Abstracts 2015

Suzanne Enzerink (Brown)

“‘Praisesong’ for the Americans: Presenting African American Literature at FESTAC ’77”

With a focus on Clarence LeRoy Holte and Paule Marshall’s participation, this paper will explore the tension between external global consumption of African American literature and its internal cleavages as experienced by the authors themselves at Festac. Marshall observed that delegation came unprepared, and turned out a “make-do affair that reflected [its] divisions,” from black nationalists to Afrocentrists to “moderate NAACP types” (157). U.S. publications remained silent on Festac. While Alexis de Veaux suggested in her biography of Audre Lorde that this silence was due to the festival’s “magnitude, [which made it] nearly impossible to delineate beyond themselves” for the authors, I will suggest a different reading (176). The handful of autobiographical passages—indeed, never full narratives—that black American artists have devoted to Festac do move beyond their discrete subjectivities, in that they all share one crucial element: they point toward the disunity or cleaving within the American delegation. While global participants at Festac had a distinct vision of what African American literature should look like and saw it as homogeneous, American authors used Festac as a forum to discuss and contest its definitions.

 

Pippa Eldridge (U of London, Birkbeck)

“The Deterritorialisation of Suburban Space in the immigrant narratives of Philip Roth and Junot Diaz”

‘More immigrants entered America in the 1990s than in any previous decade in American history. […] A majority settled in metropolitan destinations outside the central city.This paper considers the impact of this diversification on the suburban imaginary. Alternately promoted as the embodiment of America’s progressive democracy and national exceptionalism, and derided as a totalitarian machine of conformity, the suburb has long been cemented in the political and literary-critical mind. This paper traces the emergence of immigrant narratives not of subordination, ghettoization or assimilation, but of cosmopolitanism in an increasingly complex metropolitan US. Far from creating a melting pot vision of US identity, Diaz’s Drown (1996) uses the suburbs to renegotiate the relationship between the local and the global, invoking a ‘differentiated, localised postmodernity, embedded in individual experience.

A discussion of Roth’s American Pastoral (1996) problematizes the democratic promise of post-war suburbia, and reveals an ongoing concern with a socially enforced and deeply-ingrained aspirational whiteness. Considering American identity exclusively in terms of American cultural inheritance, Roth’s protagonist rejects his diasporic Jewish origins, grounding his selfhood in the acquisition of suburban territory. Yet this adjustment and assimilation comes at a price; ultimately, Swede is forced to recognise the limited and evasive nature of the pastoral dream. It is my premise, however, that in highlighting the increasing unsustainability of such hegemonic narratives, Roth paves the way for a multifarious re-conceptualisation of space. In Drown, I identify an emergent strand of suburban fiction concerned with the dissolution of an American identity predicated on territorial and racial boundaries or on a set of national ideals, and chart the emergence of a more fluid conception of nationhood as constructed and rebuilt by collective memory. By acknowledging the ‘power and the fictitiousness of the borders and boundaries that separate one community from another. Diaz goes beyond Roth’s deconstruction to create possibilities for new social imaginaries. In these fictions, characters are no longer simply living out the pleasures and traumas of the pursuit of national citizenship, but are striving to connect themselves to a global network.

However, of such fictions, Andrew Dix wonders whether, ‘the nimble geographical and cultural movements of the postcolonial nomad become a paradigm for a deterritorialised neoliberal subjectivity. Taking up this concern, I consider the ways in which these writers strive to avoid simply substituting place-making for more romantic or postmodern notions of movement, fragmentation and diaspora; concepts that might risk re-inscribing dominant colonial discourses associated with suburban development. Whilst emphasising the value of horizontal assimilation, Diaz does not simply refute generational inheritance as a necessarily conservative or regressive force. In blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and magical realism, nation state and evolving world system, both writers accommodate the contexts, histories and desires that reside in an environment long thought to anesthetise its exclusively white, middle-class inhabitants. In these fictions, identity emerges as neither an ontologically-stable interiority, nor an entity that can be ascribed exclusively to a certain terrain or racial origin. Far from foreclosing or ghettoising racial identity through a series of static ascriptions, Diaz represents it as shifting and diversely located.

