The 2020 Project Narrative Summer Institute at Ohio State University

The 2020 Project Narrative Summer Institute: Narrative, Medicine and Disability

June 22-July 2, 2020

PNSI is a two-week workshop on the campus of Ohio State University that offers faculty and advanced graduate students in any discipline the opportunity for an intensive study of core concepts and issues in narrative theory. The focus for summer 2020 will be Narrative, Medicine and Disability, and the co-directors will ground their approach in the principle of dialogue.  More specifically, we will explore the connections and tensions among a range of objects of study—the three objects named in the Institute’s subtitle– and of discourses about them:  narrative theory, narrative medicine, and disability studies. Sample dialogues: What can narrative theory and narratives about illness do for each other? What can narrative medicine and narratives of disability do for each other? What can narrative theory, narrative medicine, and disability studies do for each other? What are the limitations of efforts to find synergies among these objects of study and discourses about them? We’ll take up these questions in relation to the readings listed below, and in relation to the specific interests and projects of the participants.

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How Reading Shapes Us: James Donahue

By James J. Donahue, The State University of New York, College at Potsdam

I vividly remember my first time reading James Welch’s (Blackfeet) novel Fools Crow. I was studying American literature at the University of Connecticut, taking a class on the American Historical Romance with Prof. Robert Tilton. It was a historical novel unlike anything else I had read before, addressing a time and place that I had never covered in my many classes in American history. Further, I was struck by what I can now understand as the complexities of its use of focalization, voice, and narrative world-building (but which at the time, before any introduction to narrative theory, I knew only as “form”). But perhaps most importantly, it was the first time I had read a novel by a Native American author for a class.

There were no courses in Native American Literature offered when I was studying for my BA, MA, or PhD (though in my final year of doctoral coursework, I put together an independent study on the subject with Prof. Tilton, who later supervised my dissertation). Nor were Native/Indigenous authors included in any of the survey or special topics courses I was to take in my years as a student. And to my embarrassment, I did not realize that until after my formal education ended and I was hired to teach non-canonical and ethnic American literature at SUNY Potsdam in 2007. Looking over past syllabi for courses I had taken, I noticed the glaring absence of Indigenous writers. So I built my first section of Native American Literature – a class I teach regularly – around what I knew, and that started with Fools Crow.

My first reading of Fools Crow led me down two paths, as encounters with great books tend to do. First, I read as many of Welch’s contemporaries as I could find. Authors like Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo), Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), Joy Harjo (Muscogee), Maurice Kenny (Mohawk), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), and Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe), among others slowly accumulated on my bookshelf as I searched for authors like Welch who addressed subjects and constructed worlds that I had not previously encountered. But perhaps even more importantly, the more I read of these authors, the more I searched for critical tools to help me better understand what I was reading. One set of tools that proved useful – albeit ultimately incomplete – was provided by Narratology.

I started, as many do, by reading Gérard Genette and Mieke Bal, learning what I could about the operations of narrative form. Because as much as I was intrigued and fascinated by the subject matter addressed by the Indigenous authors I was reading, I was equally impressed with the formal operations of the narratives. Momaday’s use of intertwined narratives, Silko’s manipulations of narrative voice, Welch’s subtle shifts in focalization, Vizenor’s seemingly fractured narratives that coalesce into a complicated whole, all seemed conscious efforts to do…something that I was not then able to recognize. The better I understand the how of the narratives, I believed, the better I would then understand the why.

But I soon hit a wall, and it wasn’t until I was led to postclassical narratology that I was able to get over it. For all that narrative is a universal art – all cultures tell stories, and the formal properties of narration can be found employed by storytelling cultures around the globe – narrative is also inextricably embedded in cultural history. More importantly, narrative helps to create those cultural histories. Narratologists like Frederick Luis Aldama and Susan Lanser provided the tools to help me better understand an intersectional approach to the study of narrative, while James Phelan highlighted for me the importance of narrative as a communicative act, with flesh-and-blood authors and readers engaging these works for myriad reasons. But perhaps most importantly, the work of Patrick Colm Hogan highlighted for me the importance of reading narrative texts outside the methodologies and interpretive practices developed by Euro-American critical communities, as useful as they may be in many ways.

Narrative theory gave me the tools to better understand what I was reading, but it also exposed to me the limits of what I can know through its core principles. But this is not a slight; no theoretical enterprise is complete. This is one way that reading shapes us: the novels we read lead us not just to other novels, but also to new critical frameworks, to differing and complementary means of interpretation, and to new ways of understanding not just the operations of narrative but also the world we share with those novels and their authors. I had a much better understanding of how, but I needed to look elsewhere to truly understand why.

It has become commonplace to note that the absence of Indigenous writers on much of the syllabi and in the scholarship on “American Literature” – with the notable exception of courses and studies focused explicitly on Native literatures – can be attributed to the machinery of settler-colonialism. America is a nation founded by Europeans, and American Literature is an extension of the literary and cultural traditions developed in Europe. As such, Indigenous authors and their works occupy an uncomfortable position in the canon. Just as Native peoples across North America have been subjected to the horrors of colonization, so too have the works of Native authors been subjected to a literary-critical form of colonization.

Whether they are called “postmodernists,” included as examples of a response to European invasion and American expansion, or segregated into their own courses, Native American authors are far too often read and analyzed in terms of interpretive strategies, historical timelines, and cultural frameworks inherited from Europe. And while James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko are certainly writing American Historical Romances in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, and Paula Gunn Allen and Gerald Vizenor are certainly employing postmodern techniques in their fiction, their works are more than simply Indigenous expressions of Euro-American literary and philosophical traditions.

