Explaining Arizona

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 10 2011 7:02 PM

Explaining Arizona

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Arizona has been ground zero for some of the country's mostcontentious issues in recent years. But the Southwestern state still remainssomething of an enigma to outsiders. So I asked Kevin Gosner, head of theUniversity of Arizona's Department of History, to recommend some authors andartworks that help place the border state's sunburned, polyglot culture incontext. Here's his suggested primer:

AliceDoesn't Live Here Anymore , 1974. A Martin Scorsese film, starring EllenBurstyn in an Oscar-winning performance. A widow from New Mexico travels toPhoenix and then Tucson to follow her long-abandoned dreams of becoming asinger, eventually finding love with a rancher played by Kris Kristofferson.Beyond being an excellent visual introduction to the Arizona landscape, Gosnersays, it also depicts an important moment in history. "Most people in Tucsonhave come from somewhere else," he says. The film "captures the city justbefore people started to flood into Arizona, just before urban sprawl."

Charles Bowden, BlueDesert , 1996, and Bluesfor Cannibals , 2002. Two collections by the Tucson-basedjournalist, best-known for his work covering the U.S.-Mexico border. (Hislatest book is about thedrug-related killings in Juárez .) Of BlueDesert , the Los Angeles Times said, "you have this eerie feeling of being present in the Arizona desert,Bowden pointing the way like some Indian medicine man."

Calexico, Carriedto Dust , 2008. The latest album from the 14-year-old band that'sbeen influenced by the sounds of mariachi, norteño, and surf guitar music notto mention Arizona's expansive desert landscape. "I think a lot of the peopleinterested in the arts in Tucson would say you start with Calexico," saysGosner.

Barbara Kingsolver, HighTide in Tucson , 1995.   A collection of essays by the acclaimednovelist and nonfiction writer .

Thomas Sheridan, Arizona:A History , 1995 . "Thegeneral history of Arizona that everybody reads," says Gosner.

Richard Shelton, GoingBack to Bisbee , 1992. A classic work of Arizona literature.Shelton, a distinguished poet, structures this memoir as a road trip fromTucson to the small mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Booklist called it a "powerful annal of place," saying that"Shelton imbues landscapes, flora and fauna with resonance, imprinting themesof memory, history and human nature in the reader's mind."

Anything by Leslie Marmon Silko. The noted Native American author,and one of Tucson's best-known novelists. "More than a quarter of the state isIndian reservations," Gosner notes. "I think sometimes in the national pressthat gets overlooked. It's not just Chicanos and Anglos; the Native Americanpresence is everywhere in the state, and very important." Silko's latest work, 2010's TheTurquoise Ledge , is a memoir and family history inspired by the Sonoran Desert .

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