How Reading Shapes Us: Derek C. Maus

By Derek C. Maus

I spent a good deal of my childhood and early adolescence in the 1980s sleepless with nightmares about nuclear war. I even wrote to the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. at some point during junior high, requesting more information about the nation that ostensibly justified the omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse. The multicolored poster I received in return certainly informed me about the population and major exports of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but it didn’t bring me much clarity about whether the people in this far-flung realm were my friends or enemies. Partly out of adolescent idealism and partly out of terrified desperation, I gravitated towards almost any worldview that transcended the predominant binaries of the day.

The idea of defining myself in a way that transcends geographic, cultural, or linguistic boundaries had always appealed to me because I felt like I had grown up largely without such inherent limitations. I came into self-consciousness as a bilingual (and eventually quadrilingual) child of multinational parents, having lived in both Germany and the United States before starting school. After my parents’ divorce, I experienced a binary childhood and adolescence in which I generally spent the school year in one place (Little Rock, Arkansas) and the summer in another (Kansas City, Missouri). Although these two locations are not so radically different from one another in the grand scheme of things, for a ten-year-old trying to navigate the often-turbulent waters of social interaction, the peregrination from one context to the other required (re-)learning a completely different set of social “codes” every few months. Moreover, my early experiences of race and class in Little Rock created a third level of what one might call partial or incomplete integration. My mother and I were unusual white “immigrants” into a lower-middle-class inner-city neighborhood undergoing “white flight” in the late 1970s, and I was part of the racial minority at almost every school—including the infamous Little Rock Central High School—that I attended from 1978 to 1990. Rather than seeing these various layers of liminality as barriers to belonging (and, frankly, having had the privilege of ultimately not needing to assimilate in order to belong) within the various societies in which I have lived, I have come to think of them instead as the stimulus for the perspective with which I have tried to view the world, personally and professionally. 

When I started graduate school in 1995 and began in earnest my professional development as a literary scholar, I had a relatively simplistic understanding of how and why ideals like multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism might become a part of my critical perspective. If nothing else, they provided a political/philosophical explanation for why I was drawn to writing from countries to which I had not yet traveled and by writers from ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds far removed from my own. They also aligned with my desire to write critical work that challenged the conventional critical wisdom about such things as the ostensible anti-Americanism of leftist writers during the 1930s (the subject of my MA thesis) or the inherently binary nature of the Cold War (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism seemed like the perfect antidotes to the ethnocentric bigotry and/or nationalistic provincialism regularly expressed during the 1990s by such “culture warriors” as Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, or Harold Bloom.

The notion of being a scholar of “world literature” initially struck me as fairly uncomplicated. I naively thought that being a scholar of world literature was as simple as stepping outside the traditional American literature and British literature “tracks” of study available to most undergraduate English majors in the United States at that time. Not only had the broader implications of reading works in translation rather than in their original language not occurred to me yet, but I was also wholly unfamiliar with Goethe’s 19th-century concept of Weltliteratur, to say nothing of related concepts put forth by Diogenes, Immanuel Kant, Homi Bhabha, Franco Moretti, Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Paul Gilroy, just to name a few. Studying world literature – at least in my conception of it at the time – would allow me to glean knowledge in works from other cultures and incorporate it into my own. What I imagined as the result of such study was a cosmopolitan intellect comparable to a World’s Fair, with as many cultures as possible represented by at least a single exemplar in their respective pavilions.

 With time and experience, the unsavory aspects of this metaphor became clear to me. I recognized, for example, that every nation’s opportunities for self-representation within a World’s Fair were constrained by the values and desires of the society hosting those exhibits (e.g., the absence of a Soviet exhibit from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair). Every work of literature exists wholly independent of my (or any other critic’s) desire to reframe it from my own perspective. Such acts of reframing are understandable, since every reader is a unique individual who invariably brings his or her own background to a given text. An excess of cosmopolitan or multicultural zeal, however, can unwittingly appropriate a text by downplaying or otherwise erasing its cultural origins; such a process is equally onerous and damaging when it arises from a desire to define a canon of ostensibly universal “Great Books” and when it stems (as it did with me) from the desire to transcend cultural distinctions in favor of an overarching humanism.   

Thankfully, James Baldwin helped lead me to a far better critical practice. I had read a considerable bit of Baldwin’s writing as an undergraduate and had appreciated him both as a stylist and a contrarian, but it was not until years later that I understood what I now see as his profoundly necessary (and as-yet largely unheeded) advice to white people who wish to stop perpetuating and benefitting from America’s racism. As anyone who has read even one of his works must surely recognize, Baldwin pulls few punches when it comes to speaking his mind about the causes of racism in America. As I revisited various writing by Baldwin, I started to notice that he calls out not just overt white supremacists but also white liberals who revel in the putative correctness of their attitudes even as they remain ignorant of the ineffectuality or even harmfulness of their (in)actions:

People talk to me absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation. I mean, I walk into a room and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room. It proves to him that he is getting better. It’s funny, but it’s terribly sad. It’s sad that one needs this kind of corroboration and it’s terribly sad that one can be so self-deluded. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

Baldwin wrote those words in 1964, but I felt their relevance in 1996 as much as I still feel it in 2021. When I hear presumably idealistic rhetoric that seeks to “raise awareness” or “promote tolerance” by studying literary works by members of “marginalized” or “historically underrepresented” groups, I almost invariably feel myself soaking in the metaphorical “bubble bath” of which Baldwin speaks. Although noble-sounding, these goals ultimately retain the inherent “othering” of such literatures and the authors who created them, much as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism often retain a quasi-colonialist subjective privilege. They do nothing to dismantle or even to question the social hierarchy of power that consigns Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Percival Everett (to name a few) to the category of “black” artist, whether or not they wish to claim that label—and what Baldwin called the “burden of expectation” that accompanies it.