The narrative theorists I noted above – as well as others like Suzanne Keen, Sue J. Kim, Brian McHale, and Robyn Warhol – have long demonstrated the flexibility of narrative theory, highlighting how the various branches of narrative theory can productively work with other critical approaches. I am drawn to narrative theory as much for its inherent flexibility as I am for its precision and clarity. This flexibility allows me to work – in my classes as well as my scholarship – with critical practices and interpretive strategies drawn from Indigenous traditions.

For instance, where the works of Indigenous feminist critics such as Paula Gunn Allen and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Mississauga Nishnaabeg) address the historical atrocities that settler-colonialism has inflicted on Native women (and continues to do so, as the demonstrated by the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in North America), feminist narratology provides the tools to reveal how novelists like Cherie Dimaline (Métis) and Eden Robinson (Haisla and Heiltsuk), or multi-media artists such as Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe and Métis), engage their socio-political critiques on formal as well as thematic narrative levels.

When I first began studying narrative theory – reading books, attending conferences and workshops, sharing my work with other narrative theorists – I had no idea that it would eventually lead me to where I am today. What began as a search for a better understanding of the operations of narrative form developed into a greater appreciation for the means by which narrative embodies cultural traditions, communicates across myriad boundaries, and enriches our understanding not just of the works themselves, but of the world we share with those works and their authors. And the exciting work being produced by scholars and students alike gives me hope that narrative theory will continue to enrich our reading practices in as yet unknown ways.

James J. Donahue is Associate Professor of English & Communication with a joint appointment in Interdisciplinary Studies at SUNY Potsdam, where he also directs the interdisciplinary minor programs in Native American Studies and Disability Studies. His most recent books are Contemporary Native Fiction: Toward a Narrative Poetics of Survivance and the co-edited collection (with Jennifer Ho and Shaun Morgan) Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States.

How Reading Shapes Us: Patrick Colm Hogan

How Reasoning (and Accident) Shape Reading: Notes on My Study and Teaching of Ethnic American Literature

By Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut patrick.hogan@uconn.edu

It appears that my engagement with ethnic American literature has been guided by more abstract considerations—and more trivial matters of happenstance—than may typically be the case. First, the happenstance. I had never studied American literature systematically. I had written some on Faulkner, due to an interest in “high Modernist” fiction (principally Joyce and Woolf). I had a longstanding admiration for Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” for its treatment of the philosophy of time. I took up Whitman due to his reworking of the Bhagavad Gita. But I had no sustained interest in American literature as such.

Why was that? In part, American literature was too much a matter of “us.” I had studied Irish literature due in equal parts to awe before the aesthetic genius of Joyce and a desire to please my parents; my mother’s hard disdain of literary study could be partially mollified by appeal to ethnic narcissism. (There were also more extended, familial reasons. My grandfather was a novelist, as well as Irish Labour Party politician; he knew Sean O’Casey, and named my father after the poet, Padraic Colum. I had an almost personal connection with the Irish Renaissance.) But I found that I couldn’t really teach Irish literature. Joyce, yes. The clientele for Ulysses was internationalist, like Joyce himself. But the one class I taught in Irish literature made me feel suffocated in the thinning air as we scaled the peaks of collective Irishness. They were smart students and nice people—probably nicer than me. But I just didn’t want to be in a group that was feeling all Irish together.

I had the same problem with American literature.

But then, over the years, students stopped taking my literary theory courses. What was I to teach? It seemed likely that only American literature had strong enough popular appeal to overcome the repellent force of my prodigious capacity to induce narcolepsy in otherwise alert undergraduates. So, I began teaching American literature.

Previously, when I had taught British literature, I had faced the issue of what distribution of works was most appropriate. Contrary to my department’s practice at the time (though with the generous support of my colleagues), I had zealously expanded Modern British Literature to include works from the empire and works by non-European immigrants. The same general considerations entered into my decisions about the scope of American literature.

Specifically, there are three broad kinds of criteria that bear on what literary works we study, in the classroom or in our scholarship. Two derive from the traditional purposes of literature, often identified as Horatian, but much more general—not only in the European tradition, but elsewhere as well. Sometimes, these are spoken of as “teaching” and “entertaining.” I will, rather, characterize these goals as ethical-political and aesthetic. The third type of criterion derives from the discipline of literary study itself. It bears on understanding, principally understanding the development of various literary works in relation to other works, movements, and so on. If I am teaching American literature, then, I have to choose works basically according to these three criteria.

So, I might decide it is important to teach Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans or Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for its great influence. I might choose Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain for its aesthetic excellence. As these examples suggest, works of ethnic minority literature can and should be included in literary study by both of the preceding criteria. On the other hand, they are likely to be underrepresented in both cases. The nature of racial and ethnic hierarchization in the U.S. means that works by minority authors are less likely to have commanded the attention and exerted the influence that they merited. They are, of course, no less likely to be aesthetically excellent, but the biases of dominant in-groups (e.g., European Americans) make their full aesthetic appreciation rarer. Moreover, the topic I have been asked to consider here concerns ethnic American literature as a body of texts, not particular, individual works. It is possible to choose such a body of works for, say, aesthetic reasons (e.g., relative to European American works, I might find African American poetry, plays, and novels more emotionally engaging on the whole). However, aesthetic preference is more likely to bear on individual texts. For these reasons, the political estimation of works would appear to be the most relevant in the present context.

