Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden: Writers Crossing Digital Borders

Niamh Thornton,

University of Ulster, Coleraine


Writing in The New York Review of Books in April 2010 the Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, described the delight of Twitter as being “like having fairies at the bottom of your garden.” Taking what is a social networking tool and turning it into a space for dialogue, promotion and fan feedback is one that many others have also used. Twitter is not the only platform used in this way. Taking full advantage of what web 2.0 has to offer, writers are using a variety of online tools including websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook, to reach and engage with their readers. Where before writers had to rely on a well-financed and enthusiastic publishing house, now they impel their private selves into the public in short bursts of pithy observations and commentaries. This article considers this transition from producer to vendor that writers have had to adopt, and the differing uses that a selection of Mexican and Chicana writers make of online spaces and social networking tools in order to bridge the gap and dialogue with their fairies.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in April 2010 the Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, described the delight of Twitter as being “like having fairies at the bottom of your garden”. Taking what is a social networking tool and turning it into a space for dialogue, promotion and fan feedback is one that many others have also used. The micro-blogging site has established itself as a useful tool for politicians, celebrities, and writers to communicate efficiently and casually with their ‘followers’, as Twitter friends are called. Twitter is but one of the new tools that have become prevalent for writers to engage with their readers. The social networking site, Facebook, and more conventional personal blogging sites have also been employed by writers to communicate with and draw in a readership. Where before writers had to rely upon the skills of their publishing house’s marketing department, now they choose to impel their ‘private’ selves into the public in sometimes short bursts of pithy observations and commentaries in Twitter and Facebook and longer, more discursive pieces in blogs and websites. This paper will consider this transition from producer to promoter that writers have had to adopt, and the differing uses that a selection of Mexican and Chicana writers make of the web, blogs, and social networking tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, in order to bridge the gap and dialogue with their fairies.

Twitter, Facebook and blogs are part of what is called web 2.0, a term devised by Tim O’Reilly to differentiate the newer form of interaction on the web from the previous, static, spaces created by individuals, companies, governments and organizations (Walker Rettberg 9). Jill Walker Rettberg describes this transition, “[t]he first wave of Web developers focused largely on publishing content. Web 2.0, on the other hand, develops services that allow users to share their own content and to use the Web as a platform” (ibid.). This platform is also one which the reader can (usually) have access to and comment on, thus allowing for dialogue.

The interactivity varies according to the rules and functionality of the specific platform. A website may have space for a discussion thread, and this, in turn, can be edited and controlled by the author or site manager. This is also the case with a blog. Most blog sites allow the author the right to edit comments, or even disallow comment on their posts. In contrast, Twitter is a live feed, others can interact with, comment and discuss what has been posted, without authorial control. Facebook, whose express aim on its welcome page is that it “helps you connect and share with the people in your life”, foregrounds positive sharing and connection, as too do its ‘comment’ or ‘like’ options after posts.

Each of these forms encourage and foment different types of interactivity, comments and sharing. Those blogs which allow open-ended discussions and interaction necessitate vigilance by the author, creating extra work. The author has to read and sometimes must edit these. Whilst most readers of blogs who comment engage positively with authors’ posts there are other more negative presences, such as spam or trolls. The only options to get rid of these persistently negative posters – or trolls, who can create havoc on sites by instigating rows – are for the author of a blog to read the discussion threads or block comments entirely. Similarly, with spam the author must edit consistently, therefore requiring significant work.

The open-ended nature of the blog, which may instigate a discussion that can lead the readers to discuss entirely unrelated matters, is both one of its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand for the author he/she can read, respond and engage with his/her readers, creating a sense of a personal relationship. On the other, if the blog is very popular it can lead to very time-consuming and detailed discussions which stray from the author’s interests. For all of these reasons authors often disallow comments, thereby negating the interactive nature of a blog.

In contrast, Facebook and Twitter encourage both interactivity and brevity. Facebook allows for lengthy posts, but only shows a portion of them, therefore generally resulting in short posts. Devised for mobile technology, Twitter only allows 140 characters which is the same as a text message. As a result, they are more difficult to edit. Facebook does allow for deletion; Twitter only if it violates US law. However, it is unusual on both platforms. What most authors do is remove friends or followers if they no longer wish to engage with them.