Simplistic “color-blind” or a “post-racial” mindsets rely on a related self-delusion that willfully ignores the persistence of systemic inequalities that are not addressed meaningfully by such concepts. I am not suggesting that extant discourses of cosmopolitanism and diversity are the ethical equivalents of chauvinistic nationalism and white supremacy, but rather that they are far less of a remedy than I (and others) have presumed them to be. The institutionalized forms of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in which I have participated as a scholar and teacher of world literature are not exempt from charges of “tokenism,” so I take to heart Baldwin’s assertion that the “sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to resolve hard problems” (Baldwin, Fire 101), especially in light of how quickly white Americans’ public desire for anti-racist reading lists subsided within a year of George Floyd’s murder.

Fortunately, Baldwin also offers a solution that can form the basis for a pedagogical and scholarly praxis that moves beyond such superficiality:

The only way [the white man] can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to be black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. (Baldwin, Fire 110)

This act of “consent[ing]…to be black” goes well beyond the temporary empathy of “walking a mile in the shoes” of the putative Other, a non-binding performance of “risking oneself” that always allows the subject to return to the sanctity and safety of his or her starting point:

[W]hen we talk about what we call “the Negro problem” we are simply evolving means of avoiding the facts of this life. Because in order to face the facts of a life like Billie [Holliday]’s or, for that matter, a life like mine, one has got to – the American white has got to – accept the fact that what he thinks he is, he is not. He has got to give up, he has got to surrender his image of himself, and apparently this is the last thing white Americans are prepared to do. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

It is this act of “surrender” of one’s self-image that I believe can transform the study of literature by individuals and groups different from oneself from a shallow tokenism into a meaningful act of humanist solidarity.

I do not believe that such “surrender” requires either negation of one’s identity or uncritical acceptance of the values of all other cultures, the two anxieties that seem to trouble multiculturalism’s fervent opponents within and outside academe. It does, however, require a difficult and potentially uncomfortable process of discarding the presumption that what is important or desirable in others is defined solely by what is either “universal” or in some other way comprehensible through the lens of one’s own existence; in Baldwin’s terms, one must be willing to drop the “guard” on one’s “system of reality” for more than just a fleeting moment. Metaphorically speaking, it means disembarking from the air-conditioning, plush seats, and tinted windows of the tourist-bus and “risking oneself” among the locals on their own terms as much as possible.

Doing so involves navigating between an interpretive Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, we find overly simplistic readings that merely “honor” or “sample” local variations without also seeking to understand how and why they matter to a text’s reception outside its originating culture; on the other resides a canonizing impulse that assigns value to a work exclusively on the basis of its potential to transcend spatial and temporal borders. The narrow path between these two options involves remaining receptive to the unfamiliar without prejudging it – either positively or negatively – because of its alterity. In this way, the Other ceases to be defined either in opposition to the Self or as a desirable exoticism to be appropriated into it; instead, both Self and Other become voices within a grand-scale and often halting conversation whose cognates, untranslatables, neologisms, and double-entendres all demand consistently mindful interpretation.

Whether I choose to affirm it or not, I am a white American, both by the accident of my birth and by my acculturation over the course of nearly five decades. Because of the privileges this identity affords me, I strive to ensure that this identity is only the starting point for my subsequent investigations. There is nothing about my own experience of being American (or white, or male, or Southern, or second-generation German-American, or any other group identity marker) that should be perceived by me or anyone else as definitive or even particularly representative in terms of American-ness. The first step towards a productively cosmopolitan surrender of the privileged self is dropping the presumption that any part of my identity – whether assigned, assumed, or insisted upon – must invariably prescribe my relationship to others and vice versa. As I tell my students often, each of us can bring his or her personal experiences and values to bear productively on a text provided that those experiences do not become a source of confirmation bias that imparts rigid expectations about what kind of literature is worthy of attention or exertion.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Dial Press, 1963.

Baldwin, James. “The Uses of the Blues.” In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Ed. Randall Kenan). Vintage International., 2010: 70-81.

Derek C. Maus is Professor of English and Communication and Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he teaches a wide range of courses on various literary topics. He is the author of Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (South Carolina, 2019), Understanding Colson Whitehead (Mississippi, 2014; rev. ed. 2021), and Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire (South Carolina, 2011). He is also co-edited Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity since Civil Rights (Mississippi, 2014) with James J. Donahue, with whom he is editing another collection entitled Greater Atlanta: Blackness and Satire since Obama that is under contract and scheduled for publication in 2022. His full CV is available at https://potsdam.academia.edu/DerekCMaus/.

How Reading Shapes Us: Lesley Larkin

By Lesley Larkin

My parents were both great readers: My mother loved family dramas and stories about misfits and outsiders. Her favorite authors were Anne Tyler, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, her mother was from West Virginia, and she felt a pull, as the latter two names suggest, to stories about the South. My father  reads widely but is a lay expert in science fiction. I vividly remember going to the mall bookstore with my dad, as a middle-schooler, to get my copy of Dragonflight signed by Anne McCaffrey. Years later, when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in English, we went together to see Octavia Butler, not very long before her untimely death.

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, where reading was something my parents and older sister openly took pleasure in, rather than something that was “good for you.” My mother and father always had a book in hand, and I lost whole weekends to Madeleine L’Engle or Isaac Asimov. As a young person, I was drawn to science fiction and fantasy. I took pleasure in the experience of entering an unfamiliar world and gradually becoming familiar with it, however imperfectly. It was the same pleasure I took in learning Spanish and, eventually, in studying and working abroad: The feeling of the world opening up before my eyes, being so much bigger than I knew. (Before travel became a reality for me, The Price is Right was a significant source of fantasy for me. I could never believe it when someone passed on a travel package in the Showcase Showdown in favor of a car!)