I would distinguish three broad subdivisions of political purpose in studying literature by American ethnic minorities, or for that matter other “subaltern” groups (e.g., Dalits—former “Untouchables”—in India). Perhaps the most common reason for self-consciously choosing to study ethnic American literature in the U.S. is the empowerment of heritage students. Both “empowerment” and “heritage” seem to me unfortunate terms here, but they are the usual ones, so I use them here. “Empowerment” might at first seem to suggest an actual transmission of power. In fact, it refers to something else, or rather two other things. First, it refers to a rejection of social shaming and, commonly, an affirmation of group pride. The pride is in one’s “heritage,” which in this usage is usually taken to be ethno-racial. So, if we transport ourselves back a bit in time, we find the Irish being objects of ethno-racial denigration in American society. Individuals, identifying their heritage as “Irish” (not, say, as human), would come to feel “empowered,” first, insofar as they rejected this social shaming of the Irish and even came to feel proud of being Irish. Second, “empowerment” means conveying a sense that it is possible to overcome the social disabilities to which one’s ethno-racial group is subjected.

I used the example of the Irish here, since that would commonly be seen as my heritage group. Personally, I would like to see people identify with humanity as their heritage. After all, I had nothing to do with Yeats’s poetry. If I can feel proud of it, why not feel proud of Li Qingzhao’s poetry, to which I also contributed nothing, but which I actually find much more personally resonant. Moreover, this sort of ethno-racial pride seems to me the initial problem. Therefore, fostering it in any form seems problematic. On the other hand, I recognize that there is a vast difference between cultivating a sense of empowerment for African Americans and doing so for Irish Americans. The brutality of anti-black racism in the U.S. is almost inconceivable. And, of course, ethno-racial stereotyping and hostility are not limited to African Americans by any means. Clearly, empowerment of demeaned and endangered groups is ethically and politically necessary. That does not mean it is not problematic even in those cases. But it does mean that the source of the problem is ethno-racism from the dominant group and thus white critics (such as myself) are ethically and politically obligated to oppose hegemonic ethno-racism (the great plank in our own eye), rather than quibbling over the relatively minor problems of empowering subaltern groups (the mote in our brother’s or sister’s eye). Even so, I must admit that, in my own case, such empowerment is not a strong, personal reason for teaching and studying ethnic minority literature of the U.S.

The second common political reason for a focus on ethnic American literature concerns ideological critique, the opposition to dominant ethno-racial ideologies (e.g., the stereotyping of African Americans). Such critique has two elements. The perhaps more obvious component is informational. It is a matter of representing cultural practices, social relations, and material conditions of the group in question. I do not hold to the view that an author automatically represents his or her ethno-racial in-group accurately and out-groups with ideological bias. Everyone’s experiences of in- and out-groups are limited and to some degree biased. However, put simply, African Americans are more likely to share some distinctive experiences (e.g., of white racism) with one another and are more likely to see other African Americans as members of their in-group, rather than as outsiders. Though far from infallible, such tendencies are likely to provide at least a valuable corrective to the sorts of distortion that are likely to affect European American writings about African Americans.

The other component of ideological critique is perspectival. It involves the cultivation of a reader’s capacity and inclination to take up the point of view of someone from the relevant ethno-racial group. In other words, it is a matter of cultivating our effortful cognitive and affective empathy with a person from that group. This absolutely does not mean that we understand the group as a whole, or even that we have acquired a good sense of somehow prototypical cases. But that matters less than the fact that we have been guided by the author to simulate the subjectivity of someone whom we might otherwise have dismissed thoughtlessly. Here, too, white authors can and do at times cultivate such perspective-taking across ethno-racial identity divisions. However, the factors mentioned in the previous paragraph suggest that ethnic minority authors are likely to provide perspectives that to some degree complement those provided by white authors, correcting the latter, even when they are (differently) imperfect themselves. Another way of thinking about the issue is in terms of interpersonal stance. Interpersonal stance is our emotional attitude toward the experiences of another person or group of people; it governs, for example, whether we feel sympathy or Schadenfreude when faced with someone else’s pain. Studying a range of authors with different ideas and perspectives—prominently including ethnic minority writers—is one possible means of altering our interpersonal stance, not only toward characters, but (ideally)  toward members of the relevant social identity group in real life.

The final political reason is, so to speak, the “thinnest,” the one that involves the least significant political claims. However, it is arguably the most compelling. It is simply democratic representation. American literature includes authors from a diverse array of groups. Though it varies somewhat with our exact purposes (e.g., whether we are focusing on a particular theme, region, period, genre, or whatever), we would seem to have a prima facie obligation to select authors who are reasonably representative of the general literary populace. Indeed, this is likely to promote the political goals just discussed, but without the need for invoking political justifications, beyond favoring democracy—which, one hopes, is not a controversial preference for anyone studying American literature of any sort.

As it turns out, then, my apprehensions about the unbearable us-ness of U.S. literature were misplaced. Any body of literature has perspectival diversity and ideological complexity, which becomes clear even when one approaches the literature with just a basic concern for democratic representativeness. On the other hand, I still feel the need to qualify that concession and affirm the importance of reading outside one’s social identity categories, and hoping for a future society in which global identifications can displace those categories. Even with my appreciation of Walt Whitman and Amiri Baraka (with their sometimes particularistic, sometimes more global identifications), I remain closer in spirit to grieving Li Qingzhao or the simultaneously isolated and universe-embracing Li Bai.

Patrick Colm Hogan is a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the English Department, the Program in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of numerous books, including American Literature and American Identity from the Revolution through the Civil War: A Cognitive Cultural Study (Routledge, forthcoming).

Workshop on Representing the Interracial with Jesse Ramirez

Wednesday, January 15, 2020, 15:00-16:30

English Department, University of Klagenfurt

Black, White, and Brown: Representing the Interracial

Workshop with Jesse Ramirez, University of St. Gallen

Based on several of his publications as well as selections from Jose Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho and Randol Contreras’s „Standpoint Purgatorio,“ Jesse Ramirez will discuss with the Narrative Encounters team the history and development of interracial relations in the United States. We will also speak about the complexities of ethnic and racial identities in „a post-Black Lives Matter moment in US political and cultural history“ (Ramirez 2019) and about what speculative fiction can contribute to this important political and cultural moment.

