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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Elective Courses

These are a few of the English electives that I have enjoyed teaching in recent years (plus a few that I am hoping to teach)….

The Global Novel

“The dream of the great American novel is past,” wrote novelist Maxine Hong Kingston in 1989. “We need to write the Global novel. Its setting will be the United States, destination of journeys from everywhere.” By encouraging authors to write “the Global novel,” Kingston was challenging her contemporaries to catch up with the diversity and fluidity of today’s world. This course will examine how writers have responded to Kingston’s challenge. We will track the shift from “roots” to “routes” that has been diagnosed in recent ethnic, diasporic, and transnational writing. How have “new immigrant” writers transformed the settings, characters, and plots of the novel? How have they construed the impact of the global on the local? And how might their writings forecast the futures of American fiction? Primary texts will include Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997), and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). We will also read short stories by Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, Edwidge Danticat, Mohja Kahf, and Yussef El Guindi. 


Shakespeare Seminar: Major Plays, Minority Characters

Shakespeare wrote his best plays at a time when questions about the nature of English nationality, and about who could lay claim to “Englishness,” were being debated like never before. This course will examine the historical forces—from the Protestant Reformation to the expansion of international trade—that made the issue of religious and cultural difference so urgent during the Elizabethan period. At the same time, the course will examine how Shakespeare used his plays to interrogate the stereotypes about “outsiders” that were sometimes held by Elizabethan audiences. What are Shakespeare’s minority characters able to perceive about English society that other members cannot? How does Shakespeare depict the “insiders” who mistreat the members of minority cultures? What should we make of the fact that many of Shakespeare’s outsiders are also insiders in the sense of holding wealth and power? Primary texts will include The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with the third play to be chosen by students. Options for the third play include Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merry Wives of Windsor

 

British and American Modernism

This course explores the formal experimentation that characterized the literary and cultural scene during the first decades of the 20th century. We will examine how innovations in aesthetic form reflected attempts to grapple with changes in the broader social milieu: urbanization, industry, the jazz age, consumer culture, world war, and so on. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the study of modern culture, the course will introduce students to short essays from fields like history and sociology, media studies and aesthetic theory. Frequent writing assignments will challenge students to synthesize formalist and historicist approaches when analyzing short works of experimental poetry and prose. Primary texts will include three or four of the following: James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” (1931), Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942). 

 

Speculative Fiction: Literary Utopias and Dystopias

When Thomas More envisioned an ideal society in his novel Utopia (1516), he coined a word whose Greek roots could mean both the “good place” (eu-topos) and “no place” (ou-topos). Such linguistic ambiguity was meant to suggest that a perfect society might also be an unattainable society: a nowhere land. If More knew that his ideal society might never be realized, why would he bother to imagine it? How might the lands of the imagination exert an influence on reality? This course will introduce students to the thematic, formal, and practical dimensions of utopian literature. After grounding ourselves in short excerpts from classical utopian texts like More’s Utopia and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), we will survey a wide variety of utopian subgenres that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries. During the modern era, utopian fiction became a privileged site for exploring a host of questions related to human nature, social organization, and historical change. Are humans naturally individualistic or naturally collaborative? What kind of society would enable us to become our best selves? And how might we transform an imperfect world into a (more) perfect one? Additional texts may include one feminist utopian novel (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time), one dystopian novel (like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), one ecotopian text (such as Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia or Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Avant Gardening), and one utopian or dystopian film (like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E). 

 

Baldwin’s America, Morrison’s America

“You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” Such is how Toni Morrison opened her eulogy to James Baldwin, who passed away in the same year that Morrison published her Pulitzer-winning novel, Beloved (1987). Baldwin and Morrison are widely celebrated as two of the most important contributors to American letters. Few writers have been as perceptive about either the promises or the problems endemic to American society. This course explores a wide range of writing from both of these authors, focusing on how each challenged Americans to think about themselves in more complex and vitalizing ways. Writings by Baldwin will include the novel Another Country (1962), short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) and essays from Notes of a Native Son (1955). Writings by Morrison will include the novel Sula (1973), the short story “Recitatif” (1983), and essays from Playing in the Dark (1992).

 

Creative Nonfiction Workshop

In his introduction to the anthology New Journalism (1973), Tom Wolfe predicted that creative nonfiction would soon “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” Although Wolfe was wrong to ring the death knell for the novel—the genre is still standing strong—creative nonfiction has since become the dominant genre in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. Creative nonfiction refers to any genre in which a writer exhibits fidelity to the “facts” of personal or historical reality while utilizing the representational techniques associated with “fiction.” It is an umbrella term which encompasses the artful essay, the literary memoir, new journalism, and other genres. What elevates an essay into a work of art? Could an autobiographer remain faithful to the facts of his life while drawing on the techniques of fiction? How might such techniques enable a literary journalist to get at deeper truths than a traditional journalist? Although we will read short works of creative non-fiction penned by a wide range of authors, we will also read long-form works such as James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001). Over the semester you will complete a series of short creative writing assignments, and we will devote one day per week to workshopping your nonfiction prose. During workshop sessions, we will discuss both the “three R’s” of the nonfiction writing process—research, reportage, and reflection—and the formal elements that contribute to successful work of writing: narrative voice, scene, ambience, dialogue, evocative detail, and so on. 

