David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
Born in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942–2004) was a prolific writer, scholar, and activist. Her corpus of work includes essays, books, edited volumes, children’s literature, and fiction/autohistorias. Anzaldúa’s life and writing are at the forefront of critical theory as it interacts with feminism, Latinx literature, spirituality, spiritual activism, queer theory, and expansive ideas of queerness and articulations of alternative, non-Western epistemologies and ontologies. The geographical proximity to the US–Mexican border figures prominently throughout in her work, as does her theorization of metaphorical borderlands and liminal spaces. Her oft-cited text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is included in many university courses’ reading lists for its contributions to discourses of hybridity, linguistics, intersectionality, and women of color feminism, among others. Anzaldúa began work on her more well-known theories prior to the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera and continued to develop these theories in her post-Borderlands/La Frontera writing, both published and unpublished. After her sudden death due to complications of diabetes in 2004, Anzaldúa’s literary estate was housed in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin in 2005.
Clint J. Terrell
Jimmy Santiago Baca is a poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and activist who began his literary career in Florence State Prison, Arizona, where he was incarcerated from 1974 to 1979. Baca spent most of his adolescent years between orphanages, stints of homelessness, and time in juvenile detention facilities. He credits learning to read and write in prison as the galvanization of his journey from illiteracy to worldly poet, and his endorsement of literacy as an avenue for individual and community empowerment echoes the black nationalist political thought of Malcolm X. In addition to an overarching theme of literacy, he also maintains a critical awareness to the politics of land ownership. He is of Chicano and Apache descent and often draws on his Indigenous heritage, as well as his prison experience, to critique the colonial settler ideology that associates private property with personal liberty. He is among the gallery of canonized Chicano pinto (prisoner) poets like Ricardo Sánchez and Raúl Salinas who discovered their talents while incarcerated. His poetry and prose are in harmony with prisoner discourse that indicts the state for economic injustices and contextualizes crimes as economic necessity instead of demonizing the individual. Similar to Sánchez and Salinas, Baca’s poetic voice can be both figural and visceral in the same breath. But distinct from these pinto poets, Baca’s poetic introduces a proliferation of personas that go back and forth between a poet who wants to love and make peace and a pugnacious identity that was nurtured by the violence of life in various state institutions, particularly prison. He has published eighteen books that include poetry, memoir, fiction, creative non-fiction, essay collections, and chapbooks. He is an active writer and frequently has additional publications in various stages of production, showing us that the negotiation of his traumatic past is never fully complete. Indeed, he continues to push his boundaries as a writer and challenges any preconceived notions about the literary limits of a prison cultivated intellectual.
Theresa Delgadillo and Leila Vieira
Latinx literature in the Midwest encompasses work created by authors from a variety of backgrounds, with authors of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent predominating in literature that takes locations throughout the region as its settings. Although much work focuses on Chicago, the multiple Latinidades of the region appear in fiction and poetry from across the region. Regarding genre, most of this literature falls into the categories of novel, short story, and poetry; however, works such as prose poems, novels in verse, heavily footnoted fiction, or metaliterary texts challenge genre boundaries and reveal Latinx literary innovation. This literature emerges from the history and experience of Latinx migration to the region, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and, not surprisingly, that history often figures in the literature. Spanish-language Latinx literature about the Midwest also exists, and like its English-language counterpart, often addresses transnational experiences. Major publishers have made the work of Latinx authors in the Midwest well-known, yet there are also vibrant cultures of small press, community, and collective publishing, and self-publishing, through which Latinx authors have shared their talents with wider audiences in and beyond the region.
Some of the themes addressed by Latinx literature in the Midwest are migration, with characters coming both from other regions of the United States and directly from Latin America; labor, mostly industrial and agricultural work, but also involving characters in the service sector and professionals; belonging and the question of what and where home is and how to create this space in the Midwest; environment and gentrification; transnationalism, often evoking different ethnic backgrounds from the present; family relationships; gender and sexuality, focusing on what it means to be Latinx and part of the LGBTQ community and situations of discrimination with families and workplaces; race, including Afro-Latinx characters; and religion and spirituality, looking not only to Catholicism, but also to Judaism and African diaspora–inspired systems of Orisha worship.