How Reading Shapes Us: Frederick Luis Aldama

Try putting yourself in my place, the place I was in as a Latinx sophomore in high school when I experienced for the first time the “radioactive” shocks and revelations emitted by very well crafted novels and plays. A latch-key kid, I spent a lot of time at our local library. Fortunately, I became very good friends with a polymath librarian. She introduced me to all variety of wondrous storyworlds. They included, for instance, Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness that dished up a poignant lesson in the aesthetics of objects and nature, as well as of love; I discovered the ludic play with identities in Luigi Pirandello’s novels and plays—among them The Late Mattia Pascal, One, None and a Hundred Thousand, Six Characters in Search of an Author. And, I found my way to Max Frisch’s mind-bending  I’m Not Stiller as well as Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s crime fiction. What really caught my mind and that became my steady diet were novels by African American authors such as Toni Morison, John Edgar Wideman, and Ishmael Reed; I was stunned by how each used radically different shaping devices to uncover the underbelly of a racist US society.  I can say for certain that it was Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo that lead me back in time to Rabelais and Swift; it was the fabulous wordsmith of written vernacular, John Edgar Wideman, that would find its way back in my life many years later as one of main sources of inspiration for the writing of my own book of fiction, Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands. 

It was in the space of the library filled with word-built storyworlds that I experienced the greatest shocks and revelations: my ecstatic reading of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel as art and genre became the most magic source of pure delight. It would resurface again and again in my work, and most centrally in my first scholarly work, Postethnic Narrative Criticism (2003).

As confirmed by Fernando del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico, no literary invention, no image, no word, no sound, no subject is foreign to the novel, this most capacious of vehicles. So when in college I read Goethe’s pronouncements about local and  national literatures evolving within national boundaries while pointing to a future synthesis that gives birth to a world literature, I was more than ready to agree. Everywhere each author is unique, a real creator, a true maker of narrative wonders. But while each author in each country and language is an innovator in subject matter, and sometimes also with respect to storytelling instruments  or techniques, it is also true that authors enrich over time the content of their toolbox, adding to it the most precise and delicate instruments to better tell stories according to the dictates and dictations of their minds. It’s a planetary toolbox to which all writers pitch in and is always at their disposal, an ongoing process existing at least since Homer. And it is the content of this toolbox that has become the substance of global literature. Now, of course, it is the toolbox itself that comprises the discipline called “narratology.” 

As I mentioned, I started inhabiting the space of planetary literature years before I even knew the existence of such concept, not to speak of the term “narratology.” But at the same time my reading experience had been anything but parochial. So once again there was an openness on my part and a very intense curiosity.  

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley and even more so as a graduate student at Stanford, I became extremely excited about Latinx literature and film and their study, but I also felt the pressing need to go to the roots, if they existed and had been scientifically studied, of the amazing phenomenon of  creativity: by what means in our possession as Latinxs and as human beings generally do we achieve the amazing feats of artistic creativity and scientific innovation. I wanted to understand better how is it that our brain has evolved the capacity to imagine, to sculpt a story initially formed in the mind, then to materialize it step by step, by trial and error, by frequent contrast between conception and provisional result, by a non-stop use of all intellectual and affective faculties, while the story is also being shaped by fingers typing or by writing done by hand or by vocal expression when dictating or simply testing the sound of the written word, as Flaubert famously did with all his texts in his gueuloir. Most often, films have a written support—a script—so this also applies to cinematographic creation which further includes the use of sound and cameras and many other things, and to the use of pencil and paper to geometrize narratives in the form of comics. 

How do we begin to get at an understanding of the foundations of creativity and storytelling? Well, first of all, cognitive science has made tremendous breakthroughs in this area; it’s no longer a largely speculative science with little empirical research and findings. On the contrary, it is now an exploratory and richly expansive science. The great advances in the neurosciences are helping the development of the subfield of neuro-aesthetics. Results based on verifiable research are allowing us to better understand how we create narratives and how our brains/minds work to step into storytelling schemas and then radically revise those schemas. Whether you are in a movie theater or home reading a novel or a comic book, it’s now possible to use non-invasive techniques to study what is going on in your brain. Acts of perception and the use of all our other senses can be studied to know how they reach such and such areas of the brain and are translated into both emotion and intellectual imaginative responses. 

Neurobiology is already a huge domain of knowledge and research, an enormous treasure trove of possible findings for the study of artistic creation in general and for literary and graphic books theory in particular. As far as narrative theory goes, well, already as an undergraduate at Berkeley I was drawn to courses taught by the remarkable narratologist, the late Seymour Chatman. Of course, these supplemented important courses on Chicanx—taught by professors Alfred Arteaga and Genaro Padilla—and African American literature—the late Professor Barbara Christian. As an undergraduate I found Chatman’s attention to story and discourse extremely important and suggestive; I also found Professor Robert Alter’s courses on style extremely productive. The tools and concepts of narrative theory allowed me to go beyond just character or thematic analysis. It allowed me to see not only how authors give respective shape to their Chicanx narratives but also how they build signposts into their fictions that, once the text is in the world, allow readers like myself to identify the cultural signifiers and thus be to a certain extent co-creators or co-authors of the text. 

Narrative theory continued to be an important part of my conceptual diet as I moved increasingly into the study of Latinx films and comic books. It continues to inform my writing and teaching, deepening an understanding of all of the shaping devices that are used by creators to make stories interesting, engaging, and alive. Narrative theorists over time have been able to refine and add to the kind of periodic table of shaping devices so that we can see better what is going on both in film, comic, and literature. It’s not surprising that I found myself gravitating toward narrative theory. It’s the natural space for a kind of analysis that I was hungry to use in my work and in my classrooms as a professor.