 

Philip Kadish  (CUNY)

“Stowe, the Mandingo, and Islam:  The Liberian-American Confrontation with Mandingo Power, Transatlantic Scientific Mandingo-Saxonism, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Transformed Ideal of African American Heroism from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dred

“We shall slay [the white slaveholders] utterly from the earth.” So declares Dred, the eponymous African-American hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred,or A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, referring to the slave revolt he is organizing. Convinced by 1856’s outburst of violence against abolitionists that slavery would only be defeated by force of arms, Stowe revises her racial characterization of African-American to allow a hero like Dred. Whereas in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) Stowe adopts the scientific-theological theory of romantic racialism that claimed that all African-Americans were naturally submissive, in Dred Stowe begins parsing African-Americans by tribal ethnicity and attributing Dred’s warrior-like character to his Mandingo ethnicity.

I will argue that a key element of Mandingo-Saxonism in Stowe‘s work, and of that discourse in general, is a racializing of Islamic culture. I will demonstrate the political rhetorical benefits to white supremacists (including, I argue, Stowe) of transforming cultural advantages and disadvantages among African groups into biologically inherent abilities and deficits.

 

Manuel Herrero-Puertas (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“Disability Travels”

How does disability travel? The question poses, in fact, two questions: How do people with physical disabilities circulate around the globe? And how does the concept of disability—the social construction of physical or cognitive impairment—change once we contemplate it synchronically across national jurisdictions and geopolitical axes? In other words, what changes about our knowledge of disability once we study it in motion? And, more importantly, what changes about our theorizations of transnational consciousness and planetary identities once we reconsider them through the lenses of disability? My paper argues that the travelogues of transnational travellers with disabilities invite us—in Paul Giles’s terms—to deterritorialize American literature, to rethink it outside its traditional sites of enunciation and reception, to resituate it within a larger web were unexpected affiliations take place and supra-national communities emerge.

My case study is Kevin Michael Connolly’s Double Take: A Memoir(2009). A professional skier and talented photographer who was born legless, Connolly backpacks around the world using a skateboard while taking pictures of locals staring at his anomalous body. Whereas disability studies scholars have hailed Connolly’s graphic and literary work, I approach it from a transnational perspective. On the one hand,Double Take evinces our need to consider the transnational travels of people with disabilities in order to defamiliarize the notions of passivity, dependence, and precariousness long associated with this collective. On the other, studying Connolly’s disability in motion unlocks new strategies for disarticulating exceptionalist U.S. myths of individual self-reliance. ​

Derek Lee (Pennsylvania State U)

“Hacking High Modernism: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and Rise of the Post-Quantum Novel”

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake strikes the eastern coast of Japan, unleashing hundred-foot tsunamis along the Tōkuku prefecture. Two years later an oceanic gyre carrying debris from the disaster reaches North America, including a “hacked” copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time that not only disguises a young girl’s diary but also serves as a portal through space and time. Hence begins A Tale for the Time Being, which marks a radical departure from Ruth Ozeki’s previous work and the arrival of a new literary form. We normally engage with Ozeki through the contemporary fulcrums of ecocriticism, food politics, and transpacific Asian American fiction, but with A Tale for the Time Being, we locate her in a far older discourse at the heart of literary modernism—the quantum mechanics of human consciousness. The “new physics” of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg in the early decades of the twentieth century transformed modernity’s understanding of reality as well as its writers’ representation of that reality, with works such as To the Lighthouse and Finnegans Wake grappling with concepts like wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and observer effect. If the subtle dialogue between quantum physics and experimental modernism characterizes the first wave of quantum fiction, I would argue that Ozeki’s novel represents the next step in this progression: the “post-quantum” novel, a literary mode that blatantly deploys postmodern literary technique and contemporary physics to situate—and saturate—the reader in quantum space, quantum time, and even a quantum consciousness complicit in the uncertainty of the text. By enacting the nonlinear cycle of history and the entanglement of alternate American and Japanese realities, A Tale for the Time Being essentially recodes Western science and literature through non-Western ontologies like Zen Buddhism. The post-quantum novel consequently spurs a host of intriguing questions that I will explore in my presentation: How does the postmodern reappropriation of modernism change when viewed through the lens of Asian American fiction? How many generic superpositions (modernism, ethnic fiction, metafiction) can a post-quantum novel simultaneously occupy? What does post-quantum fiction signal about our age that quantum fiction does not? And most importantly, what do the discursive networks of European modernism and Japanese theology say about the role of contemporary American fiction in the world?