Ricardo L. Ortiz
Cuba’s historical relationship with the United States predates both countries’ emergence into full political sovereignty and consists of forms of political, economic, and cultural interaction and exchange that have intimately bound the two societies since well before the 19th century. The United States spent the 1800s emerging as an independent nation and increasingly as a regional power in the western hemisphere. Populations from smaller neighboring societies were emerging from colonial rule and often sought protection in the United States from colonial oppression, even as they saw the United States’ own imperial ambitions as a looming threat. Cuban-American literature therefore can trace its roots to a collection of key figures who sought refuge in the United States in the 19th century, but it did not flourish until well into the 20th when geopolitical conditions following World War II and extending into the Cold War era made the United States a natural destination for a significant population of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution. Most arrived first as refugees, then as exiles, and finally as immigrants settling into homes and making families and lives in their new country. This population has also produced a robust literary culture all its own with deep ties and important contributions to the greater US literary tradition. Cuban-American literary production has proliferated into the 21st century, exploring complex themes beyond national and cultural identity, including gender, sexuality, race, class, and ideology.
Edward Halsey Foster
Queer theory, a subject of much controversy among academics and literary critics in recent decades, raises crucial questions regarding the reception and creation of literary texts. Advocates of queer theory claim that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are socially constructed and that there is nothing “natural” about any sexual identity. Literary works traditionally seen as expressions of their authors' feeling or presence, as is the case with lyric poems, must now be reconceived as political discourse. The individual and his or her writings are no longer considered to be “essentially” gay or straight but instead are components in a broad political discourse. Queer theory is by no means universally accepted—its critics include such well-known scholars as Rictor Norton (b. 1945) and the best-selling author Camille Paglia (b. 1947)—but the vast majority of academic literary studies of gay writers follow its dictates.
Carol W.N. Fadda
The interconnections between Asian American and Arab American studies are deep and long-standing, with scholars and activists in both these intersecting fields affirming their common investments in anti-racist, anti-imperial, transnational, and coalitional feminist frameworks. Various scholars have even called for Arab Americans to be included under a broader definition of Asian American identities. An intersectional study of the forms of alliances and solidarities developing among these racialized communities becomes a cornerstone for combating the effects of racism, orientalism, imperialism, and xenophobia, as well as enactments of occupation, exclusions, internment, and incarceration carried out by the projects of colonialism and empire within the United States and abroad. Even while being shaped by the specificities of geographical, historical, and political contexts, Arab American literature showcases an array of thematic foci and engagements that link it to other ethnic literary traditions, including Asian American literature. Such thematic connections extend to engagements with cultural and transnational in-betweenness, collective and individual marginalization and racialization, wars and conflicts in original home countries and their effects on US diasporic identities, transnational connections and movement across borders, food and cultural memory, language, gender roles, heritage, and religious expression, to name but a few. The literary output of Arab American and Asian American writers from the 19th century up till the early 21st century closely reflects the factors that shape Arab and Asian experiences in the United States and the conditions that shape the affective, material, legal, and political lives of immigrant and diasporic communities. The viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives presented in the works of Arab American and Asian American writers, however, are far from uniform. They are widely varied, encompassing different immigration pathways, histories, struggles, military and geopolitical conflicts, literary lineages, and artistic investments.
Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz
Chicana lesbian literary critics and authors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel established that Chicana and Latina lesbian and queer writings trace back to the conquest of the Americas, be it through the Chicana lesbian feminists’ rewriting of La Malinche (Malintzin Tenepal) or by the reimagining of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje) as a lesbian. Nevertheless, contemporary Latina lesbian literature in the United States has concentrated primarily on the writings by and about Latina queer women since the early 1980s. These queer Latina letters highlight the impact that women like Sor Juana and Malinche had on the reconfigurations of Latina queer and ethnic identities. To ascertain their empowerment, these Latina writers and artists drew from their personal histories and creativity as activists and survivors in patriarchal and heteronormative societies while maintaining their ethnic, cultural, sexual, and political connections across states, countries, and continents as third world feminists of color. In particular, much of the field of Chicana and Latina feminisms, which emphasize the intersections of race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, begins in 1981 with the publication of the foundational text This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Similarly, in 1987, with the publication of Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, Juanita Ramos initiated the transnational connections between lesbians of Latin American descent living in the United States. Carla Trujillo, influenced by Compañeras and Bridge, published Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About in 1991, offering the first collection of writings and visual art by Chicana queers. Ever pushing the boundaries, the anthologies by Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa’s Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression (2003) and the forthcoming Jota (2020), edited by T. Jackie Cuevas, Anel Flores, Candance López, and Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz, express assertive titles as both offer unapologetic reclamations of controversial labels for queer Latina/Latinx identities through literary criticism, creative writings, and art. These four anthologies present much of the work by authors and performance artists who have published or will publish their individual monographs, novels, texts, graphic novels, short story collections, and plays. In 2015, the journal Sinister Wisdom dedicated an entire issue to “Out Latina Lesbians” that convened over fifty writers and visual artists in the United States. Given their liminality within their respective milieus (primarily, but not exclusively) as women, gender non-conforming individuals, queers, often from working class backgrounds, and with an ethnic or cultural connection to indigeneity, Chicana and Latina lesbians and queers established their own literary and artistic canons. Their rebellious acts have challenged Eurocentric and heteronormative spaces, as individuals and collectives often assume multiple roles as teachers, writers, artists, literary critics, editors, and, in some instances, owners of their own presses.
Ricardo L. Ortiz
Latinx literature’s historical interest in the cultural, social, and political dynamics of gender plays as central a role in its long and varied discursive tradition as any other major thematic concern. Since the 19th century, representations of life in Latinx communities inhabiting what increasingly became the territory of the United States put the forces and conflicts of culturally based gender differences center stage, whether those differences came from within a culture, whose values shifted when it moved to a new geographic setting, or from without, when a culture confronted the differing values of an often dominant, oppressive other. Latinx literature is too vast and varied to accommodate a comprehensive account of these shifts and currents. But one can see a steady move away from the rigid binary logic of gender difference inherited from the traditional cis-hetero-patriarchal mindset of colonial Spanish-Catholic rule, a mindset that, historically, overwhelmed whatever more fluid or ambiguous formations of gender and sexuality circulated through indigenous American societies. That steady move cannot be traced in a single line or direction, but it does clearly demonstrate a greater opening of the possibility of dislodging gendered styles of expression from the particular anatomical manifestations of sexed bodies, as well as a greater opening of the possibility for mixed lines of attraction and desire between, within, and even beyond genders. While much liberatory work remains to be done in the actual world, Latinx literature has increasingly opened itself up to more inclusive, affirmative representations of nonnormative lives under the signs of sexuality and gender.
Frederick Luis Aldama
Discussions and debates in and around the formation of Mexican American letters, including its periodization and formulations of its unique ontology, are reviewed, and discussions and analysis of key literary phenomena that have shaped in time (history) and space (region) Mexican American and Chicana/o letters are presented. Foundational scholars such as María Herrera-Sobek, Luis Leal, José Limón, and Juan Bruce-Novoa are considered along with scholar-creators such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. A wide variety of Mexican American and Chicana/o authors of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are reviewed, including Alurista, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Marío Suárez, Arturo Islas, Richard Rodriguez, and Ana Castillo, among many others.