Recently, as I’ve turned more and more to speculative fiction in my work, I’ve come to some realizations about these early reading experiences. Samuel Delany’s essays on science fiction, especially, have helped me to articulate something I knew without really knowing it. Delany argues that science fiction requires a certain discipline of its readers; because the world of the text is decidedly not the world of the reader, the reader must work to piece together clues provided by the author in order to understand the “rules” of the fictional world. How do things work here? How do you pronounce this name? What is gender in this society? Who has power and who does not? Asking—and trying to answer—these questions as a young reader of science fiction and fantasy trained me to ask them of texts across the literary spectrum, and to never assume that I knew what was really going on in any story.

Indeed, Delany recommends science fictional reading for all reading encounters. I love the story he tells, in “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King,” about a nineteenth-century historian and “great reader of literature” who spends two years limiting his literary reading to science fiction (80). After this immersion, he returns to Pride and Prejudice and finds it transformed. Suddenly, he has questions: “What kind of world would have had to exist for Austen’s story to have taken place”? (81). And is this fictional world equivalent to the real world of that period? (His answer, incidentally, is no.) It turns out that the defamiliarizing effect of science fiction extends well beyond any specific reading encounter, taking even the most well-known works, genres, and periods and turning them into something new, prompting us to ask questions we might previously have taken for granted about the society described, its unwritten rules, its relations of power. These questions naturally extend to the reader’s world as well; in such moments, the “direction” of the reading encounter can reverse, as the reader herself finds herself being read.

I didn’t actually read a lot of science fiction in college. Instead, I started to immerse myself in the American literary canon and the (then) newly canonized giants of African American literature. My encounter with Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, in my first African American literature class, was life-changing. I had grown up a middle-class white girl in the suburban Pacific Northwest. The number of Black students at each school I attended was in the single digits, and I had no Black teachers. I did not study any books by Black authors throughout my K-12 schooling, and the few books assigned that had to do with Black people, non-Western and Indigenous societies, or race and racism were written by white authors (Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Craven, Alan Paton, Harper Lee). To finally encounter Black writers was like seeing the ocean for the first time, and the immensity of what I hadn’t known before struck me like a tidal wave. As important as the beauty and virtuosity of these works, and the knowledge and perspective they provided, was the lesson they taught me (with guidance from excellent teachers) about my own limitations and the limitations of “the canon.” No book is universal. Every book is shaped by context. The human experience is far vaster than my own.

I went on to study American literature in graduate school and, eventually, to write a dissertation that grew into a book on African American literature and the politics and practices of reading. I see now that my interest in how Black authors manage a plural audience (what James Weldon Johnson called, in 1928, a “double audience”), and in the responsibilities that attend reading across lines of difference, grew out of those early experiences with science fiction and fantasy. As a white reader of Black texts, I regularly find myself entering unfamiliar worlds and working to become more—but imperfectly—familiar. I also experience the defamiliarization of my own reality; seen through the lens of the African American literary and critical tradition, the unwritten rules of the society I live in become legible and available for critique. And I discover what it’s like to be “read” by African American texts, to make myself vulnerable to interrogation, interpellation, disidentification, and all manner of reassessments of the self.

I just finished teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved for perhaps the tenth time. This is one of the books that set me on the path I’m still on—it’s a book that changed the course of my life. I can still remember the used copy I purchased for that first African American literature class. It was a hardcover, and the dust jacket was missing. I can call up the smell and the sensation of the soft and, in a few places, stained pages. I remember the warm spring air wafting through my dorm room window, as I read and re-read that startling, disorienting opening line: “124 was spiteful.” What kind of book begins with a number? I must have read it six or seven times before deciding to just go on and figure things out as I went, Delany-style. I remember the pit in my stomach as I read about the blend of beauty and terror at Sweet Home, and as I gradually realized what Sethe had done—and why. What kind of world would have had to exist for this story to take place? Where is there continuity between that world and my own?

This book enveloped me, and it’s fitting that my memory of it is so physical, given the novel’s revolutionary articulation of “rememory”—memory that is, among other things, embodied and material. I have grown up on this book, from that first reading more than twenty-five years ago, when I was a young, naïve, sensitive, curious undergraduate student, to now, when I am surprised to find myself a middle-aged mother and senior professor, somewhat cynical, teetering on the edge of burnout (after this year of pandemic and protest), and yet still curious and perhaps more sensitive ever—certainly still brought to tears by Paul D’s “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Offering this book to my students, watching them grapple with its aesthetic and ethical complications, listening to their epiphanies about American history, reading their tentative analyses of the novel’s relevance to our present moment, and suddenly my own first, faltering encounter is right back before my eyes.

Near the end of his epistolary essay Between the World and Me (a work that, not incidentally, uses a great detail of science fictional language and imagery), Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this to his son:

Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. . . . And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. (107)

“I would not have you live like them.” That line sticks with me. To read—to really read—African American literature, as a white person, is to let go of what Coates calls “the Dream,” the fantasy of safety and superiority that wraps itself around us, either softly, like a cocoon, or tightly, like a noose. I grew up in the cocoon, though with some of the tools I needed to pry my way out. It has been reading Black literature that has helped me peel away the membranes between the world—in all its complexity—and me. This, of course, is an ongoing, nonlinear, and collaborative process, and I do not think Coates, or Morrison, or Baldwin, or Butler will ever be done with me. But I’m grateful for the chance to be asked anew, with every book I take up, the questions Florens asks at the beginning of Morrison’s A Mercy: “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?”


