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From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature

Šesnić, Jelena
From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature, Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2007 (monografija)

From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature

Šesnić, Jelena

Vrsta, podvrsta i kategorija knjige
Autorske knjige, monografija, znanstvena


Amsterdam, New York




Ključne riječi
American literature; ethnicity; cultural nationalism; ethnic feminism; borderlands; contact zone; diaspora; transnationalism; psychoanalysis; transculturation; trauma

Introduction situates my discourse between two distinct but interrelated systems ; the first being the phantasmatic character of the signifiers of ethnicity, “ race” , identity and gender, and their relational, constructed nature, and, on the other hand, the material, historical, concrete and contextual conditions of their production and construction in US ethnic literary corpus from 1965 to approximately 1995. So the two prevailing modes engage psychoanalytic and related paradigms, but also address historicist modes of enquiry. This comes to the fore in four widely conceived models, hermeneutical tools, with which to approach texts I read here, with an eye to possibly extending the model to incorporate also other ethnic texts, not mentioned in my discussion. These four are, respectively, the cultural nationalist model ; the ethnic feminist model ; the borderlands/contact zones model ; and the diasporic model. They are taken up each in Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively. The first chapter examines genealogy of the key concepts in this study, such as identity, ethnic, ethnicity, “ race” , nation, national identity, national minority and diaspora. Next, it looks at how these concepts have fared in the debates on multiculturalism in the past several decades. It provides a brief overview of historical landmarks grounding this study (Civil-Rights legislation, changes in immigration patterns after 1965, larger context of anticolonial struggles and postcolonial emergence, etc.). In the final part I address some issues pertaining to “ minority literatures” and the national literary canon. The second chapter takes up the cultural-nationalist paradigm (the 1960s-early 1970s), not only with respect to its historically paramount role, but more so from the point of view of specific phantasmatic investments and affective structures which, in fact, contribute to the vibrancy, poignancy but also, ultimately, exclusiveness of this discourse, in its stark essentialism and rampant masculinity. Thus, the cultural nationalism in the Civil Rights period and its aftermath is shown as a specific form of affective discourse, which has managed to redeploy this powerful affective capital into strategies of establishing what, following Benedict Anderson, might be called “ imagined communities.” Cultural nationalism, with its deft mixture of the political, personal and cultural, stands as the first important discourse on ethnic identity within the national sphere. The principal site of annunciation of these new trends is the discursive construct of ethnic masculinity, which through various procedures outlined in psychoanalysis and cultural studies engages in complex relations with, on one hand, normative white, “ Anglo-Saxon” masculinity, and on the other, various forms of culturally constructed femininities (white and ethnic alike). Remasculinization, the working-through of demanding affects, the abjection of the woman’ s body (especially the mother’ s) counteracting the symbolic castration and racialization affecting the ethnic masculinity, these are all procedures employed in various texts, which in this chapter include non-fictional, polemical and propaganda literature (manifestoes of “ cultural nationalism” ), while in its second part the attention is devoted to (semi)fictional accounts of masculine emergence in Shawn Wong’ s "Homebase" (1979) and Oscar Zeta Acosta’ s "The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo" (1972) and "The Revolt of the Cockroach People" (1973). Chapter three tries to show how this exclusivity is ruptured by the interventions launched by women writers especially in the 1970s, when for the first time— due to historical factors that I touch on in the chapter— gender figures prominently as one of the pivots for identity building. The writers addressed here work within national literary tradition and an emergent ethnic masculine tradition, but are determined to represent the rise of a new subject, which I term here an « ethnic feminist» . This incongruous creation, given the received generic and cultural norms as they are transmitted through dominant