Frederick Luis Aldama

CFP for International Conference “Narrative Encounters with Ethnic American Literatures”

Photo Credit: Juan Alvarez-Ajamil

Conveners: Alexa Weik von Mossner, Marijana Mikić, and Mario Grill
Location: University of Klagenfurt, Austria
Date: September 17-19, 2020

Taking a cue from pioneering efforts at the intersection of context-oriented approaches in race and ethnicity studies and post-classical narratology, this conference is interested in the relationship between narrative, race, and ethnicity in the United States.

Reading so-called “ethnic” American literatures means encountering characters and storyworlds imagined by writers associated with various minority communities in the United States. Without doubt, the formal study of narrative can help us gain a deeper understanding of such encounters, but until recently, narratologists rarely grappled with the question of how issues of race and ethnicity force us to rethink the formal study of narrative.

Attesting that the relative “race/ethnicity-blindness” of narrative theory is a severe limitation, scholars such as James Donahue have called for a “critical race narratology” (2017, 3) that addresses this lacuna. A range of recent book publications (e.g. Aldama 2005; Donahue 2019; Donahue, Ho, and Morgan 2017; Fetta 2018; Gonzáles 2017; Kim 2013; Moya 2016; Wyatt and George 2020) demonstrate that a variety of insights can be gained from narratological approaches that open themselves up to issues of race and ethnicity in conjunction with other important identity markers including class, religion, gender, and sexuality. And, as Sue Kim has noted, there are shared interests in understanding the ways in which such narratives “operate within larger social structures as well as an investment in the scrutiny of how minds and subjectivity work in and through narratives” (2017, 16).

How do ethnic American literary texts use narrative form to engage readers in issues related to race and ethnicity? What narrative strategies do they employ to interweave these issues with other important identity markers such as class, religion, gender, and sexuality? How do they involve readers emotionally in their storyworlds and how do they relate such involvements to the racial politics and history of the United States? And how does paying attention to the strategies and formal features of ethnic American literatures change our understanding of narrative theory? These are some of the questions we hope to address at this conference.

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Frederick Luis Aldama, Distinguished University Professor, Ohio State University

Patrick Colm Hogan, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, University of Connecticut

Paula Moya, Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University

We invite paper proposals on topics including, but not limited to the following:

  • Theoretical intersections of race/ethnicity and narrative theory
  • Narrative worldmaking and ethnic American storyworlds in fiction and nonfiction
  • Narrative strategies of representing racial and ethnic histories
  • Intersectional narratologies
  • Narrative identification and disidentification
  • Performativity and ethnic identity
  • Cognitive approaches to ethnic American literatures
  • Narrative engagement, simulation, embodiment, and emotion
  • Affective reader response and the empathic imagination
  • Unnatural narratives and non-normative narrators
  • Narrative ethics, race, and the environmental imagination
  • Empirical reception studies related to ethnic American literatures


The conference is supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) in the context of the Narrative Encounters Project.

There are plans to publish an edited collection related to the conference theme; selected papers will be considered for inclusion.

Abstracts (300-400 words) for 20-minute papers (in English) and a short bio note should be submitted by email no later than Jan 31, 2020 to: narrative.encounters@aau.at

Cognition and Chicanx Culture: An Interview with Frederick Luis Aldama- Part III

By Mario Grill

<Part II

Moving us Toward a Tomorrow

MG: Thank you for that very insightful response and you mention a lot that has diminished and discriminated certain communities. That is also something you argue in your Conversations on Cognitive Cultural Studies with Patrick Colm Hogan (2014). Both of you agree that such narratives depicting issues such as racism, sexism, and classism educate their readership to some extent as well instead of just being ‘the’ negative story that cannot be told because they contain several words or aspects that are highly questionable today. As I can tell so far, you would agree that this also holds true for Chicanx narratives. Is there a chance that those narratives enable readers to better understand those characters and cultures they encounter in these texts by looking at more perspectives than just the negative ones but also trying to see the bilingual aspect as something that is not just there for aesthetics?

FLA: This is another complicated question. When I wrote Long Stories Cut Short, I purposefully wrote it both in English and in Spanish and I worked with the press to make sure that they did not put walls up between the two. So, a flash fiction will appear in English and it will, without a page break, run right into the Spanish. You will still see the title of it in Spanish followed by the flash fiction in Spanish, but the two stories will run into each other. The typical bilingual move in a book is to have the story in Spanish on one page and the identical story translated into English on the opposite page as a kind of education tool.  That is not how we exist in this country as Latinxs. No matter what degree of fluency in Spanish or English, one way or another Latinxs in the US are surrounded by both. It is important that Long Stories Cut Short conveyed this linguistic hemispheric borderlands space. I think the closer we can get to the distillation and aesthetic reconstruction of what actually happens in our communities and in our families as Latinxs, the more enriching the experience will be for everybody.

As I mentioned before, creators can choose to create a storyworld to edify someone who does not know the experience; or they can choose to tell the best dang story about these sets of characters that are going to be as detailed and specific about their lives and their emotion systems, and their ethics that will create a rich story about this Chicanx family or protagonist etc. The latter option is where I would go. Like a García Márquez or a Faulkner or a Díaz, the more you go into the kind of depth and detail of a specific place, of a specific character and their movement within that storyworld space, it will eventually reach back out into a kind of connection with many, many people outside of that experience.

So yes, go deep into it and that includes language, that includes cultural references, it includes details all the way down to socks and shoes and the kinds of nails you use to build a house etc. Then it will reach back out to a general or more broad audience. If you start your creation thinking you want to appeal to everybody, it will likely fall flat. We see that with Hollywood movies all the time. They are factory-created, and they very often try to appeal to everybody out of the gate and they might entertain you for two hours while you are eating your popcorn, but you don’t go back to them. The ones that you go back to really understand and to experience again and again are the ones that deep-dive into the specificity of the human condition.

