Launch for the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands

The Center for Imagination in the Borderlands is officially launched. Center Director, Akimel O'odham poet, and MacArthur Fellow Natalie Diaz welcomed all in attendance with an invitation to push beyond land acknowledgments to also contemplate "who is not here?"



Deana Haggag, President and CEO of United States Artists, was the first guest speaker, and provoked the thought of imagination as instinct--an instinct that we must trust and follow. Not just to attest to the power of art but to think of how powerless we would be without art.


The special guest, Tohono O'odham poet and MacArthur Fellow Ofelia Zepeda, read work about the desert, including coming across things in the desert that you aren't supposed to. Importantly, she attested to thinking about the desert's role in borderland struggles and violences, but also the importance of women to her personally and culturally. As Diaz suggested, "Ofelia's poetry reminds me to breathe and come back to myself."


Solmaz Sharif, renowned poet and National Book Award Finalist, read incredibly moving pieces about inhabiting the body of an asylee. She discussed how borders were part of her earliest childhood memories, and reminded any who might have the privilege of forgetting that borders operate in ways that can't be seen until they're challenged.


Dean of Humanities Jeffrey Cohen took the stage to congratulate Diaz and the Center for their dedication, and reminded everyone there that mission statements and charter statements can be good, "but not enough." His was an invitation to continue to strive for strong collaboration, inclusive spaces, and doing the work that matters in the world, emphasizing the importance of this new center.


Then Diaz led a discussion between Zepeda, Haggag, and author and MacArthur Fellow Valeria Luiselli about imagination and its role for them as artists. She prefaced by proffering that sometimes knowledge tends to stop the imagination. The made me remember the truer meaning of the word 'amateur,' as someone who does something for the love of it, rather than to attain mastery.


Zepeda weighed in: "writers can open windows for audiences, to bring them in." Luiselli spoke of her US-Mexico history class in which students felt distanced from the border, thus unable to really write about it. Her response, which received an eruption of applause, was that it is their responsibility as people from the US to know the situations going on at the border, and to also know your position: "It is your duty to think about what you are not." Haggag, in articulating a prevalent and looming inability to understand complexity, spoke about art as "the best thing we have to deal with complicated things," and explained that art is the closest she's gotten to feeling freedom, even in complicated times.


Left to right: Natalie Diaz, Ofelia Zepeda, Deana Haggag, and Valerie Luiselli.
Left to right: Natalie Diaz, Ofelia Zepeda, Deana Haggag, and Valerie Luiselli.

Then the group discussed the element and performance of wonder; Diaz posits wonder as a practice. This is something I've been trying to implement in my own work on the Desert Southwest, where violence and tall tales of a Wild West can overpower the infinite instances of wonder and wondering.


The night closed with a collaboration between Valeria Luiselli and Laura Ortman, White Mountain Apache musician and National Artists Fellow, which was seemingly the result of the pair's synergy meeting before the event. As Luiselli read from a stunning work in progress, inspired by her conversations with cowboy reenactors in Shakespeare, NM and Tombstone, AZ, the piece spoke to the stories that are missing from such histories. In between bouts of beautiful and haunting prose, Ortman's played and struck and caressed her amplified violin, sometimes violently, sometimes softly. Once Luiselli's reading ended, Ortman took the entire concert hall on an experimental journey of sound, a profound musical marinade for all of the words we'd heard throughout the night to steep in.


Musician and performer Laura Ortman and poet and author Valerie Luiselli collaborate,
Musician and performer Laura Ortman and poet and author Valerie Luiselli collaborate,

The Center for Imagination in the Borderlands is a testament that there is so much to be gained from embodied engagement with the humanities, the arts, and community. What's more, it offers a space to imagine the past, present, and future together. I cannot wait to see what else unfolds and blooms as a result.


celina osuna

24 Jan. 2020