Multi-Ethnic Postmodern Literature

This semester I’ll be teaching a course on postmodern literature written by multi-ethnic American authors. Although “postmodernism” has become the dominant heuristic for investigating late 20th century American fiction, literary scholars like Phillip Brian Harper and Madhu Dubey have observed that the discourse of postmodernism tends to be organized around the “normative subjectivity of the white male.” At the same time, these scholars note that many of the features traditionally associated with postmodernism—features such as textual reflexivity, narrative irresolution, and intertextual parody—had been central components of minority writing long before the late 20th century. What, then, are the risks and rewards of discussing contemporary minority writing under the rubric of postmodernism? To what extent have contemporary authors shared the same postmodern condition? How have different approaches to identity and community been inflected at the level of literary form? Is the term “postmodernism” capacious enough to accommodate the array of experiences and experiments that distinguish contemporary literature? In order that we might begin to situate and historicize postmodernism, I have divided the course into three sections…

I. From Protest to Postmodernism: 1968-1980

Octavia Butler

During the first part of the course, we will explore what became of African-American literature in the wake of the 1960s, when the broad-based Civil Rights Movement gave way to fragmentation and retrenchment. Curiously enough, the 1970s witnessed a resurgence of experimental and utopian fictions by African-American authors. These included what literary critic Kalí Tal has called the “militant near-futurist fiction” of postmodern writers such as William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. They also included what critic Tom Moylan has called the “critical utopian texts” of science fiction writers such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the early postmodern writings of Kelley and Reed? What would happen to the identitarian rubrics of race, gender, and sexuality in speculative fictions by Delany and Butler?

II. Variable Roots and Routes: 1980-1995

Amy Tan

Moving into the 1980s and 1990s, we will survey postmodern novels and short stories written by Chinese-American authors (Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Gish Jen), Mexican-American authors (Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez), and Native-American authors (Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie). Since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965—which revoked both the Asian Exclusion laws and the ethnic quota system—the members of these ethnic groups have come to play increasingly prominent roles in American literature, culture, and society. Postmodern authors like Kingston, Cisneros, and Alexie experimented with revising traditional folktales, updating and transforming them in sometimes controversial ways. What do we make of Frank Chin’s accusation that Kingston’s revision of the “Ballad of Mulan” reinforces Western stereotypes about her culture of origin? Is the Mexican legend of the “Weeping Woman” irredeemably misogynist, or does Cisneros’s revision provide a liberatory compass for modern-day Mexican-American women? Does the postmodern playfulness and humor which authors like Kingston and Alexie bring to their writing diminish their ability to engage in moral critique? Finally, what has this second part of the course enabled us to say about whether the study of multi-ethnic fiction requires methods of analysis appropriate to each group?

III. From Multiculturalism to Transculturalism: 1995-2010

During the third part of the course, which focuses on fiction published between the late 1990s and 2010, we will turn to “new immigrant writing” by authors of South-Asian origin (Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lan Cao, Marjane Satrapi) and Caribbean origin (Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz). In recent decades, first-generation immigrants have come to account for over 10% of the U.S. population, many of them being women who arrived from Caribbean countries like Haiti and Antigua, or South Asian countries like India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Yet the differences between the second and third sections of the course go beyond the question of national origins. For whereas the second section of the course focused on authors informed by a “pluralist” imaginary—which takes cultural identity to be rooted in a fixed set of beliefs, tastes, and customs—this third section focuses on writers who interrogate the experience of being bicultural, as well as the dynamic processes of transculturation. What do I mean by “transculturation,” and what questions are invoked in the writings of these authors?

Junot Díaz

Authors like Mukherjee, Cao, and Díaz reflect the shift from “roots” to “routes” that has been diagnosed in recent diasporic and transnational writing. Conversant in poststructuralist theories about the de-centering of subject and nation—for example, theories about how subjects are produced through multiple identifications, some of which become more salient than others at certain times and places—many of these authors join in the critique of what Paul Gilroy has called “the desire to be centered.” Some authors rework the concept of “diaspora,” understanding diasporic communities to be anchored less by the logic of origins—of roots and returns—than by multilocal attachments and lateral connections. Still others embrace the trope of geographic and cultural “borderlands” in order to explore how migrancy might be thought as a permanent mode of being in the world. But when do people need an authorizing past in order to secure a bridge to the future? And how might post-pluralist concepts like “migrancy” and “hybridity” end up reinforcing boundaries and classificatory regimes?

There will also be a coda to the course. For in the very last week, we will take up post-9/11 fiction by Arab-American authors like Mohja Kahf and Yussef El Guindi, asking how the national response to 9/11 has impacted the lives of ordinary Arab-American men and women. How do these authors represent the impact of the global on the local? And how might their writings forecast the futures of American fiction?


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