A poetic experiment: UChicago professor’s new book grounded in dreamwork

June 29, 2019

Shortly after moving to Chicago in 2015, Edgar Garcia found himself exploring the annual Hyde Park Used Book Sale, which is held over Columbus Day weekend. A Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of English Language and Literature, Garcia was digging through boxes of old books when he discovered a hardcover edition of Bartolomé de las Casas’ sixteenth-century Journal of Christopher Columbus. Inspired, Garcia decided to embark on his own type of voyage through dreamwork. 

For the next three months, Garcia read Columbus’s journal entries every night before going to bed in an effort to fully immerse himself into the images, symbols, motives, myths, and landscapes of the text through dreams. The project culminated in Garcia’s new book, Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography, which was published by Fence Books in Spring 2019. Described by the author as a work of auto-ethnography, the book is a collection of poems, essays, collages, and photographs that not only reflect on Columbus’s journey, but also explore Garcia’s personal history as a Central American whose family migrated to the United States. 

“It’s a work about the subconscious, although it’s not Freudian; it is a study of dreams from anthropological and historical premises,” Garcia explained. “The book ties into my family’s history, and explores issues of trauma and redemption that result from being displaced. And all of this is entangled in colonialism and the foundational colonial myth of Columbus’s discovery of a New World.”

In addition to authoring the poetry and prose, Garcia created nearly all of the artwork featured in the book. His favorite, a collage that combines elements from Quechua chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Govierno, Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divina Commedia, and William Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job now hangs in his daughter’s bedroom. The photo on the cover of the book is an image of Garcia’s grandmother and her sister taken in Nicaragua in 1941.

Since its release, Skins of Columbus has been recognized by the Illinois Arts Council Agency (IACA) as a recipient of a 2019 Literary Award. Garcia also received the Fence Modern Poets Series Award in 2018. The book has also been incorporated in multiple college course curriculums.

During the past several months, Garcia has traveled across the country to host book readings and discussions. He said that people have been very interested in his approach to dreamwork and the ability it has to foster creative engagement and reinvention of history and politics.

“All people dream and think about their dreams. We just don’t talk about it seriously,” Garcia explained. “I hope this book can help people recognize the value of dreams in our lives, and also help show people the possibilities that exist for reframing and reimagining history. And I hope the book demonstrates the presence of Central Americans in our country as something very meaningful.”

Garcia’s next book, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in November 2019. The book examines various indigenous sign systems and their contemporary impact on poetry, prose, visual art, legal philosophy, political activism, and environmental thinking. A wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous authors and artists of the Americas are featured in the book.

“Both Signs of the Americas and Skins of Columbus look at texts that aren’t often taken seriously,” Garcia said. “Dreams are a type of text. I’m excited to share how various forms of entextualization are real and valuable.”