelling. Her fiction led me to so many different paths, paths in which my own involvement was as important as understanding what she was saying. When I was done reading all her work I realized I had taken the right decision, but the decision had already been taken anyway. Now I know I took one of the best ways to understand Mormonism and Mormon literature. In my dissertation, I talk about the idea of the “middle way” as a moral stance, both personal and universal, in which the risks taken gave more value to Phyllis Barber’s literature. That was the main reason why I thought hers was the best work to make this project viable, as you said.
You mention in the AML-List email announcing the completion of your dissertation that you used the frames of Western American and Minority Literature for your dissertation. Could you explain that a little further and also reference a few of the literary theorists or works of theory that helped inform the critical approaches you bring to Barber’s work?
To use Western American literature as a frame was a given to me. I mean, that was the space in which I get involved with Mormon literature. I was taught that the Mormons were a very important part in the history of the West, so at the beginning I took that frame for granted. Then I realized it was the good one. Historically the Mormons have played a very important role in the pioneering of the West and the Church is still based on Utah, even though I am aware of the growing internationalization of the Church. But we approach the West assuming the new theories which try to revisit Western history and literature from a new perspective, considering the influence of mythical constructions and the repossession of silenced voices. I think that that has to do with Minority literature as well. Mormons need a voice in a new and wider canon. It was interesting when I placed Barber’s fiction together with John Okada, Rudolfo Anaya, Toni Morrison, Robert Laxalt and Philip Roth in one of my old programs. I’m not teaching literature anymore, but when I did it Barber’s fiction and Mormon fiction worked very well in that context. In any case, the new approaches to the West have shown how certain cultural standards are influential enough so as to define who we are or who we are supposed to be. That tension is universal and appealing and Mormon literature, from either a social or an individual dimension, helps to show this tension with a particular set of characteristics.
My approach to Barber is threefold. There are four sections, but I would say that the critical body is threefold: feminism, ecocriticism and a blend of cultural and moral approaches. That is why I used different critical methodologies and the work from different theorists. It would take too long to explain now how I go from Nancy Chodorow or Adrienne Rich to Maxime Hanks or Lavina Fielding Anderson, how I also rely on Youngbear-Tibbets, Cheryll Glotfelty or Paul Gilroy to talk about place and how I mention Robert Bird or John Gardner. I thought this could be a hindrance but I really believe that the multiplicity of approaches was necessary to execute a complete and thorough analysis of Barber’s literary work.
Related to the previous question, I’d also be interested in hearing about how you situate Mormon literature as a Minority Literature. As you know, traditionally, it has been mainly written about as a sub-set of American Western Regionalism. I have long felt that critical theories about ethnic and minority (even minor) literatures could be useful in approaching Mormon literature, and a bit of my work in graduate school and some of my blogging has explored this notion, but certainly my work is nowhere near the depth of what would go in to a dissertation. Where do you see the value in theorizing Mormon literature as Minority Literature and where, maybe, is the fit not quite right?
It’s risky for me to talk about value. I’m still too far away. But I do see the value. From an international perspective, or talking as an outsider, placing Mormon literature within the frame of Minority literatures could be a good way to give visibility to certain Mormon writers and to Mormon literature as a whole. Maybe I’m hesitant about making that sort of statements because I’m still feeling like I’m stepping in grounds which do not belong to me. This may sound as an excuse, as if I was answering your question in a roundabout way, but I need to say it. When I began I had very clear in mind that it was compulsory to be very respectful with this culture and with everything involving faith or religion. That is why I ended up approaching Mormonism from a social and cultural perspective rather than considering it entirely as a religious movement. I took Mormonism as an ethnic category, a tight-knitted group with certain cultural and social values which made them fitting to go for an ethnic consideration. I obviously read the work by people like William Mulder or Eugene England talking about these issues and I agree with them.
If it is regional or minor, I am not really that friend of labels. Sometimes I feel that talking about minorities is just a way of trying to get rid of the bad attributes that certain scholars and critics have given to regional literature. But both regional and minor can go so universal as to express feelings, emotions and reflections which cross borders.
Obviously, your work has had some resonance with the Academy because your dissertation was awarded the status of summa cum laude, but could you talk about how your work has been received by your fellow European academics? And how is Mormonism as culture viewed generally? Is it seen as a minority/ethnic literature a religious thing or what?
My fellows are very busy, you know what I mean. Before getting done with all this, I already started giving publicity to it. I’ve been attending like two international conferences each year since I began some seven years ago. I have been reading papers in all of them and all of them were dealing with Mormonism or Barber, so I guess that there was some interest in the topic. A recent article has been published in a Spanish magazine and some of my articles have been included in books. So I guess that there is a certain degree of interest in Mormonism.
