Unmasking Phoenix one chapter at a time

By

Iti Agnihotri

David William Foster, a Regents’ Professor of Spanish and women and gender studies at Arizona State University's School of International Letters and Cultures, recently wrote “Glimpses of Phoenix: The Desert Metropolis in Written and Visual Media,” a book that examines a series of narrative works anchored in a critical understanding of the dominant urban myths of Greater Phoenix.

The following is a Q&A with Foster.

Tell us something about your book.

Foster: This book is a consequence of a sudden flash of illumination that came to me ten years ago. I’ve devoted most of my scholarly career to writing about the cities in Latin America. Then it occurred to me: Why haven’t I written about Phoenix, a city where I’ve lived for most of my life? Except for some exceptional historical research, not much has been written about the city’s culture. I started organizing my material and launched a course named “Phoenix and Cultural Production.” The materials for the book have slowly emerged out of that course.

In the book, you mention that Phoenix has always been considered a place with no history. Why is that?

Foster: I think that there are a couple reasons for that. One is that the city has grown so tremendously over the years. It grew during the World War II and then again in the 60s and the 70s, which is when I first came here, and has continued to be a boom city ever since. Consequently, many people, who have no roots in Phoenix, ended up here as an accident. They are interested in what Phoenix is now – the modernity, the Arizona lifestyle, etc. That has certainly contributed to the belief.

Another is that there aren’t many great events or personalities, except Barry Goldwater and a few others, associated with Phoenix. People come here to live the Arizona dream and have fun in the sun. If they see a historical building such as the St. Mary’s Basilica or the Tovrea Castle, they don’t think much of it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that you tell the history of the city through literary and culturally prominent figures who have worked or lived here. Was that deliberate?

Foster: I’m interested in how lived human experiences are represented in cultural production. I’m not a historian, sociologist or anthropologist; I deal with cultural products – novels, films, photography, cartoon art, etc. that are an interpretation of the lived experience of Phoenix. Certainly, my own voice is there in terms of what works I chose to study, my opinions regarding the works and the way I frame those opinions. My own voice is also directly present in my photography that is included in the book.

Please talk about the popular or literary voices and figures you’ve used and why you chose them.

Foster: The figures I chose had a recognizable connection to Phoenix. Erma Bombeck was a well-known, humorous chronicler of the Phoenix suburban life. John Talton has written detective fiction work about the city and was a prominent member of the editorial staff of the Arizona Republic not very long ago. Steve Benson, the editorial cartoonist for the Republic, has a national reputation for sharpness of wit and a strident manner in which he interprets local and national events. Laurie Notaro is a witty, yet acidic commentator on urban life in Phoenix. She says she grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks in Paradise Valley.”

What connects them all are their works; cultural production by nature is a critique. It is not always generous toward the subject that it is interpreting. It is often oriented toward discovering the weaknesses and flaws of the human experience. Benson always said that his job as an editorial cartoonist was to “shoot the wounded.”

A very important dimension of the book is the Hispanic content. One of the Hispanic writers included in the book, dramatist Cherrie Moraga has done some extensive Chicana lesbian writing. Guillermo Reyes, professor of theatre and film at the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts, writes about the hypocrisy of sexuality and of being a political figure in Phoenix. Stella Pope Duarte, who grew up in the Sonorita Barrio in south Phoenix, talks about the marginalization of Hispanics in the city.

I wish I had African-American and Asian-American components in the book, as those populations have been important in Phoenix’s history, but I couldn’t find many cultural works to discuss.

Did something surprise you during the course of writing this book?

Foster: When I told people I was writing a book about Phoenix’s history, people reacted with surprise. I was surprised at that attitude, a little disappointed as well. Most people who live here don’t have their feet on the ground. They drive everywhere and don’t see the city. My wife says that she doesn’t go anywhere the freeway doesn’t go.

One of the issues here is also that culture tends to look for the problematic side of human experience and nature. I might get some pushback from those who believe I should’ve written about the glories of this all-American city and fun in the sun.

What do you want the reader to take away from the book?

Foster: I want them to feel the need to look at the city – the need to explore what Phoenix and living in it is all about. Phoenix is not just your church, school, suburban home or the grocery store that you go to – it is a living, dynamic phenomenon. I’ve lived here for nearly 50 years and I want this book to be a source of meaningful engagement. 

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Lectures and book signings are presented by ASU Libraries, School of International Letters and Cultures, Institute for Humanities Research and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For event details:

ASU Tempe campus event: https://international.clas.asu.edu/events/glimpses-phoenix-desert-metropolis-written-and-visual-media

Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center: https://international.clas.asu.edu/events/glimpses-phoenix-desert-metropolis-written-and-visual-media-0