Much of the research for this paper relies on a longitudinal study, because there is a need to build information about the authors’ self-presentation in what is a different medium.[1] This project took place between August 2010 and July 2011, which allows me to provide both an evolution of online usage, but also an insight into a moment in time in what is an ever-evolving situation. In this article I use the word ‘author’ to mean the persona that is presented on the web and ‘writer’ when I refer to the person behind the work of fiction. This is to differentiate between the often invisible presence of a fiction writer, as opposed to the online self-characterisation that takes place through the web, blogging and social media. Here the conceptualisation of self is important. Vivane Serfaty writes about the “veil of the screen” which suggests “that online diarists and bloggers use their writing as a mirror that allows them to see themselves more clearly and to construct themselves as subjects in a digital society, but also as a veil that will always conceal much of their lives from their readers” (Walker Rettberg 12). What is concealed is impossible to determine. However, what is revealed through the veil of the screen will be the subject of this article. Allied to this is Zygmunt Bauman’s exploration of “individualization” which, for him, “consists in transforming human ‘identity’ from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’ – and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance” (144). [2] Following on from these conceptualizations the writer thus becomes author through the performance of an online self.

The selves that are being considered are a comparison of a selection of Chicana writers: Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Gwendolyn Zepeda; and Mexican women writers: Carmen Boullosa, Ana Clavel Ana García Bergua and Cristina Rivera Garza. These writers were chosen because they have a web presence, that is they or their publishers host a website, blog, engage with Twitter or have an active Facebook. Not all of the writers that I am considering here have the same level of activity online, but they do have web personas. In contrast, there is a Facebook fan site in Norma Cantú’s name but there is no activity there. Similarly, Denise Chavez does not have website or blog. Consequently, neither of these writers is under consideration here. What is of interest in these two examples is that despite the apparent imperative to market a self in the world of publishing and the growth in platforms and media, there are many writers who do not have an online presence beyond their publisher’s page or that of an online bookseller.

Although most of my focus is on social media and Web 2.0, I shall start with websites. These are often the base through which connections to other author sites can be found. Outside of listservs, which work on an invitation only basis and before social media, websites are where people connect and source information. [3]In the introduction to this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation, AnaLouise Keating states that, “[t]he Internet is my lifeline, my intellectual sustenance, my connection out of this small dusty town in eastern New Mexico” (Keating 6). She mentions two sites which particularly sustained her: chicana.com and chicana.net, neither of which is now maintained. They have become superseded by individuals’ sites. Where before there were connected, aggregation sites such as these, there is now a page lost in cyberspace alongside multiple individuated selves.

Sandra Cisneros has a strong online presence. Her website, which is designed and maintained by her publishing house is testament to how a successful writer is well supported by a publishing infrastructure. Her page (http://www.sandracisneros.com/index.php) has simple visuals with a photo of herself in a Mexican shawl, indigenous style jewellery, a straw hat, flowing hair against the background of a ruined building and is clearly labelled to be taken at Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato, Mexico by Alan Goldfarb. The banner image is a multicolour flag behind her name in white font. The colourful banner evokes the Mexican blankets and echoes her self-stylisation in the photo. This is Cisneros wearing her indigenous Mexicanness proudly and as part of her online self. As a medium “where the visual is of primary importance” and “[p]resentational qualities take precedence over the discursive”, such imagery is of primary importance (Gibson 5). Many of the other photographs of Cisneros reflect this same self-stylisation using a mix of Mexican indigenous and ‘western’ clothing.

Ana Castillo plays with similar imagery on the home page of her website (http://www.anacastillo.com/content/). Place, while unmarked by any title, is obviously important in the photograph used. She is sitting outside in a Mexican-style chair, in what is recognizably a Mexican-US border landscape. Unlike Cisneros, she is dressed in a plain white shirt and blue jeans and is wearing hooped earrings. Therefore, her clothes are not evocative of an indigenous past, but of a US style. In other photos on the site she is dressed in contemporary ‘western’ clothing. Instead, Castillo uses landscape in the photograph as an identifiable marker, as well as the style of the banner and content of the page, to assert her Chicana identity.

In contrast, the self-styled ‘Chick Lit’ and children’s book writer, Gwendolyn Zepeda’s website (http://gwendolynzepeda.com/) is devoid of obvious Mexican borderland visual markers. Her home page is a photograph that she took of birds on electricity wires at dusk on a cloudy day. The clouds, relative lack of colour, cables, and the birds mean that the photo lacks any identifiable specificity. Over the photos is a rolling series of quotations of positive reviews of her work. Zepeda is of a younger generation of chicana writers and, therefore, traces her ethnicity differently. She chooses not to present an ethnic self in a specific landscape and, instead, is appealing to a wider audience. Unlike Cisneros and Castillo, Zepeda has multiple other links and ways of following her online. Where Cisneros writes an intermittent news section that is styled as a letter to her readers, and Castillo updates her homepage regularly with news of appearances, collaborations and public engagements, Zepeda has links to her blog, Twitter and Facebook pages as well as her email address. All three have links to their agents and publicists. While Castillo and Cisneros limit links to the last two, Zepeda has a long history of online usage. She is an active blogger (including some under a pseudonym) and is very self-conscious of her online personae (Zepeda 2011b). Zepeda’s web presence is an example of how “[n]etworked communications need interfaces that hop across nodes, exploiting the unique character of distributed communication” (Kelly and Wolf 222). Cisneros and Castillo’s pages are closed and encourage the reader to explore the sites further or direct the user to read their books; whereas, Zepeda encourages movement from her page to other pages following the dynamics of Web 2.0. That is, she provides opportunities for node hopping, as Kelly and Wolf have fashioned it, in order to continue an enriched experience of the author and her world, interests, and connections.

