Watching The English

The Amazon Prime series The English is not a weird western, but it feels like one. It’s set in a realist historical version of the American West, and there are no supernatural elements, but it is so stylized as to seem surreal or hyperreal at times, perfectly in keeping with western films in the spaghetti western mode. In fact, in episode 1, there are so many visual references to spaghetti westerns that there should have been a warning for anyone on a low-carb diet.

Certainly, lots of Sergio Leone throughout the series, plus some homages to Corbucci’s Django (the use of Gatling guns in a manner not conforming to the manufacturer’s preferred operating procedures), and, rather surprisingly, in episode 5, an extended reference to Antonio’s non-spaghetti-not-really-a-western Zabriskie Point, and, since we’re in Italian filmmaker territory, probably a bit of Fellini here and there, especially in character and costume design.

Okay, so not weird in the supernatural sense, but it’s pretty weird (and I mean that in a good way), especially in the way the visual elements are so highly stylized.

Characters silhouetted against the sky occur throughout. There’s a similar composition with a hanged man at the center of the screen in the midground against a night sky with a rider on horseback behind him that looks like a frame from a Jonah Hex comic book. But, ultimately, I guess The English feels like a weird western because it draws so much on horror, especially horror with human—rather than supernatural—monsters.

The series stars Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer (Lakota) as (to paraphrase IMDB) Cornelia Locke (“an Englishwoman hell-bent on revenge”) and Eli Whipp (“a retired Pawnee scout out to claim his birthright”). As it turns out, Eli has several thousand reasons for revenge himself. The two actors are great. Their friendship and partnership is at the center of the series, and, even acknowledging the value of the series’ stylistic audacity, The English is as good as it is because of Blunt and Spencer.

In the classic western, the frontier hero is between two worlds, a violent man who represents a “civilizing” force, and The English works so well because it centers on two characters who are already between worlds, the Native American man who served as a sergeant in the US Army, the wealthy aristocratic woman who abandons the protections of her social status to make her way across an American frontier dominated by violent men.

Philosophically, The English is more in keeping with the pessimism (even cynicism) of spaghetti westerns than the more optimistic (and nationalistic) outlook of the classic western. One of the reasons the series feels like a weird western to me is that the version of the frontier that we see in The English is very much in keeping with post-apocalyptic westerns (such as the Mad Max series). This a Hobbesian frontier where life is nasty, short, and brutish, where capitalist enterprise is made possible by mass death (and, as is the case with various scavengers we encounter along the way, mass death is a money-making endeavor of its own). We may encounter a sheriff and a shopkeeper along the way, but mostly this is a frontier of thieves, scavengers, and killers.

When Eli and Cornelia wander into the compound of John and Katie Clark [played by Native actors Gary Farmer (Cayuga) and Kimberly Guerrero (Colville Tribes], I immediately thought of the post-apocalyptic film The Book of Eli (and not just because of the coincidence of main character names). In The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington’s Eli similarly wandered into a visually-similar compound of what turns out to be a cannibal couple (an appreciation for Anita Ward’s fabulous “Ring My Bell” disco song is not a sign of trustworthy character). When Clark sets Eli to the task of busting up cattle skulls to make bone meal, the feeling of the weird western gets even stronger. The Clarks aren’t quite cannibals, but they are certainly death merchants.

And then there’s Black Eyed Mog.

What The English suggests is that westerns are really horror stories with sanitized violence and with the serial killers that populate them presented as heroes rather than as monsters. What we get in The English is the horror of that violence, which we see perpetrated, or which we experience through its aftereffects: the body horror of bodies damaged by violence and disease. Revenge-driven Black Eyed Mog (played by British actress Nichola McAuliffe) has an entire wall covered in dozens of scalps of Native Americans she has killed or had killed. The horror elements of The English are not supernatural, but there are all kinds of human monsters that we encounter through the six episodes.

Senegalese Horror Western “Saloum”

Revenge is like a river. You only reach the bottom when you drown. From Senegal, the French-language film Saloum begins and ends with that observation.

Saloum is part of long tradition of African and African-diaspora films influenced by spaghetti westerns, evoking Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as it does in the poster. It is a contemporary western, focused on a trio of “hired guns,” mercenaries, known as the Hyenas.

