Unraveling the Tapestry of Califia

Unraveling the Tapestry of Califia

Jaishree Odin
M.D. Coverley
Cambridge, Mass: Eastgate Systems, 2000.

Jaishree K. Odin on the hyperfiction of M.D. Coverley.

Hypertext writers have successfully used the multi-perspectival potential of the electronic media to reflect on questions of artistic subjectivity or issues of literary and cultural history. Judy Malloy, for instance, uses juxtaposition as well as hypertextual linking in her classic hypertext its name was Penelope (Cambridge, Mass: Eastgate Systems, 1993) to explore women’s artistic creativity in both historical and contemporary contexts. In a still more complex work, Patchwork Girl (Cambridge, Mass: Eastgate Systems, 1995), Shelley Jackson uses fragmentation to unravel the literary history of women, a patchwork in both theme and structure.

[link to George Landow’s review of “Patchwork Girl”.]

M. D. Coverley (a.k.a. Marjorie Luesebrink) uses yet another technique of layering to explore the buried history of the original California Indians in her colorful and visually fascinating multi-media novel Califia (Eastgate Systems, 2000). To create a performative space that engages the reader’s senses at many levels, Coverley draws as much on images, photographs, letters, journal entries, maps, and music as on a linearly unfolding narrative. The performative space that unfolds becomes the site of reinscription as it results in re-membering and re-incorporating the symbolic order of the Chumash Indians (the original inhabitants of California) into the protagonists’ past and present.

Coverley uses the metaphor of a journey as the basis of the narrative structure. The text is divided into four journeys: “South: The Comets in the Yard”; “East: Wind, Sand and Stars”; “North: The Night of the Bear”; and “West: The Journey Out.” Navigational aids (a compass, a solar table, and the star maps) are provided so that readers can explore the four directions and join the protagonists in the quest for the Califia treasure. The modern and the technological thus exist alongside the traditional and the ancient. The three narrators, Augusta, Kaye, and Calvin, provide different perspectives on stories that encompass multiple generations. Augusta narrates the present events in chronological succession, Kaye relates the family mythology, legends, and the significance of star maps, and Calvin transcribes the materials onto a computer and assists Kaye in creating docudramas - reconstructions of past events.

The electronic medium allows Coverley to bring to light the buried fragments of the Chumash Indian lives - the petroglyphs, the cave paintings, the sacred figures and designs - adding to the already rich symbolism of the textual elements. As these layers are brought to the surface, the unwritten histories of the Indians are made contiguous with the written history of the events that led to the dispossession of their land and culture. Thus, implicit in the story of the building of Los Angeles (the segments “West” and “East”) is yet another story - that of another city’s loss. The two other segments, “North” and “West,” expose the dishonesty, deceit, and exploitation which accompany the lives of Los Angeles’s builders and eventually destroy them. What is seen as sunrise and a future of abundant possibilities in the segment “East” is finally seen as sunset and loss in the section “West.” Conversely, what was believed to be lost in the section “East” reappears in all possibilities in the section “West.”

Carolyn Guertin interprets Califia ‘s multi-layered narrative structure as an “engine of forgetfulness” which, because the reader’s response is primarily on the emotional and sensory level, can be read using the model of Alzheimer’s disease. Guertin attributes this response to information overload and the complexity of the narrative, which the reader finds difficult to retain in the form of any coherent trajectory. Though she is right about information overload as the text unfolds simultaneously in several spatio-temporal zones, this layered unfolding functions not so much to cause the reader’s dementia as to make him return to the text repeatedly. The meaning emerges in the reading and rereading of Califia as different trajectories come together in the reader’s version of the story.

Coverley’s Califia is about re-membering the present with the past by a slow unfolding of layers of history. “Califia” alludes to the mythical and the historical naming of California by Spanish explorers, referring to the legendary Amazon warrior queen who ruled the terrestrial paradise believed to be filled with treasures, monsters, and unusual women. The official history of the gold-prospecting period in California is intermixed with the buried histories of Chumash Indians, the exploitation of Mission Indians, the stories of crime syndicates in the building of Los Angeles, and the unacknowledged histories of the women of two clans over five generations who keep the legends of their Indian ancestors alive. In the dreams of gold treasure are embroidered the Indian star lore and the sacred knowledge which the Summerland and Beveridge women pass from generation to generation.

As the mythical Spider Woman or Thought Woman who weaves the web of the universe, Willing Stars is the Chumash Indian ancestor who codes the wisdom of her people in the hand-embroidered blue blanket. With her designs of star constellations and string figures, she weaves the location of sacred Chumash caves as well as the rituals performed there. The star maps coincide with the geographical map of the sacred Indian caves, presumably the site of gold mines. Thus, unraveling the stellar design becomes the enactment of both a spiritual journey to the sacred caves and a material journey to find the treasure of Califia.

In Califia, the itineraries traced take precedence over reaching a destination, even as the need for that destination is continually reiterated. The empty hole that the questing narrators find at the original burial site of the Califia treasure represents the nothingness at the heart of the text - the quest for the Califia treasure becomes the quest for the text that would displace the nothingness and lead to remembering. The blue blanket that holds the key to the possible location of the treasure becomes the encoded text that will displace the emptiness of the first reading. Thus, the empty authorial space and the geographical space of the original burial site mediate between the past and the present and become the location of reinscription which is essentially performative in nature. As the narrators read Willing Stars’s blanket, they re-member and re-collect the oral narrative which was recorded by their female ancestor using needle and thread.

The textual displacement that mirrors cultural displacement is repeated in the framing of the text. The fictitious narrator M. D. Coverley, less a woman’s male pseudonym than an empty genderless sign, mirrors from the outside the gendered author of the electronic text, and from the inside Willing Stars, the author of the embroidered text. Even as absence marks the outermost frame of the narrative, that frame is mediated by the voices of two female narrators, Kaye and Augusta, who lead to the innermost frame of Willing Stars’s voice that is frozen in time and, literally, in space, until it is unearthed and read anew. Kaye, guided by the moon and stars, and with intuition and imagination, is instrumental in reinterpreting the message on the blue blanket, awakening Augusta in the process to the history and wisdom of her ancestors. The third narrative is that of Calvin, who transfers the Califia materials onto a computer and discovers ways to link various events and characters. At one level, Calvin’s narrative is the disembodied space of written discourse; at another level, especially in the Calvin/Kaye docudramas, it is the mediating voice that emerges from between the written and oral discourses as the two strands, material/spiritual or rational/intuitive, come together. Califia thus moves both inward and outward, reaching inward by listening to the oral narrative and pointing outward to what has been written down; the material is thus folded into the conceptual as the present is renewed by the past.