MG: The idea of going deep into the experience also brings me to my final question because you have hinted on several ideas that you deem important and that need to be further explored. There has been research on texts by Chicanx writers and there has been conducted from a cognitive cultural studies perspective, chiefly in your own work and also by other scholars such as Christopher González in his recent Permissible Narratives. The Promise of Latino/a Literature (2017). Are there any elements you would like to see explored in future research? Are there specific tropes and issues that need further investigation?

FLA: In addition to González’s book there are several others. I think of Ralph Rodriguez’s Latinx Literature Unbound (2018) and Ylce Irizarry’s Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (2017). What I like about these books is that they move us toward a tomorrow in terms of what Latinx literature is doing and might be doing and why it might not be doing it, why authors might not be creating in the ways that we would hope they might be creating.

Let me be more specific: One thing that I have noticed in Chicanx Literature and also in all levels, from children’s literature all the way through adult literature, is that we do not have much of a tradition of fiction that calls attention to itself. We have People of Paper (Salvador Plascencia, 2006), Victuum (Isabella Rios, 1976), and a couple of Alejandro Morales’ novels like Waiting to Happen (2001) where there is experimental play. I just put together a volume of essays on Giannina Braschi’s work The United States of Banana (2011) and Yo-Yo Boing (2011). Braschi really pushes the envelope on storytelling by stretching our gap-filling capacities and immersing readers in Spanish and English for pages and pages. I would love to see more of that.

We are writing this fiction. It is just that publishers tend to impose straight-jackets on Latinx creators. They are like, “No, right now what is selling is like the ghetto narrative, now what is selling is the tortilla recipe story. So, unless you are going to write those, we are not interested in publishing you”. So, we go knocking door to door, hoping that someone will publish our work because it does not fit into these predetermined narrative molds. González’s notion of the permissible narrative captures this well. González also identifies a long tradition of outre Latinx authors who created “challenging narratives” who resist what is deemed permissible. I’d like to see our impermissible narratives get into the hands of readers. Until this happens, our sense of a Latinx creative futurity will be stalled.

Cognition and Chicanx Culture: An Interview with Frederick Luis Aldama- Part II

By Mario Grill

< Part I

Identity and Borders

MG: When analyzing Coco or any Chicanx texts there’s the use of multiple languages and how this enriches Chicanx narratives in ways that we might not find in other ethnic American literatures. I’m thinking of how Chicanx narratives construct through and across Spanish and English double-identities. Along with this, do you believe that Chicanx fiction creators have aesthetic representational or political responsibilities (or opportunities) to inform readers from around the globe about the complexity of Chicanx cultural rituals, subjectivities, and experiences. Might this help shape and deepen non-Chicanx readers’ understanding of Latinidad in ways that push against negative and destructively stereotypical mainstream narratives of Chicanxs?

FLA: I think it is up to the individual Chicanx creator to decide how they want to use language to create their respective narrative fictions. Sometimes you see, especially with children’s literature by Latinx authors, where they are like: Okay, here is the story and because Spanish is so much a part of Latinx everyday life, they decide to reconstruct their narrative with codeswitching and interweaving Spanish in with the English. They decide to shape their narratives in and across translingual linguistic acts. However, even here we might see a publisher come down and say: “We want a glossary because want this book to appeal to more than just the Latinx families and kids”. So, they impose certain kinds of, say, discipline on a creator. So yes, there is all sorts of ways that Latinx creators use language to shape their narratives—along with an equal number of ways that these same creators can be constrained when publishers insist that they should create to educate general readers about our language and our culture in non-organic, say, ways to the narrative.

Now, there are authors, especially in the earlier moments of Chicanx literature, but we see it today, where the use of Spanish in the novel is immediately contextualized, so you understand if you are a non-Spanish speaker. A phrase will be mentioned in Spanish and then right next to it will be in English the narrator or the character indirectly defining what that phrase is. It is another form of glossary, but it indicates to readers like me that the ideal audience of the book might not be a Chicanx bilingual or codeswitching reader but maybe one that is dominant English or even to the point where they are monolingual English. So, there are all sorts of variations on this.

Ultimately, it is like such identity categories as Latinx or Chicanx or Blatinx or GuaMex-Irish (me)  where I am not going to ever say you should be calling yourself Latinx or Chicanx etc. It is up to you and how you want to self-identify. It is the same thing with literature, or any kind of creation. I am not going to say you need to have Spanish in there because that is a part of our culture and if we do not, we are going to be losing that. If you are a Chicanx author and if you want to write in dominant English or dominant Spanish or codeswitch or do a translingual creation, hey that is up to you.

I will say this, however. We are seeing more and more fiction coming out of the Latinx community of writers where it is the idea that Spanish or codeswitching is somehow a cultural marker as a thing of the past and now it is much more an aesthetic device. It is used as much as a shaping of the story in terms of a comma, syntax, word choice image as you have seen in English in the history of literature forever. Today we see Spanish codeswitching, translingual play as an important organic shaping device in the making of Latinx fiction. Junot Díaz’ Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and my Long Stories Cut Short are really good examples of the use of translingual play as subtle markers of Latinidad and as powerfully generative shaping devices in terms of their aesthetics.