Yann Gael plays Chaka, the central gunslinger, who has a history in the Saloum region where he and his fellow guns for hire take refuge. Things are not quite as they seem at the compound where the group takes refuge, and Chaka is not quite forthcoming to his fellows about his connection to the place (or his thirst for revenge).

Saloum has a runtime of one hour and 24 minutes, but, really, cut out the credits, and it’s a very tight hour and fifteen minute film that keeps things moving at a face pace. There are gun battles, there is revenge, and there are also some very angry spirits, and the final half an hour involves supernatural battle. If you like genre mash-ups, this is a good one, and the shifts from mercenary adventure to western revenge to horror film work very well. It’s available for rental on Amazon Prime, and it’s also streaming via Shudder.

Giving Tuesday

Hello and happy Giving Tuesday, WLA!

Just a little reminder to consider donating toward the WLA’s Louis Owens Award fund today. All contributions go toward supporting the WLA’s commitment to expanding diversity and scholarly excellence in its graduate student community. Details about the award are below.

You may contribute in two ways:

  • Make an online donation (please indicate that it is for the Owens Award);
  • Send a check to:  Western Literature Association PO Box 6815 Logan, UT 84341

All donations are tax deductible.

Thank you for considering the Owens Award today!

Worlding the Western

Introduction – Extract

Storying cannot any longer be put into the box of human exceptionalism” (Haraway 2016: 39)

“This earth is anything but a sharing of humanity. It is a world that does not even manage to constitute a world; it is a world lacking in world, and lacking in the meaning of world” (Nancy 2000: xii).

A Hundred Other Wests

As long ago as 2002 in Western American Literature, James Maguire called for a new relationship between Western American literary studies and globalization, quoting Stephen Greenblatt (I quote the whole passage):

To write literary history, we need more a sharp awareness of accidental judgments than a theory of the organic; more an account of purposes mistook than a narrative of gradual emergence; more a chronicle of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts than a story of inevitable progress from traceable origins. We need to understand colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination, and unexpected consequences, along with the fierce compulsions of greed, longing, and restlessness, for it is these disruptive forces, not a rooted sense of cultural legitimacy, that principally shape the history and diffusion of languages (2001:61 – emphasis added).[i]

Since then, critics have moved to explain, in Susan Kollin’s words, the “constructions and circulations of the Western” (2015a:29) as a traveling genre or “routed” form whose origins, development and metamorphosis deny Greenblatt’s “rooted sense of cultural legitimacy” and challenge “inevitable progress.  Western American literature, or “Westerns” as I will refer to fiction discussed in this book, are, despite appearances, a hybrid form crossed and re-crossed by multiple traditions, transnational influences and complex relations, with “roots” twisted and inter-spliced, rhizomatic, and entangled betwixt and between many cultures, languages and traditions. In this sense, the western genre has always belonged to the world just as, in Janne Lahti’s words, the American West “is not just a distant land out there, but part of our collective, global history” (Lahti 2019: 2).[ii] Increasingly, texts referring to the American West dramatize the impact of “colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination … fierce compulsions of greed, longing, and restlessness” producing a more fully rounded and critically engaged representation of, what I term, regionality-as-worlding. In so doing, such texts acknowledged complex transnational routes disrupting taken-for-granted assumptions and established exceptionalist discourses of the West’s intimate connection to US nation building. To read against this tradition through the prism of worlding Westerns is, in Paul Giles’s words, to note how “cultural formations overlap and interfere with each other in surprising ways, thereby giving the map of the subject a new cartographic and conceptual twist” (Giles 2013:18).