Stephen Marsh  (Oxford)

“Pynchon, Anarchy, and the Shadow of War in the American Century”

I propose to explore directly ethical and cultural questions of war and its aftermath via a literary and philosophical analysis: of American novelist Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, set around the First World War, and Gravity’s Rainbow, set around the Second, on the one hand, and the phenomenological philosophy of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka on the other. This study will distinguish readings of the character of twentieth century war in the European and American estimations. It will show how the consequences of that understanding of war leads to different structures of responsibility and ethics—especially in the American comprehension of Europe and the world.

In the sixth of the Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History, Patočka describes the twentieth century as being constituted by the very nature of war, arguing that modern political order is built from the pure experience of freedom and of Being for combatants fighting on the front lines, who unify with each other on the front and join in a “solidarity of the shaken.” Pynchon’s novels raise crucial challenges to Patočka’s narrative. Most critically, in both novels—despite their substantial length—the wars that orient character experiences are hardly depicted, with actual combat shown on no more than a page of Against the Day and nowhere in Gravity’s Rainbow, the closest being one character walking through a concentration camp for half a page. Instead, the characters exist in the shadow of the war, motivated in choosing by its demands but not directly in its wake. Thus the wars are each present in the actions of the characters yet manifestly absent, asking—to use a term of Jacques Derrida’s—what to make of politics and responsibility when the war itself becomes a trace. In Gravity’s Rainbow this logic extends further, as the V-2 rocket program expands the range of killing force while eliminating the need for a front entirely.

 

Jesse McCarthy (Princeton)

“Strangers in the Village: James Baldwin and Vincent O. Carter”

“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” James Baldwin declared in one of his most celebrated essays, “Stranger in the Village.” The essay recalls a winter at Loèche-les-bains, Switzerland in 1951, at the family chalet of his Franco-Swiss lover Lucien Happersberger. The time in Switzerland proved a major breakthrough for Baldwin, who famously finished his first novel there, warming himself in that chilly atmosphere to his favorite Bessie Smith records. This story of triumph and self-discovery in an alien landscape is well known. Fifty miles north of Loèche lies the capital city of Bern where another African American writer, Vincent O. Carter, lived and wrote from 1953 to his death in 1983 in total obscurity. He published only two works. The Bern Book published in 1970, and a novel only published posthumously in 2003, but which has received scant notice. The contrasting fate of these two writers forms an ironic coda to Baldwin’s claims about the end of the white world, and it offers a vantage point from which I pose two interrelated questions about the importance of white sites of exile for black writers in the American midcentury. Why was it so essential to Baldwin and Carter to get not only to Paris—but to the more rarified, more absolutely “white” environment of Switzerland? Having succeeded in doing so, what does the consecration of Baldwin, but the erasure of Carter imply about the legibility of black voices in the world that supposedly “is white no longer”? My reading of Baldwin’s essay and Carter’s autobiography, The Bern Book, explores these tensions and underscores how aesthetic choices carried unique and deeply fraught consequences for the black writer abroad at midcentury.

Dan Sinykin (Cornell)

“On the Poetics of Microfinance: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Sexy’ and  ‘Gramin’ Bank”

This paper develops a poetics of microfinance through an attempt to account for Jhumpa Lahiri’s strange mention of the Grameen Bank in the short story “Sexy” from her collection Interpreter of Maladies. I show how Lahiri’s allusion links the intimacy of simulated global space to a central development in contemporary transnational economics. I explore the discourses promulgated by the Grameen Bank and Kiva, a successful non-profit microcredit organization based out of San Francisco, to consider about what makes microfinance sexy right now as a form of charity, and what Lahiri allows us to rethink about what it might be that is sexy about it.

