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Chinese Workers’ Literature in the 20th and 21st Centuries  

Paola Iovene and Federico Picerni

“Chinese workers’ literature” is an umbrella term that comprises diverse writings by workers, for workers, and about workers. In the 1930s, roughly at the same time that an international proletarian arts movement was flourishing, a factory-based reportage literature—mostly written by leftist intellectuals and partly inspired by Russian and Japanese experiments—developed in semicolonial Shanghai. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, writings by workers themselves were officially promoted and published in state-supported venues. Largely consisting of edifying stories, poems, and plays, workers’ literature from the 1950s to the 1970s provided models of behavior and contributed to a shared sense of dignity among industrial workers; it was, however, severely limited in its expressive range. Along with the implementation of market reforms beginning in the 1980s and the privatization and contracting out of most state-owned industry, a new literature emerged in the Special Economic Zones of South China and has grown into a heterogeneous phenomenon encompassing poetry and prose written by countless rural-to-urban migrant workers, the mainstay of the country’s new workforce. These writings have been appreciated for their intimate portrayals of the human costs of economic development, for giving voice to the silent majority of precarious laborers who have made it possible, and for potentially restituting a measure of dignity to a social group whose members were once considered “masters of the country” but who, in the early 21st century, enjoy little job security and few rights. While it is possible to hear resonances across these disparate times and locations, much has changed along the way, including the social position of the worker and the groups associated with this term, the forms they have experimented with and the media through which their writings circulate, and the extent to which the workers have actively contributed to its production and circulation.

Article

Díaz, Junot  

Yomaira C. Figueroa

Junot Díaz is a Dominican American award-winning fiction writer and essayist. For over twenty years his work has helped to map and remap Latinx, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies. Since his collection of short stories, Drown, debuted in 1996, Díaz has become a leading literary figure in Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and diaspora studies. His voice is critically linked to the legacy of Latinx Caribbean literary poetics reaching back to the 1960s (including Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, 1967). Díaz’s work is likewise transnational and diasporic, often reflecting the lived experiences of working-class immigrant populations of color in northeastern urban centers. Within a broader scope, Díaz’s writing is tied to feminist African American and Chicana literary traditions, with Díaz citing the influence of writers such as Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros in his writing practice. His 2007 award-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and catapulted him into literary superstardom. Díaz followed that success with his 2012 collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which was a finalist for both the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In 2012, Díaz was conferred the MacArthur Fellows Program Award, commonly known as the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and in 2017, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2019, he was the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the fiction editor at the renowned literary magazine the Boston Review. Over the course of his professional writing career, Díaz has published numerous nonfiction essays and political commentaries, and coauthored opinion editorials on immigration and reflections on Caribbean and US politics. His short story “Monstro,” published in 2012, further rooted Díaz in the genres of science fiction and Afrofuturism. “Monstro” was understood to be a teaser for a now discarded novel of the same name. The simultaneous publication of the English-language Islandborn and Spanish-language Lola in 2018 represented the author’s first foray into the genre of children’s literature. Like much of Díaz’s literary oeuvre, the children’s books chronicle the experiences and memories of Afro-Dominicans in the diaspora through the perspective of a child narrator. Díaz is one of the founders of Voices of Our Nation (VONA), a summer creative writing workshop for writers of color where he helps aspiring writers to workshop their fiction. Díaz’s fiction and nonfiction writings have catalyzed work in literary, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx studies, prompting renewed discourses on literary representations of masculinity, gender, sexuality, intimacy, sexual violence, dictatorship, immigration, disability, Dominican history, race and anti-blackness, anti-Haitianism, decolonization and radical politics, and diaspora and belonging.

Article

Humanitarianism and Global Literature  

Alaina Kaus

Understood as a system of actions designed to reduce the suffering of distant humans across the world, humanitarianism is intimately connected to storytelling as a means of raising awareness and generating empathy. Humanitarian beliefs and efforts are as diverse as the religious and secular moral philosophies that motivate them. Both aid organizations and government leaders have drawn on humanitarian discourses to gather support for such things as shipments of clothing and medical supplies to those in need, resettlement opportunities for refugees, and even military interventions in the Global South. As cultural platforms that promote themes of human dignity as well as liberal freedom and autonomy, humanitarianism and literature share long histories of influencing each other since the late 18th century. With the adoption of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II, humanitarianism and the related discourse of human rights have received an increase in popular and literary interest in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Whether or not these discourses are enough to counter the incredible violence of the contemporary period has been the subject of much debate. Global literatures support and critique humanitarianism and human rights as they retell histories of disaster, warfare, and state violence. As literature continues to variously imagine the causes of and responses to world suffering, the intersections of humanitarianism, human rights, and global literature embody a rich site of contestation and possibility for study in the 21st century.

Article

Human Rights and Asian American Literature and Culture  

Crystal Parikh

Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.

Article

Immigration and Asian American Autobiographical Writing: An Unstraightforward Story  

Theresa A. Kulbaga

Asian American autobiographical writing about immigration—from the earliest available examples to the contemporary experiments with genre and form—does not tell a straightforward story. Rather, Asian American autobiographies trouble the sustaining myths of American exceptionalism, the American dream, meritocracy, and belonging and therefore challenge narratives of immigrant striving and success. Immigrant narratives examined in this essay by Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, Kathleen Tamagawa, Carlos Bulosan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kao Kaila Yang, and Shailja Patel, among others, show the contested and constructed quality of national borders. They show that the nation has always been constructed transnationally, through relationships with other countries and cultures and flows of migration that exceed straightforward definition. Examining narratives from various historical periods and cultural traditions brings into view the connections and contradictions among them and shows how each text intervenes in immigration discourse and exercises autobiographical agency. Rather than straightforward stories, then, Asian American autobiographical narratives illuminate the various entanglements of self-representation, family, identity, and agency with imperialism, racialization, nationalism, and global capitalism. Nor does autobiographical writing merely document experience or history. Instead, it actively constructs self, identity, and nation even as it draws on the culturally available narratives that enable and constrain the stories writers tell about their lives. As it does so, it creates new, unstraightfoward narratives and forms.

Article

Southern Literature and the Civil Rights Era  

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.

Article

Transgender Studies and Latina/o/x Studies  

Francisco J. Galarte

The field of Latina/o/x studies has long been interested in various forms of gender and sexual deviance and diversity as a site of inquiry. Yet, there are many gaps in the literature of the field when it comes to the study of trans subjectivities, politics, and cultural formations. Foundational theoretical works such as Sandy Stone’s “A Posttransexual Manifesto” (1991) and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands (1987) share a theoretical approach to understanding autoethnographic texts that propose to write minoritarian subjects into discourse. The result of the two works is the emergence of the “new mestiza” and the “posttranssexual,” two figures that come to shape the fields of transgender, Chicana/o/x, and Latinx studies, respectively. There are myriad ways in which the fields of transgender studies and Latinx studies overlap and depart from each other. Most often, transgender studies is characterized as not grappling directly with race, colonialism, and imperialism, while Latina/o/x studies can at times be read as treating transgender subjects as objects, or sites of inquiry. Therefore, there is much to be gleaned from exploring how the two fields might come into contact with each other, as each becomes increasingly institutionalized.