Literary MagNet: Raquel Gutiérrez

Dana Isokawa
From the July/August 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In their debut essay collection, Brown Neon (Coffee House Press, June 2022), Raquel Gutiérrez (she/they) observes how tricky photographing neon signs can be: “[I] knew the ghostly streaks caused by moving your phone suddenly, or losing the legibility of the text without enough light.” In Brown Neon, Gutiérrez engages in an analogous task: depicting the complex, electric spaces and queer brown communities she has moved through. With thoughtful ambivalence and care, Gutiérrez describes the work of artists such as Sebastian Hernández and Jeanne Córdova as well as places and borderlands in the U.S. Southwest. In each essay, Gutiérrez searches for ways to theorize about art, class, and queerness that are not scripted by institutions but instead prioritize the witnessing of “the utmost distillation of liveness.”

Raquel Guitérrez (Credit: Thea Q. Tagle)

Gutiérrez wrote the oldest essay that appears in Brown Neon, “Vessel Among Vessels: Laura Aguilar’s Body in Landscape,” after Aguilar, a photographer, died in 2018. Lou Cornum, an editor at the New Inquiry, invited Gutiérrez to write it after seeing her tweet about the artist, and during editing “asked the right questions and pushed the piece to its lyrical and critical muscularity,” says Gutiérrez. The piece juxtaposes Aguilar’s life with Gutiérrez’s reflections on the class tensions within the East Los Angeles lesbian bar scene. The essay was published on the New Inquiry’s website, which features essays, reviews, and interviews. The New Inquiry looks for “incisive writing to intervene in public debates” and, as the editors write, is “concerned with building a left that doesn’t reproduce what we critique.” The publication is open to essay submissions via e-mail for its next issue, which is themed “Assets.” 

Throughout Brown Neon, Gutiérrez probes the connection between land and art. In one essay, Gutiérrez responds to Swiss Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel’s positing that the prototypes of the U.S.-Mexico border wall commissioned under Donald Trump could be considered the land art of a conceptual artist. “I was provoked into seeing the prototypes myself and fell into a dynamic rabbit hole,” says Gutiérrez, who visited the structures in 2018. They went on to pitch an essay on the topic at the invitation of Lucas Iberico Lozada, an editor at Popula, an experimental news, arts, and culture online magazine started in 2018. “Lucas posed great questions as an editor from a publication unfamiliar with the brouhaha that in some ways felt very West Coast,” says Gutiérrez. Popula regularly publishes essays, commentary, journalism, and comics. The outlet is experimenting with blockchain technology to ensure posts can never be “altered, censored, or destroyed,” keeping Popula’s editors honest and its content safe from hackers. The editors accept nonfiction pitches via e-mail.

For the Spring 2020 issue of the Georgia Review, Gutiérrez turned her blog post about the U.S.-Mexico border into the essay “Do Migrants Dream of Blue Barrels?” The piece drew on her experience replenishing water stations in the Sonoran Desert intended for migrants on their way to the United States. Gutiérrez says, “The only way I could write about the border was to stress my proximities and distances as the child of people who had the experience of crossing—whether by foot or overstaying a visa—directly.” With its sensory descriptions of the desert and its commentary about solidarity and the “deep and complex matrices” of immigrants and migrants, the essay seems at home in the Georgia Review; the print quarterly seeks to gather imaginative poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that reconsiders tidy notions and ideas. The recent Spring 2022 issue celebrated the review’s seventy-fifth anniversary and featured diasporic writing from and about the southeastern United States. Submissions open on August 15.

Los Angeles plays a big part in Brown Neon, so it is apt that Gutiérrez wrote one of its essays for the Los Angeles Review of Books, which publishes criticism and interviews daily on its website and through its print quarterly. In 2018 the review ran a version of Gutiérrez’s piece about the L.A.-based artist Shizu Saldamando, a “meditation on aging and what it means for aging punks who’re straight women to find intellectual peers…in queer spaces,” which Gutiérrez says editor in chief Boris Dralyuk really “helped make sing.” The review features a wide range of criticism on all aspects of art, culture, and politics. The editors are open to pitches via e-mail. 

While much of Brown Neon first appeared online and was likely influenced by journal editors’ feedback, Gutiérrez credits a more underground, premodern Internet publication scene with shaping much of her writing—the nineties feminist DIY post-punk zine culture. Gutiérrez describes the zines of that time as “angry and critical and unfiltered sustained addresses to many young, queer, punk feminists of color from across the country starving for languages of rage and righteousness that spoke to the experience of outsider-ness and resistance to being commodified.” Gutiérrez singles out one compilation zine in particular, Evolution of a Race Riot, which is viewable on zine editor Mimi Thi Nguyen’s website.    


Dana Isokawa is the managing editor of the Margins and a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.