Zepeda’s blogging activity linked to her current site consists of a blog which is directed at her readers and is about her working methods, some vignettes from her personal life, reflections on the nature of blogging, and information on forthcoming novels and appearances. She does not allow comments on her blog site, as she states in one post, “I’m disabling comments on this post (and probably on future ones, too) because I’ve received my lifetime quota of spam comments from people selling knock-off watches and bags” (Zepeda 2011c). Instead, she gets reader feedback on her Facebook and formerly on her Twitter account. Added to this blog she has several other blog postings which are largely biographical illustrated stories, variously entitled “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, “Mexico Love”, “Patterns”, “Prom Love” and “Strip Club Adventure.” From these the link back to the blog page on her site is entitled “back to Gwen’s Trailer Trash Page.” This is typical of the idiosyncratic, ironic and humorous tone of the blog entries and the illustrated stories.

Another small button above these stories brings the reader to yet another blog site “Damn Hell Ass Kings”, which is a filterblog, where the blogger functions as a curator and filters and collates other blogs often without any editorial comment (Walker Rettberg 12). The reader can follow a series of these links to other sites. Often blogs have favourite sites linked on the right or left hand sides of the homepage, but this filterblog is linked through a small rectangular image with the aforementioned title and a picture of a baby doll that could easily be overlooked by the reader. Its name does not give any indication of what it is until the reader clicks through and then follows some of the links given. In a Twitter exchange, the author confirmed that it is a reference to a Simpson’s episode, “referencing the only curse words they could say on tv” (Zepeda 2011a). The title is both playful – further building the author’s web persona – and results in a very clean presentation of the website and the blog. Therefore, Zepeda’s blogging practice is diverse and creatively explores the three categories of blogs outlined by Walker Rettberg: the aforementioned filterblog, her illustrated stories are “personal or diary-style” blogs and, the work and book promotion blog conforms to the “topic-driven” blog (Walker Rettberg 12). None of these categories is exclusive and, as I have already considered, there is some overlap. All three contribute to creating her authorial voice and a ludic online voice aimed at building a readership as well as expressing herself creatively in a different medium.

Success online and off is not equivalent nor does it have an easy correlation. Cisneros and Castillo have sold many books and had been well-established names in Chicano studies for many years before the web has been used as a tool for authors. Zepeda has had good sales of her books, but, as a less well-known author, she relies on the web as a tool for dissemination and promotion more than the other two writers. In many ways, Zepeda is working in a different publishing environment to the one in which Cisneros and Castillo emerged and built a readership. Now is a time of much uncertainty and competition for readership.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba sits somewhere between Cisneros and Castillo’s largely closed websites and the multi-nodal nature of Zepeda’s site. Gaspar de Alba’s site opens on a banner page with an image of a pen commemorating the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes; images of the cover pages of her four novels and of one of her critical texts, and a visit counter. There the visitor can click on the pen to get to the homepage or on the various texts to go directly to the books. This format foregrounds her writing and encourages the visitor to become a(n offline) reader. On the homepage there are several links to the left where the visitor can find out more about the author, click through to the texts (some of which are highlighted), go to her blog, a news link, and a link to the University of California, Los Angeles, where the author works. Like Zepeda, the design is not markedly Chicana; it foregrounds Gaspar de Alba’s writing. The pen as a metonym for writing with its oblique allusion to a Hispanic writing legacy in its design, positions herself clearly as a writer first and some of her other identifying markers (Lesbian, Chicana, activist, professor, bowler and so on) are revealed later in the site. This connection to her writerly self is made clear in a playful blog entry, which is framed as a letter to Gaspar de Alba from the Mexican poet and writer, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz:

What I most like (other than that impressive collection of fountain pens on display) is that it shows the world that you are a writer first and foremost, and that your academic life, though rich and productive and successful, is but one aspect of your identity. Let the world know that you wear both the mortar board of an academic and a writer’s hat (a brown felt Stacy Adams that you bought on Venice Beach), and that for 15 years now, you’ve been doing a juggling act balancing your writing projects with your working life at the university. (Gaspar de Alba 2008)

Sor Juana is an omniscient critical voice here who Gaspar de Alba uses to underscore textually what is evident from the visual interface of the site.

