Migrations, Moves, and Aftermaths: An Introduction to Issue 5 of constellations

Dec 7, 2022

Published in Introduction | Issue 5

By Alexandra Hidalgo, editor-in-chief

On October 5, 2021, I got an email with the subject line “Crow Chair in Composition at Pitt.” It was an invitation to apply to an endowed professorship at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English. Like many fellow academics, I’ve gotten plenty of application nudges over the years. When I was done reading this particular email, though, I remembered a scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Henry (Danny Glover) asks the Tenenbaum matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston) to marry him. The narrator tells us, “Since her separation from her husband, she had had many suitors but had not considered a single one until this moment.” It’s no surprise that my mind went straight for a marriage proposal because on September 7 (just shy of a month before opening the email), I’d started writing a novel that features its share of them.

The Cathedral of Learning. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

The novel’s story had come to me fairly fully formed (ooh, triple alliteration!) on April 15 of that year during one of my nightly dance sessions. The novel’s main protagonist is a Venezuelan-American professor who moves to Pittsburgh with her husband and two children to start a new position in the English Department of a prestigious fictional university. The seeds for Grand Gestures (as the novel is titled) were planted back in August 2020 when my husband Nate and I left our two boys with their grandmother and traveled to Pittsburgh to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. On that day, we visited Pitt’s campus and stood outside The Cathedral of Learning, a Gothic Revival tower that is the second tallest university building in the world. The tallest is at Moscow State University, where I studied for a semester back in 2000, a few months before Nate and I got married. Pretty wild, if you’re into coincidences, which, as you may have surmised from reading this, I am.

Because of the pandemic, the Cathedral was closed to the public, so Nate and I stared through one of its revolving doors. We gave each other a passionate can-you-believe-it’s-been-two-decades? kiss and continued our celebration of our time together—a time we agree has been the happiest and most magical of our lives. By now you’ve guessed that the Cathedral of Learning is where Pitt’s Department of English is located, and that I did apply for the job and was infinitely fortunate to be selected for it. As of this past August, Nate, our boys, and I live in Pittsburgh in a quaint house surrounded by dazzlingly tall trees, and I still beam as I walk into the world’s second-tallest university building week after week.

The story I’ve told you has elements of an upbeat dramedy featuring romance and multigenerational family dynamics—a fitting description for Grand Gestures. Or at least Grand Gestures’ first draft, which I’ve promised myself to finish by Winter Solstice, exactly 19 days from the moment I sit in my sunroom office typing this introduction. I love the story I just told you (which is why I chose to tell it), and every word of it is true. However, it is only a partial version of the story of how after nine years of a deeply satisfying career as a faculty member at Michigan State University’s Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures, I packed up my Bessey Hall office (including my Royal Tenenbaums DVD case) and left.

Carlota la Marmota. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Etheline Tenenbaum had divorced Royal (Gene Hackman) long before she accepted Henry’s proposal (not a spoiler, I swear). But I had a whole life at the time I applied for the Crow Chair, and I was extremely fond of it. I liked my life at work, and I loved my life outside of it: The close, intimate friendships that had taken Nate, the boys, and me years to cultivate and that felt well-worn and unbreakable. The mystical woods near our house where I walked morning after morning. The fact that our boys practically galloped to and from our neighborhood school, a place where their teachers had nurtured them since kindergarten, and where they had deep histories and friendships with their classmates. The groundhog (Charlotte the marmot AKA Carlota la marmota) that lived under our deck and had babies every summer, filling our yard with playfulness. I loved it all, and so did the three humans I share my life with. But that love didn’t keep us from starting over elsewhere.

Change, even the happiest, most fairy-taleish version of change, is hard. Change is a kind of loss, and loss hurts and disorients. I am not complaining about having won the academic lottery but, rather, trying to get at how complex and painful moves and migrations are even in the dreamiest of cases. And most moves and migrations are not the brainchild of Jane Austen aficionadas like yours truly. Most moves and migrations come with severance, confusion, and a sense of betrayal. They make us weep and lose track of who we thought we were. Not to mention of the family, friends, and community that shaped us. Moves and migrations suck, basically, but they also make us evolve, and if you believe the pop science articles and podcasts I consume here and there, they’ve been responsible for much of human growth and innovation millennia after millennia.

