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!

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.

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

Photo Credit: Juan Alvarez-Ajamil

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Frederick Luis Aldama, Distinguished University Professor, Ohio State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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