MG: Wouldn’t the exclusion of the bilingual create a sort of border? This is something you also argue in your recent Latinx Studies: The Key Concepts (2018) which you edited with Christopher Gonzáles. Here you discuss several different themes and areas connected to Latinx Studies and also highlight why Border Theory is so essential in every discussion on Latinx identity and also for Chicanx identity. For instance, you explain that “one key development in Border Theory is how an understanding of the border can lead to greater understanding of identity” (25). So both physical and mental borders in that way create something that established either distance or closure between people, communities, or even your readers. This is when you also mention that Border Theory’s “commitment to issues of the border, now an issue of incredible volatility thanks to the Trump administration’s dogged resolve to build a border wall, the vilification of undocumented Latinxs among rightwing politicos and politicians in the United States, the continued barriers to equal access to resources and due process for Latinxs, and the commitment by the Trump administration to pursue an anti-immigration, ‘America First’ agenda will ensure the vitality of this much-needed area of study.” (27). We see constantly the Trump administration’s villainization of US Latinxs and Mexicans. Do you think cognitive cultural studies can add to the pursuit of tearing down such imaginary and concrete walls and borders?

FLA: That is a pretty layered and complex question. Let me start by saying I never understood why the United States has been so aggressively anti-bilingualism. In our earlier talk I said it is up to the creator and it is but in terms of education of our children and children that become adults, this country, it should be like Québec or Switzerland or other countries around the world where you have two extremely significant languages operating on a daily basis. Why don’t we have Spanish on our cereal boxes alongside English? For everybody school from the very beginning should be, there should be Spanish and English and not just languages thrown at kids like in High School which is a disaster. Why is this? Because of course communication allows for understanding, allows for the movement and contact of people not based on fear but on comfort and from comfort can be learning and from learning can be creation. Yes, it is crazy that we live in a country that does not have every single sign on the street in Spanish and English and on our cereal boxes and in our schools and bilingual teachers trained.

MG: But it does happen in several cities or states?

FLA: Yes and especially in the Southwest, but not as a federal mandate. We should be able to flow between our languages in all national spaces. Not allowing for the growing of bilingualism everywhere and for everyone is like cutting off a limb.

Antibilingualism and specifically anti-Spanish has become part of the ideological trigger-space for “Make America Great Again” propaganda; this idea that somehow English is pure and the civilized language and using Spanish or “that Mexican” is dirty and evil, the latter of course also attaching itself to brown bodies in the US. This all plays in to Trump’s administration which is all about triggers and language and brown bodies and this idea of invading hordes and etc.

So yes, a borderland’s sensibility comes in and through language and culture and history—an understanding that we are connected to our brothers and sisters, our families, our communities, not only through language that reaches across borders, but also through shared histories of conquest and then survivance. There is a lot of communality between someone like me who is Guatemalan, Irish, and Mexican and someone who is who is Puerto Rican, or Cuban, or Dominican. Borderlands as a hemispheric space of coming together in healing along with the recognition of a shared wound: colonization.

Workshop with Fulbright Scholar Matthew Teutsch: Encountering African American Literature in the Classroom

foto by Keith Ruffles

Encountering African American Literature in the Classroom: Workshop with Matthew Teutsch

Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 15:00-16:30

English Department, University of Klagenfurt

Based on several of his publications, Matthew Teutsch will discuss with the Narrative Encounters team how teaching African American literature might help students gain a better understanding of the ways in which the past has led to the construction of the current cultural moment in the US, when racial incidents appear on news feeds daily. What insights can students draw from early African American texts such as David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles and Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? How did later African American writers—from Charles Chesnutt and Jean Toomer to Ernest Gaines—expand and complicate these critiques of white supremacy by renegotiating what it means to be black in America? How might students’ narrative encounters with such texts shed light on the current cultural moment? And how might it affect our approach as well as the resulting conversations when we teach them not within the United States but in a European country such as Austria? These are some of the questions we will address in the workshop.

Post featured image. Cropped photo by: Keith Ruffles

Cognition and Chicanx Culture: An Interview with Frederick Luis Aldama, Part I

Photo. Mario Grill

By Mario Grill

Frederick Luis Aldama is a cognitive cultural studies scholar and one of the leading figures in Latinx Studies. His work is therefore of central importance to our research at the Narrative Encounters Project.

Left; Mario Grill, Right; Frederick Luis Aldama

As Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor, he teaches Latinx literature, comics, film, and pop culture at The Ohio State University. He is also an affiliate faculty of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Brain Imaging as well as co-founder and core faculty member of OSU’s Project Narrative. He is the recipient of the Rodica C. Botoman Award for Distinguished Teaching and Mentoring as well as the Susan M. Hartmann Mentoring and Leadership Award and he is founder and director of the award winning outreach center at OSU, LASER: Latinx Space for Enrichment & Research. He is founder and co-director of Humanities & Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute. Togetherwith his brother, Arturo Aldama, and Patrick Colm Hogan, in 2005 he established the Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture series at the University of Texas Press; he currently continues to co-edit this as the Cognitive Approaches to Culture Series with Ohio State University Press. He is editor and coeditor of 8 additional academic press book series as well as editor of Latinographix, a trade-press series that publishes Latinx graphic fiction and nonfiction. He is the award-winning author, co-author, and editor of 36 books. In 2018, Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics won the International Latino Book Award and the Eisner Award for Best Scholarly Work. Aldama’s other book publications include: Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez (2009), Latino/a Literature in the Classroom: Twenty-first-century Approaches to Teaching (2015), The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Popular Culture (2016), and Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling (2018). You can read more about his work and life here: www.professorlatinx.com

During a visit to The Ohio State University in April 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Aldama. We spoke about his work as well as potential developments in cognitive literary studies focusing on Chicanx literature. Here is the first part of the interview. The second and third part will follow in separate posts.

Setting the Tone and Cognitive Cultural Studies

MG: In both your teaching and scholarship, you use narrative theory, cognitive science, and insights from Latinx and Latin American cultural theory. What would you say are some of the benefits of working on the intersection of these disciplines and cultures and how can such interdisciplinary cross-fertilization enrich our understandings of ‘the other’?

