Cherrie L. Moraga is a woman of many professions. Earlier this month, the Chicana writer, feminist, poet, activist, essayist, playwright and professor received the Brudner Prize — a prize Yale awards annually to a scholar or activist whose accomplishments have significantly contributed to the understanding of LGBTQ issues.
Q. You identify yourself as a feminist activist, poet, essayist and playwright. You are now also a theatre, performance studies, race and ethnicity professor at Stanford. Is there a particular profession that you identify with the most, or do you weigh all of your pursuits equally?
A. I don’t know if I weigh them equally — I would say they are all shifting positions. I see myself as a writer first and foremost. My writing has always had a political intention, and so has my teaching, but my writing is fundamentally the thing that shapes my purpose. So yes, I would primarily call myself a writer.
Q. In your 1979 essay “La Guerra,” you write extensively about your mother and her skills as a storyteller. How has your relationship with her influenced your writing?
A. I came from a working class family, and I was a first-generation college student. When people ask me “what is your literary tradition?” I always say I trace it through my mother’s and my auntie’s stories. My mother was a powerful storyteller, and the fact is that the way I understood language was through the oral tradition, not books — my tradition has that spoken quality to it. My mother’s capacity to speak with dramatic tension and descriptions was amazing. I refer to her as my “literary foremother,” even though she was not an educated person.
Q. Some of your earlier writing touches on the way you often used to be identified as white, when in fact you felt very much connected to the nonwhite part of your identity. In an age where the concept of “identity” is a lot more fluid than it used to be, do you think it is easier for members of minorities and mixed families to assert their identities?
A. Yes, there is more fluidity, but that fluidity is still shaped through a very white lens. You can be biracial or mixed but it is usually shaped through whiteness. Particularly if you are mixed but have the capacity to blend, I don’t think it is necessarily any easier. It may seem that we are more liberal, like we are postrace, but if you are mixed with white there is always a push to identify as white, especially if you can pass ostensibly as white. I see it in my mixed students, and it’s still very problematic … because people have deep loyalties to their identities even when the shade of their skin indicates otherwise.
Q. Together with the late Gloria Anzaldua, you edited the anthology of feminist thought “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” a seminal work of feminist discourse published in 1981. What was collaborating with Anzaldua like? How did she influence your views?
A. Gloria was a very good friend and I think she influenced me the most by opening up to me certain questions I hadn’t really thought about before, like questions of real spirituality and metaphysics. She was a practitioner of metaphysics as a Chicana. She also made me think about the relationship between spirituality and politics — back then, I was a more serious materialist than I am now. And she did all of this through the lens of being Chicana. As Chicanas, much of our study of understanding our indigenous philosophy that’s not Western traditionally focuses on Mesoamerican and Mayan mythologies and religions. She was more versed in those than I was. She was an enormous resource with regards to that. It was a really pivotal time for both of us and it changed our lives forever.
Q. Do you have a favorite writer?
A. My favorite writers shift depending on what my needs are. There is currently one writer I often turn to — Linda Hogan, a native writer. She is a mixed-blood woman as well. She is a fierce feminist and has written a lot about eco-feminism and environmentalism.
Q. You have experimented with several literary genres. In addition to publishing books, anthologies, poems and essays, you write and direct plays — your latest one, “New Fire: To Put Things Right Again,” premiered last year. How would you characterize the relationship between the literary and the performative?
A. What usually happens is that the genre tells me what it wants to be. All of these genres have a thematic relation and respond to each other. Plays for the most part are fiction — I make up characters to tell, to show things and issues. In plays you can kind of show conflicts and you don’t have to resolve them — you present them as an embodied tale, and my characters can instruct by showing. Writing characters for plays is pleasurable to me because characters don’t need to be right. There is a tendency when you write an essay, for example, that you need to be right.
Q. Has teaching at Stanford given you a fresh perspective on some of the issues you have been tackling in your writing?
A. The great thing about teaching is that students are teaching you all the time. I always feel like I get older and they keep staying the same age. I look at my peers who don’t teach, and there is a way in which I feel like it makes me feel much more plugged in with trends and people’s ideas and technologies and popular culture, but also with a sense of what “citizenship” means and how people identify themselves and their relationships to their communities. Every 10 years you can sense the change of how each new generation is identifying itself. But they are hungry to know what they missed. In the late 60s and 70s, for example, political movement was on the streets, and it wasn’t abstracted into the university system. I feel like I am grateful for teaching because those kinds of intergenerational links can happen. I mean, my son is 20 years old, I have grandchildren coming in, I am always relating to young people. Teaching is enormously useful for me as a writer, I always have them in mind as I am writing. As I go out, they are coming in.
Q. In 1977, you moved to San Francisco where you worked as a waitress. Soon after that, you became politically active as a feminist, and eventually became engaged with women of color feminism. How do you think feminist activism has evolved over the past 30 years?
A. One of the critiques I have of how things work nowadays is that people think if movements happen on the Internet, they have happened. The Internet is important in terms of providing access to information transnationally and locally, and in the speed with which ideas can pass from one group to another. But you cannot have a movement without bodies, without people interacting physically, without them meeting in groups and working ideas out face-to-face — and taking these ideas to the White House, city hall, schools, wherever they need to be. There has to be embodied action. We need the Internet but there has to be a countermovement to it. We need to stay abreast of the technology but movements need to actually be enacted, with real strategies, real people, in real places.
Q. You are currently working on a book titled “Once Upon a Mexican America,” in which you tackle cultural amnesia through the lens of a Chicana lesbian. Could you tell us a little more about your work in progress?
A. I started with the intimate story of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, and realizing what her generation left. My strategy is really to make known that the so-called America is just one monoculture of mostly the white upper-middle class. When I talk about cultural amnesia, I talk about all that is lost. We should not forget who we are, the languages we speak, our spirituality, our relationship to land — all the ways in which we have knowledge that we are forgetting. The book is a memento on that, on how to negotiate white patriarchy. It is a very intimate story of what I perceive are very serious and grand motions that have to do with oppression of women of color in the U.S. and transnationally.