Gaspar de Alba is not a regular blogger on this site: six in 2008, two in 2009 and four in 2010, none so far in 2011). The entries on “Cooking with Sor Juana” are reflections on writing, in particular her two attempts at writing 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month and a third successful go; her travels; some book releases; and some personal diary-style entries. There is some overlap between these. Therefore, these entries conform to two of the three types of blog: topic-driven and personal. With no filtering or links to other blogs, this blog is that of an author reflecting on the creative process from a very practical point of view. Primarily, she writes about getting time through sabbaticals and making time by changing career, and, like all of the others, of promoting her own output. As with Zepeda’s topic-driven entries there is much reflection on the process of writing and juggling this with personal and career demands.

There are few connections to other nodes on the website and in the blog. The only contact details on the site are through an email address that can be accessed through an automatic button, with no connections to publishers or publicists, unlike Cisneros, Zepeda, and Castillo. However, this may be because through her profession as an academic she is easily accessible. The other link is to her Facebook page, one which she can filter carefully whether to accept or decline friendship requests. Of the other two Chicanas, only Zepeda has a similar Facebook link.

It is evident that there are variations among these writers as to their use of the web. Of the writers I contacted who have been mentioned in this article, Cisneros’ publicist made it clear that Cisneros does not maintain or design her site, and is too occupied in her other work to engage in a more regular blog or more frequent Facebook posts (Bergholz). However, this would suggest that the other two more regular bloggers and posters are less busy individuals, which is far from true. It is about a different relationship with the Internet. Gaspar de Alba and Zepeda use the Internet as both a creative and promotional tool that is another output as their professional online authorial selves.

The Mexican writers under consideration here do not have the same type of web presence on the whole, and there is some variation. Of the four novelists I consider here only two have websites: Ana Clavel and Carmen Boullosa. Ana Clavel has two: “Cuerpo náufrago” (www.anaclavel.com), the other, “Las violetas son flores del deseo” (http://www.violetasfloresdeldeseo.com/). Both are given as transmedia projects linked to her eponymous novels, Las violetas son flores del deseo (2007) y Cuerpo náufrago (2005). “Las violetas son flores del deseo” has more sophisticated links than “Cuerpo náufrago,” but is more text based. The viewer can leaf through sample pages of her work, for example. “Cuerpo náufrago” is built around her novel of the same name, which in itself is a bricolage of photographic and textual elements (Lavery). In Jane Lavery’s words, just as Cuerpo náufrago “is a calculated copy of the works by other authors or artists, so is it a dialogic reworking through parody and digital manipulation” (ibid.). In collaboration with the artist Paul Alarcón, Clavel has created a page with ludic and sensual elements that are part of the presentation of a project rather than a creation of an online self. The opening page is the same as the cover image of her novel, that is a montage of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres La Source (1856) and instead of the familiar urn, the naked woman is holding Marcel Duchamp’s La fontaine (1917). Wrapped around her, covering her naked breasts and pubis are police signs saying “zona de riesgo” [danger zone] and “prohibido paso” [area forbidden]. If the user scrolls over these they fall away, leaving a naked woman. Such elements on the site as this photograph and the video performance are deliberately provocative and ludic, intended to invoke a response in the user. The site is intended as a stand-alone art piece not a developed performance of the self that is evident in the previous sites considered.

Despite having her name as the domain name there is little of what the previous writers had on theirs. For example, there is no biographical information, no links to other publications, no connections to other projects, blogs or news sections. It is dated as 2005, and there are no apparent updates on the site. Similarly, although “Las violetas son flores del deseo” has strong degree of interactivity and functions well as both a provocative and promotional site, it is closed. So, while they are good examples of hypermedia as remediation, where the designers of such sites “import earlier media into digital space in order to critique and refashion them,” they are not an example of Web 2.0 (Bolter and Grusin 53). There are no further communicating nodes that encourage the user to explore beyond the bounds of this site. This is a digital space that “responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media” and does so in order to provoke a response (ibid. 55). However, Clavel hasn’t developed any further online presence beyond Facebook, which I shall explore later.

The homepage of Boullosa’s site (http://www.carmenboullosa.net/) has a simple design. It is divided in two columns. The right hand side has news of publications, talks, activities, interviews and so on, while on the left are a poster for the launch of her most recent book, Las paredes hablan [The Walls Talk] (2010) with images of the covers of different editions of her other novels below. There is no obvious marker of Mexicanness in the visuals of the website other than the chili on the cover of the English language version of Leaving Tabasco (2001). Boullosa’s covers have tended to use art works or original photographs that suggest universal (and often European) themes rather than specifically Mexican narratives. However, the predominantly Spanish language site works as a textual marker of her Mexican identity. There are four drop down tabs on the top of the homepage which bring the reader to more information on the author, publications, information about her books and ‘otros’ [others]. The latter includes an organization that she co-founded called ‘Café Nueva York’ [New York Café] which celebrates writers who have lived or currently reside in New York; CUNY-TV a project with the City University of New York; an embedded documentary entitled “Arqueología y literatura” [archaeology and literature]; two news sections entitled “por venir” [upcoming] and “últimos recientes” [most recent]; and “Blog de la Boullosa” [Boullosa’s blog]. Her involvement in Café Nueva York, with its manifesto on the site identifies her clearly as both a Latino identified and Mexican author,

