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Writing identity: the art of Cherrie Moraga

Oct 17 2011

Cherríe Moraga is an artist of multiple identities: playwright, essayist, poet; Chicana, lesbian, mother, feminist, indigenous rights activist.  After many years of writing and over ten years serving as an artist-in-residence in the Drama Department of Stanford University, Moraga continues to explore these identities as a guiding source of meaning and purpose in her most recent works.  Moraga’s collection of personal essays from the past decade, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, was published this year.  Furthermore, her upcoming play New Fire, both written and directed by Moraga, is scheduled to premiere at Brava Theater Center in January.

According to Moraga, writing is a way of inscribing identity.  This ability for words and stories to communicate central truths about oneself resides at the heart of her book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, and is epitomized in Moraga’s self-conscious decision to spell Xicana with an ‘x’.  In an artist’s salon held recently at the Clayman Institute, Moraga prefaced her reading from the book with an explanation of this creative choice: “The ‘x’ in Nahuatl, which is one of hundreds of indigenous tongues in Mexico, is pronounced as a kind of ‘ch’.  So when you write [Xicana] with the ‘x’ you’re reflecting a politic that’s attached on some level to questions of indigenous identity.”  The ‘x’ epitomizes Moraga’s attitude towards writing and politics.  Writing is a source of power; it enables individuals to take ownership of their identity.

While Moraga’s example encourages people to take creative ownership of multiple identities, Moraga courageously admits that this is not easy or simple to do.  Human consciousness changes; identities shift.  Moraga recognizes that one of the most central aspects of her identity as an artist is uncertainty.  “I write essays because I have a question and I can’t read the answer in a book,” Moraga said.  Similarly, Moraga postulated that her fascination with theater stems from the freedom to depict characters as fallible individuals.  “I think that, as an author… you have to be full of mistakes,” Moraga concluded.  Mistakes are an important part of shared human identity.  Mistakes, too, can be a source of power.

In the midst of these uncertainties, Moraga finds one vital certainty in the impulse to create – the need to tell one’s own story.  Moraga described how the process of writing some of her essays was preceded by an overwhelming physical sensation of sickness – a physical echo of the need to articulate one’s own questions and experiences.  The central character of New Fire faces a similar hybrid of physical and spiritual malady on the eve of her 52nd birthday, a landmark number in Meso-American culture.  “In order to get well what she has to do is remember, of course,” Moraga divulges.  For Moraga, the connection between memory and storytelling is clear: “memories are stories we tell ourselves.”  Just as memories are a critical part of our personal identity, so are stories a unifying point of our shared identity.

Whether exercising her role as an essayist, a poet, or a playwright, Cherríe Moraga is a storyteller.  She tells stories in order to codify her own myriad identities, and in doing so she expands the vicarious experience and memory of those who encounter her work.  Her stories become our stories, in ritual if not in truth.  We encounter her identities in order to better understand—and expand—our own.

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