I’m reluctant to say that Mormon literature is totally unknown in European academia. I’m not familiar with the work being done in a lot of universities and it would sound very pretentious to say that I am the only one dealing with Mormonism, but it is still a topic to be discovered here in Spain or the Basque Country. I’m sure that some scholars are familiar with Terry Tempest Williams, Anne Perry or Stephenie Meyer, but I guess they don’t know that they are Mormons or they don’t see it as an ingredient to be considered. A few weeks ago I found a book by Orson Scott Card in a mall, translated to Spanish. It was like finding a treasure, but I guess it’s not so weird. Mormonism is basically perceived as a religion, and its literature is still waiting to be studied. I’m trying to give it visibility from the perspective of an ethnic group because I think that it helps to make the label wider and more complex, but different approaches could be workable. As an example, I could tell you that many of my fellows have shown a big interest in Barber and Mormon literature from a feminist point of view. In any case, we could discuss a lot about this issue or, in fact, about any of the previous questions you made. I’m trying to be short here.
What other works by Mormon artists — writers, visual artists, musicians, etc. — do you find interesting, entertaining, valuable, etc.? What about art in general — what’s rocking your world right now?
Darrell Spencer, Carol Lynn Pearson, Orson Scott Card, Terry Tempest Williams, John Bennion, Levi Peterson, Virgina Sorensen, Brady Udall, Douglas Thayer, Vardis Fisher, Levi Peterson, Stephenie Meyer, Eric Samuelsen, Anne Perry, Linda Sillitoe, Lance Larsen, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Warren Hatch, Maurine Whipple, Patricia Gunter Karamesines, Neil LaBute… You see, different bonds to the Church, different genres, different styles. All those are some of the names I have read and I think that they all deserve attention. I need to refresh my learning anyway. There are a lot of things I’m missing, some of them from contemporary Mormon literature. I guess I’ll need some guide to help me with the market and the newest writers. That’s why I keep on visiting some websites, A Motley Vision among them. I’m reading Brady Udall now, I’m planning to read a book by Coke Newell, I wanna know more about the poets being mentioned in my dissertation just by reference or because I read a couple poems. I’m discovering a lot of new poets in Patricia Gunter’s WIZ, which has been a great discovery to me. And I wanna re-listen to some music but from another perspective. I love rock music, and I will try to revisit The Killers, Low or Arthur “Killer” Kane from a different perspective. I also want to learn more about the cinema, you know, I saw a few movies: Baptists at Our Barbecue, Mobsters and Mormons or The Work and the Glory and one with Anne Hathaway about a Mormon missionary which is a recurrent film here at 4 o’clock on Saturdays when they don’t know what to put on air. I know I’m missing a lot of stuff.
If you ask about other stuff, not dealing with Mormonism, I’m involved in some literary projects. I have a lot of stuff to do at college, and I keep open some other options.
Finally, what’s next for you? Do you plan to generate more work from your dissertation work? What other projects — related to Mormon letters or not — are you working on/planning on?
You know what they say about a woman who gets pregnant. After they give birth, people say that they can go through a little depression. Okey, I gave birth to a little baby who weighed 600 hundred pages. I’m a bit lost now, trying to recover my composure and rhythm. I’m trying to start new researching projects. I took some days to read some other stuff and work in some other topics. Willy Vlautin, a good writer from the West and Richmond Fontaine’s leading singer has been a great help and a lot of poets and writers from Spain who are usually published in underground publishers and that I admire. But I’ll come back to Mormon literature, you bet. I read a lot of fiction by Mormons and there are a lot of things which can add something new to what we are doing here. I want to keep on working on Barber. Raw Edges came too late for me, and I included it in the dissertation in a rush. I want to go back to it, and I know that Phyllis is getting ready new things. Besides I aim at getting published the dissertation or at least part of it. And that means refining and polishing so I still have work ahead.
I am also very much interested in other aspects of the West, especially from an ecocritical perspective. I’m a member of a research project sponsored by the Spanish government called REWEST and whose head is Professor David Río, who was the advisor of my dissertation. We’re involved in a lot of stuff, starting with a seminar taking place in a couple months with Cheryll Glotfelty and María Herrera Sobek among others. Last October we organized the II International Conference on the American West and it was a great pleasure to have with us writers such as Gregory Martin or Bernardo Atxaga and scholars like Nancy Cook, Neil Campbell or David Fenimore. Particularly amazing to me was to meet Phyllis. Her participation in our conference was overwhelming. People showed a great interest in her work.
Besides, when I was younger I used to write some fiction. I got some short stories published and I have been lately working together with people writing poetry in underground publishers. I want to recover all that. Some of my poems have been published by Patricia Gunter in WIZ. That’s been like fresh air to my life.
Finally, I have a mortgage to pay, and even though now I’m working at the University of the Basque Country, I have to keep on trying to improve my resume to get a good job, and that is such a big project that it will take half of all my energy. But, you know, we have to endure and keep on trying hard, that’s something I learned from my dad who was an immigrant coming from the South but also from the Mormons.