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. One World, 2015.

Delany, Samuel. “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King.” Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012. 61-81.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Double Audience Makes Road Hard for Nero Authors.” 1928. The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Ed. Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1995. 408-412.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1977. Vintage, 2004.

—. A Mercy. Vintage, 2008.


Lesley Larkin is a Professor of English at Northern Michigan University and the author of Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett (Indiana UP, 2015). She is a coeditor of Wiley-Blackwell’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction, 1980-2020 and is currently working on a monograph about contemporary American literature, genomics, race, and the humanities tentatively titled Reading in the Postgenomic Age.

How Reading Shapes Us: Stefanie Dunning

Stephanie Dunning

By Stefanie K. Dunning

I was a senior in high school when my teacher assigned a short story by Alice Walker called “Everyday Use.” It is the first time I remember reading a piece by a non-white writer in an educational setting and the discussion of that text would forever change me as a reader. That short story prompted me to visit the school library and find some other work by Alice Walker, who I discovered was also a novelist. The only book the school library had was The Color Purple, which I read even though I’d already seen the film. I was amazed to discover how different the book was from the movie and determined that I would read all of Walker’s work. That year for Christmas, I asked for every book by Walker my mother could find. To say that I became obsessed with her is an understatement. I researched everything I could about her life and discovered she was from Georgia, like me. Though I was raised as a Christian, as I grew into my own thoughts I found myself with questions. I was drawn to meditation, to yoga, to West African and other Eastern forms of spirituality and without Walker’s work, I may have been more afraid to explore these practices and ideologies. I  became a vegetarian and started to think about the kind of person I wanted to be; Walker’s work also allowed me to reflect upon my own childhood traumas. I discovered that she had, at least for a time, attended Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. I had planned to attend Smith or Grinnell, but after learning that Walker went to Spelman, it shot to the top of my list. Attending Spelman College, an institution that is a historically black college, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I owe the circumstances that led to that decision in no small part to reading the work of Alice Walker.

Upon acceptance to Spelman, all freshman receive a reading list of works we are to have read before we arrive for freshman orientation week. On that list was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Having been a voracious reader since at least the 3rd grade, I was excited to receive this list from the college. I devoured all the texts there but Hurston’s novel moved me most of all. It was the first book I ever remember reading that made me cry. When Janie shoots Teacake because he has rabies, I was moved in a way I did not expect. When I declared a major of English my freshman year of college, it was because I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading the work of people like Hurston and Walker. Spelman opened the door to many other writers—from Ntozake Shange to Toni Morrison–whose work I read with keen interest and a sense that the words on the pages of these novels and poems and plays had something very specific to say to me. And though I did not anticipate becoming an English professor during all of high school and most of college, it seems in hindsight that it was my destiny. I can remember praying, when I was in the 5th grade, that one day I get a job that paid me to read. Miraculously, my dream came true.

These early reading experiences shaped, and continue to shape, my career as an academic. I knew that I wanted to undertake a deeper study of African American writing in graduate school and I knew that I wanted to amplify my own experience of transformation which was first triggered by reading Alice Walker. James Baldwin famously said that, “You think your pain and heartache are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”  Reading, especially in the context of Ethnic American Literature, can show us that our own suffering, which we assume is so private and particular to us, is part of the human experience. Reading these black writers that I was so drawn to allowed me to make sense of my difference—however that iterated itself—and showed me that I do not walk any path alone.

The first year I was at Spelman Alice Walker came to Atlanta and did some readings from her new book, Possessing the Secret of Joy. I attended one of these readings at a local church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna. Everything about that moment was a harbinger of the life that was coming into being for me. Can a black girl, cramped into boxes of American racism and sexism, made to feel as if she is nothing and has no value, come to recognize that as the lie it is? Sitting within the glow of Walker who read beneath the mural of a Black Madonna, the answer is yes. After the reading, people lined up to get Walker to sign their books. Many people brought all of their books authored by her to sign. (This, even then, was a lot of books.) I stood in line with my one book, the new book. I noticed that she looked exhausted. I stepped out of line and decided not to add to the burden. I told myself that one day, I would get to meet her. I had simply wanted to shake her hand and look into her eyes, more than I wanted her to sign my book. So I left, feeling certain that one day our paths would cross again.

In a way, every time I teach Walker’s writing—or the writing of any author I love—our paths cross. Teaching now at a predominantly white institution, I bring the work that shaped me so formatively into the classroom as much as I can. I have come to love black writing and the canon of African American literature the way one loves one’s ancestors, because within that work lies salvific potential for anyone who reads it. The insights contained in the diverse and voluminous field of ethnic American literature are ones that are almost always revolutionary, both personally and politically, in their import. Consider, for example, the way Baldwin lays bare the internalized torment at the heart of anti-blackness and racist violence in the short story “Going to Meet the Man.” His focus here isn’t just to show how painful racism is for black people, but to show too that the white man in the story, Jesse, is a broken human being. Thus his beating of the black man in the story is a projection of his inner brokenness. This taught me a lesson about hatred I have never forgotten and which has supported me through some of the most painful incidents of racist violence. It comes back to me when I think of George Floyd or Trayvon Martin or Breonna Taylor; it reminds me repeatedly that black people suffer not because they are black, but because of an unacknowledged brokenness within their torturers. Baldwin shows, throughout his work, that only broken people can perpetuate racist and homophobic violence. Thus, I impress upon my students that ethnic American literature is not “just” for people of color; black writing is not “just” for black people. Black writing, as much as the writing of Emily Bronte or William Faulkner has something for me as a black woman, has something for the non-black reader too.

