Qualitative inquiry, in general, and autoethnography, specifically, is highly contested in educational research, a discipline within which I work. Long-established criticisms and misunderstandings about autoethnography are rampant in educational research. These include the lack of value in knowledge construction from the perspective of one person, indulgent naval gazing, and overall lack of empiricism. In my autoethnographies within educational research, I have tried to contribute critically and de/colonially to the conversation by directly connecting autoethnographic narratives to issues of justice and equity, and by demonstrating the value of compelling narratives and theorization. My commitment to writing autoethnographies, using my unreliable narrator voice, is to illustrate that within this methodological possibility we can enact an assemblage of theory, spirituality, community, culture, and self together. This is indeed a challenge, not just for enacting the assemblage, but for integrating spirit into justice work. Searching for exemplars, I have leaned heavily on Gloria Anzaldúa’s work. In this essay, I will discuss a concept within Anzaldúa’s work, autohistoria-teoría, and its relevance in autoethnography. My hope is that those who are situated in a space similar to mine, or even beyond, will find value in such an approach, and perhaps explore it on their own to see what can be produced from that engagement.
One of the key aspects in Anzaldúa’s conceptualization of autohistoria-teoría is an incorporation of the spirit in academic work.1 Anzaldúa does not evoke a religious understanding of the spirit or spirituality in her work. Instead, she writes:
Spirituality is an ontological belief in the existence of things outside the body (exosomatic), as opposed to the belief that material reality is a projection of mentally created images. The answer to the question, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?” is yes. Spirituality is a symbology system, a philosophy, a worldview, a perspective, and a perception. Spirituality is a different kind and way of knowing. It aims to expand perception; to become conscious, even in sleep; to become aware of the interconnections between all things by attaining a grand perspective. A source reality exists, and both physical and nonphysical worlds emanate from it, forming a secondary reality.2
Anzaldúa opens up an understanding of spirituality that is responsive to multiple wisdom traditions as an ontoepistemology. Being fully conscious of the realities of our lives can expand our perception and awareness and make room for knowledge construction in different ways. She explains further what might happen if one could have a glimpse or connection to the primary reality.
When you catch glimpses of this invisible primary reality and realize you’re connected to it, feelings of alienation and hopelessness disappear. Coming to terms with spirit means bringing yourself into harmony with the world within and around you. One finds one’s way to spirit through woundings, through nature, through reading, through actions, through discovering new approaches to problems.3
If an energy source contains the potential for all physical and nonphysical worlds, then it is no surprise that even a moment or glimpse of such an energy would reveal the interconnectedness of all beings and things in the universe, diminishing feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disconnections.
Anzaldúa does not use the language that qualitative researchers use, yet she conceptualized autohistoria-teoría to create a possibility that expands beyond autobiography and cultural narratives (terms commonly used in her disciplinary discourses). She wanted to include dreams, visions; prayers, journeying to other realms of consciousness, dialoguing with animals, spirit, and ancestors, and other nontangible experiences that could be privileged and centered in autoethnographic and other narratives in academia. She argued that such nontangible experiences are legitimate and inform our thoughts and actions in material forms. What has attracted me to use autohistoria-teoría is that I can expand how I think about autoethnography. I can exceed the realms of this world, and bring in the world I have always known—a world of contemplation, mindfulness, and journeying into other realms. Freedom from adhering to a truth limited to verifiability allows me to combine fact, fiction, dreams, desires, visions, and meditative insights. In Anzaldúa’s work, she exceeds the “physical-material reality to document memories, spectral visits, shamanic journeys, and other forms of spirituality.”4 In doing so, she shares being inspired by her muse, naguala, from another realm, her conversations and relationships with trees, reptiles, and imaginal worlds, while she maps her wounds, trauma, and lived experiences through deep excavation. This kind of work requires multiple forms of border crossing, living with contradictions, surrendering rational sense-making, relying on intuitive intelligence, and abilities I had long forgotten how to activate and fully cultivate in the ways I can do now, after being inspired by autohistoria-teoría.
