Investigating Barber and Mormon Literature

Guest post by Ángel Chaparro Sáinz

Moderator’s Note: This is part of AML’s ongoing effort to feature news of critical projects related to Mormon letters. If you’re working on something you want to let people know about, contact the AML blog coordinator, Jonathan Langford, at
Jonathan AT motleyvision DOT org.

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.

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7 Responses to Investigating Barber and Mormon Literature

  1. Scott Hales says:

    Great post. I think it’s encouraging that this kind of work is being done in Europe. I look forward to seeing what more you do with Mormon literature. A lot of critical work needs to be done, and it sounds like you’re off to a great start with your research into Barber. Any plans on revising your dissertation for publication?

    I’m also curious about your thoughts on what Mormon literature has to offer non-Mormon readers. You mention how it helped expose you to a culture foreign to your own, and how it proposes new ways of thinking about the self, the Western American experience, and religion and literature.

    Anything else?

    I also wonder what your thoughts are on Mormon literature’s potential to be a World or transnational literature.

  2. Angel says:

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate it. I’ll try to answer your three questions but I guess that it would take too long. First, I’m thinking about revising my dissertation and getting it published. I’ve got an offer here in Spain but I would love to do it also in the States because I think I could make two different versions, intended to two different kind of audiences. But I don’t even know how to start, I’ll have to think about it. Second, I think that Mormon literature has a lot to offer to an international audience. I believe in the usefulness of listening to different voices and the meaning of different experiences. So far, I’m still reluctant to make general statements, but I could tell you about my learning, basically through the reading of Barber’s literature but also after reading some other stuff by Mormons, both fiction and criticism. Feminist or ecocritical approaches could be added to those you mentioned, I mean the self or the Western frame. Again, I guess I could expand on this but I always need too many words to make myself understandable in English, and it would be weird to keep on revising a post as if it were an academic paper, guess you know what I mean. Third, talking about Mormon literature’s potential, I have been surprised by the quality of certain writers, the engagement of the whole Mormon literary community and the range of possible issues that Mormon experience may offer. I’m aware of the fact that my own experience and my own worldview makes me sensible to a kind of literature that may be considered “controversial” or “disruptive” if we consider certain standards, but literature needs conflict of some kind, and there are cultural, social, spiritual or personal “conflicts” within Mormon community which sound both particular and universal at once. I’m interested in these paradoxes and connections. I’m not that knowledgeable about the work being done by Mormons in foreign countries, out of the States, but if there is some production being done within Mormon culture in some other countries that would make the topic much more complex, and when talking about World or transnational literature that would make Mormon literature even more intriguing and stimulating. So far, I’ve been only able to consider it within the context of Western American literature.
    Anyway, hope you’re not disappointed by my answers, but I’ll try to answer any question you may have and I need to say again thanks to all you for your interest in my dissertation. And let me mention especially the names of Jonathan Langford and William Morris to whom I will be indebted for a long time. Instead of saying thanks again, I’ll do it in one of my languages, just to change a little bit:
    Eskerrik asko!

    • Scott Hales says:

      Not disappointed at all.

      I’ll keep an eye out for your work. I’m about a year away from writing my dissertation, which I intend to do on contemporary Mormon fiction as well. I’m especially interested to learn about your eco-critical approach since it’s potentially similar to things I’ve been doing with Mormon urban planning and its intersections with Mormon literature.

      I haven’t really looked for Mormon writers outside of the USA either, although I think the work of Todd Robert Petersen is probably the best Mormon fiction out there that has a transnational push to it.

      I also have to confess my lack of experience with the work of Barber. This post and your interview on A Motley Vision have convinced me to repent.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’ve read both this post and the interview at MotleyVision and I’m fascinated and encouraged that any of our writers attracted this level of attention and scholarship. But in the end, a writer is a writer to entertain and/or communicate one on one. Over at MV, you specifically mention that “Mormon Levis” was your first contact with Barber’s work, but after that, you are silent about her specific titles. I’m left wondering a couple things. Which novel or memoir or short story most resonated with you? And did a particular title or two receive more attention than the others in your analysis? And, of course, add “Why?” to both those questions.

    I have only read Barber’s _How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir_, _And the Desert Shall Blossom_ (novel), and _Parting the Veil: Stories from a Mormon Imagination_. I enjoyed all, but loved _How I Got Cultured_. That, however, is bc I have been a Mormon teenaged girl, not from Nevada but sunny Southern Cal wasn’t all that different.

  4. Wm Morris says:

    I’ve used various terms in relation to Mormons and Mormon literature, asking if it’s an ethnic literature, a minor literature, a sub-set of western regionalism, etc. I think from now on I’ll just use: “specific, quasi-ethnic minor group”

    Thanks, Ángel.

  5. Angel says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Sorry for being so late to answer but I guess I was in bed while you were writing, there is an ocean in between us. I worked with all the fiction written by Barber, all the books you mention there plus Raw Edges which she published a year ago. I did also read her two books for children, Smiley Snake and Legs, and I read and worked with all (or most of them) the articles she’s been publishing in magazines. Oh, yeah, and now that I look back to your list, I see that you are missing The School of Love, a collection of short stories. All of them were very important to my dissertation. I guess that And the Desert Shall Blossom and How I Got Cultured may have a longer space in the dissertation, but the short stories in Parting and The School were key to my sections dealing with Mormonism and Feminism. Raw Edges came too late, when my dissertation was almost done, but I tried to add some reflections after reading that book because it was fundamental, it was like closing some circles. But I’ll come back to that book in depth, maybe write some article or something like that, because I know I can make a better analysis. Her two autobiographies together are a very important material to work with. Every book was specifically used for some goal and all of them were all together used to give a general overview of her job. You have to bear in mind that I used different approaches, so, for example, The School was key to study women, Parting was key to study Mormonism and Barber, How I Got was key to approach her literature from an ecocritical point of view (Las Vegas), And the Desert was key to analyze all these topics, ecocriticism (Colorado River), feminism (marriage), religion, music… and Raw Edges was key not only to understand, again, those topics, but to understand how those book were written and why.
    Anyway, sorry again for being late answering. Here is like 8 o’clock am, and I’m still partially asleep, so I hope I gave you a good answer. In any case, again, thanks for your comments.
    And I’m happy to hear you find a new label, William,

  6. Saskia says:

    Thanks for the article, it was really interesting to read! I’m hoping to enter a PhD program next year in Germany, American Studies with focus on transnationalism. I would love to research Mormons, and I wondered if you had any further tips on what kind of research themes would pertain to transnational Mormon literature? Thanks so much!

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