Nosotros, escritores de Hispanoamérica y España avecindados en Nueva York, declaramos, con la legitimidad que nos otorga la centenaria tradición de autores latinoamericanos y españoles que han vivido en esta ciudad sin desertar de la pertenencia a nuestra lengua, culturas y países. (Boullosa 2011)

[We, Hispanic American and Spanish writers resident in New York, declare, with all the legitimacy that we are granted by the century-old tradition of Latin American and Spanish authors who have lived in this city without deserting our belonging to our language, cultures and countries.]

Interestingly, here the six signatories use ‘Hispanoamérica’ in the first instance, which emphasizes the Spanish language basis of the group, and then ‘latinoamericanos’ in the second instance, which broadens the geographical scope, or, it could be argued, subsumes the continent into a Spanish-language speaking zone. The latter contention is reinforced by the use of the singular for ‘lengua’ [language] alongside plurals for cultures and countries. Spanish language usage on the site is evidently a deliberate marker of identity for Boullosa.

Despite her assertion that “[d]urante años me resistí a la idea de tener un blog” [for years I have resisted the idea of having a blog] (http://www.carmenboullosa.net/esp/projects/blog.html), Boullosa’s blog is quite extensive. It is made up of three to four blogs a month between March 2007 up to the present (July 2011 was her most recent up date), with some short gaps. They are well catalogued and cross-referenced. On the right hand of the page are archive categories including: recentes [sic], which have four of the most recent posts; categorias [categories], broken down into ‘cuarto de estudio’ [study room], El Universal, Hasta atrás [looking back], and textos [texts]; archivo [archive] which is a list of dated posts in reverse chronological order; Blogroll, a series of links to other writer and journalist’s blogs; and Meta, links to RSS feeds. One curious feature is that the blogs are searchable by date, but the archived pieces do not have a cross-referenced date.

Due to their origins as published pieces the blogs are longer than is conventional for something that is originally written as a blog and longer than those of any of the other authors. They are a mix of creative writing and essay pieces, generally current, given the nature of their original publication. Some of her earlier pieces have an element of the personal, although it is difficult to catalogue them strictly speaking as diary-style in the way that Zepeda and Gaspar de Alba’s are. She writes about historical figures, themes or ideas that are of interest to her, but they appear to be strictly on an intellectual plane without much self-revelation. Her inclusion of an anecdote on a former family dentist catalogued under ‘hasta atrás’ becomes a meditation on sculpture, for example. In her journalistic pieces she often includes biographical detail, including stories about her travels, but there is little reflection and more analysis or reportage. Her last personal post to date was in February 2010, a short in memoria for the recently deceased writer Carlos Montemayor. Since then the blog has been a filter blog of her own published pieces, that is, a personal archive of publications.

Boullosa has discussed her engagement with Web 2.0 in a link dated 3rd November 2010, “El día en que me asesinaron en Facebook” [the day I was killed on Facebook], originally published in Nexos. In the article, she discusses her attraction for and later removal from Facebook and the FacebookYo [FacebookMe] she had created there. Her article explores her initial reticence to join Facebook, talking about it as an unwanted birth, and that she was a “mamá por error” [mother by accident]. She describes herself as an irregular user who nonetheless delighted in discovering friends old and new,

Como por encanto brotaban de vez en vez algunos lectores de mis libros inencontrables, varios colegas mexicanos y extranjeros a los que tenía tiempo sin ver, o con los que acababa de tomarme unos vinos; me escribió un poeta colombiano del que acababa de leer un par de reseñas entusiastas (le pedí el libro, me lo envío, lo degusté con entusiasmo), algún francés, un croata cuyo original me fue imposible de descifrar, etcétera. La bolita creció y se volvió un bolón. (Boullosa 2010)

[As if by magic now and again many different people appeared: readers of some of my difficult to source books; several Mexican and foreign colleagues, who I had not seen in some time, or with whom I had just shared a few drinks; a Colombian poet about whom I had just read a few positive reviews (I asked for his book, he sent it, I enjoyed it enthusiastically); some Frenchman, a Croatian whose origins were impossible for me to decipher, etc. The numbers grew and became a crowd.]