FLA: First, let me say thank you, Mario, for this interview and for clearing the space to talk about this. Okay, so something happened when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley that came into sharp focus as a graduate student at Stanford. I was extremely excited about Latinx literature and film and the study of it but I wanted to get at the kind of roots, the deeper, say, foundations of where creativity comes from: how we can create as Latinxs and as human beings generally. I wanted to understand better how is it that our brain has evolved the capacity to imagine, to sculpt a story imagined in the mind, then to realize materially this story either through typing of fingers to create words on a page, using sound and cameras to make a film, or using pencil and paper to geometrize narratives in the form of comics.

How do we begin to get at an understanding of the foundations of creativity and storytelling? Well, first of all, cognitive sciences has made tremendous breakthroughs in this area; it’s no longer a deterministic science. It is an exploratory and richly expansive science. The neurosciences, especially the subfield of neuro-aesthetics as informed by the advances in neurosciences, has been also extremely fruitful. With these research advances, we can understand better how we create and how our brains/minds work to step into storytelling schemas and then radically revise those schemas. Whether you are in a movie theater or reading a comic book, today we can better understand how perception and our senses translate information into both emotion and intellectual imaginative responses. To get at this knowledge foundation I had to go the sciences.

As far as narrative theory goes, well, already as an undergraduate at Berkeley I was drawn to courses taught by Seymour Chatman. Of course, these supplemented important courses on Chicanx (taught by professors Alfred Arteaga and Genaro Padilla) and African American literature (the late Professor Barbara Christian). As an undergraduate I found Chatman’s attention to story and discourse extremely generative; I also found Professor Robert Alter’s courses on style extremely productive. The tools and concepts of narrative theory allowed me to go beyond just character or thematic analysis. It allowed me to see not only how authors give respective shape to their Chicanx narratives but also how they build signposts into their fictions that, once the text is in the world, are co-constructed by readers like myself. Narrative theory continued to be an important part of my conceptual diet as I moved increasingly into the study of Latinx films and comic books. It continues to inform my writing and teaching, deepening an understanding of all of the shaping devices that are used by creators to make stories interesting, engaging, and alive. Narrative theorists over time have been able to refine and add to the kind of periodic table of shaping devices so that we can kind of see better what is going on both in film, comic, and literature. It’s not surprising that I found myself gravitating toward narrative theory. It’s the natural space for kind of analysis that I was hungry to use in my work and in my classrooms as a professor.

MG: You bring us to issues and debates regarding cognitive cultural studies. This approach is often criticized for focusing too narrowly on the interaction between a text and a single, highly abstract reader, neglecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of the actual audiences. What do you think of this critique and how would you argue against it since this is coming up again and again?

FLA: Anytime you mention “science” someone is going to have a quick knee-jerk reaction. For them, science is a stand-in for universals and essentialism that has been used to erase regional, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual differences. It will obliterate the intersectionalities and specificities that make up our vary varied human condition. With long histories of science being used to justify racism, sexism, and homophobia, believe me, I get it. Today, we’re seeing something new, as I already mentioned. We can go to the cognitive sciences to explore and enrich in non-deterministic ways. Indeed, these insights can bolster our positions against racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

But let me take us to one of the deep reasons why I found my way to the cognitive sciences. I wanted to insert myself into the foundations of epistemological equations. The foundations that we have evolved as a species for thousands of years; foundations that have allowed us to create a multinetworked brain that allows our emotion system to interface with our prefrontal cortex when we create fiction, for instance. I am asking questions that are at the foundations—the roots, if you will—of who we are, how we are in the world, and how we create and transform the world.

Now, of course, these are going to express themselves uniquely, as uniquely as each of us are a unique person in this world. But if you start at the ends of the branches, your work will forever be infinite. It’s fine to work at the ends of the, say, many thousand branches that have grown from the roots, but one might never get at the foundations that I’m interested in knowing more about.

So, bottom-line is: Yes, we are all born with innate capacities for the growing of a language faculty (I am totally on board with Chomsky), long and short term memory processes, the growing of emotion systems and so on. And, yes, these innate capacities will grow in extraordinarily unique ways within specifics of time and place; they will grow into the many different personalities that make up the world. Those are definitively shaped by things like your race, your ethnicity, your gender, and as we grow and come into, our sexuality all of these things are going to inform and shape the kind of expression of this universal stuff that we all share.

MG: This means that you would also agree that fictional narratives invite our readers to step into the imaginary shoes of a character that is slightly or uniquely different from them and allows them to see what such a life may be like. Would you say that all ethnic American literary texts do so using the same methods? Or, are there distinct differences in how this happens, for instance, in Chicanx or Latinx literature to be more general?

FLA: Yes, you are right, I mean basically literature, film, comics all invite anybody to engage with them on a deep level: to co-create and co-imagine. Of course, different creators might have different ideal audiences in mind. With someone creating a specifically Chicanx comic book superhero, there are going to be elements that anybody can step into and understand and feel. There are also going to be, depending on the degree of will and specificity on the part of the creator, things that an outsider to Chicanx culture might not get. And, different creators decide if they will or how they will educate outsider readers.

Coco (2017) is a good example: It had a huge, deep, appeal with Chicanx and Mexican (in Mexico) communities and families. In fact the big numbers in terms of box office sales came from our communities. At the same time, it also appealed to many many non-Chicanx and Mexican audiences. When we create, we can make a narrative fiction we can have a singular, restrictive ideal audience in mind. We can also have multiple ideal audiences. And, at the end of the day, because we share common ground in terms of our faculty for imagining, feeling, and thinking, no matter if more restricted or expansive in terms of built-in ideal audiences, narrative fiction always opens its arms to everybody.

Part II >

Mario Grill