“Hobokens and Cuautitláns of the world, unite!”
I recently, actually put that tortured allusion in a call for papers for a journal issue that I’m guest editing. The topic is “Elsewheres,” and I want it to be a bunch of great essays about the art that is made in and about places that are emphatically not capitals of the world. (“Cuautitlán” was a Chilango’s answer to the question “What is the Hoboken of Mexico City?”) I got the word “elsewheres” from a talk Junot Díaz gave at the University of Kansas. Díaz referenced Robert Smithson, who talked about the art world as being split into “somewheres” and “elsewheres.” Elsewheres are where art gets made and somewheres are where art goes to become important.
I want the issue to be a kind of coalition of elsewheres, a reminder of how much peripheral places have in common, which is to say that I want the issue to have an agenda (why else leave in a winsome nod to Marx and Engels?). I want the issue to give an intellectual dimension to my conviction that with the twenty-first century ought to come an end to the unequal distribution of cultural authority. I want to make explicit the consequences of continuing to rely on a system whose generators of value and engines of public opinion are all packed into the same few somewheres.
I’m very excited about the issue. But I need Amtrak to give me a Writer’s Residency. I need to write the introduction while traveling over the connective tissue between elsewheres and somewheres. I need to board the Southwest Chief in Kansas City and ride it all the way to Los Angeles.
Rail writing will provide me an everywhere from which to theorize about the how the axes of sway might change in the twenty-first century, about whether New York or LA will ever be irrelevant, or if such an idea is too fantastic, the stuff of zombie novels and post-apocalyptic action movies. As fantastic as an Amtrak writer’s residency.
I want to my ideas about these big questions to take shape while I move through the elsewheres of the American narrative, while I glimpse Wyatt Earp Boulevard in Dodge City or pace the fast lane of Route 66. The train offers the rare experience of seeing America’s elsewheres on their own terms, as it enlivens the common ground that connects them.