Eagle Woman Poems, Co-Lab Project Space, July 2011
Photo by Alberto Jimenez
Natalie Goodnow is a nationally recognized teatrista, teaching artist, and cultural activist from Austin, Texas. She performs, directs, and writes; she’s been practicing some combination of these forms for seventeen years, and began teaching about and through them 8 years ago. She specializes in the creation of original works of performance, as a solo artist and also in collaboration with other performers and writers, both youth and adults. Goodnow explores the relationships between people and places, in terms of relationships to community, to the Earth, and to our own bodies. Her work asks tricky questions, and probes tough contradictions. Natalie’s solo play “Mud Offerings” is the 2011 winner of the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, and has been presented nationally at festivals and conferences in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., and throughout Texas. She is an Artistic Associate of Theatre Action Project and a member of The Austin Project. See her website and/or blog for more: www.nataliegoodnow.com, makinggoodnow.blogspot.com
Interview by Josh T Franco
Your work brings up questions of tradition in contemporary settings. But even stating it like that, I’ve already fallen into one of the traps I think you’re trying to avoid: tradition isn’t “back there”, but neither is it the same today, for most, as it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand for that matter. I should say the traditions I’m talking about are both pre-colonial indigenous American ones and post-colonial Catholic ones. And in your work, all of them are radically questioned through Chicana and Women of Color feminist frameworks. At the same time, there’s clearly a deep reverence. But what exactly is the nature of this reverence, as it is far from typical?
Hmmm . . . ok. Well. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be indigenous. And what indigeneity means, or could mean. And although one response might be to reproduce everything that was a thousand years ago, in the here and now, or to try to do so (because of course it isn’t quite possible to really reproduce what was, nor would we necessarily want to), I’d like to try another definition of indigeneity on for size. Let’s say it’s this: to live in relationship with the land, in the here and now. That means that, as a Chicana in central Texas, although I believe that the lessons of the Mexica (what the Aztec called themselves) are incredibly important, it’s a little silly for me to really and truly try and apply them directly to my life, without any critical examinations or alterations. And this is partly because there are lots of ways in which the Mexica society was just as flawed as any other (patriarchal, militaristic, imperialistic), and also because the Mexica weren’t really living in relationship with the land that I’m at now. They were nearby, if we consider this on a global scale, but still not quite here.
However, all that being said (and I think this is where I start to actually answer your question), I still think that there is wisdom in tradition. Especially in the traditions of folks who, at one point in time, knew how to live with the land. We don’t know how to do that now. I’m not sure I even really need to explain why . . . The “go green” movement is so huge . . . “Avatar” was such a hit . . . it’s in the zeitgeist. Something has to change. The way we’re treating the earth isn’t working. It’s not working at all. And yet, in our histories, we find peoples and communities who were better at this than we are now. And it’s not just about reducing/reusing/recycling… it’s about the way we treat each other, the way we talk to one another . . . we create systems that abuse and misuse the Earth’s resources when we feel entitled, when we believe we have no obligation to share what we have.
So, I take the things that I’ve learned with my contact with indigenous spiritual traditions seriously; reciprocity—no one should take without also giving. And, it sounds so simple, but, sharing—you don’t show up to an event with a bag full of snacks, or a thermos full of tea, and not offer some to everyone, even if all you’ve got is a little bit. And, you don’t assume that you have the right to speak whenever you want, whatever you want, or even to know whatever you want, whenever you want. You must ask permission. You must acknowledge the knowledge of those who have come before you. That all may seem very distinct from “environmental” concerns, but I don’t think it is. Our elders have been here. They know how to live in harmony with all that has also been here. I think if we had all adopted, or, remembered to honor these sorts of values a long time ago, we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’re in now. And, all that being said, let me just acknowledge out loud/in print, that everything I’ve just said is very hard to do, and I struggle with it constantly in my everyday life.
Seeing past the “go green” mentality to a systematic overhaul of the ways we engage one another; this is really interesting. It brings to mind a couple of things: one, Alice Waters and the slow food movement in general. It prioritizes caring for the earth, and even caring for peoples’ bodies, but a repeated criticism from Women of Color is that it does not take into consideration contemporary conditions, especially for mostly person of color sections of the population that are poor, have no access to land to grow their own food, and much less the time or energy to spare after working minimum wage jobs all day. Like I said, your response brings up a couple of questions for me, but what do you think of this one first? Perhaps you thought through this, or can, through Eagle Woman Poems, your recent performance at Co-Lab in Austin?
