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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

Settler Colonialism in Asian North American Representation  

Iyko Day

The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.

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

Folk and Blues Methods in American Literature and Criticism  

Taylor Black

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the fall of 2016. News of this drew predictable reactions from fans and naysayers who, each in their own way, either praised or lamented the judgment of the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor a songwriter and performer for a prize traditionally reserved for novelists, poets, and playwrights. Despite arguments about whether or not Dylan’s work is or is not sufficiently literary, his award confirmed something that, at least for Americans, has always been true: that popular music is as important a part of American literature as anything written in between the covers of a book. The folk and blues traditions from which Dylan emerges as a musical artist are also major sources of mythopoetic cultural production operating at the heart of American culture. These are first and foremost oral traditions, offered up in the form of songs and tales (and everything in between) and passed down from person to person, across regions, and through time. A folk and blues approach to American literature is one that understands there are no originary, primary folk and blues texts. It is also one that necessarily envisions a tradition as belonging to the future rather than the past. The American folk and blues method is, in other words, one of invention and adaptation, and its embedded notion of a tradition is something that is always shifting according to practice. Instead of only searching out primary textual examples of form, a folk and blues–influenced literary critical approach is drawn to figures—like Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan—who are practitioners of folk and blues traditions. These performers are also experts in and vectors of folk and blues cultures. A prescriptive notion of an artistic tradition is determined based on what it was. In folk and blues, a tradition is what it does. There are also conventionally literary figures who seem to benefit from and understand the musical roots of American literature. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Toni Morrison incorporate musical elements into their plays, novels, stories, and poems in such a way as to make these otherwise written forms sound American. Folk and blues idioms and aesthetics encircle these authors’ literary works and enhance their meanings. A critical approach to such artists is in search of these meanings. This involves listening and developing a feeling for folk and blues traces in song and prose. The historical echoes of the many folk and blues myths, figures, and refrains that float around the nation’s culture are resurrected, from generation to generation, in its art. In the end, a folk and blues method seeks out these originators and reproducers of folk and blues traditions, insisting on an interpretive practice that is closer to hearing than reading.