A few years later, when I was graduating from Spelman, I learned that Alice Walker would be the keynote speaker. That year, I’d won an award she sponsors for Spelman students—the Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes writing award. So, I got to ride in the car that picked her up from the airport. She was kind and quiet and she held my hand. My dream of meeting her, of looking into her eyes and of spending some brief time with her, had indeed come true. I owe the life I now have, a life I could not have imagined for myself as a child, to the works I was fortunate enough to have read in my formative years. The gift that these writers gave the world in their work continues to shape who I am as a person and informs what I bring to the classroom. I believe that the power of black writing, and of ethnic American literatures largely writ, shapes us all regardless of our racial identification. I see within black writing, and ethnic American literature, an invitation to insight and transformation of ourselves and our world. Like Ralph Ellison, I believe that the extraordinary value of this literature is its ability to show us all something about the history and persistence of racialized structures in and on our lives. Thus, like Ellison, I extend an invitation to all people to read black writing because, as he writes at the end of Invisible Man, “Who knows but that, at the lower frequencies, I also speak for you?” 

Stefanie K. Dunning is an Associate Professor of English at Miami University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of California, Riverside, and a Ford Fellow. Her first book, Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same-Sex Desire, and Contemporary African American Culture, from Indiana University Press, was published in 2009. Her latest project, Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture, from the University Press of Mississippi, is forthcoming in May 2021 and available for pre-order. She also has a podcast, called Black to Nature: the podcast, available for listening on all major platforms..

How Reading Shapes Us: Stacey Alex

By Stacey Alex

As a white high school student, my memory of “Ethnic American Literature” was that it was largely relegated to a summer reading list. We were expected to select one book and write about it on the first day of class. I think I chose something by Toni Morrison, but the richness of that work was lost on me. Despite having limited discussions about ethnic American experiences in school, Mexican Americans became a part of my life as classmates, co-workers, and eventually family. I remember thinking, “Why are there no Mexicans in any of the books we’ve been assigned for class?” but I did not spend much time thinking about the consequences of that erasure until there were Mexican American children in my family and Mexican American students in my own classroom. It was not until I started my MA in Spanish literature that I took the time to research the issue and try to make sense of my experiences. I learned vocabulary for talking about how the celebratory, post-racial multiculturalism I grew up with framed the inclusion of “Ethnic American Literature” as if social injustice were a thing of the past. While many humanities scholars are deeply invested in confronting social injustice, Eurocentric structuring of area studies and the rise of color-blind multiculturalism promotes the belief that our study of human culture has allowed us to overcome social inequities.

In Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity, Neda Atanasoski, argues that multicultural pluralism in the current era has replaced religious tolerance of the colonial period to promote a similar nationalist narrative of American exceptionalism. Framed as liberating ideology, multiculturalism is built on the belief that the U.S. transcended its past of racial injustice and for that reason can produce a system of normative values (10-11). The term ‘multicultural’ does not inherently index blindness to inequalities, but curricula and their implementation often lead young people to believe that, despite the stark contrasts between their own and their classmates’ life chances, people of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds have equal space and opportunities. In this post-racial fantasy, Martin Luther King Day often means students can stay home and take a day off.

Teaching allowed me to learn from a diverse group of students and their families: middle and high schoolers in rural Iowa, K-8 English Language Learners in urban Venezuela, and university Spanish world language students as well as Spanish heritage language students in Iowa and Ohio. Yet, across these experiences, I struggled to arm students with skills needed to critique the limited perspectives offered by the pedagogical materials available. As my K-8 English students and I discussed author introductions about Sandra Cisneros and Gary Soto, I was not prepared to help them challenge the way textbooks reinforced a belief in meritocracy. By portraying Latinx authors as having beaten the odds to overcome poverty, my teacher resource materials did not ask students to think critically about the root causes and systemic continuation of poverty. When teaching Spanish, I found the same story repeated in Spanish world language textbooks that celebrate heroes such José Hernández as exceptional for being an astronaut with humble migrant workers for parents. These inspirational stories and role models are valuable and, yet there is an urgent need for stories that confront the continuation of injustices, expose the reasons behind the scarcity of these success stories, and address complex contradictions among multiple cultural histories. Race, gender, sexuality, language, and immigration status have much more to do with life chances than bootstraps and our youth must be prepared to push back against American mythology that insists otherwise. 

While Latinx voices are often used to spin bootstrap fantasies, the lived experiences of undocumented Latinx immigrants are especially excluded from the construction of a harmonious, multicultural world. We go to school, work alongside, and love undocumented people, and yet their subjectivities have little to no place in our classrooms. Particularly for those of us working to build alliances with students who are undocumented or have DACA status, we must intervene by undoing the ways that our curricula reinforce these erasures. Undocumented students are portrayed in the media and treated by politicians as well as some educators as if they were “invading” schools, “draining” resources, and “dumbing down” coursework. Recognizing that US capitalism and dominance of the Global North depends on the systemic oppression of undocumented communities threatens the notion that we live in a just society and is quickly vilified and dismissed. Moreover, these dominant stories fuel and justify legislation and social policies that subjugate undocumented communities to continue profiting from their labor by denying them state protections. 