Yep, yep, yep. The system is so, so broken. The communities whose ancestors were guardians of this knowledge, of how to live in relationship with the land, are often the ones most devastated by the rupturing of such relationships, and least capable of doing much about it. I’m talking about, for instance, the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica who once knew how to grow corn, squash, and beans all in one field, in the milpa. Indulge me while I talk about this a bit—I think it’s just so amazing. These plants complement each other; the corn stalks provide a trellis for bean vines, their leaves provide shade for the squash, and while each takes certain nutrients for the soil, its companions give those back, so that there were fields in which this mixture of crops was cultivated continuously for thousands of years, without ever laying fallow or needing to be fertilized. What’s more, eaten in combination, these three crops provide all the nutrients a human body needs for a complete and healthy meal. Brilliant!
Yet, here and now, the descendants of these very same people find themselves, like you said, with little access to land to grow their own food, and even less time and energy to spare to do so. There’s a line in Eagle Woman Poems that this reminds me of . . . “How can I clean up an oil spill when there are dishes in the sink?” A lot of that piece comes from the frustrations and contradictions of trying to live in relationship with the land in a world order that doesn’t quite allow it.
So, we’ve got to change the system. Change it completely. I think some answers can be found in collective action; does any one working class family have access to enough land to grown all their own food? Or time to do so? Perhaps not. But what if many were to work together to tend a community garden? And then cook together? There are oppressed communities across the globe trying such solutions on for size. As an artist (and as a teaching artist), I’m also inspired by Una Chaudhuri, a pioneer in the field of Ecocriticism:
“[I]f one thing has become clear from a century of ecological thought and effort, it is that the earth cannot now be saved by half-measures, by tinkering and puttering and fiddling around with rules and regulations and practices and customs; whether we like it or not, the ecological crisis is a crisis of values. Ecological victory will require a transvaluation so profound as to be nearly unimaginable at present. And in this the arts and humanities – including the theater—must play a role.”#
That’s where I see my performance work living. In this transvaluation. A remaking of the old cultural symbols and stories and yes, values, towards something new. Something new which draws upon the forgotten wisdom of the past, but is refashioned to function in the here and now. In Eagle Woman Poems, for instance, I’m confronting not only the systems we’ve inherited, but its values as well.
So the stakes in your work are particular, and particularly high. The way you present your own work—it’s tough to call you an artist. Or simply artist, I mean. And I wonder about how you consider art; is it functional? A tool? Necessary? Could you do what you want to do in the world any other way? Obviously, these questions have been hashed over by many, but what do you think? For instance, do you take to the term “cultural worker”? How important is naming your activity anyway? I’m also thinking about your performance of Muntu at Space12, with the invited Austin city council members. Maybe you can respond to these questions by talking about that work, the East Side, Space12, and so on.
I do believe that art is absolutely necessary. I also believe that thinking of art as only functional, only a tool, is a trap, though. And it’s a trap that I’ve fallen into myself. When I first became politicized, I wanted, needed to see that theatre could DO things, make things happen. I needed the link between art and action to be explicit and concrete. Muntu, and the accompanying exhibit, “Muntu: Reflections in East Austin,” came from that place. I was figuring a lot of things out. I was finding my voice as a solo playwright (this was the first piece I wrote all on my own, not ensemble-based or devised), discovering/developing my processes as a solo performer, and also learning how to fund, produce, and market/publicize my own work out in the “real” world! On top of all that, I was figuring out where all my ideas about community engaged art, etc., fit in to the puzzle.
So, what I ended up doing was writing this solo play (I’d have called it autoethnographic if I’d known that term/genre, then) about the lessons that trees had taught me, or, the lessons that looking at trees in a mindful way had taught me. And these lessons had a lot to do with Austin, about my relationships with different communities in Austin, so I performed the piece in as many of those different communities in the city as I could, doing a mini-tour with musicians Travis Jeffords and Josh Casiano (Travis composed some brilliant music/instrumentation for cello and percussion that accompanied the play), mostly over the course of about 12 weeks. Which I learned is really not very long!
