What is that?
The first time I heard the word, “liminality,” I was in one of Ronald Takaki’s classes when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. My memory of Professor Takaki’s explanation was about being on the threshold, the līmen, of cultures, of cultural and social practices. In this threshold, there are new possibilities for the self and the community. In Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, he wrote:
America represented liminality, and the Asian immigrants’ actions enabled them to make history even in conditions they did not choose. In their trans-Pacific odyssey, they “crossed boundaries not delineated in space.” Their migration broke the “cake of custom” and placed them within a new dynamic and transitional context, an ambiguous situation “betwixt and between all fixed points of classification.”
At that time, it just made sense. So much of my experience as the daughter of immigrants, the exact reasons my parents and I fought about everything, why we couldn’t agree on anything, became so clear.
Now that I’ve had a lot of time to think about liminality, what is most appealing and important to me here is this piece: “even in conditions they did not choose.” However it is we may have found ourselves displaced, however alienated from our families, we have an opportunity to create new identities, new selves, new communities.
My interest as an author and educator is in the disruption of perceived identities based solely upon fixed points of classification, and then instead of dwelling in disenfranchisement, imagining, exploring, and affirming so much possibility for these viable, robust, and complicated “in-between” spaces that are our lived realities.
The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity …. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode…. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.
— Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Some of my Filipina Literature students from Fall 2016 have recently created this beautiful project and website called Pinay Liminality. Using Pinayism as their framework, they are exploring the ways in which Pinays are able to document their own epistemologies. They are doing so through recordings of their oral histories, through reading, and through Kuwentuhan-style telling, listening, and writing. These are both individual and kapwa driven efforts. They — and the women in their families — are the centers and narrators/tellers of their own stories. They are doing so on their own terms, honoring their stories of migration and trauma, and in doing so, they are enlarging this space, making it possible for others to enter.
It is very apt, that they have included this quote from Anzaldúa, this concise explanation:
Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds…. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling.
— Gloria E. Anzaldúa, this bridge we call home
Liminal space — also called “Third Space” — can be very uncomfortable. To inhabit liminal spaces is to bridge, and to be bridges, as Anzaldúa wrote, “passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders, changing perspectives.” To be a bridge is a tremendous responsibility that is not always appreciated by others. But I am certain some great work comes out of honoring and working to understand this space.
When I discuss liminality with my students at SFSU, at USF, in Filipinx Literature, in Asian American Literature, I ask them to imagine that līmen, that threshold, extended indefinitely. I ask them to consider that the fixed point of classification is not the destination, but rather, our making ourselves at home in the in-between. It is in this in-between space that we actively create new identities, new configurations of selves, hybrid selves. It is that transformation which Anzaldúa discusses, and which has has always been our daily practice. I see the lightbulbs above my students’ heads. I ask, does this sound familiar to you? Is this something that you do?
We discuss “Third Space,” and I use this example which I heard the poet Adrian Matejka use at a Hip-hop poetics talk at AWP a few years ago: when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, and when they met the Natives of this place, what language did they speak to one another? How did they come to understand one another? Bridging and transforming is indeed an ongoing process with no definite end point.
Questions I ask: What do we keep and why do we keep it? Is it ours to keep? Who says? What do we discard and why do we discard it? Do we have to the right to discard? Who gives us the permission to discard? What do we adopt? Do we have the right to adopt? Who gives us the permission to adopt? What have we misappropriated? What belongs to us? What is given to us? What is forced upon us? Are we OK with this?
I want to ask why our insistence and reliance upon those fixed points of classification, and our intolerance of the liminal spaces that are our lived realities, such that we push it all into the abstract. Why do we detach our lived realities from ourselves, and why do we allow ourselves to be pulled back without question into others’ fixed ways of seeing.
There is something hegemonic about this, our consenting to others’ definitions of us, and it does not sit well with me. I want to resist this.
This is messy. It is not easily diagrammed or mapped. I am OK with this.