Motivated by pedagogical urgencies, I began searching for Latinx literature to provide new entry points that emphasize undocumented Latinx agency and collective struggle instead of exceptionalism. Although our educational institutions have never been the great equalizers they claim to be, I aim to contribute solutions by fostering social justice frameworks that are not only celebratory. In this vein, we as scholars and educators can equip ourselves and our students with the critical tools needed to resist the silencing of undocumented narratives both inside and beyond the classroom. While there are many fields that shape discourse about undocumented immigrants (education, law, health sciences, etc.), the humanities can offer much needed perspectives to these fields and contribute to this issue. Literary and cultural studies have a privileged position to recognize undocumented immigrants as social actors by investigating the narrative strategies they use to shape this discourse themselves.

I asked myself, “where do I find these narratives?” Politicians and pop culture often offer limiting portrayals: undocumented Latinxs are either villains or unsuspecting fools to be saved. I had yet to find anything that resembled the undocumented people that had become a part of my life. So, I looked for stories that were produced in part by those who had at one time been undocumented themselves or had undocumented family. While these kinds of works are not innately better able to foreground agency, the inclusion of undocumented people in the process is more likely to remain based in the experiences and perspectives of those who are most directly impacted by this social injustice. These narratives often use surrogates, or privileged participants who amplify undocumented voices that can otherwise not speak for fear of detention and deportation.

The piece that set my search in motion was a play called The Story of Our Lives, (La historia de nuestras vidas) written by a group of Latino men detained during the 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in Postville, Iowa. I am haunted by that moment in my state’s history. I had just graduated from college and landed my first teaching job at the high school in West Liberty, Iowa. The Postville raid was the subject of one of my first faculty meetings: since we also had a meat-packing plant, what would we do if our town were next? We watched, horrified, at how Postville was ruined both spiritually and economically. I appreciated how my school prepared to offer sanctuary for our students should their parents be detained, but I could not shake the feeling that, because we failed to do more, we were complicit with detention and deportation policies. Reading the creative collaboration of detainee testimonial accounts in The Story of Our Lives prompted me to consider how undocumented lived experiences must be central to any initiative for social change.

After reading that play, I found other works that also interrupt the naturalization of migrant suffering and highlight the agency and support networks of undocumented Latinx communities. I read comics such as Rosita Gets Scared/ Rosita Se Asusta (2017),designed by Vicko Alvarez to help immigrant children with fear of deportation, and The Most Costly Journey/ El viaje más caro, a collaboration between comic artists and undocumented dairy farm workers in Vermont to address the physical and mental harm of isolation. I found memoirs: The Undocumented Americans (2019) by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (2015) by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Illegal (2014) by José Ángel N. I also analyzed songs and their corresponding music videos: “ICE El Hielo” (2013) by the Grammy Award winning group, La Santa Cecilia, and “Crónica Inmigrante” (2017) by the Chicago-based band, Quinto Imperio. 

These works subvert dominant narratives about undocumented immigrants and justify their decision to remain in the United States. Crucially, they do so in diverse ways. Part of my experience reading these stories has meant refusing to erase difference among their creators. Social and Cultural Analysis scholar Cristina Beltrán interrogates prescriptiveness that demands sameness, examining the theoretical costs of how both advocates and adversaries of Latinx power use homogenizing logic that conflates identity and political agreement. In The Problem with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, she rejects the idea that the discovery of some unitary core is required to realize Latinx political power. For Beltrán, this obscures the multiplicity of political subjects’ actions and intentions and limits our understanding of political possibilities. In the case of undocumented Latinx communities in the US, there is danger in imagining an easy consensus about what social action is needed or how the cause should be advanced. In recognizing the complex heterogeneity of plural Latinx identity construction, I analyze the tensions that exist among Latinx voices: from calling for a dismantling of immigration law and policies to supporting immigration reform and critiquing the ambivalent and paternalistic nature of U.S. liberalism.

My search for undocumented Latinx stories drives me to reflect on how I may shape students’ perspectives through reading. I aim to heed cultural and medical anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez’s model; every course is about epistemology. I want to continually evaluate the diversity offered in my syllabus and teach my students to think critically about, “whose knowledge “counts” and whose knowledge has been systematically marginalized” (Gálvez). Schools across the US claim to prepare their students to become global citizens. My hope is that all educators invite students to consider how we define citizenship and learn from the Americans denied it.  

Works Cited

Atanasoski, Neda. Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity. U of Minnesota P, 2013.

Beltrán, Cristina. The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity. Oxford UP, 2010.

Gálvez, Alyshia. “How I’ve Implemented an Anti-Racist Approach in My Teaching.” AlyshiaGalvez.com, 10 June 2020, https://www.alyshiagalvez.com/post/how-i-ve-implemented-an-anti-racist-approach-in-my-teaching?fbclid=IwAR0JGKYkLA58rpmwHm5n3Oq–FLX-9zou2L2XtHYa3TnhD5iyzdcwfaHUYI.

Stacey Alex is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latinx Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. She completed her B.A. and M.A. at The University of Iowa and her Ph.D. in Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University. She researches undocumented Latinx immigrant narratives, Latinx folklore, and Latinx pop culture. Learn more about Dr. Alex on her website.

How Reading Shapes Us: Julio Enríquez-Ornelas

American writers who are read as part of Ethnic Literature do not perform with the authorial intention of being identified or read as such. Yet, they are.

By Julio Enríquez-Ornelas

American writers who are read as part of Ethnic Literature do not perform with the authorial intention of being identified or read as such. Yet, they are. As a result, once this moniker is imprinted upon their work, their writing begins to carry a different weight and perform a different labor than white American writers. At times their writing is expected to represent an ethnic experience, as opposed to being read as a mainstream American experience. Writers labeled ethnic do not strive to write to prove nor educate those in power on their experience, but their work serves that purpose. Instead, they produce innovative writing much like white writers who are deemed solely American.