psychoanalytic descriptions of gender (the Oedipus, the devaluation of femininity, the feminine lack) and race/ethnicity (as a non-presence, a fetishistic or phobic object), and reinforced in genres such as life-writing, historical fiction and the Bildungsroman, still manages to come through powerfully in the texts by Toni Morrison ("Sula" [1973]) and Maxine Hong Kingston ("The Woman Warrior" [1976]). In the fourth chapter both these strains resonate, provide a source of available representational options, but also get recoded in what I view as another instance of identity construction in ethnic texts (the 1980s and later). This is what I propose to call the borderlands/contact zones paradigm and is exemplified on the texts by two not-quite-ethnic-nor-national groups, namely, Native Americans and Mexican Americans (Chicanos). While the axes of masculine (cultural-nationalist) identifications and ethnicized gender continue to be operative even here, the focus shifts to a different array of phantasmatic investments and productions. This is notable in the concepts of the borderlands (coming from Anzaldua's unavoidable book in 1987) and contact zones (ML Pratt's concept). Frantz Fanon’ s and Homi Bhabha’ s strong reading models, conjoining psychoanalysis and (post)colonial situation, help us to try and disentangle the stakes for a sense of personhood which emerges and is consolidated against a tangled web of identifications (as primary process underlying identity formation) and desires (as derivative processes in this respect) being activated in the process of the articulation of subaltern identity in these spaces. The novels considered are Sherman Alexie’ s "Reservation Blues" (1996), Rolando Hinojosa’ s "Klail City" (1987) and Denise Chávez’ s "Face of an Angel" (1994). In the final, fifth, chapter, we move into the late 1980s-1990s. It is my contention here that some strands of US ethnic literature, notably Cuban American and Haitian American (interestingly, both deriving from the Caribbean), display a dynamic in their accounts of their minority status in the US nation which can be accounted through structures such as collective memory, informed and transmitted intergenerationally and here transgeographically ; postmemory (Hirsch), engaging the force of a traumatic event to generate a feeling of cross-generational solidarity ; traumatic memory, which is in the Freudian model likened to the mechanism of hysterical memory, thus indicating its compelling impact but also its troubling aspect ; and the possibility to figure historical trauma as analogous to individual, structural, base trauma (Freud, LaCapra, Caruth). Even if this poignant model of the reconstitution of a communal and, consequently, personal identity is largely based on the memory-building strategies, they are by and large underwritten by strong affective structures of pathos, nostalgia and melancholic (unresolved) longing, and are being figured in the text by two exemplary authors in this section (Cuban-American Roberto Fernández and Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat) as shuttling back and forth between enabling structures of narrative reconstruction and working-through, and, on the other hand, the shattering primal scene of trauma, which must constantly be revisited. The novels addressed here are Fernández’ s "Raining Backwards" (1988) and "Holy Radishes!" (1995) and Danticat’ s "Breath, Eyes, Memory" (1994). In the end a short coda is provided as a convenient and perhaps the only permissible way of closing down a discussion on issues that remain very much open and unresolved, not only in the United States, but also in other polyethnic societies.

Izvorni jezik

Znanstvena područja


Projekt / tema
130-0000000-0832 - Konceptualizacija mora i njegova mjesta u kulturalnom imaginariju SAD (Stipe Grgas, )

Filozofski fakultet, Zagreb


Avatar Url Jelena Šesnić (autor)

Citiraj ovu publikaciju

Šesnić, Jelena
From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature, Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2007 (monografija)
Šesnić, J. (2007) From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature. Amsterdam, New York, Rodopi.
@book{book, author = {\v{S}esni\'{c}, J.}, year = {2007}, pages = {285}, keywords = {American literature, ethnicity, cultural nationalism, ethnic feminism, borderlands, contact zone, diaspora, transnationalism, psychoanalysis, transculturation, trauma}, isbn = {978-90-420-2217-1}, title = {From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature}, keyword = {American literature, ethnicity, cultural nationalism, ethnic feminism, borderlands, contact zone, diaspora, transnationalism, psychoanalysis, transculturation, trauma}, publisher = {Rodopi}, publisherplace = {Amsterdam, New York} }