 

The Examined Life: Psychological Narratives

“The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious,” observed Sigmund Freud on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Realizing that poets and playwrights had long produced the deepest insights about human psychology, Freud spent much of his leisure time studying the works of writers like Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Schiller. Indeed, it was by carefully interpreting their works that he arrived at some of the foundational concepts of psychoanalysis: hidden motives, screen memories, narcissism, and so on. Taking a cue from Freud, this course will approach works of literature as reservoirs of insight about the human psyche. What might we be able to learn about ourselves by attending to Shakespeare’s presentation of Hamlet’s internal conflict? How did Virginia Woolf’s use of modernist narrative techniques—such as “free indirect discourse” and a free-associative “stream-of-consciousness” style—enable her to capture the complexity of subjective experience? In order to deepen our engagement with these and other authors, we will read three or four short essays by Freudian and Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theorists. For example, we will read Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) alongside Freud’s brief discussion of the play in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” (1819) alongside Julia Kristeva’s “On the Melancholic Imaginary” (1987), and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) alongside Adam Phillips’s “On Eating, and Preferring Not To” (2000). Other primary texts may include Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965), or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005). 

 

The Graphic Novel

The graphic novel is an aesthetically innovative genre in which meaning is created through the interplay of image and text. How do we read a novel in which two narrative channels—one verbal, the other visual—interact? What can this multi-modal genre do that other literary genres cannot? And how might it challenge readers to expand the set of interpretive techniques that make up “close reading”? This course will investigate the renaissance of graphic narrative that has taken place in the last 25 years. Students who are thinking about enrolling should be aware that we will not be taking up the superhero and science-fiction traditions of long-form comics. Instead, we will pursue a more recent tradition of graphic narrative that grapples with pressing social and political issues, ranging from the Holocaust (Maus) and the Iranian Revolution (Persepolis) to sexuality (Fun Home) and disability (Building Stories). How might the form of the graphic novel be particularly well-suited for grappling with such topics? And how have graphic novelists employed the formal components of the genre—panel frames, gutters, bleeds, splash pages, motion lines, and so on—to create meaning within individual works? Primary texts will include several of the following: Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978), Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986/1991), Gilbert Hernandez’s Poison River (1994), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003/2004), David Beauchard’s Epileptic (2005), Jessica Abel’s La Perdida (2006), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (2010), and Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012).

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Letter to New Students

Dear New Students,

If you are going to make the most of your lightning-fast Master’s year at the University of Chicago, you’ll need to learn how to mobilize the impressive array of academic resources available to you: faculty, courses, libraries, online journals, academic workshops, cultural events, and so on. Arguably, the single most important of those resources will be your “preceptor.”

The preceptors are a select group of Ph.D. students assigned to serve as sources of guidance and support to Master’s students throughout the year. We, the preceptors, are the resources best equipped to help you make the most—quickly, sensitively, and effectively—of all the other resources. Because preceptors have already accumulated a wealth of knowledge about everything from the quirks of individual professors to contemporary standards in academic writing, we will serve as your primary sounding boards when it comes to the likes of selecting courses, developing thesis topics, and finding faculty thesis advisors. More generally, your preceptor can help you plot an itinerary for the coming year, strategize your way through any obstacles you may encounter, and experience the overarching ambitiousness of your M.A. year as both manageable and fulfilling—perhaps even thrilling.

Conversely, the most important thing that you can do to help your preceptor is to keep him or her apprised about what is going on with you. If at some point in the year you should find yourself having difficulty—whether intellectually, psychologically, or otherwise—talk to your preceptor. Preceptors will never be disappointed or judgmental about that. Most of us will have found ourselves in similar positions throughout our own graduate careers. But our experience also tells us that, under the quarter system, small problems can escalate into large ones fairly quickly. If you keep your preceptor in the loop about what’s going on with you, he or she will likely be able to help—or will direct you to someone who can.

Last but not least, keep in mind that the preceptors will prove only as useful to you as your willingness to use us. Following psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott, I like to think of the “preceptor” as a kind of all-purpose academic “use-object.” Indeed, the take-home point that I’ve tried to make in each of the foregoing paragraphs is that our utility depends on your uptake. We’re here for you. Don’t neglect to use us!

Your Preceptor,
Adam Jernigan

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