My aim is to show how in Westerns, or in fiction of the West, such conceptual twists emerge as worlding, whereby tropes and assumptions are indeed “overlapped and interfered with”, opened up to different, entangled visions of the region as a space of multiple relations with its outside, and its form made and remade from diverse perspectives. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s words, “the unity of the world is not one: it is made of a diversity, including disparity and opposition. It is made of it, which is to say that it is not added to it and does not reduce it. The unity of the world is nothing other than its diversity, and its diversity is, in turn, a diversity of worlds” (2007:109). Ultimately, this is a type of globalization with a difference, “filled with human potential … a form of political action being done through culture … worlding, with emphasis on the whirl” (Watson in Wilson and Connery 2007: x, xi). Since, “If the global is not the world”, writes Rob Wilson, “worlding is not or should not be equated to globalization as it sometimes still is … worlding is not just a gesture or tactic in the given world but helps to create a world, to world the world in an active gerundive sense” (Wilson 2018: 9).[iii]  As Kollin explains, this process adds to our understanding of westness by, “connecting stories of the American West to global contexts, extending postcolonial criticism to literary histories of the region, placing previously marginalized groups at the center of this work, and questioning what counts as the beginnings and ends of regions themselves” (2015a: 4). In addition, to emphasize Wilson’s point, it is always also about the creation of worlds that refuse to deny relations with others, in order to acknowledge and build interdependent, shared communities.

Although, due to the scale and speed of its conquest and settlement, America has been traditionally viewed as exceptional, it is important to recognize, as this book will do, that the American adventure in the West had much in common with parallel settler colonial processes taking place across the globe. As Lahti puts it, “every expanding colonial empire had its own ‘West’ somewhere … [with] its scale of opportunity, process of conquest, fierce Natives, characteristics of its settler communities” (Lahti 2019: 160). These frames and parallels have been largely overlooked in favour of the exceptionalist narratives of the frontier and thereby neglected the transnational, postwestern nature of westward expansion and its consequences on the region’s histories. As Giles argues, “To relocate US cultural geography transnationally … is to move away from the identification of the United States itself as an enclosed territorial site and instead, to track ways in which its discursive dispersal around the globe is introjected back uneasily into the privileged home domain” (Giles 2013: 33 – emphasis added).  In other words, it is critically limiting to think about the US West as essentially an American phenomenon, but instead to always refract its stories, factual and imaginary, through what we might think of as a prism of worldliness.

Such introjecting back is characteristic of authors discussed in this book, many of whose works move back in time, tracing historical journeys into the West from other nations, drawing diverse peoples into the mêlée of westward expansion, and doing so through transnational authorial perspectives.[iv] From Obreht’s Ottoman Turk arriving in America in the 1850s, Zhang’s Chinese migrants coming to “Gold Mountain” in the 1840s, through to Hamid’s futuristic vision of a new western settlement of “Marin” on the Pacific Coast. Consequently, Giles’ “privileged home domain” is undone by worlding, de-exceptionalized, and simultaneously understood as redolent of vital contemporary political themes and issues.[v] To borrow a phrase from Hernan Diaz, the writing I examine “walk[s] in circles wider than nations” (2019: 269) reflecting differently upon the West and America as deeply imbricated in the world. Thus, this fictional “dispersal” of territory worlds the Western shifting its focus between the local and global, the everyday and the universal, the proximate and the distant, or as Susan Stanford Friedman puts it, the “bird’s eye and ground-level views that can inform and complement each other” (2018: 94). This is exemplified in Diaz’s In the Distance (see Chapter 2), employing what he calls “radical foreignness” through his central character, Swedish giant Håkan, whose actual foreignness makes him feel out of place, with no English language, and cut adrift in the West.  Diaz “tried to make genre and even language itself feel foreign” so that the reader felt as disorientated as Håkan, until ultimately, these strategies emphasize that, contrary to genre expectations, “this is a very American story, which makes us remember that foreignness is part of the American experience to begin with”  (Pinckney, 2017).

Sounding like Deleuze and Guattari, the Westerns I discuss are “minor literature” in the sense they “send the major language racing” and their authors “are foreigners in their own tongue”, working against the “standard measure” of dominant literary and political forms with a force of “potential, creative and created becoming” (1996: 105-6 emphasis in original). This latter point, above all, gives these “minoritarian” novels a contemporary political relevance, underlining the necessity of immigration to the American story at a point in its history when, as Diaz puts it, referring directly to the Trump administration, the old questions are as vital as ever: “Who has a voice, and who doesn’t? Who gets to tell their story, and who is silenced? Is there really room for everyone in a country as vast as this? All of these questions are part of our history” (Pinckney, 2017).[vi] This one example shows how the dispersed and worlding Westerns discussed here engage, dramatize, and “foreignize” historic assumptions and myth whilst imbuing them with intense political resonance. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, “by using a number of minority elements, by connecting, conjugating them, one invents a specific, unforeseen, autonomous becoming” (1996:106). Ultimately, such deterritorialized writing of “silence, the interrupted, the interminable” runs counter to “one single dream” in order “to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 26, 27, 17).

