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.

Marijana Mikić receives grant from AAU’s Young-Scientists-Mentoring Program

Within the framework of the one-year grant, PhD researcher Marijana Mikić will work closely with her mentors Derek Maus and James Donahue at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Professor Maus is an expert in contemporary African American literature, in particular in the field of black satire. His recent publications on the topic inlcude Conversations with Colson Whitehead (2019) and Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (2019). Professor Donahue is one of the pioneers in the field of critical race narratology, as is evidenced by his recent Contemporary Native Fiction: Toward a Narrative Poetics of Survivance (2019) and the volume Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States (2017), which he co-edited with Jennifer Ho and Shaun Morgan. Maus and Donahue’s interdisciplinary research at the intersection of narrative theory and ethnic American literature is of central interest to Marijana’s work on the Narrative Encounters Project and her dissertation, entitled “Black Storyworlds: Race, Space, and Emotion in Contemporary African American Literature.”

Marijana’s plans during the one-year mentoring program include a research visit at SUNY Potsdam next spring and a visit from her mentors here in Klagenfurt in September 2021. We are excited about these wonderful opportunities and congratulations Marijana!

New Publication on Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s “Am I Blue?”

Together with colleagues W P Małecki and Małgorzata Dobrowolska, Alexa Weik von Mossner has published an article entitled “Narrating Human and Animal Oppression: Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s ‘Am I Blue?'” in the journal Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

Combining orginal empirical research and cognitive narratology, the study explores the narrative strategies and attitudinal impact of Walker’s influential essay, in which she remembers her encounter with a white horse called Blue and draws connections between human and animal oppression.

Narrative Encounters Conference Postponed

Photo Credit: Juan Alvarez-Ajamil

Due to the coronavirus situation, we had to postpone our conference. It will now take place on September 2-4, 2021. To all conference participants, thank you so much for your flexibility! We look forward to welcoming you in Klagenfurt next year.

In order to take some advantage of the situation, we will send out an additional CFP in the coming weeks. If you are interested in the conference and missed the original submission deadline, check out our new CFP next month.

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).