As a de/colonizing scholar, I have made a commitment to make my people the primary audience of my work, and academic gatekeepers as secondary.5 In doing so, the ethics of how I approach writing became salient, and made me aware of what I needed to center more, even when the academic gatekeepers find my choices unpalatable. I have conceptualized a de/colonial approach as a movement that enacts both/and narratives of desires of utopian freedom and negotiation of the materiality of oppression in our current conditions. Given the restricted nature of educational research, I have used autohistoria-teoría to argue for interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary moves methodologically, substantively, and theoretically by centering a healing agenda within justice work. This is because any engagement in justice work is an engagement with personal and collective trauma. Daily immersion in such work creates fatigue and corrosion of one’s soul, and autoethnographic work, be it traditional, critical, or Anzaldúan, offers healing possibilities.
Moreover, since Anzaldúa is not situated in educational research, her notion of autohistoria-teoría permits me to feel unrestricted by any particular genre within and outside of education and academia. It is as if I am brewing my own genre-mixing potion that never turns out the same way twice. Anzaldúa considered herself a shaman, and forwarded the idea that when we experience trauma, our soul splits in multiple fragmented parts. Healing, then, requires a calling-back of the fragmented parts of ourselves, which is one possibility of autohistoria-teoría. AnaLouise Keating and I have discussed the damage caused by fragmentation:
These fragmentations provoke emotional, geographic, economic, spiritual, philosophical, familial, professional, and other forms of exile as we are separated and labeled: too feminist/not feminist enough, too queer/not queer enough, too radical/not radical enough, etc. When we internalize these labels, we reinforce this process. Carrying these fragmentations in our bodies, spirits, and beings, we imprint their narratives in our consciousness. At times we refuse to acknowledge them; at other times we simply forget their presence; and at still other times we over-identify with one or two fragments while entirely ignoring the rest.6
As a transnational scholar in a Brown body, predominantly in white spaces in academia, I feel the truth of these fragmentations. The exile, whether self-imposed or one I am thrust into, is tangible and isolating. My own internalization of judgment-inducing labels has also been unproductive, and I have carried the pain of the fragmentation in my body for decades, leading to a current diagnosis of an autoimmune disease that provokes my body to attack me from within, suggesting I cannot be trusted to keep myself safe. Using autohistoria-teoría, I am becoming conscious of the fragmentations of my soul, for carrying individual and collective pain, and countering this by putting forward an agenda for healing, building capacity, generating critical insights, and modeling possibilities. The most likely reason for my personal fragmentations is my fear of doing “shadow work,” which in turn sabotages healing possibilities and hinders my connection with the primary source.
Shadow work is informed by Carl Jung’s (2014) notion of archetypes.7 Jung conceptualized the shadow as one of his archetypes, the collective sum of the disowned parts within ourselves, parts that we dismiss, avoid, or repress. Anzaldúa offered the construct of the shadow beast, a personified version of the shadow, for us to engage with, should we accept the invitation. In doing so, we can look at the parts of ourselves that are so fragmented and repressed that we have either forgotten them or are in fear of engaging and integrating them. In other words, if we take something that we have repressed, and if we externalize it by making it overt, we are no longer in resistance to it, and we accept our light and dark parts, thereby achieving a sense of harmony with the world within and around us.
On a day completely unexpected and unplanned, I ended up leaning into the calling of the shadow beast, aided by a gifted art-therapist, who was simply helping me make a mirror window for my new office, which did not have an actual window. She asked me to bring objects from my home that were of importance to me, and when we engaged in the art-making, the objects and our relationship cultivated a practice of vulnerability, where we shared narratives, scrutinized our wounds, and called our fragmented parts back to us. I detailed the process of doing this work and explained that I attended to the ways in which I “create the shadows and the shadows create me.”8 Moreover, a dialogue with the shadow beast allowed me to begin a journey of healing, of long-repressed trauma and pain. The shadow beast is not separate from me, but a part of me. This realization allowed me to consider personal shadows, shadows that show up in interpersonal relationships, in cultural and community-based spaces, and in the world. Understanding the interconnectivity of these shadows, juxtaposed against social, cultural, and global discourses, allowed me to recognize how so many ideas, conditions of life, and beliefs and worldviews are constantly held in tension with each other, leading to further fragmentation and creating distance at individual, interpersonal, and collective levels. The stories we don’t tell have the most power over us, so I began to embrace vulnerability and decided to speak about spirit and my own contemplative practices that allow me to touch and scour my wounds personally and professionally.9 Revealing the anatomy of shadow work demonstrates a transformation of self and a framing of, and being framed by, border-crossing narratives. This is a work of journeying deep into our consciousness, where the fear of fully falling apart into a million fragments remains legitimate and large. Yet the promise of what lies beyond the shadow propelled me, and knowing that Anzaldúa had preceded me on these journeys gave me the strength to engage in this work. There is no guarantee of insights at the end of these deep dives into one’s consciousness, nor is there any predictability. Thus, autohistoria-teoría as a method is always already fluid, difficult to essentialize; it exists in flux and provides unpredictable anchoring insights. In other words, it makes space for normalizing and theorizing contradictions, trauma, and worldviews through becoming fully conscious and doing spirit work.
