Monday, February 26, 2007

Why, Indeed?

Yes, well, given that I have a draft due tomorrow (late, of course), the final version due Thursday evening (even later) and the talk in Sendai on Saturday (how did March 3 come so soon?!), don't expect me to be blogging much this week, either. But what I can do is try to explain what an antebellum (and earlier) U.S. literature specialist is doing participating in a lecture series sponsored by the Tohoku Association for American Studies on "The United States of America: Its Present and Future," talking about "The End of the American Century in Contemporary U.S. Literatures."

Here's the abstract for the talk:

My talk surveys the ways in which nine contemporary American women novelists have represented and reimagined new world slavery, borders, and history. In it, I show how Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones, and Toni Morrison have renavigated Atlantic slavery; how Gloria Anzaldua, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Karen Tei Yamashita have remapped North American borders, and how Maryse Conde, Bharati Mukherjee, and Octavia Butler have rewritten "American" history. At stake in these efforts, I argue, is more than a reconsideration of the American literary canon or the relationships among U.S. literatures. It is, more crucially, a break with the assumptions of the American Century and the first steps toward a transnational, postcolonial history of the Americas, and the world, since Columbus.

First obvious connection to my writing on this blog: Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison.

Second obvious connection: "postcolonial."

Third, less obvious (unless you've checked out my home page), connection: the talks and teaching I've done, conveniently summarized for you on my c.v..

What do these suggest? That in my teaching and research, I am about as familiar with the not-quite-latest U.S. literatures as I am with the not-quite-earliest, if not with the scholarship (much less the bloggership) on the former. That I particularly like to write and teach about the ways in which recent U.S. literatures establish dialogues with older literatures and histories. And that this talk is something of an attempt to convey to a general audience why they should be as interested as I am in the authors and issues I address in it.

Part of the impetus for the talk also comes from my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the American literary canon in Japanese universities, which I addressed a bit in terms of Hawthorne not that many posts ago. From what I've seen, there isn't much interest in teaching American literature after modernism, or, to hedge my bets a bit, that there are far more resources devoted to pre-1960 than post-1960 U.S. literatures. And that even in the post-1960 courses, there's less attention paid to the "multicultural" and "multiethnic" dimensions of contemporary American literary culture in Japan than in the U.S. So part of what I want to accomplish in the talk is get my audience excited about nine fairly recent women novelists who I believe represent a new trend, if not quite a new movement, in American literature today, and do my little part to help expand and rethink the Japanese American literary canon.

But part of the impetus also comes from the ways in which received notions of identity politics (as always-already essentialist, exclusionary, divisive, cooptable, opposed to class politics, etc.) have affected reactions to these and other writers in the U.S. and Japan. That is, I've seen a tendency among some contemporary and twentieth-century Americanists to deploy this negative sense of identity politics to delineate an emerging post-1960 U.S. literary canon that purportedly avoids its traps. Writers like Bellow, DeLillo, Doctorow, Mailer, Nabokov, Pynchon, Roth, and Updike are in for their virtuosity, longevity, ability to contain multitudes in their fiction, and so on, while non-white-male authors' fame rests on their not being white males more than on their talents. According to my colleague Adrienne McCormick, you can see similar moves in poetry criticism in the 1970s through 1990s, as well, particularly criticism that attempts to differentiate theoretical from multicultural/multiethnic poetry and valorize the former. So what I want to try to get at in my talk is where I see the nine non-white, non-male writers I'm focusing on differing from this admittedly rear-guard effort to establish a "traditional" post-1960s U.S. literary canon--and to do so in formal, thematic, and political terms. Ultimately, I want to suggest that the attempt to establish a "traditional" post-1960 U.S. novel canon is itself a kind of identity politics, and that we need a different way of demarcating "periods" in the post-WW II U.S. novel than those that received notions of identity politics tend to provide us with.

This is where my title's invocation of "The End of the American Century" comes in. I want to argue in my talk that we can identify a period in U.S. literatures that runs from, say, 1945-1995, which I'll call "The American Century." And that the novelists I'm focusing on, whose works span roughly 1965 to the present, are in some ways posing an alternative to the novels of the American Century and in other ways part of an emerging period that I at first thought to call "The Atlantic Century" but have since decided not to attempt to give a name to it (with the Black Atlantic and the Asian Pacific being so popular, and no clear sense of how long this new period will last, as it's still ongoing, "Atlantic Century" seemed wrong on many counts). "New World Literature" springs to mind, as well, but it's still not very good. Anyway, my point is not names but what it means to be writing from within the American Century (even if you're writing against its assumptions) and what it means to stop writing from within it.

More on this...later.

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