Our son William became an ace at labeling boxes. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

The work featured in our fifth issue is thematically linked by its meditations on the in-between—the uncomfortable, beautiful, devastating space we navigate as we reach for one thing while keeping our feet planted on another. Our authors move between cultures, cities, states, countries, languages, and friendships. They move between motherhood and chronic illness, between losing a sibling and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are in the aftermath, between disappointment and curiosity as a beloved novelist takes an inexplicable departure in the themes she explores. Our authors move between in-person and online teaching, between the relative safety of tenure and its potential vanishing. They lose, they gain, they grow wiser and, in turn, make us wiser as we accompany them on their journeys.

One of the hardest aspects of leaving Bessey Hall behind was parting from the graduate and undergraduate students who make this journal possible. Traditionally they leave us upon graduation—which is hard enough—but this time, I was the one leaving them. In particular, it felt impossible to part from our editorial assistant Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill, who for close to two years kept our journal’s intricate machinery running with poise, brilliance, kindness, and unflappable patience. I couldn’t begin to imagine who could fill in her shoes—and I am lost without our editorial assistant—which is why I feel so grateful to have found Yasmine Anderson. Yasmine has run with the position with the sort of competence and maturity that makes me feel hopeful for the future of academia (even as tenure and myriad other things we value are under fire).

Thank you also to our new social media manager Devon Pham and to Shannon Seidel. Shannon has been battling our byzantine WordPress structures to post the content you’re about to read. Kate Birdsall and The Cube were our staunchest allies back at MSU, and I thank them for years of steadfast support. As always, none of this would be possible without the ever-sharp and utterly delightful managing editors who made this issue possible: Sonia Arellano, Lauren Brentnell, José Luis Cano Jr., Brandon M. Erby, Jo Hsu, Catheryn Jennings, Daisy Levy, Alexis McGee, and Kimberly Weiser. Our review editor, Ana Milena Ribero, worked with our three review authors to craft their arguments to reflect the books and their own ideas with oomph and lucidity. And we also thank you, readers, for visiting constellations. Whether you’ve been here before or this is your first time, we welcome you. Now, let me introduce you to the work we’re so proud to feature in our fifth issue.

Our son Santiago with the picture frames that decorated the walls of our East Lansing living room. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’s video essay “Dancing Danny” is her touching tribute to her brother Danny after his untimely passing. Rodríguez Milanés accompanies her haunting narration with Super 8 footage that her Cuban immigrant mother shot of her children as they grew up in New Jersey and Miami in the sixties and seventies. As much a love letter to her mother as it is to her brother, Rodríguez Milanés’s video essay transports us into a family’s past, sharing intimate moments with us. They celebrate birthdays and holidays, they laugh and dance, they move across the country. Meditating on memory, immigration, loss, and the joys and heartaches of belonging to a tight-knit family, “Dancing Danny” exemplifies how powerful home footage can be when—like Rodríguez Milanés—we analyze, question, and learn from the version of reality captured by those images.

In “‘Dear Spoonie Mom:’ Digital Open Letters as Counter Narratives for Chronically Ill Mothers,” Cristina De León-Menjivar builds her argument by drawing from her personal experience and that of fellow chronically ill mothers who describe their struggles and coping mechanisms on The Mighty blog. The mothers featured in this piece turn to The Mighty to connect with each other while fostering empathy and a sense of belonging and possibility for their peers. Being a mother of two who struggles with hypothyroidism and endometriosis, De León-Menjivar generously shares her own story and uses insight gained from navigating parenthood and chronic illness to deliver a nuanced analysis of the rhetorical strategies employed by The Mighty’s bloggers. “Spoonie Mom” is a poignant example of cultural rhetorics’ ability to deepen our understanding of how to blend the personal with the empirical to pinpoint a topic’s emotional core.

Me sorting and resorting paintings and picture frames as we tried to find their new home in our new home. Photo by Nathaniel Bowler.

Vani Kannan’s “Language as a Moving Anchor: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, Asian/American Rhetorics and the Politics of ‘Linguistic Migration’” finds Kannan coming to terms with her identity as she examines her reactions to Lahiri’s most recent novel. For almost two decades, Kannan found Lahiri’s fictional explorations of the Indian diaspora generative as she crafted her own identity as a US-born-and-raised child of Indian and White parents. However, Whereabouts centers on a writer living in Italy, whose cultural and national backgrounds remain opaque as she feels personally and creatively isolated. Kannan uses this departure from Lahiri’s traditional themes as a springboard for her multilayered and insightful analysis of what we expect from authors, and what is lost and gained when a writer eschews topics that have been centerpieces of her work. Kannan’s article reminds us that cultural rhetorics’ embrace of storytelling in its many forms can bridge literary and rhetorical criticism to help us study some of the topics that define us within and beyond scholarship.