Envisioning a Collective Healing
I offer autohistoria-teoría as a consideration for autoethnographers to see what it might produce after deep engagement. The longer I stay in academia, I am convinced that we frequently enact our individual, interpersonal, and collective trauma. Therefore, while many approaches of autohistoria-teoría might overlap with existing autoethnographic practices (since all knowledge is interconnected, after all), perhaps what is offered within this method could provide added possibilities for those who might need a framing and assemblage of the things that Anzaldúa has done in autohistoria-teoría. Perhaps narratives informed by autohistoria-teoría could create a resonance with readers. Perhaps readers would understand their own disowned parts, how they resist shadow work, give the shadow beast its power, and make it fear-inducing and larger than life. This kind of resonance can create a grand perspective of interconnectedness, as if unlocking knowledge about self, Other, the world, and beyond. The personal labor of shadow work could illuminate an understanding of how the collective shadow of colonization, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression and suffering affect us.
As autoethnographers, we become ethnographers of self, and if the self is informed by spirit and wisdom traditions, we ought to integrate that in our writing and theorize and normalize spirit work. I understand the various forms of resistance to autoethnography across multiple disciplines, and that the mere mention of spirit can leave one’s work vulnerable to being dismissed altogether. Thus, I am keen on leveraging my privileged position and rank in academia to take risks, to identify possibilities, and to construct knowledge that goes beyond empiricism and other restrictive academic practices, despite my flawed, multiply-intersected, and unreliable narrator voice.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa, “Preface: Gestures of the Body—Escribiendo para Idear,” in Light in the dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 1–8; AnaLouise Keating and Kakali Bhattacharya, “Decolonizing Religion, Transforming Spirit: The Imaginal in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Autohistoria-teoría,” in Women and Gender Studies Reader, ed. L. Ayu Saraswati and Barbara L. Shaw (in press).
Kakali Bhattacharya, “Diving Deep into Oppositional Beliefs: Healing the Wounded Transnational, De/colonizing Warrior Within,” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 15 (2015): 492–500. doi:10.1177/1532708615614019; Gloria E. Anzaldúa, “Flights of the Imagination: Rereading/rewriitng Realities,” in Light in the Dark Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 38.
Anzaldúa, “Flights of the Imagination,” 38.
Keating and Bhattacharya. In press.
Kakali Bhattacharya, “Othering Research, Researching the Other: De/colonizing Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry,” in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XXIV, ed. John Smart (Dordect, The Netherlands: Springer, 2009), 105–150.
Keating and Bhattacharya. In press.
Carl G. Jung, C.G. (2014). Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9, Part 1: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).
Kakali Bhattacharya and Rachel Payne, “Mixing Mediums, Mixing Selves: Arts-Based Contemplative Approaches to Border Crossings,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 29 (2016): 1100–1117. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1201163
Bhattacharya, 2015; Kakali Bhattacharya, “Walking through the Dark Forest: Embodied Literacies for Shadow Work in Higher Education and Beyond.,” The Journal of Black Sexuality and Relationships 4 (2018): 105–24. Kakali Bhattacharya, “De/colonial and Contemplative Approaches in Consideration of Quality in Arts-Based Qualitative Research,” in Qualitative Inquiry at a Crossroads: Political, Performative, and Methodological Reflections, ed. Micheal Giardina and Norman K. Denzin (London, UK: Routledge, 2019), 109–125.