The Unwritten Story
As I explored a thrift store in uptown Taos, New Mexico, in search of fringe jackets, cow skulls and fur coats, a woman with short bleached hair turned to me and asked me a question on the items on sale. She had a distinctive accent that I recognized immediately from the years that I spent in the UK.
In fact, she was British. Jennifer Hodgson is a writer based in London and at the time she was doing research on British author Ann Quin, the first woman to win the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship. Quin moved to New Mexico and lived there for several years. The trip had a tremendous impact on her writing: imagine a woman who grew up in a tiny English town, finding herself in front of the mesas, the mountains, the endless space of the American southwest. And there I was, an Italian student from a small city on the seaside of Tuscany, walking for the first time on the West soil and talking to a Londoner that I met by chance. Still too immersed in the moment, I didn’t pay much attention to the meaning of the encounter and to what both Jennifer Hodgson and Ann Quin represented – European women writing New Mexico. I bought a real hare fur coat for three bucks, then left the thrift store.
Truth is that, for the two weeks that I was in Taos, my brain went blank and it was impossible for me to write about New Mexico. A real bummer – at the end of the day, that’s all I wanted to do, but even after visiting locations and literally plunging into the atmosphere and aesthetics of Taos, the objective of crafting a good story seemed very hard to achieve. Still, what I got from my time in New Mexico was a complete shift in the way I perceive writing about place. Now I am not entirely sure I will write a story set in New Mexico, mainly because of all the challenges that every writer of New Mexico encounters.
New Mexico is, in fact, a place of encounter. The contamination of cultures is a fundamental part of this state, and writing New Mexico without representing its Hispanic and American Indian population means to sketch a very far-fetched and non-inclusive depiction of the place. But how does a writer from Italy, who has never been to the West before, write about, say, American Indians? And should I even write about them? Am I even using the right terms? How can I include Native people in my writing, if I don’t even know the basics, such as the appropriate terminology to use when referring to them? I don’t know anything about their tribes and traditions, and I wouldn’t know where to start in my research. Their culture seems so far away from mine. I don’t want to go beyond the boundaries and the privacy, I don’t want to appropriate myself with something that should remain in the hands of those cultures who have been in Taos for centuries. And the same applies to the Hispanic population – the differences in terminology are important too and the good writer should definitely know what it means to be Hispanic, Spanish, Chicano, Mexican and so on. These are very specific identities, but New Mexico is a place of encounter, so descents and cultures are not easy to define.
The solution for a rookie writer like me seems obvious – do your homework. If you want to write about a place that is so complex and diverse, just study more. Still, the whole time I was in Taos, I couldn’t get over a question: who am I, as an Italian woman visiting Taos for two weeks, to write about New Mexico, to include Native Americans and Hispanic people in my writing and represent the real essence of “the land of enchantment”?
I think that, no matter how much time I may spend in New Mexico, its traditions and its people will always be a mystery. I will never understand what it means to be New Mexican, because “being New Mexican” is so difficult to define in the first place and different identities have different perceptions of what being New Mexican means. As much as a single writer of New Mexico can have a single voice, their voice is always in conversation with others’. This is not that different from what is happening in Europe now, though not without challenges. Different cultures are intertwining. Writing about Europe in the 21th century means to take into account diversity and multiculturalism. New Mexico has been living with encounters for so long, that European writers like me can only learn more from it about writing place. And then maybe our stories will finally be written.