Facebook became a source of tension, due to her infrequent access to it and a forced gregariousness, an opportunity to “dar rienda suelta a paranoias disparatadas” [to give free rein to a variety of paranoias], and “otra obligación más, un deber, algo que no podía desatender, una carga encima de los mil pendientes, una monserga a la hora de pelear minuto a minuto el territorio para escribir la novela” [one more obligation, a requirement, something I couldn’t ignore, a commitment on top of many others, a weight that took from the time that should have gone into writing a novel]. This writer’s struggle to find time for writing against the time-consuming nature of Facebook is echoed elsewhere by the British writer, Zadie Smith.

Facebook remains the greatest distraction from work I’ve ever had, and I loved it for that. I think a lot of people love it for that. Some work-avoidance techniques are onerous in themselves and don’t make time move especially quickly: smoking, eating, calling people up on the phone. With Facebook hours, afternoons, entire days went by without my noticing.

For Boullosa, the tension between “mi Inspirada-Novelista-Yo” [my inspired-novelist-me] and her FacebookYo becomes a meditation on herself and what other selves she could have been or is, including a fantasy other “RancheraYo” [rancher me] that she details at length. Gradually, she develops a kinship with her FacebookYo.

Mal que bien, me fui acostumbrando a FacebookYo. Conviví conmigo tan bien o tan mal como el resto de mi persona, que se me volvió parte de la batalla cotidiana, otro más en la arena, que, aunque estuviera lejos de ser un protagónico, contaba. (ibid.)

[For good or ill, I became accustomed to FacebookYo. I lived with myself as well or as poorly as the rest of my personae, it became part of my everyday battle, another in the arena, who though far from taking the lead, nonetheless counted.]

That is, until she was killed by Facebook. She sought explanations for why they cut her off, but could not find any reasons. Somewhat tongue in cheek, she speculates on some, including envy, her Revolutionary friends or her RancheraYo, evidently feeling this removal as a loss. Unlike the unified, singular, identifiable personhood that Smith evokes when talking about her engagement with Facebook,

Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0.

According to her own account, Boullosa’s on- and offline self is a messy, complicated, multivalent being who is constantly re-negotiating this idea of selfhood. Smith’s conclusion is that she is not of a generation that can see herself in this distantiated way, for Boullosa that is part of the appeal that it holds for her. Both are struggling with the negotiation between being Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, and the complications that the latter entails. Boullosa conforms to the “remediated self” that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore,

in her [sic] quest for immediacy, the subject in virtual space is not satisfied with a single point of view; instead, she seeks out the positions of other participants and objects in that space. She understands herself as a potentially rapid succession of points of view, as a series of immediate experiences derived from those points of view…she is defined as a succession of relationships with various applications or media. She oscillates between media…and her identity is constituted by these oscillations.
(Bolter and Grusin 235)

Boullosa’s description of her FacebookYo and her other selves that negotiate with it is an instance of what Bolter and Grusin are describing. In addition, her recent, gradually increasing use of Twitter as another expression of her online self is a multiplication of these selves. Many of her 116 tweets since she joined on the 8th of July 2010 are quotations from others, concern about the violence in Northern Mexico, criticisms of the Catholic church (although many of these are forwarded tweets by others ‘retweets’), and the occasional gnomic statements (“A la media noche, eviten las mediasnoches. Al medio dia, eviten vivir mediocre vida, o (por lo menos) las medias idas” [At midnight, avoid midnights. At midday, avoid living a mediocre life, or (at least) the half-travelled]) (21 March 2011).

Boullosa’s Twitter self is growing in range and scope. With just 346 followers, she is far from popular. This can be for many reasons. Only since March 2011 have her frequency of tweets gone up, from six in that month to 32 in July 2011, a significant increase. However, the frequency of tweets is not always a measure of popularity. For example, Elena Poniatowska has 41,947 followers and has only tweeted 39 times since she joined on the 20th of November 2009. This could be more to do with her international renown as an author than with her tweeting habits. Public profile has a significant bearing on her following. Another Mexican author, Guadalupe Loaeza, who has a considerable public profile in Mexico through various forms of on- and offline media, has a similar number of followers to Poniatowska (41,935) but a significantly higher number of tweets (1,272). Loaeza largely uses Twitter to draw attention to her publications. In comparison to these three writers, the Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, who is very active on Twitter, not only posts there to draw attention to her appearances, travels, publications and some occasional daily thoughts, she also uses it as a forum to voice her advocacy for campaigns such as those against the closure of public libraries and her support for environmental issues. Thus, she creates a rounded self as author, activist and reflective thinker. These result in many retweets by her and of her posts, which create larger ‘buzz’ around her profile and an increased readership.
Poniatowska has posted little and much is about her family (births and birthdays) with the occasional mention of attendance at an event. What is interesting about Boullosa, Loaeza and Atwood’s tweets is that they are performances, not the phatic writing that Twitter has been accused of producing. For danah boyd,