This possible worlded community is “the opposite of separatism … the reverse of exclusivism” and explored best through Edward Said’s notion of “worldliness” (Said 2000: 382). Henry Giroux defined it as “an ethical and political stance” which is “a critical and engaged interaction with the world we live in mediated by a responsibility for challenging structures of domination and for alleviating human suffering” (2007: 8). “Worldliness”, according to Giroux, “required not being afraid of controversy, making connections that are otherwise hidden, deflating the claims of triumphalism, bridging intellectual work and the operation of politics … an act of interpretation linked to the possibility of intervention in the world” (ibid. – emphasis added). My emphases above track the process undertaken in this book, forging an active worldliness or worlding that is “a kind of border literacy in the plural” where multiple perspectives are at work in the creation of a world made of worlds (ibid.). In worlding the Western, to riff on a phrase from Iain Chambers, “a hundred other Wests now open up” (see 2018: 15). What this means will, ultimately, be the focus for this book.


[i] McGuire’s call found answers in works published since 2002. See Bibliography for works by Paul Giles, M. Higgins, R. Keresztesi, and D. Oscherwitz, M. Paryz and J. Leo, Susan Kollin, Krista Comer, Lee Broughton, Stephen Tatum, Stephen Teo, Christopher Conway, and in my own works.

[ii] The upsurge in interest in the West demonstrates a growing disruptive relationship with earlier conventions, in films like Slow West (John MacLean, 2015), Hell and High Water (David McKenzie, 2016), Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017), Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh, 2017), and The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2017). Alongside novels discussed here, Carys Davies’s West (2018), Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), or a crop of Australian works such as the futurist The Rover (David Michod, 2014), colonial outback film Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton, 2017), the Aboriginal “westerns” Mystery Road and Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2013, 2016), or Paul Howarth’s outback epic Only Killers and Thieves (2018). See my essays on Marlon James and Carys Davies.   

[iii] Chapter 1 discusses worlding in more detail. A useful definition comes from Jimmy Fazzino: “Worlding is interested in transgressive acts, whether they involve borders internal or external, textual or otherwise; worlding seeks to be transgressive: that is to say, counterhegemonic, reading against the grain, writing against empire and globalization transcendent” (2016: 26).

[iv] The term mêlée comes from Jean-Luc Nancy: “On the other hand, it is not ‘one’: in a mêlée there are meetings and encounters; there are those who come together and those who spread out, those who come into contact and those who enter into contracts, those who concentrate and those who disseminate, those who identify and those who modify—just like the two sexes in each one of us” (2000: 151).

[v] I am using only novels written in English.

[vi] Minoritarian relates to “becoming” and “continuous variation” as opposed to the fixity of the majority, the aspirational, radical “becoming-minoritarian of everybody” rather than the “Fact of Nobody” associated with the majority (1996:106).

Emerging Scholars (Virtual Event)

With the new academic year starting, we hope that you will join the Western Literature Association for its final engagement event before the Santa Fe conference. Special co-editors Surabhi Balachander and Jillian Moore will host a virtual roundtable with authors for the recently released Western American Literature special issue featuring emerging Western Studies authors. Panelists include:

  • Leanne P, Day – “‘Asian American and Pacific Islander’ Studies in Boston and Hilo: Student Activism, Radical Imaginings, and Critical Ethnic Studies”
  • Mika Kennedy – “Peregrination 2036”
  • Sarah Jane Kerwin – “Reimagining the West in/and the First-Year Writing Course”
  • Stefan Rabitsch and Tracey Salisbury – “‘Don’t Leave out the Cowboys!’: Black Urban Cowboydom and Didactic Afrofuturist Countermemories in Ghetto Cowboy (2011) nd Concrete Cowboy (2021)”

This free virtual event will be on September 14, 2022, at 6:00 PM EST (5:00 CST | 4:00 MST | 3:00 PST). Registration is open to all interested students, scholars, and community members, whether they are WLA members or not. And we hope to see you there!

