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Asian American Literary Reception and Readership  

Tamara Bhalla

Asian American literary studies, and multi-ethnic literatures more broadly, have maintained a constant faith in the power of literature as a potential tool of anti-racist education. This faith in literature’s potential is not naïve, since it also recognizes how even the most diverse and ideal literary education can be co-opted by the workings of capitalism and neoliberalism. These fields are founded in an enduring and powerful belief that literature affects the social, cultural, and political esteem of a minority group in the United States. Within the field of Asian American studies, academics, activists, and cultural critics have sought to harness the power of various forms of cultural discourse and literature by mediating the stories told about (and at times by) Asian Americans. As Asian American literature has grown in popularity, there has been increasing attention to questions of who is represented within Asian American literature and who is deemed worthy to produce these representations. Such concerns have over time produced an abiding if somewhat tacit interest in questions of literary reception in the field. In fact, although many of the major literary controversies in Asian American studies have circulated around questions of representation and reception and ushered in paradigm shifts in how the field has conceptualized itself, it is an area that remains understudied. Asian American literary reception study and studies of readership are still emerging and crucial areas of analysis that could pose and posit answers to questions of literature’s possibilities and limitations as a tool of anti-racism in 21st-century America.

Article

Vietnamese American Literature  

Michele Janette

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.

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

Jack Kerouac and Translingual Literature  

Hassan Melehy

Known primarily as the author of On the Road (1957), the novel most closely associated with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) also wrote extensively about his French-Canadian heritage. A native of the large francophone community of Lowell, Massachusetts, he faced the dilemma of writing in a foreign language, English, while one of his motives to write was to memorialize a community assimilating to U.S. society and speaking French less and less. The recent publication of his two short novels in French from the early 1950s, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (Old Bull in the Bowery), provides evidence that the preoccupation with travel informing On the Road is deeply tied to his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Quebec to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries practiced survivance, cultural survival, especially through maintaining fluency in French and adhering to Catholicism while living among a Protestant majority. These customs of the Quebecois diaspora had begun in Canada: following the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, francophones resisted immense pressure to assimilate, both official and unofficial. Narratives of displacement from France and subsequently Quebec persisted in folklore and literature on both sides of the border through the 20th century. In early 1951, Kerouac drafted La nuit est ma femme, telling the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian from New England who wanders around the eastern United States with a sense of homelessness. Narrating in a French that reproduces the southern New England dialect, Michel laments that neither of the languages he speaks really belongs to him. The text develops the theme of cultural and linguistic mixing and its discovery through travel. Shortly after completing La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac brought this theme to On the Road, famously composing the novel on a roll of paper in three weeks in April 1951. Contrary to legend, he did extensive rewriting before his landmark work was published: Sur le chemin, which he drafted in late 1952, offers an “on the road” story about Franco-Americans and was by his own account a key part of the rewriting process. During this time, he elaborated his theory of “spontaneous prose,” writing quickly and in an improvisational manner as a way of conveying geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement. In the wake of On the Road’s depictions of the expanses of the United States, including its geographic place in North America, Kerouac turned to Franco-American New England. His next book, Dr. Sax (1959), takes place in Lowell and features lengthy passages in French; the novel’s central concerns are his community’s relationship to a legacy of displacement and the conflict between clinging to the past and creating something new. If there is a principal thrust in Kerouac’s writing, it is to challenge American literature to recognize its transnational and translingual character.

Article

Intersections of Arab American and Asian American Literature  

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.

