In this edition of Glam Grads, The Daily talked with third-year Ph.D. candidate in modern thought and literature (MTL) Jonathan Leal about his work at the intersection of minority literatures and popular music, with a focus on African American and Chicana/o aesthetic practices. Hailing from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Leal earned a B.A. and M.A in English at the University of Northern Texas while working as a composer, music educator and percussionist. In addition to his scholarly work, he is also an essayist who has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Huizache.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): As a native of the Rio Grande Valley working with Chicana/o literature, how have your life experiences informed your scholarly work?
Jonathan Leal (JD): It’s hard to even know where to begin because it is all intertwined. A lot of what I try to do with my creative writing is a riff for exploration of things I am reading about in scholarship and all of that is tied to experiences I have had growing up at the [US/Mexico] border. I grew up in the Valley and I went to a music school. I was studying percussion, philosophy and literature and had lots of questions that I wanted to find answers to, some of which you could find in writing and literature. I am ultimately trying to find ways to bring [music and literature] together.
TSD: How did you come to focus on Chicana/o literature and African American aesthetics and intellectual thought?
JD: Originally I was reading a lot of British and Irish modernism. I thought it was cool, but I had certain experiences growing up in the Valley. The experiences I had were not always reflected in the writing I was reading, even though I enjoyed the form and technique of the writing. I picked up a book called “Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference” by Ramon Saldivar and was exposed to writers that I had not been exposed to before. I started reading folks such as Tomas Rivera and [Americo] Paredes, and I fell in love with [Chicana/o literature]. I was hooked ever since then, and have not been able to get my mind on anything else. As for African American aesthetics, that entirely comes out of a love of jazz and being a musician my whole life. The music that I listen to by most metrics would be considered “Black music.” That’s something that I find interesting: What conditions exist for labeling something Black or Brown?
TSD: What is your dissertation about?
JD: I’m essentially looking at connections between music, literature and race in the United States from about the 1940s to the present. And to do that, I’m looking at Chicana/o literary figures, African American writers and musicians, Asian American writers and musicians. I am trying to build a history that pulls as much from literature as from music.
TSD: Something that really interested me about your work is how you link together jazz with Chicana/o poetry. Can you explicate that connection?
JD: That’s one of the questions that I am going to end up grappling with in my dissertation. One of my favorite examples is a Chicano poet named Raul Salinas, who I’ve written about to some degree. There has been a tradition of Chicana/o engagement with jazz music. It’s something that I have felt in my own life. I started reading his work after a conversation I had with an ethnomusicologist in Texas, Catherine Ragland, who suggested I check out the poet. I started reading, and I discovered he had spent his youth in prison and was simultaneously working on Chicana/o poetry, figuring out what that might even mean. He was listening to his favorite records, which happened to be jazzers. Not only the jazz musicians you would think of on a national scale of popularity but also locals. The division between something being Chicana/o poetry and falling into a certain history, and then something being jazz music and immediately falling into an African American tradition — those are things that have been developed at universities for particular reasons. Now it is time to figure out how these things developed independently in the ways we talk about them, but not necessarily in how they were actually experienced.
TSD: How did you first hear about modern thought and literature at Stanford, and how did you decide that program was right for you?
JD: I was in this amazing coffee shop in a little town called Denton, Texas and was meeting with Masood Raja, who is a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of North-Texas. I was writing a paper and he used those words [MTL]. I went online and started reading everything I possibly could from people who had been associated with the program. I worked really hard, the stars aligned and I ended up getting in. It has been a blast ever since.
TSD: How do you approach writing your essays?
JD: The framework that helps me conceptualize it is similar to improvisation, at least in terms of finding topics. To be a good improviser in a musical setting and especially in jazz, you have to listen. You have to be sensitive about what is going on around you. Sitting down to write stuff feels like that sometimes. In the beginning it can be hard to distinguish the scholarly from the creative since it all comes from the same place but you draw different things out. The other part is refining the expression: revising and revising until you figure out what you actually want to say.
TSD: Besides writing and music, what are your other passions?
JD: I like hanging out with family. Most of my family is still living in the Valley. I love talking to people, hearing their stories and asking questions. And reading as much as I can. I love learning, in whatever kind of way that ends up unfolding.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.
Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’ stanford.edu.