Laura Grappo, Assistant Professor of American Studies, has always been an avid reader. The first to admit that she has some work to do in organizing the shelves in her Center for the Americas office, Grappo, a scholar of queer theory and Latina/o culture and politics, collects texts on everything from Satanic panic to feminist revenge fantasies. Grappo sat down with The Argus to talk about science fiction, a good hate-read, and her love of reclining.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf? How is it organized?
Laura Grappo: That’s something that makes me really sad. I wish I were more organized. I have dreams of organization. Right now, I have some of my books here; I have a lot more of them in my office at home, because I feel like I need them with me there.
I have the books I teach here, and I have the books that I’m using to write a particular talk that I’m going to give soon, which is about the San Antonio Four. It’s these four young Latina lesbians who were put in prison and stayed there for almost 20 years because one of their sisters’ husbands, to get back at the sister, basically fabricated that they had molested the little girls they were taking care of. There was this whole Satanic panic going on. They thought people were doing, like, devil rituals and molesting all these little kids. And they could have gotten out a lot earlier, but they wouldn’t admit to it. None of them would say they were guilty.
I’ve been reading all this stuff about Satanic panic, and it’s really bizarre stuff. If you ever want to get a really weird look in Olin, go in there with eight million books with Satanic something on the cover.
A: You’ve mentioned that you’re a fan of science fiction. Can you talk a little bit about this obsession?
LG: [Laughs] I don’t know if I used the word “obsession”! When I was a kid, I loved to read a ton. It was considered very bizarre and weird. And I was always a huge, huge fantasy person: science fiction, dreaming of not being where I was. And I think I got really into it; world-building, and traveling to other places, and being in really alien and different societies were very compelling to me.
Also, a lot of science fiction is about ethics. You know, how should we live, right? People discount it a lot. Now, for a moment, it’s getting fashionable, I’ve heard from others.
I have a big bookcase at home that’s just my sci-fi stuff, and I’ll never bring it in, because I’m like, “It’s precious; I must keep it here.” And a lot of it’s falling apart. I bought it on Amazon for, like, a dollar.
A: What are a few of your favorite titles?
LG: I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan; her entire oeuvre is really amazing to me. And she’s passed on now, which is sad. I really like Samuel Delany’s work. Some of it gets a little bit weird.
I live in fear that George R. R. Martin will die before he completes “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I don’t get why people like the HBO stuff. It’s not anywhere near as good or complicated or nuanced as the books. I can’t watch it anymore, because it makes me too upset.
A: Is feeling fear something that excites you or puts you off when reading?
LG: I think I’m very open-minded about books. I go with the story, I’d say. For me, books have always been much safer than people. [Laughs] You shouldn’t put that in there! But the idea is that nothing can be that scary, because it’s in written form; it can’t be changed, you know? It’s when people talk about things that they’re doing, anthropological projects, sociological projects, that I’ll go, “God, with people? Rather than texts?” [Laughs] Which is probably not super indicative of my good qualities.
A: What did you read besides sci-fi growing up?
LG: I was a very diverse reader, because any book that came into my grasp, I read, and there weren’t that many. I would read cereal boxes. Literally anything, I would read. I read the entire Bible, because that was a book we had. And it’s good. You should have a good knowledge of the Bible.
A: Do you read just one book at once, or are you in the middle of a bunch of things?
LG: I have a million things open at once. And I ruin them, because they’re always in the bed somewhere, and I’m on top of them. We have a bed with a ledge above our heads, and it’s not unusual for some books to fall in the night. There are stacks of books everywhere.
A: Do you fold down pages or use bookmarks to mark your place?
LG: Oh, God, no. I fold down pages, mark shit up. My books have a lot of wear on them, unfortunately.
A: Do you ever teach readings or authors that you can’t stand?
LG: Yes! I do. When you’re presenting a topic, I think it’s important to try to represent the fullness of the field. And so then you have to talk about different interpretations. I teach “Intro to Latina Studies,” and I’m going to teach Linda Chavez, who’s the first—in her words—Hispanic in the Reagan administration. And she says things like, “Hispanic people like being victims.” Flat out. She testified against the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. Students really get into that one, I’ve found.
I freely hate-read things. After the [first presidential] debate, I’d go and look at regular news sources like The New York Times. But then I’m like, “What are the people on the far right saying?” I don’t know why I do this, because it makes me crazy. But I go, and I read, and I’m like, “Wow. Wow.”
A: Do you write angry comments?
LG: No. I don’t have it in me to be a keyboard warrior. Maybe if I didn’t have kids and work. Maybe when I retire, I’ll be a horrible Internet person. But right now, I don’t have the energy for that.
A: How old are your kids?
LG: They’re four. Twins.
A: Do they read?
LG: Yeah. Well, they don’t know how to read yet, but they love books, and my daughter is really good at memorizing books and reading them to us, which I think is really cute. They have these little lamps on their beds, and at night I read them both two stories, and then they sit in bed and read for a while. It’s all good unless they fight over the same book.
A: What kinds of messages have you found that kids’ books send?
LG: Well, there’s a whole scholarly field on this that’s super interesting, and I don’t know it well, so I don’t want to misrepresent it, but for me what’s been most interesting is that when they were little, I would change a lot of the genders. Like, the Little Critter books they liked, and instead of saying, you know, “Mommy and Daddy,” I’d say, “Mommy and Mama,” because I wanted them to feel included.
But then they would start reading them at school, and they were like, “No, this is spelled Mommy and Daddy!” So then I was like, “Do I ’fess up and tell them I’ve been changing it, or do I just say the new words?” So that’s always a little interesting, to kind of do that and think about that.
But for me, I read whatever to them, and if they have questions, they ask. It’s something that makes me really happy to see them loving books.
A: Are you working on a manuscript right now?
LG: Oh, God. Yes. Yes. I’m writing my book.
A: What stage is it at?
LG: [Laughs] I decline to answer. No, you know, it’s really hard to turn a dissertation into a book. You end up—or at least I end up—taking out parts and rewriting parts. I’m in a moment of restructuring. Let’s put it that way.
A: What’s the topic?
LG: It’s been weird, because it’s changed a lot, what I want to do with that and what I want to say. It’s about the idea of home, which to me is a super interesting one. Do you know the theorist Jean Améry? Holocaust scholar? So he survives Auschwitz, and he writes this sort of tome where he talks about his experiences, and there’s a great essay that I love, called “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” He argues that home is a state of innocence, basically. His argument is that no one who’s gone through this—no Jews, really—could ever go back to the state of innocence, because once home is ruined, it’s ruined. You can’t get it back. I find that a really compelling thought, especially when it comes to queer politics.
A: What’s your favorite reading spot?
LG: I have a recliner in my office, a disgusting recliner that’s old and tattered. That’s my spot. I also have a spot downstairs, also a recliner. I have a lot of reclining spots. And I always read before bed. I don’t know how people go to sleep without reading first. It’s just crazy to me.