David W. Foster, Author of Glimpses of Phoenix, on Erma Bombeck and "The Trunk Murderess"
"People think everything interesting in Phoenix happened yesterday," says author and Arizona State University Regents' Professor David W. Foster.
Foster, a professor of Spanish and women and gender studies at the university's School of International Letters and Cultures, recently wrote Glimpses of Phoenix: The Desert Metropolis in Written and Visual Media. The book uses cultural productions -- like the writings of Erma Bombeck and cartoons of Steve Benson -- to explore Phoenix's history and identity, or lack thereof.
There will be two lecture and book signing events next week, presented by the ASU Libraries, School of International Letters and Cultures, Institute for Humanities Research and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. One will be held on Tuesday, September 24 at the Hayden Library on the ASU Tempe campus. The second will be on Thursday, September 26 at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center.
The idea for Glimpses of Phoenix came to Foster 10 years ago. Since he specializes in urban culture and Latin American studies, he has spent much of his time and effort studying cities besides the one in which he has lived for most of his life.
"I said, 'It's time to start doing something on Phoenix,'" Foster says.
And though he spent the next decade working on the book, he says the most difficult part of the process was finding a publisher. It's a problem he says is indicative of the common belief that the city of Phoenix lacks culture and history worth exploring.
But contrary to that idea, Foster knows of -- and can tell you about -- history all over downtown and central Phoenix. A lot of it is in his book, "but not all of it," he's quick to point out.
For example, the book has a chapter dedicated to the work of Erma Bombeck, the humorist who detailed urban life in Phoenix (or as Foster calls it, "the soccer mom phenomenon") in her newspaper column from 1970s to the late 1990s.
"[She was] one of the most beloved people in Phoenix," Foster says. "Everybody loved Erma."
Another chapter focuses on Jon Talton, who was a columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton wrote the preface for Foster's book and will be at the book-signing event at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center.
Foster says about 40 percent of book addresses Chicano culture and history, including the work of Stella Pope Duarte, a writer who grew up in the Sonorita Barrio in south Phoenix. The section examines the marginalization of Hispanics in the city and the neighborhoods displaced by downtown's Chase Field and the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
The most defining story for the city, Foster says, would have to that of "The Trunk Murderess," Winnie Ruth Judd, who has been written about by Phoenix's Jana Bommersbach. Judd was a medical secretary found guilty of murder in a story that involves prominent businessmen, illicit affairs and one seriously disturbing train ride. To Foster the story speaks to Phoenix's history of corruption -- Judd escaped from a mental institution six times, at least once using a key she had been given by a friend.
Because Foster isn't a historian, the book tackles Phoenix history though these works and others, dealing with the cultural products that define the experience of living in Phoenix. The idea, he says, is to call attention to "marvelous writers" and to get people to think of Phoenix as "a marvelous city."
"You learn a lot by reading this stuff," he says.
You can hear from Foster on Tuesday, September 24, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Luhrs Reading Room on the fourth floor of Hayden Library. You can also catch him on Thursday, September 26, from 7 to 8:30 pm at the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center. Book signing and refreshments will follow the program. Both events are free and open to the public.
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