Twitter – like many emergent genres of social media – is structured around networks of people interacting with people they know or find interesting. Those who are truly performing to broad audiences (e.g., “celebs”, corporations, news entities, and high-profile blogger types) are consciously crafting consumable content that doesn’t require actually having an intimate engagement with the person to appreciate. Yet, the vast majority of Twitter users are there to maintain social relations, keep up with friends and acquaintances, follow high-profile users, and otherwise connect. It’s all about shared intimacy that is of no value to a third-party ear who doesn’t know the person babbling. Of course, as Alice Marwick has argued, some celebs are also very invested in giving off a performance of intimacy and access; this is part of the appeal. (boyd 2009)

boyd’s blog post is a reaction to a 2009 Pear Analytics study that categorized 40.55% of tweets as “pointless babble.” Poniatowska, through her postings on her family and locations, most explicitly provides a sense of a ‘shared intimacy’, just as, it could be argued, so too does her work. Boullosa does so through her quotations and references in a type of curatorship that brings the reader towards an understanding of what other writers she is reading or have significance for her, while her comments on political or religious matters provide an insight into her broader beliefs. Whilst many of these concerns can be gleaned elsewhere, most particularly in her journalistic writing, the tweets provide a snapshot of her as author.

Similar posts can be read on Ana Clavel and Ana García Bergua’s Facebook posts. They post regularly, sometimes several times a day. Some of the posts can be described as phatic, that is, those statements which do “social work rather than conveying information”, such as, García Bergua’s comments about her cats or when both provide links to different videos (ibid.). But, many are posts on readings; engagement with the No más sangre [No more blood] movement, a campaign against the killings in Northern Mexico; their own or other’s book launches; quotations, or references to other writers; and incidental pieces. For example, García had a series of micro-stories, which recounted her experiences in taxis. These literary experiments bear comparison with her fiction writing and were amongst the posts that have elicited most responses.

Unlike the other three Mexican writers, Cristina Rivera Garza uses Facebook as a way of disseminating her posts on her blog. Entitled “No hay tal lugar: U-tópicos contemporáneos” Rivera Garza is very deliberately foregrounding the idea of space on and off-line. The front page of the blog has her posts on the left hand side, photos of her books and collections in which she has published on the right, and below these images are an archive of her blogs. After the first two images of the books there are links to two other projects: “Mi Rulfo mío de mí” [My very own Rulfo], reflections on reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, and “Las aventuras de la increíblemente pequeña” [The adventures of the incredibly tiny], a largely image based work. These last two are external sites. The book images aren’t live links, therefore to get more details on her publications and where to source them the reader would have to look elsewhere.

Rivera Garza is a regular poster. She has been blogging since the 9th of January 2004 and posts between nine and 39 posts a month, mostly averaging about 20. This makes her by far the most active online writer of all of the Mexican writers discussed here. Like Boullosa, Rivera Garza’s blog is a combination of a filter blog with pasted articles from her Tuesday column “La mano oblicua” [the oblique hand] in the Mexican newspaper, Milenio, and Periódico de poesía, and links to articles by others, and a topic-driven blog like Gaspar de Alba and Zepeda. However, Rivera Garza’s page does not include reflections, instead hers has the more oblique and aphoristic quality of some of Boullosa’s Twitter posts alongside posts such as, translations of poetry, appearances and readings, photos of the residue left in her cup by coffee, which she calls the “monstruillo de los posos” [the little dregs monster], and there are images of her project, “Las aventuras de la increíblemente pequeña.”

“Las aventuras de la increíblemente pequeña” is subtitled “una fotonovela mensual” [a monthly photonovel] and is a Tumblr site. Tumblr is a fast growing platform that allows for blogging, high-resolution images and social networking. It is akin to a confluence of blogging and platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, due to this greater flexibility, it has grown in popularity in recent months. The first page of each monthly installment gives Rivera Garza’s location as San Diego-Tijuana, foregrounding her as a binational citizen. Begun in January 2011, the incredibly small of the title are five figurines scantily clad in fifties-style beach wear photographed against different backdrops and in a variety of locations. Sometimes these locations are indicated by the story (e.g. Falköning in the January 2011 story). The titles suggest a linear detective narrative (e.g. “el extraño caso de la roca descomunal” [the strange case of the unusual rock], whereas the narrative and the images are much more beguiling and open-ended. To a large extent they could be best described as explorations of a concept in image and text. These are multi-dimensional art pieces employing a graphic interface that allows for creative experimentation. It is evident that Rivera Garza is employing the creative potential of the internet to add extra dimensions to her work. In recent months for the most part, she has used Facebook to promote and disseminate this blog and to promote her recent novel Verde Shanghai (2011).

