I thought of these mythic depictions of the American West as I read Brandon Shimoda’s The Desert, not because Shimoda repeats their clichés but rather because his book so powerfully unearths the violence and oppression they obscure. Shimoda reveals another American desert, one that has, of course, been there all along (or at least since Europeans arrived on the scene). It is the shadow side of the myths of freedom, emptiness, and speed.
We don’t often think of deserts as confining. In the Western imaginary, at least, the mystique of the desert is that of unboundedness, escape, freedom, and authenticity. The American desert — in this sense more a generic placeholder than a specific geography — has served as a backdrop for the continual staging of these cultural myths.