Q&A with Monica Huerta, author of Magical Habits

Monica Huerta is Assistant Professor of English and American Studies at Princeton University. In Magical Habits, she draws on her experiences growing up in her family’s Mexican restaurants and her life as an academic to sketch out habits of living that allow us to consider what it means to live with history as we are caught up in it and how those histories bear on our capacities to make sense of our lives.

The format of Magical Habits is unique and is clearly born out of an unwillingness to reduce interlocking stories to a single, brittle narrative. How did these texts come together for you?

I mention in the acknowledgments that for a long time – for most of the time it was “coming together” – I didn’t know why or what I was writing. There’s portions of writing – single sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs – that I wrote my first year of college, and other small portions I wrote in the last pass through the manuscript during copy edits. That’s a span of two decades! I tried to mark the “compendium” quality of the book with a series of dates of when I first started some of the writing in each essay and of when I last substantively revised it at the end of each of the essays. My hope is that what’s not reduced, but rather, as you say, interlocking, gives a layered sense of the varying needs the writing was meeting—some personal, some critical, some theoretical, some formal.

The “coming together” happened when I realized that the disparate bits asked related questions about habits we cultivate, knowingly and otherwise – through reading, but also through ordinary forms of distraction and pleasure – in order to live with what are unbearable histories by any measure. But even as the writings now gathered speak to each other through these questions about habits, I also hope the book as a whole maintains a sense of having been worked on and worked through alongside the ordinary course of living that made the writing possible and thinkable.

A lot about Magical Habits is unconventional, but one of your most surprising moves is to incorporate prose from your senior thesis project. Does this book track your evolution as a scholar, or of an evolving discourse about what being Mexican means? Are these two one and the same? 

I’m hoping that the portions from my undergrad thesis add dimensionality to the idea that the questions we have can change over time. I’m not proposing my undergraduate work makes a scholarly contribution to current scholarship in a traditional way. Obviously, there’s been so much exciting work between when I was in college and now about restaurants and food as sites of critical inquiry. I’m proposing the thesis bits as “an intimate archive” that turns my first sustained attempt at scholarship inside out and so contextualizes that effort in the more personal stories from which its questions arose. In the essays, those episodes are also situated in relation to history, memory, language games, migrations, and the mutations of racial capitalism in the late-twentieth century.

I suppose there is a way to read the book as tracking the way my own questions changed over time. My graduate training was as a nineteenth-century Americanist and my first traditional scholarly monograph, The Unintended: Photography, Property & the Aesthetics of Racial Capitalism (forthcoming April 2022, NYU Press, America & the Long Nineteenth Century series) is about legal clashes over photography in the late-nineteenth century and a particular aesthetics of whiteness through which property relations are forged. It might not be immediately obvious, but The Unintended is a kind of answer to the questions about commodified ethnicities that my senior thesis was asking. The book is trying to show some of the specific mechanisms through which white supremacy works with capitalist regimes of private property.

At the same time, including the thesis bits is a pedagogical gesture. I thought it could be helpful in a classroom to use those portions to talk with students about how scholarship (which, in my mind, includes the ways we’re trained to produce it) bears a relation to our lives in direct and indirect ways. Of course, this also implies a collective work to build a culture of transparency with one another rather than embarrassment or denial. We choose our intellectual questions for intimate reasons, and “love” or “interest” are always far from the full story. Not every work or book needs to confess its reasons in that way, I don’t think. But it seems to me that engaging with one another through that kind of holistic investment in our questions can only make our work stronger; for one, it might shift our relations to one another and lend another kind of urgency to the kinds of work we can do together.

So I think I’m saying that I also wrote Magical Habits as a colleague: I wrote as a scholar and as a teacher, but also as someone who genuinely cares about the people who do the work we do, and in the interest of making more space for more people to engage multiply with the work of making knowledge that pushes beyond (and against) the way knowledge in the service of power has reproduced and legitimated unlivable worlds for most.

Magical Habits is part of the Writing Matters! series, which seeks to expand what constitutes critical writing. At the same time this book is a journey through your “family’s archives.” For instance, you recount anecdotes about your great grandfather you learned not from family tradition but from published histories written about him. This feels both unbearably personal, and unbearably impersonal. What was it like to excavate your family history this way?

There’s so many brilliant people writing in varied keys about the blur between the personal and critical right now! It’s a really exciting time to be thinking through our dreams for our institutions and knowledge-making together. It’s interesting that you use the word “unbearable.” I think the question of “what can be borne/born” from and of history is exactly the question that I’ve learned to ask from scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, Imani Perry, Ashley Farmer, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Jessica Marie Johnson, Yomaira Figueroa, and so, so many others, but with Black feminists at – to use another Black feminist, Martha Jones’ term – the vanguard. The personal/impersonal process of excavating family history this way is, from what I’ve tried to learn from scholars and history, exactly what any family history excavation project would confront. Most recently, I think of Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands and Elizabeth Povinelli’s new graphic novel The Inheritance. Our personal archives – photo albums, emails, clothing, songs, overheard conversations – can only leak into the structural, material conditions through which they were created, or which conditioned their reception and experience. Another way to say it is that, of course, the personal is never entirely free from the structural (and some of that structure is utterly material), and vice versa. I tried to write from having learned that from Black feminists, even as my own position with relations to structures and affects is also distinct from theirs because of my own subject position, but also because of the histories we engage and question. 

I also tried to write from a speculative place, imagining some “after” from the heartbreakand specifically-manifested suffering of the histories we live inside; both the unbearability and the material manifestations of history are just as much our ecosystem as our other harmed ecosystems. I did that not to disavow either present distress or the strenuousness of the work it will take to be in an “after” but rather to try to think beyond the property logics that can dominate the personal and that would make the interest what’s personal in the book, the fact that it was mine and not someone else’s. I tried to write toward some other than the “mine-ness” of the story as an invitation to reallocate the very grounds for allegiance from the one to the many precisely because these histories are – differentially, always – our shared ecosystem. If dismantling property is the most direct path towards eradicating white supremacy, then dissolving the property logics through which we’ve come to know ourselves as selves could bring that horizon closer. That’s part of the experiment I was writing through.

What do you hope a reader will come away with from Magical Habits

As part of the Writing Matters! series, I hope the book continues to open up more space for the various forms that intellectual work might take and make for ever more actual, material, and imaginative freedom.

My friend Carolyn Biltoft, a world historian and theorist (get her book, it’s incredible!), told me she thinks of Magical Habits as an invitation to divest, to disentangle, and to disintegrate. If there is a singular “doing” that the book hopes to provoke, it’s as simple and challenging as that. I hope readers feel invited and seriously consider how they can (continue to) divest from the ways that their lives are enmeshed in and benefit from power and white supremacy in particular – but also in all its forms. Also to say that as storytelling, the book importantly includes missteps I made. Magical Habits isn’t offering a template for the right habits, but it is suggesting a tenacity towards being willing to become dedicated to continual divestment, when another un-free layer makes itself known. 

Each person who has that desire – ever more freedom for ever more people – can only begin if they’re going to begin in a holistic way exactly where they are. That’s part of why I am so inspired by abolitionist scholars and thinkers. Those organizers and leaders who have been working to do exactly that kind of holistic work in concert with and as a crucial part of the work of carceral abolition, to name our most prominent example, have been thinking in modes of compounding, interlocking scales and repair for decades. I’m inspired by their work, their thought, and their praxis of bringing more capacious worlds, more livable worlds into being through and in every relation in order to continually become that other world now.

Read the introduction to Magical Habits for free and save 30% on the book using the coupon code E21HRTA. 

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