Ellen Song (Duke)

“The Problem of Imagining a New World Order: On Such a Full Sea

In this paper, I argue that the project of contemporary novels is one of re-imagination, of pushing or repositioning the boundaries we associate with the various conceptions that organize our world today – national allegiances, governments, economic systems, identity markers such as race, gender, class – perhaps with the purpose of imagining a new kind of world. Lee’s novel serves as an example of this new type, narrated unconventionally by an unnamed “we” and requiring readers to accept the world of the novel on its own terms, a world in which society is split into three rigidly defined classes of consumers, producers, and political outlaws, each of which is racially diverse. And yet, the novel does not make it easy for us to accept its precise conditions. For example, B-Mor is a production zone settled by the descendants of “New China,” who, over time, have mixed with the darker-skinned “native” inhabitants of the original Baltimore to produce families with names like Reynolds-Wang or Xu-Tidewater. But the author’s hints at racial hierarchies even in B-Mor inevitably harken back to America’s complicated racial past and present: families that obviously look to be of mixed blood (marked by “flat” noses and “Afro-type hair”) inspire gossip and disdain among those closest to being purebloods. As a result, it is impossible to conceive of what B-Mor could look like in the novel without referring to what Baltimore (and the U.S., and China) is today, and accordingly, on a larger level, it is difficult to accept the world of the novel on its own terms.

Maile Speakman (Tulane)

“Gender in the City: Reading Judith Butler in Havana”

In 2010, while conducting ethnographic interviews at the Cuban Institute of the Book in Havana, Cuba, fiction writer and essayist Alberto Garrandés handed me Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and insisted that he had one of the only copies of Butler’s book on the island. Garrandés, whose fiction explores themes of queer identity, eroticism, and sexuality in Havana, cited Butler as a key influence in his work. The intersection of Butler and Garrandés prompts larger questions about the cultural currents that exist between Havana’s authors of queer fiction and scholarship and North American gender theorists. Tracing the connections between habanero authors of queer and feminist literature and their U.S. interlocutors, I historicize the emergence of North American queer theory in Havana and identify how Cuban authors appropriate queer theories that adequately reflect the particular contours of everyday life in Havana.

Adeline Tran (UC Berkeley)

“Transatlantic Aestheticism: Raymond Chandler’s Nostalgia for Fin de Siècle Europe”

In 1882, Oscar Wilde made waves in America when he toured the country giving lectures on art, beauty, and the principles of the Aesthetic Movement. This eleven-month speaking tour was a defining moment in late-nineteenth-century transatlantic literary culture. Wilde’s reputation as a self-styled aesthete continued to fascinate the American public well into the mid-twentieth century, serving as an unlikely source of inspiration to American detective writer Raymond Chandler. Readers of detective fiction who come to Chandler expecting another conventional hardboiled story are frequently surprised by the amount of attention that detective Philip Marlowe pays to art objects, architectural styles, and trends in interior decoration. I examine how Marlowe’s ornate descriptions of art objects and rooms stem from Chandler’s fascination with fin de siècle European decadent novels like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This paper situates Chandler’s hardboiled fiction within the larger context of transatlantic activity by examining how cultural constructions of the aesthete in fin de siècle Europe are mobilized and reconstituted in the American detective novel. I argue that Chandler channels his nostalgia for fin de siècle Europe through his portrayal hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe as a working-class American everyman who (somewhat paradoxically) displays the transatlantic cosmopolitanism of a nineteenth-century European dandy.

Hudson Vincent (Harvard)

“Reading John Davenport: Utopia and Scripture in Colonial America”

One the most interesting examples of this syncretism in early American literature is found in the writings of the Puritan preacher and colonist John Davenport — founder of New Haven Plantation in 1638. Davenport’s letters show that he was in correspondence with some of the leading writers of utopian literature and biblical exegesis during the 17th century in Europe. These influences inspired his sermons, writings, and even his journey across the Atlantic to found his own biblical utopia in America. Drawing on the visual recreations of Old Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon by Juan Bautista Villalpando in 1604 and the text of Johannes Andreae’s Christianopolis (1616), among other sources, we can see how New Haven Plantation was imagined, designed, and built upon the real and imaginary spaces of literary traditions stretching over 2,000 years. John Davenport’s writings offer scholars an opportunity to see not only how utopian and biblical traditions of the Old World saturated the imagination of Puritan colonists in the New World, but also how they constituted the central imagery of what this New World — America — should and would become. Even today, we can see how this imagery continues to develop within another of Davenport’s dreams — a college for the New World. Indeed, Yale University represents the continuation of Davenport’s dream for New Haven — an institution from and for the world.

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