Alexis McGee and Ana Milena Ribero moderated our “Tenure Under Attack: An Examination of Tenure’s Viability and Value in the Neoliberal Academy” conversation. Featuring Carmen Kynard, José Manuel Cortez, Khadeidra Billingsley, and José Luis Cano Jr., this lively and enlightening dialogue walks readers through on-the-ground experiences of graduate students and faculty as they weather politicians and administrators’ attempt to erode tenure’s status. Our authors cover such vital topics as administrators using tenure reviews to influence faculty’s publication choices and funding tenure line requests that don’t cause too many ripples, as well as how tenure has become a pawn in the anti-Critical-Race-Theory political wars. Alternating between wit and deep insight, this conversation helps us think through crucial issues that academics will continue to face over decades to come.

In “A Constellation of Crises: Teaching with Technology During COVID,” Sonia Arellano and Lauren Brentnell moderate a dialogue between Laura Gonzales, Alexandria Lockett, Dennis Foung, and Morgan C. Banville about their experiences teaching online and sustaining student (and their own) morale during the pandemic. This account was captured as the pandemic kept us boxed in our Zoom screens, a snapshot of an unprecedented time in education as it was unfolding. Our authors discuss figuring out how to teach online and helping colleagues do the same, concerns about data surveillance that surface once students are forced to move online, and how lack of access to equipment and fast internet connections marginalized already marginalized populations. As we (hopefully) continue to make our way out of the pandemic, this conversation reminds us of faculty, students, and administrators’ ingenuity and generosity in times of crisis.

The boys right before they ride a school bus for the first time in their lives. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

In his review of Leigh Gruwell’s Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics, Shiva Mainaly delineates the book’s value to readers interested in the long-term effect that craft agency and attunement have had on feminist activism. Mainaly also provides a detailed and thoughtful assessment of the book’s pedagogical innovation and of its argument for the field of new materialism to celebrate the contributions that—over millennia—indigenous cultures have made to our understanding of our interactions with the objects that weave the fabric of our lives.

In “Black Tech Matters: A Review of Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software,” Codi Renee Blackmon reviews Charlton McIlwain’s study of how Black people have been kept out of digital spaces and how Black activists, computer scientists, and entrepreneurs (among many others) have pushed back on that exclusion. Blackmon’s smart and thorough review takes readers through the book’s ample scope from the Internet’s early days to the role social media plays in protesting police brutality and violence against Black bodies. As Blackmon shows in her review, McIlwain’s book is a revelatory look at how racism in real life replicates itself in digital spaces and how millions have and continue to battle that racism online and off.

Stella Takvoryan’s “‘You Know, Anger Can Be Righteous’: A Review of James Chase Sanchez’s Salt of the Earth and Joel Fendelman’s Man on Fire” is a powerful review of two interrelated projects—a scholarly book and a feature documentary—in which Sanchez analyzes the racist culture in his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas. Centering around the 2014 self-immolation of Methodist minister Charles Moore in protest of Grand Saline’s racism, Sanchez (who authored the book and is one of the film’s producers) uses the event to shine a light on his hometown’s exclusionary practices. As Takvoryan argues, the book and the film allow Sanchez to draw on his personal experiences to provide rich, complementary accounts of the US’s racial struggles.

Works Cited

The Royal Tenenbaums. Directed by Wes Anderson, performances by Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson. Touchstone Pictures, 2001.

About the Author

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan writer, filmmaker, theorist, memoirist, and editor whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States. She is the recipient of From the Heart Productions’ inaugural “Carole Joyce Award for Excellence in Documentary Storytelling.” Her videos and writing have been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, The Criterion Collection, and Women and Hollywood. She has a PhD in English from Purdue University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and is associate professor and Crow Chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the 2018 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her scholarship has been published in Kairos, Composition Studies, Enculturation, and Peitho, among others. Her video essay, “Motherhood on the Screen,” received the 2020 Kairos Best Webtext Award. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits

Copyeditors: Nathaniel Bowler, Yasmine Anderson, and Devon Pham

Editorial Assistant: Yasmine Anderson

Social Media Manager: Devon Pham