White American authors on the other hand can write of a plethora of experiences and still be read as canonical. For them this may include writing of ethnic experiences. For example, in Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) Scott O’Dell writes of the last surviving indigenous girl in California and in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977) Eleanor Coerr writes of the devastation caused after the bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. Both young adult books center on the experience of young girls who must live in the aftermath of the violence inflicted on their bodies, communities, and native geographies. Both of these books have been read by elementary school students in California as part of an effort to include ethnic histories in the classroom. Both of these books were my first encounters with works of literature produced by white American authors who write ethnic narratives. In other words, my first experiences with ethnic texts are crafted from the perspective of white authors. Truthfully, that is problematic.

This is an example of white American privilege. White Americans can produce a wide range of narratives beyond their lived experience. Meanwhile, canonical ethnic writers write of their ethnic lived experience, often tied to the histories of institutionalized racism inflicted upon them, and very few write of experiences beyond their own. The following books are examples of American canonical writers whose texts center on lived ethnic narratives and texts that shaped me as a reader; Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison, The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin, Macho (1973) by Victor Villaseñor, Hunger of Memory (1982) by Richard Rodríguez, The House on Mango Street (1983) by Sandra Cisneros, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) by Gloria Anzaldúa, and The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan. All of these authors fall within the purview of Ethnic American literature. Arguably, educators and canon makers make it clear to readers that these authors are ethnic writers before they are American. In some ways, this classification marks a limitation in terms of the potential value their work can have within an American literary landscape because their labor—writing— is limited in terms of how it is read because they serve as examples of ethnic representations. The value of one’s labor is determined by one’s coloniality of power. How a writer functions in relation to the dominant group is what Anibal Quijano considers coloniality of power.

Within this notion, the labor of white people historically has been given more value than the labor performed by non-Whites. In the present, non-whites and whites are writing, but this does not mean both are received the same way. Often, those in power in American literary spaces are white and thus they establish what has more value through the topics, themes, and tropes recognized as part of mainstream literature. Consequently, those in power determine how ethnic writers are situated within the cannon. Ethnic writers within the canon write of their oppression from their oppression to those benefiting from the very same colonial legacy; inevitably they are speaking against those who are oppressing them, while simultaneously sustaining the very same structures of oppression. It is as if they are only seen, read, heard, and given space if they speak of/from their oppression. Hence, ethnic narratives are often read as writing that veers out of the ordinary in exceptional ways. On the other hand, I wonder if these authors can write of experiences beyond their ethnic one? How would people read books written by ethnic authors that centered on the hardships experienced by a white young girl from a middle-class background?

Perhaps, these writers might not write of such experience because they are tasked to write solely on their lived ethnic experience due to the absence of those narratives within the cannon during their time. Simultaneously, if they do write about other lived experiences beyond their ethnic one, they might be seen as sellouts by their own ethnic enclave. Regardless, these are the types of questions an ethnic American writer must grapple with when producing a text. For white American writers it is the absence of this conundrum and their ability to write of lived experiences beyond their own that puts them in a place of privilege due to this access to constructing narratives.

Over the years, the books listed by Ellison, Baldwin, Villaseñor, Rodríguez, Cisneros, Anzaldúa, and Tan have stayed with me. I carry these books as American, and never as Ethnic American. Not because I have a desire to erase the experience nor the colonial legacies impacting these authors and their writing. Rather, I read them as American because I believe they should be placed and read within the center of the canon and be given the same value as white American canonical authors. So, I wear their texts like beautiful necklaces of words like a family air loom made out of valuable minerals; a priced possession, both beautiful and sacred. Because for me, writing is to string and pull words together like beads, pearls, or chaquiras into a necklace. One word on its own seems to hold little value, but when it is arranged with others in bunches it begins to gain more value as it takes the shape of a necklace. Once the necklace is complete, as a reader I carry it, offer it as a gift, or tuck it away in a safe place like a family air loom.

Still, I long to read books within American Literature, which tell the story of ethnic communities. Perhaps those books have already been written? and the problem lies in that they are read as Ethnic American, only? Perhaps they should be read as examples of American literature, first? This is where my own reading and ethnic experience converge. I strive to read authors who are seen as ethnic, and in my writing of these authors, I seek to go beyond just explaining how or why their work is ethnic like them. I remind myself of this as a reader, often because I want to do a fair and just reading of all books. I want to read all authors as makers of unique arrangements with words, and to read them under only one lens or perspective seems to be reading them in tunnel vision.

It is in hindsight, it is in my training as a reader and writer at the University of California where I began to gain an awareness of the categorization or existence of American literature that is deemed other, that is deemed ethnic. For me when I consider Ethnic American narratives, I think of all of the texts I read from elementary to graduate school. The characters and storylines within these books unfold within an American sociocultural backdrop, and in some ways, a lot of the storylines are based on the desire to undo years of oppression. There is also a desire to establish one’s identity in relation to the self.

As a literary critic like these American authors, I speak of and from my coloniality of power. I realize, I am read or heard the most by the dominant culture, when I speak of the oppression of others in my ethnic communities; Latinx and Mexican. Yet, as a literary critic, I have found that American literary critics read as ethnic do not perform with the intention of being seen or read as such, yet we are, and as a result our writing holds a different value than white American literary critics. I do not strive to write to prove nor educate those in power on my experience. Instead, I seek to produce innovative writing much like literary critics deemed American, only.

Bio:

Julio Enríquez-Ornelas is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Coordinator of the Spanish Education Program in the Department of Modern Languages at Millikin University. He is a Coleman Foundation Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship and the James Millikin Estate Professor in Education. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California-Riverside specializing in twentieth to twenty-first century Latin American literature and late nineteenth to twenty-first century Mexican narrative. His teaching and research explore how history, gender, race, and social class intersect in Latin America and Spain. His critical and creative work has appeared in Hispania, Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Textos Híbridos, Alchemy: Journal of Translation, El BeisMan, “La open letter” by Ediciones Patito and Paloma Revista.