At each performance, I asked the audience to respond by writing or drawing their own muntu stories (Muntu is a Kikongo word that means both tree and person—I don’t know a lot about East African culture, but I found this insight inspiring). The mini-tour culminated in a multimedia exhibit called Muntu: Reflections in East Austin, held at community center Space12. My play mentions East Austin specifically, so it made sense that the exhibit was held at a community center in East Austin, too. Space12 was a brand new community center at the time, with a mission very similar to mine in that piece, to bring diverse communities together in shared conversation/reflection.
The exhibit consisted of a display of my audiences’ responses to Muntu, plus portraits of East Austin residents old and new (East Austin is a historically poor community of people of color, now facing massive waves of gentrification) by photographer Rama Tiru, plus imaginatively decorated tree sculptures by students in Theatre Action Project’s afterschool classes, mostly from East Austin as well, plus a bit of information contextualizing the exhibit—about the neighborhood’s past and present. Whoo! How on earth did I get that all together?!
At the opening, I performed, and Rama spoke; on another evening, my fellow exhibit organizers and I invited PODER, an organization of grassroots organizers, to host their City Council Candidates’ Forum at Space12 as part of the exhibit.
My goal in the exhibit was to bring together as many folks as possible from Austin’s diverse communities together in reflection upon, and hopefully conversation about, the issues that my play addressed, and to do so in multiple ways. I hoped that the issues affecting East Austin, discussed in the candidates’ forum, might take on greater potency if this conversation took place amidst the names, faces, and stories of the neighborhood.
All in all, this was a successful experiment. We had a wonderful turnout at the exhibit, and to this day I still love looking at the photos of city council members leaning in to peer at Rama’s photography, of the beautiful and thoughtful audience responses I received to the piece, and of the playful exhibit I curated, which turned out quite nicely considering I had never done anything quite like that before . . . but I was a wreck! It was an awful lot of work to coordinate all that, and to find the energy it took to perform . . . and forget writing! My creation of new work came to an absolute standstill, and I wasn’t very happy.
I’ve slowed down a bit since then, giving myself more time to both create and produce/tour my work. This is funny considering that this is the exact same advice I was giving to myself within the text of Muntu . . . slow down, slow down, slow down . . . Also, as I continued working, I found my drive to engage communities in direct conversation through art was satisfied more and more through my work as a teaching artist (in that work, my classes often culminate in some sort of service-learning project with the youth; one of my favorites is documented here), so my solo work became more about just trying to piece together some really interesting words and moments.
Though it was fun to bring together so many different kinds of reflection and conversation in one place, I realized I could also ease up a bit and just trust the universe to provide my audiences some spaces like that, too; I didn’t have to do it all. I could contribute my little bit and then send the people on their way to let what they experienced with me bounce around against their many other experiences, and trust that, if I’ve done my job, they will go home talking about what I’ve shared with them. If I’ve really done my job, they won’t be able to help it!
And I’m kind of a busybody. I’m pretty good at organizing and coordinating, and sometimes gravitate towards that kind of work as an escape from my creative writing when the writing gets tough. I crave the satisfaction of checking off items on to-do lists, so it’s easy for me to create items to-do just so I can check them off, rather than revising that rough draft, or telling that story that’s too scary to think about.
All that is to say that yes, art is necessary. And it can be functional, it can be a tool to get us talking explicitly about matters of direct and practical importance, but that’s not the only reason it’s necessary.
Art is how we shape the story of who we are. Sometimes that’s a bigger, slower conversation than who to vote for in the City Council election tomorrow, and that’s ok. Those “who are we, who will we become” questions are important, and I want to participate in formulating some answers. I see it as part of my mission as an artist, my responsibility, even. In that sense, I guess I am a cultural worker, though I’ve tended to use the word “cultural activist” to reflect my political commitments. (That’s a term I first heard from Adelina Anthony; thank you, Adelina!) I’m not too stressed about the label, though. If somebody wanted to call me a cultural worker, that’d make a lot of sense and I wouldn’t really mind.
Perhaps most importantly, though, art is sacred. The activism can and is indeed achieved in other ways . . . but that sacred something that speaks directly to the heart of our humanity, that’s what art provides. And that is necessary.
Josh T Franco is a graduate student in Art History at Binghamton University. He writes on contemporary Chican@ art, art of the 1960’s, and the possibilities of decolonial aesthetics.