Article

Literary Perspectives on Asian Americans in the Midwest  

Thomas Xavier Sarmiento

Literature that features Asian Americans in the Midwest simultaneously functions as an archive that documents the existence and experiences of people of Asian descent in the heartland and as a provocation to reimagine the relationship between race, place, and (trans)national belonging. Although Asian people have been immigrating to the middle of the country since the late 19th century, the Midwest continues to figure as a hinterland where Asian people do not reside and have no desire to visit. Thus, fictional, semi-fictional, and autobiographical accounts of the region from the perspective of Asian Americans, spanning at least eight decades, help debunk the impression that Asian Americans are practically nonexistent in the Midwest, or that Midwestern Asian Americans do not have an authentic sense of racial-ethnic identity. These novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays not only engage the strangeness of being of Asian descent in America’s heartland, but also they explore imaginative ideas of affinity and place: what it means to dream of elsewheres or to rework the realities of “here” from the lens of so-called nowheres. Some of these texts depict the history of Asian migration to and refugee resettlement in the US interior, gesturing toward alternative genealogies of movement and displacement. Others create new worlds that fuse food (e.g., pop and tea, hotdish and chicken afritada), language, and other transcultural practices. Midwestern Asian American literature encompasses stories by and about East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples whose lives intersect with gender, sexuality, class, and ableness. Literature about Asian Americans in the Midwest often communicates a sense of racial isolation: the loneliness and abjection Asian Americans feel in being the only Asian person or one of a handful of persons treading in a sea of whiteness. However, it also can provoke readers to reimagine the Midwest as Asian, female empowering, and queer. Whereas dominant cultural attitudes often associate the region as devoid of people, opportunities, and racial, gender, and sexual diversity, Midwestern Asian American literature represents the heartland as abundant, with counter-narratives that encompass emotional attachments to place, social interactions different from those on the coasts, and Asian American characters who inhabit areas that are often seen as incompatible with, if not hostile to, cultural difference. The range of stories indicates more broadly that there is no unified Asian Midwest or Asian American experience. Rather, the literature of Asian Americans in the Midwest calls attention to the significance of space and place in conceptualizing racial formations as diverse and dynamic.

Article

Agriculture and Asian American Literature  

Sarah D. Wald

Agriculture is a significant yet understudied theme in Asian American literature. Representations of farming in Asian American literature often respond to and engage with agriculture’s important role in Asian American history. As farmers and as farm laborers, Asian Americans have been pivotal to US agriculture, and this agricultural experience was foundational to the formation of Asian American communities in the period prior to World War II. Additionally, literary representations of agriculture in Asian American literature navigate racialized traditions of American pastoral and Jeffersonian agrarianism. They have often done so in ways that highlight the systems of racial and economic exploitation at work in US society and position US agribusiness in relationship to US colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, Asian American literature’s representations of farming can expose the assumptions around race, property, and citizenship at work in the agrarianism of the 21st-century US alternative food movement. The writings of Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and David Mas Masumoto provide case studies of these trends.

Article

Reading South Asian American Literature  

Rajini Srikanth

“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.

Article

Grillo, Evelio  

Kenya C. Dworkin y Méndez

Evelio Grillo, the son of black Cuban cigar makers in Tampa, Florida, was born in 1919, in Ybor City, an immigrant enclave whose population was predominantly Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian. When the Cuban population, which was the largest of the three primary ethnic cohorts, had started arriving, in 1885, from Key West and Cuba, its members were approximately 15 percent Afro-Cuban, or darker skinned, and 75 percent white, or lighter-skinned. The number of black Cubans later dwindled significantly, in the 1930s and 1940s, because of the Depression and drastically reduced employment opportunities. Many Cuban immigrants headed North to New York City and other urban centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic searching for and finding better work, more educational opportunities, and more Afro-Latin people and communities to mingle and join forces with, which led to their major involvement in Northern civil rights efforts. Grillo grew up on the “unofficial” border between Ybor City proper and a small, marginalized, African American area between Ybor City and downtown Tampa known as the Scrub. Early on, he came to feel somewhat alienated from his white Cuban counterparts, despite the fact he and they shared a great deal in common—language, history, culture, and religion. The idea of racial unity that had been promoted by José Martí and other Cuban leaders and intellectuals in the years leading up to and during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence, and which had never really totally existed, was quickly abandoned. Eventually, thanks to an extraordinary school experience that took him out of Tampa and to Washington, DC, he became more comfortable and functional in the African American world of Tampa and elsewhere. Grillo ended up receiving a first-rate education at Dunbar High School in the Capitol; earned a bachelor of arts degree at Xavier University, in New Orleans, Louisiana; took three years of courses in Latin American history at Columbia University, in New York City, after the war; and then moved to Oakland, California, to work and earn a master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. After completing his undergraduate degree at Xavier, Grillo had been drafted into the US Army—the segregated army—and was shipped to India with the 853rd Engineering Battalion to build roads. While there, the developed many talents that he would later synthesize and that served him well later on in life, for example, community organizing, administration, research and writing, communications, and dealing with institutionalized racism and discrimination. Upon moving to Oakland, he took a position in a community center, and after earning his master’s degree from Berkeley, he continued to be involved in community, social, and political organizing. He was active in in local politics and black, Mexican, and Latina/o affairs and initiatives at the national, governmental, and nonprofit levels, working, for example, for the City of Oakland, in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the War on Poverty, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Service Organization, and had the opportunity to work with the likes of Herman Gallegos, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and Saul Alinsky.