Where Twitter is public and all posts can be accessed by anyone, Facebook is a more private space. While there have been frequent discussions about Facebook and its violations of privacy settings, it has many settings that are intended to ensure that certain information can only be seen by ‘friends’ (Arthur). However, while a private individual may wish it to function as a way of keeping in touch with family and acquaintances, for a writer, using it to build on their readership it can have a different function. In the main, writers do not use it as a way of talking to their families and near acquaintances, instead it is a way of communicating a self (pace Boullosa) to their readership. There are exceptions when, for example, members of García Bergua’s family congratulate her on achievements or post positive comments on a photograph of her or her husband and children. There is some blurring between private and public, which can give the reader a sense that they have access to her private life without any real shared intimacies. Zepeda in an interview told me how she is very aware of the performative aspect of her Facebook page, as are her family (Zepeda 2011b). Whilst she posts personal details, e.g. details about her Chinese take out meal or make-up tips, it is deliberately about the ‘performance of intimacy and access’ that boyd discusses.

The changes in the publishing industry, including the marketing of a self online is one that is ever-evolving. There is every possibility that by the time of publication of this article there will be another massive shift. Twitter may augment its offering, Facebook with its dwindling numbers may disappear, and another form of social media may supersede both. Therefore, this article should be read as a snapshot in time, an account of what a selection of writers/authors are doing online and how Chicana writers compare to Mexican writers.

On the whole, Chicana writers may appear to have more established online personae than their Mexican counterparts. Of those I have examined, they have sites that have been in existence for longer and have a greater readership, according to the site statistics. Through this avenue, they have negotiated new routes into promoting their work to a wider readership. However, this digital divide between countries north and south of the US-Mexico border is not clear cut, in contrast to what the studies of the differences may suggest. For example, in 2006 only 15.1% of Latin Americans had access to the internet, whilst the number for the US was 69.1%, with Brazil (26 million) and Mexico (18.5 million) the largest users in the region (Taylor and Pitman 4-5). A 2010 Technocrati study of worldwide bloggers found that only 2% were resident in South America, 33% in the US and 38% in North America (Sobel). The North American figures are not disaggregated further, so it’s not clear how many of these are in Canada or Mexico. The fact that the survey was carried out in English and therefore ignores the other languages on the continent, will obviously be biased against Mexican or South American bloggers, which would seem to be a fundamental flaw of the study and questions the inclusion of Spanish speaking countries in the survey. Therefore the project is somewhat incomplete as a true survey of the area. Of the bloggers surveyed only one third are female, with 62% of bloggers posting more due to perceived benefits to their professional earning capacity, according to the analysis. The current trend is for more writers to engage in social media, whether this is motivated by their own interests, or due to encouragement by their publishers. Therefore, this is an area that is experiencing considerable growth and will necessarily evolve considerably over the coming years. Like other bloggers, writers, both Mexican and Chicana, post for a variety of personal, creative and professional reasons.

There is no clear-cut differential. Boullosa’s engagement with the Internet constitutes another writing experiment, a project like her other books. The closest comparisons can be drawn between her and both Zepeda and Gaspar de Alba’s reflection on their writing and self-curatorship. Clavel and Rivera Garza’s remediations are comparable. But, where Clavel’s sites are closed, Rivera Garza’s is multi-nodal, just as Zepeda’s is. Whilst, Clavel’s closed sites could be considered to have primarily promotional function, the experimental nature of these and their evidently collaborative nature, suggest that they are also creative outlets. Cisneros and Castillo’s usage appear to have the most purely promotional objectives, due in no small part to the input of publishers. This hierarchical, website based approach is not the only way to promote and draw in a readership, as is evidenced by the use of Facebook and Twitter by writers such as Clavel, García Bergua and Boullosa. It is a complex and evolving picture.

There is some growth in work around Latin American cyberculture, as this online world in all its vagaries is being labeled, particularly notable is that which has been carried out by Claire Taylor and Thea Pitman in the UK. There is scope for much more. The basic data about the use by writers of online means to discuss, promote, and creatively produce work is as yet incomplete, and given its ever-evolving dynamic nature it is near impossible to fully grasp the complete picture. The distinctions between the largely English-speaking US-based Chicanas and the Spanish-speaking Mexican writers reflects the differences between trends in the countries and their languages, but is not fully explained by linguistic or geopolitical variabilities either. Just as the internet has become a multi-media space and one that allows for many expressions of creativity, so too does it appeal differently to those wishing to employ it as a form of creating and performing one or many selves.


[1]See, for example, Susan C. Herring, Lois Ann Scheidt, Inna Kouper, and Elijah Wright “Longitudinal Content Analysis of Blogs: 2003-2004”, Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media edited by Mark Tremayne (New York and Oxon: Routledge, 2007) and Walker Rettberg op cit.back to text

[2]See, also, Brenda Laurel “Computers as Theatre.” Reading Digital Culture. David Trend ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001) on the performance of self online.back to text

[3]See, Henry Jenkins in “Blog This!”, Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York & London: New York University Press, 2006) on the comparison between blogs and listservs.back to text

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