WLA Conference 2022 (Santa Fe)

Our submission portal is now open for the 2022 WLA conference! Join us in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Oct. 19-Oct. 22, for “Palimpsests and Western Literatures: The Layered Spaces of History, Imagination, & the Future.” Apply by Jun 15 at: http://westernlit.org/wla-conference-2022/

The 56th WLA conference will take place in-person in Santa Fe, New Mexico from Wednesday, October 19th through Saturday, October 22nd. We invite presentations in the widest of varieties, including flash panels with numerous papers or provocations, staged or open discussions, book roundtables, photo or video essays and other formats that seek to describe, uncover, decipher, and animate the inscriptions in and beyond this layered western space.

WLA Event with James Thomas Stevens

We are excited to announce the next WLA engagement event, “Trans-Indigenousness and Queer Connections: A Workshop on Mohawk Poet James Thomas Stevens.”

  • Date – Wednesday, April 27, 2022
  • Time – 7:00 (EST) | 4:00 (PST)
  • Location – Zoom

Join Chad Allen (University of Washington) and Lisa Tatonetti (Kansas State University) for a workshop on the writing of Akwesasne Mohawk poet James Thomas Stevens, who, together with his students from the American Indians Arts Institute, will be a keynote speaker at the 2022 WLA Conference in Santa Fe. The pre-conference workshop will help participants gain familiarity with Stevens’ innovative trans-national and trans-Indigenous projects and attend to the queer intersections that mark his poetics.

This event is free, and open to the general public. Feel free to invite WLA members, faculty, staff, students, and anyone who might be interested. Click here to register.

WLA Event with Denise Chávez

Please join us on Thursday, March 24th, at 4:00 PM (Mountain Time) for the WLA’s next engagement event, featuring a Plática, a conversation, with renowned author, activist, and playwright Denise Chávez. She will read and discuss her current book project, The Ghost of Esequiel Hernández, a novel exploring the dark history of the U.S.-México border with its ever-present military presence that has tragically impacted its inhabitants and their way of life. The novel is set in Redford, Texas, formerly called El Polvo/The Dust, where eighteen-year-old goat herder Esequiel Hernández was killed by a U.S. Marine in 1997. Chávez’s maternal roots are in this remote and magical corner of Far West Texas. The novel explores familial dysfunction as well as the legacy of life on the Frontera, the liminal space that is the break between these worlds. 

As founder and director of Casa Camino Real, a bookstore and gallery located in the historical Mesquite District on the Camino Real in her hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Denise believes in the healing power of books to save lives. She is the author of various books including The Last of the Menu GirlsFace of An AngelA Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture, and her most recent, The King and Queen of Comezón. Chávez is the recipient of the American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fellowship, the Hispanic Heritage Award, and the New Mexico Governor’s Award in Literature. Denise holds a BA (NMSU, 1971), MA (Trinity, 1974), and MFA (UNM, 1984), as well as an honorary doctorate from UNM (2004).

Please visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Casa-Camino-Real-Book-Store-Art-Gallery-345230548885989

and on Abebooks at: https://www.abebooks.com/casa-camino-real-las-cruces-nm/55655980/sf

Denise also recommends the following movies: 

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández: https://www.pbs.org/pov/watch/ballad/

The Devil’s Swing by Alan Govenar: https://www.docarts.com/devils_swing.html

You must register for the event. You can scan the flyer’s QR code or click here.

Launch Party!

Daniel Clausen, guest editor, invites you to a Zoom meeting celebrating the release of the “California, Cli-Fi, and Climate Crisis” special double issue of Western American Literature (56.3-4). Join us for a conversation with the contributors and a virtual (BYOB, obviously) happy hour.

When: Feb 24, 2022 07:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:
https://transy.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwsduihqD4uEtE_Ud0gpfnqyYCEB4pIM38E

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

We look forward to seeing you!

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