While the Vietnam War looms large in American national culture of the 20th century, Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese American experiences have been little attended to. Vietnamese American literature engages this erasure both in writing about Vietnamese perspectives on that war and by expanding the signification of “Vietnam” beyond being a synonym for a war. Beginning in the 1960s, Vietnamese American literature in English was dominated for the next few decades by memoirs, largely designed to educate American readers about Vietnamese politics and history. Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective, and often provide direct analysis and critique of both the South Vietnamese regime and its American ally. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Vietnamese American literature has diversified in both form and content, expanding the field beyond direct engagement with the Vietnam War and the refugee experience, in work that rewrites canonical Western characters and genres, that challenges normative literary forms as well as social identities, and that explores US racialization, consumerism, and popular culture. In addition to writing Vietnam and Vietnamese American experiences into the national American imaginary landscape, this literature reconfigures the demonized and threatening tropes of the threatening, untrustworthy “gook,” and the passive, dependent “victim” figure, into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge necessary for a 21st century of increasing displaced populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster. This critical perspective is also more transnational than nationalistic or exilic, exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.
Xavier Aldana Reyes
The writings covered to by the umbrella term “Gothic” are so varied in style, thematic interests, and narrative effects that an overarching definition becomes problematic and even undesirable. The contemporary Gothic, drawing on an already fragmented and heterogenic artistic tradition, is less a genre than a vestigial type of writing that resuscitates older horrors and formulas and filters them through the echo chambers of a modern preoccupation with the social value of transgressive literature. In a century when the Gothic has once again exploded in popularity, and following a period of strong institutionalization of its study in the 1990s and 2000s, establishing some of its key modern manifestations and core concerns becomes a pressing issue. The Gothic may be fruitfully separated from horror, a genre premised on the emotional impact it seeks to have on readers, as a type of literature concerned with the legacy of the past on the present—and, more importantly, with the retrojecting of contemporary anxieties into times considered more barbaric. These have increasingly manifested in neo-Victorian fictions and in stories where settings are haunted by forgotten or repressed events but also by weird fiction, where encounters with beings and substances from unplumbed cosmic depths lead to a comparable temporal discombobulation. The intertextual mosaics of the contemporary Gothic also borrow from and recycle well-known myths and figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in order to show their continued relevance or else to adapt their recognizable narratives to the early 21st century. Finally, the Gothic, as a type of literature that is quickly becoming defined by the cultural work it carries out and by its transnational reach, has found in monstrosity, especially in its mediation of alterity, of traumatic national pasts and of the viral nature of the digital age, a fertile ground for the proliferation of new nightmares.
From the colonial period through to the present day, the U.S. South has been seen as aberrant or at least different, as separate from, the rest of the nation. Often thought of as backward and strange, the South has also been figured as the nation’s Other, home to anything that the United States disavows: racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, poverty, and so on. While a debate rages in the field of southern studies about what and where the South exactly is—even whether the South should be spoken of as a solid geography—contemporary literature from the region continues to present the multiple meanings of place today. Indeed, in the 21st century particularly, southern literature is expanding and diversifying more than ever. Identifiable are three dominant trends in contemporary literature from the South. First, and perhaps most dominant, is the narrative of racial memory; this work explores the impacts and legacies of race relations in the region, from slavery and Native American removal through to Jim Crow and beyond. Second is the narrative of the southern environment; these narratives are stories that contemplate and focus on the region’s diverse landscapes, from mountainous Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the swampy Gulf. They are also narratives that engage with the dramatic effects of climate change and ecological disaster, highly pertinent in the contemporary era of the Anthropocene. Third, are narratives of an (un)changing South; this writing reflexively and critically explores the meaning of the region in a time of globalization and migration. When the population of the South—which has always been a diverse one—is changing in both dramatic and incremental ways, the stories and narratives of the region are clearly adapting too. Southern literature continues to ask complex questions about what the South means in today’s United States.
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
Molly Clark Hillard
Victorianism refers to contemporary texts that cede time and space to Victorian ideologies, modes, plots, and problems. In its broadest and most contemporary definition, Victorianism describes any literary, filmic, or cultural text that signals contemporary investment in Victorian literature and culture. Such works can be loosely grouped into three categories: original plots set in the 19th century; retellings of canonical 19th-century texts; and “hybrid” texts—those that oscillate between contemporary and Victorian time frames, for instance, or those that create a new story peopled with characters from Victorian media and/or history, including narrativized stories of authors’ lives. There are persistent modes and themes across these forms, including the networking of science and technology with the human; the detective or mystery story; and the connection between the contemporary Victorian and the gothic mode. While in the 20th century the primary archive was largely white and male, the 21st century has seen the advent of a more intersectional archive and authorship. The topic is often consolidated under the term “neo-Victorian” but is also sometimes referred to as “Victoriana,” “strategic presentism,” and other designations. Specifically under the rubric of “neo-Victorian” the study is sometimes associated with postmodernism itself. Other critical interpretations hold that its organizing principle is neoliberalism and its social corollary, liberal individualism. Yet others connect the subject with cultural studies and its corollaries gender studies, queer studies, and—much more recently—postcolonial or imperial studies. Underlying all of these critical interventions is the notion that the primary affective/aesthetic register of neo-Victorian media is nostalgia and/or belatedness. Nevertheless, critical trends of the 2010s and onward theorize not the continuity but the simultaneity of the 19th and 21st centuries. This suggests exciting implications and directions in contemporary Victorianism, including responses to empire, examinations of global crises, and an expansion of the canon to include media not usually included in considerations of Victorianism.