How Reading Shapes Us: Jennifer Ho

By Jennifer Ho

Like many people who have pursued a PhD in English Literature or related fields, I was a precocious reader. Among my earliest memories are reading with my parents and sounding out words, matching them to the letters that accompanied the pictures in the books they read to me. By the time I was in first grade I was reading chapter books and by the fifth grade I had read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a book that continues to be among my favorites. I grew up the child of Chinese immigrant parents in a home that was working class and then eventually middle class when my mother went back to work once I became old enough to watch my younger brother. Thankfully both my parents were avid readers and took my brother and I to our local public library every Saturday morning. We checked out the maximum number of books that we could for the week, returning armloads the following Saturday and starting the cycle of books we’d read for the week anew.

Being an avid reader gave me aspirations to be a writer—specifically I wanted to write the kind of novels that transported me into different eras and realms. Along with canonical writers like the aforementioned John Steinbeck, in my K-12 years I consumed the novels of Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. Some of these were assigned in school, others I discovered and devoured on my own. So it’s no wonder that when I thought about becoming a novelist, I thought I had to write under a pen name. Specifically, one that hid my Chinese American identity. I recall being thirteen and going to where the H’s were listed in the fiction section, where I would find the section beginning “HO,” except that instead of stopping there, I’d continue to where a book written by “Jacqueline Hope” would one day exist. Jacqueline Hope: that’s the pen name my pubescent-self picked, believing it sounded sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Of course what it sounded was White.

It wasn’t until 1989, in the winter quarter of my 1st year at UC Santa Barbara that I read a novel written by an Asian American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. It is no exaggeration to say that this class and that book changed the course of my life. For the first time, I was reading about experiences that mirrored my own. For the first time I was reading a book written by a Chinese American woman who also grew up the child of immigrant Chinese parents, who also struggled with issues of fitting into US American society and norms. For the first time someone was describing a life and a world that fit into my own conception of what it was like to be Chinese American. I had not seen myself reflected in literature until I was nineteen years old—and reading this work of Chinese American literature led me to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, and a future career as a professor of Asian American literary studies.

I was fortunate to come-of-age at a moment when Ethnic Studies was gaining momentum in California—in 1989 UC Santa Barbara was one of only three universities in the nation that had an Asian American Studies department. I took multiple courses in not just Asian American literature but Chicano, Black, and Multiethnic Literature, offered through both the English department as well as the specific Ethnic Studies departments that UCSB was fortunate to have. I was mentored by faculty like Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a scholar and poet of renown, and graduate students like Wei-Ming Dariotis, now a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, admittedly the mothership for Ethnic Studies in the United States.

And here’s where I want to talk about the different bodies we encounter in literary studies, because bodies matter, whether we’re talking about actual flesh-and-blood bodies of authors or readers or the body of literature that we encounter in our K-12 education, in our public libraries, that we assign in our college and university classrooms, and that we choose to focus on in our scholarship, research, and writing. My body matters—my Asian American cis-gender female, non-disabled-for-the-time-being body is being read by other people, whether I want them to read my body or not. It matters that you have seen the photo that has accompanied this blog post. Because there will be certain assumptions that you are going to make about me based on what I look like—assumptions that this post is either confirming or confounding. It mattered, very much, that I was able to read a work of Chinese American literature at a formative moment in my life—and that the class in which this was assigned was taught by a Japanese American female instructor, who was also my first non-White instructor in a humanities class (I had a Japanese American female trigonometry teacher in high school—but math was never going to be in my future and my keenest memory from that class was getting removed after I couldn’t stop laughing at a joke my best friend told me about a dead iguana in a tree—trust me, it was hilarious but you had to be there).

The messages we receive from society and culture matter in affirming our humanity. I turned to literature in my youth to help me make sense of the world and to find my place in the world. The message I was receiving, not deliberately or consciously delivered by teachers in my K-12 classrooms, was that literature was written by White British or American people—usually who had died over a century ago. Reading contemporary American literature written by Asian American, Latinx, African American, and Indigenous people gave me a different perspective to understand the nation and the world and most especially my place in the world as an Asian American woman. And sadly the story I just shared is one that is still echoed by many students: Matthew Salesses, a talented fiction writer and former student in the first Asian American literature I taught at UNC Chapel Hill, contacted me a decade ago letting me know that my class was the first time he had read a work of Korean American literature. Other students have shared the same with me—that my Asian American literature class was the first time they had read a work that reflected their lives and the lives of their families—and they share that this is a powerful moment for them—a moment when they feel they are finally reflected in the curriculum and in US society. And a similar thing happens for my non-Asian American students in reading Asian American literature for the first time—it gives them a perspective they had not thought about or encountered before—it opens up their world.

And this is perhaps the most important thing to think about in how reading shapes us: reading shapes our understanding of what it means to be human. If we are only reading works that have for too long been deemed “canonical” we are reading about the past and not the present. If we don’t read works deemed “ethnic literature” we are missing out on the humanity of over half the globe. So it matters when we assign works of non-White writers in our class. And I guarantee it will matter to your students, whatever racial or ethnic identity they have—because it mattered, and still matters, to me.

Bio:

Jennifer Ho is Professor of Ethnic Studies and Director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder. Among her publications is her co-edited collection Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States (with Jim Donahue and Shaun Morgan). She is working on a breast cancer memoir and tweets @drjenho.

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).

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