Raquel Gutiérrez, the Zell Visiting Writers Series’s first-ever nonfiction writer, immerses readers in their inner and outer worlds. As an art critic, essayist, poet, memoirist and creative writing educator, Gutiérrez embodies diverse niches through their writing.
Raised in the Southern California queer, feminist and punk zine scene, Latiné culture and professional art world, Gutiérrez has published work in NPR Music, Art in America and Places Journal. They released their first memoir, “Brown Neon,” in 2022: a collection of essays on gender, sexuality and nationality set on a drive across the southwestern desert of Trump’s America. Gutiérrez unites their essays into a single ekphrastic memoir that celebrates countless works of art from Latinx and queer spaces. The main artwork is the cultural and natural landscape of the Southwest.
The memoir feels more like an epic than a linear nonfiction piece, making it perfect for a live, in-person reading in the University of Michigan Museum of Art Stern Auditorium and live-streamed on Zoom.
They call their essay one of a “lesbian legend”: late Lambda Literary Award-winning author Jeanne Córdova. Gutiérrez viewed Córdova as a parental “Big Poppa,” and played Córdova in a performance of her memoir “When We Were Outlaws.” In Córdova’s final days, Gutiérrez discusses the complexities of modern Latinx, lesbian and queer spaces.
Gutiérrez maintained a low, solemn tone as they depicted a scene of driving their dilapidated car through the open desert. They slowly opened up the landscape, connecting personal history, immigrant strife, humorous anecdotes and reflection on bright flowers and deteriorating cars.
With an ever-forward-pushing, steady voice, they captured the audience in the complex world of desert politics. They suddenly stopped to warn the audience of an embedded passage from “When We Were Outlaws.”
“Sorry if I sound like William Shatner,” they deadpanned. Their imitation of Córdova was more poignant and booming than Shatner-esque, and the three powerful, embedded passages guided the story shockingly smoothly.
In long-winded, rhythmic passages, Gutiérrez’s voice sped up slightly. They never broke their low tone, even as the audience boomed with laughter and paused in reflection. They elucidated scenes of Córdova’s almost-regal final days in her modern estate and earlier lesbian and queer community clothing shares. Gutiérrez accompanied the narrative with notes on personal Latinx history and queer theory, both educating and moving the audience.
As Gutiérrez relaxed into an armchair alongside Zell Fellow in Poetry Abby McFee, they returned to a casual voice. The two artists laughed as they delineated the memoir’s varied inspirations. Gutiérrez yelled the “modes of inquiry” of their life story: “reportage!” “travel!” “criticism!” They discussed the basis of their work in loss, including the recent loss of Cordoza, “death contoured these inquiries,” Gutiérrez said. “The loss of someone close to you … allows for new growth.” They compared their work to a relational map of niche communities, people and identities. Through Gutiérrez’s writing, they let readers into what they call “small worlds which contain so many worlds.”
When the Q&A opened up to the auditorium, Gutiérrez established further rapport with the audience, joking like the audience members were old friends. Gutiérrez described ekphrasis as a “collaborative” process with the multidisciplinary artists who inspired their work. Gutiérrez showed us that learning is a life-long process of forming connections across generations.
As they were asked about their personal and confessional writing, Gutiérrez jokingly asked, “have you ever read a zine?” I have not, nor have I really read ekphrasis or memoirs. Yet Gutiérrez, who blurs the personal and historical, tells me I need to exit my comfort zone. By connecting readers to complex cultures and personal histories, Gutiérrez makes truly entertaining nonfiction.
Gutiérrez, a luminary in enriching nonfiction, was the perfect opener to what I can only hope is a series of Zell Visiting Writers in Nonfiction.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.