Jennifer Ann Ho
Asian American literature was born from two mixed race Eurasian sisters, Edith Maude Eaton and Winnifred Eaton, who wrote in the early 20th century under the pen names Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, respectively. Edith spent her career chronicling, in fiction and non-fiction, the lives of Chinese in North America, and recounted her own multiracial experiences in the autobiographical “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” while Winnifred is best known for her popular fiction about the exotica of Japan, novels and stories that include several mixed race protagonists. More than thirty years later, Kathleen Tamagawa penned a mixed race memoir, Holy Prayers in a Horse’s Ear, describing the difficulties of living as a biracial Japanese-white woman trying to assimilate into the white mainstream of US society.
The number of mixed race Asian American authors rose in the mid- to late 20th century due to an increase in mixed race marriages and Asian immigration. The turn of the 21st century saw prominent multiracial Asian American authors writing about Asian American lives, mixed race Asian American authors choosing not to write about multiracial Asian American characters, and monoracial Asian American writers who populate their fiction with multiracial Asian American characters. Among these authors, Ruth Ozeki stands out as someone who has consistently focused her attention on multiracial Asian American characters, illustrating the richness of their mixed race experiences even as her fictional storyworlds shine a light on the environmental issues in a globalized world.
“South Asia” is the term used to refer to that part of Asia that comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. South Asian American literary studies emerged from the ethnic studies movements in the United States during the late 1960s. Asian American literary studies has analyzed poetry, fiction, memoir, and drama by writers of South Asian descent living in the United States, first by looking at the principal thematic impulses found in the writings and the literary techniques employed by authors from the early 1900s into the 21st century. Scholars have also argued that the worldviews and representations of South Asian American writers, sometimes considered within the category of “postcolonial” literature rather than multiethnic literature, gesture beyond the narrow confines of genre, nation, religion, ethnicity, and culture. South Asian American literary studies illuminates these texts’ unexpected connectivities, global vision, and entwined histories and highlights how those who read them have the opportunity to enlarge their consciousness.
Julie Buckner Armstrong
Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the 21st century, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions. “Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that some consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars, however, see constructions of a distinct southern identity with an accompanying literature as outmoded, particularly in an era of shifting demographics within the US and globalization more broadly. Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. The movement itself can refer to the period from the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools to the 1965 Voting Rights Act—an era focused on specific civil rights leadership, goals, and, notably, the American South. Alternatively, one can define the movement more comprehensively to look at what happened before and after “the King years,” referring to the period’s iconic figure Martin Luther King Jr. This version of civil rights extends the movement to points North and West, includes Black Power (typically focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s), and links it to contemporaneous human rights and post-colonial struggles. Authors from the American South respond to this broader story by connecting the movement to issues such as immigration; policing and incarceration; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Here writers depict a dynamic, multifaceted South that continues striving to transform political ideals into realities.
The literature of Central American-Americans is a diverse and emerging corpus of writing that testifies to the different phases and evolutions of warfare, locally and globally. This literature includes narratives about exiles and immigrants who left war zones, interdisciplinary poetry against U.S. militarized violence in different geographies, narratives about global wars and their aftermath, detective writings, and soldiers’ memoirs. War and violence have taken new shapes, and the inhumanity of war is expanded beyond the battlefield. A survey of the most representative Central American-American writers depicting these catastrophic events provides insights into the trauma of war individually and collectively and denounces its violence and causes. There are writers that propose a process of healing this history of violence and engagement with new struggles. Some of the authors in this survey make rational arguments, refuting Western-centric perspectives that justify war as a necessary and logical event. Other writers present a strong pacifist agenda as the result of having participated directly in this traumatic experience. Writers often reflect on ameliorative justice and the exile experience. Through history, they change their representation of war in Central America; later authors connect these catastrophes with violence in the United States and elsewhere. War becomes imbricated with gender violence, policing, urban policing, racism, and class discrimination. Immigrants become the main characters in many contemporary writings, and the search for identity, connected with the past of war, is common in the poetic discourse of the younger generation.