Guest post by Ángel Chaparro Sáinz
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An interview with Ángel Chaparro Sáinz was recently published at A Motley Vision website.
Some eight years ago I decided to go back to college. Life was becoming a dull routine. I needed some kind of intellectual challenge. So I chose the less promising postgraduate program that I could have chosen, one dealing with literature, and I went upstairs to the junk room to get my bag and my bus season ticket back.
First weeks were just exciting. It was all I was looking for: reading new books and discussing about them. That was everything I needed. Besides, I was discovering new names: Alejandro Morales, Sabine Ulibarri, John Okada, Scott Momaday, Robert Laxalt, Frank Bergon, Denis Chavez, Yxta Maya Murray… And Phyllis Barber.
You already know this, but I didn’t then, so I paid attention when the professor explained that Barber was a Mormon and who the Mormons were. So far, I guess you won’t be surprised, the word Mormon was just a funny name to refer to one of those smiling couples you could always bump into in the street. That professor closed his exposition saying something like this: “Nobody is searching the Mormons, by the way, so if you still need a topic for your future dissertation, there you are.”
Four months later, when I realized that I was not feeling brave enough to propose a dissertation about rock lyrics, I knocked on the door of that professor, said hi and then did not hesitate to say: “Ok, I’ll do it, I’ll research those Mormons.”
That was so long ago that in the meantime I have been working as a professor, I have been unemployed, I have been living in the States and I’m living now with my girlfriend in a little apartment in Bilbao. That was so long ago that it finally amounted to six hundred pages of written paper that I bound together to call it a dissertation and that I defended before an examining board two weeks ago. The final title, this one: “Contemporary Mormon Literature: Phyllis Barber’s Writing.” The aim, this one: offering a thorough and complete analysis of Phyllis Barber’s literary production and, at the same time, helping to give visibility to Mormon literature in a European academic realm and within the framework of Western American literature and Minority literatures which are the appropriate labels to place Mormon literature if we consider the programs of European universities. To that aim, before analyzing in depth Phyllis Barber’s books from four different perspectives which required different methodological approaches ranging from ecocriticism to feminism, I did write and include two long introductions, one to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the second one, an introduction to the history of Mormon literature. Some of the members in the examining board stated that the length of these two introductions was barely justified when considering the relevance of that information to exercise the following analysis of Barber’s literature, but the truth is that I took that risk on purpose. I wanted to deliver this dissertation with high respect to a culture that was so foreign to me. Thus, I had to learn a lot about a lot of things. And after I did such a long researching about Mormon history, culture and literature, I felt that it was appropriate and interesting to offer that knowledge so that Mormon literature could be visible in European, or at least in Basque and Spanish, scholarship.
I know this is not the aim of this sort of confession I am writing today, so I will free you from further appreciations about the formal and technical aspects of the work. What I really want to say here today is that I never regretted the day I went upstairs to the office of that professor who was to become the advisor of my dissertation and knocked on his door. Since that day, I have been able to appreciate a culture that was totally foreign to me. And the challenge to understand a different worldview and the many potential derivations of such a worldview, some of them disruptive and controversial, helped in a personal level to open my spectrum and complicate my definition of self. Thanks to these tiring and demanding years of researching, I have been able to meet grand people and good pieces of fiction. Not only Barber has been worth of it, also different books by authors such as Linda Sillitoe, Samuel W. Taylor, Lance Larsen, Levi Peterson, Vardis Fisher, Maurine Whipple, John Bennion, Virginia Sorensen, Terry Tempest Williams, Orson Scott Card, Carol Lynn Pearson… have enriched my personal life and my scholar expertise. As Mormon criticism has done when showing me how complex and engaged a criticism becomes when you have to deal with issues that go beyond the mere formal aspects of literature. My two introductions to the history of both the Church and the literature could not have been accomplished without the references I make (sometimes I guess I’m even abusing) to the work by people that I came to admire, Mormons and non-Mormons, scholars such as Wallace Stegner, Jan Schipps, Leonard Arrington, Michael Austin, Eugene England, William Mulder, Thomas O’Dea, Terryl L. Givens, William H. Handley, Edward Geary, Bruce W. Jorgensen, Richard Cracroft, Maxine Hanks, Juanita Brooks, Dennis Clark, Laura L. Bush, Gideon Burton, Fawn M. Brodie or Lavina Fielding Anderson, just to name a few of them.
Mormon literature deserves a place within the study of Western American literature because Mormon approach offers a different vision of the Western experience, both when looking back to history but also in present time. As a specific, quasi-ethnic minor group, Mormons and the Mormon literature do also present a new set of moral characteristics that proposes new considerations for the relationship between religion and literature, or about the construction of self, both in fictional and personal dimensions. But apart from that, Mormon literature does also need a proper space because, simply, there are good books that we could label as Mormon, even if sometimes the label proves to be slippery or incomplete, as it happens with all labels. To those names I mentioned before, you can add some more: Neil LaBute, Brady Udall, Eric Samuelsen, Douglas Thayer, Darrell Spencer… And, of course, again, let me say it once more, Phyllis Barber.
I was an outsider when I began this dissertation and I am still an outsider. But I don’t feel like a total outsider anymore. Some kind of veil parted for me, and it was not between the divine and my earthly existence, but, at least, it was between the Mormons (“those Mormons” some eight years ago) and me. The journey has been long and weary but it was worth it.
Biographical Blurb: My name is Ángel Chaparro Sáinz and, at the present time, I’m a professor of English at the University of the Basque Country. I earn a degree in English Philology from the same university and I have recently accomplished my doctorate studies with a final dissertation on Phyllis Barber’s writing which got a final mark of summa cum laude. In the last few years I have been attending conferences and publishing papers on topics dealing with Barber, Mormon literature and Western American literature in different parts of Spain and Portugal. I am a member of the research group REWEST, founded by the Spanish government, which aims at analyzing different representations of the West in literature and other artistic fields. Besides, I live in Barakaldo, in the outskirts of Bilbao, I love writing, reading, listening to music, nature, soccer, basketball, running and traveling. My first language is Spanish but I also speak English and Basque.