Monkey Kings and Mojo: Postmodern Ethnic Humor in Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor
Lowe, John, MELUS
The postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations -- not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable. The post-modern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by preestablished rules and cannot be judged according to a determinant judgment, by the application of given categories to this text or work. Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating. The artist and the writer there re work without rules and in order to establish the rules for what will have been made.
The same story can be comedy or tragedy, depending on the music.
The search for a postmodern aesthetic has led us into many profitable directions, helping us chart what we might call a "new literary order." Curiously, however, most theorists of this endeavor have ignored some dazzling talents operating in the mode, namely America's brilliant ethnic writers. Not coincidentally, many of these artists have chosen to couch their serious messages in comic forms; this is one of several factors that might have led critics to ignore them. I would like to explore three important postmodern ethnic comedies here, in order to suggest, I hope provocatively, that attentively reading ethnic writers' comic creations might help us to correct some errors in current definitions of postmodernism. I am elsewhere providing close comparative readings of Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing (1986), Gerald Vizenor's Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987), and Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989). Because of limits of space, I will here briefly contrast the nature, goals, and methods of these three comic novels and then concentrate on the types of humor used in the texts, drawing lines of connection between three writers who, not coincidentally, are colleagues at Berkeley. The books listed above came out within the span of three years, and Kingston's, the last in the series, is, I believe, indebted to the achievements of her colleagues, especially Vizenor. At least part of the comic energy of the book stems from Kingston's exhilaration at breaking free from first person narration and monologic narrative patterning, which she had nevertheless used to powerful effect in her earlier books.
Noting links between Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor is not to subtract one iota from the brilliant originality of Tripmaster, surely an undervalued book, or to suggest that the other writers have not in their own turn pillaged the past, the works of other artists, or, indeed, their own earlier work, for this is the very nature of the postmodern project. Kingston's richly textured and uproarious novel succeeds best in its postmodern goals and, in so doing, illustrates what will emerge here as my challenge to Jameson, Lyotard, and other postmodern critics, who have failed to note developments beyond the narrow parameters of their theory in the very texts that one would presume should generate such an apparatus in the first place. I would further suggest that if postmodern theorists had developed their definitions and paradigms with ethnic writers and texts in mind, we would have a more accurate and useful sense of both the way postmodernist writing functions in general and the social functions this new form of writing continues to serve, especially within the ethnic communities of this nation.
What makes Kingston's work stand out among postmodern ethnic writers? It may be that comparatively more virtuosity was called for in Tripmaster Monkey, in that it projects her into the voice and actions of an often offensive, but nevertheless engaging, would-be macho Chinese-American, who has the charm and guile, but also the nastiness, of the proverbial trickster monkey. Amy Ling has asserted, with partial verification by Kingston herself, that Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Tripmaster, is at least partly based on Kingston's real-life antagonist, the writer Frank Chin (152). This problematizes the author's task considerably vis a vis the Reed and Vizenor novels, where we find central figures very like their creators -- in character, style, and tone, if not in deed. However, we also find another link with Reed here, for, as King-Kok Cheung has shrewdly noted, "the literary duel between Chin, a self-styled Chinatown Cowboy' and Kingston, an undisguised feminist, closely parallels the paper war between Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker" (248, n.15).
Although the books are different in these and other myriad ways, Reed, Vizenor, and Kingston are all practicing a kind of mediating mojo (magic) fashioned from their own ethnic backgrounds, but reconfigured with American aspects, which include the contributions of other American ethnic cultures. There seems little doubt that both Vizenor and Kingston are familiar with the African American tradition of signifying and with the strong parallels between the Chinese Monkey King and the Signifying Monkey, so ably discussed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his book by that name. As Gates points out, the Yoruba words for monkey and riddle are virtually the same (16), and Esu-Elegba, the divine avatar of the monkey, is ideally situated to puzzle, occupying as he does the crossroads, with one foot in the heavens and the other on earth. Ethnic writers who don the mask of postmodern trickster commune with the gods of creativity and, like the traditional worldwide figure of the Trickster, operate as intermediaries between the cosmos and mortal men. In so doing, they mimic Plato's similarly bifurcated writer, so dangerous that he must be banished from the Republic, not only because of Plato's fear of aesthetic "madness," but also because of his divided loyalties. Similarly, ethnic American writers must often deal with overt hostility from entrenched social arbiters and their own split allegiance to two discrete and often opposed cultural traditions. Furthermore, ethnic writers almost always honor and mine the oral tradition -- particularly African Americans. Ishmael Reed has noted that this mode "includes techniques like satire, hyperbole, invective, and bawdiness. It's a comic tradition in the same way that the Native American tradition is comic. Gerald Vizenor, a Native American scholar[,] ... says that tragedy is Western" (Watkins 610). All these qualities, of course, have functioned importantly in postmodern fiction in general.
The three works in question exemplify this and proceed from the bifurcated self of the central figures, a situation often mined for laughs. Simultaneously, a kind of echo effect occurs; as double agent himself, the writer shuttles between readers on either side of the cultural divide. When writing as ethnics to an audience largely outside their groups, they necessarily function as guides and translators. In Africa, Esu is the text's interpreter, "the one who translates, who explains, or `who loosens knowledge"' (Gates 9). Reed as author and lan Ball as central character in Reckless Eyeballing play out this philosophical position, which is simultaneously a dilemma and an opportunity. Similarly, in Vizenor and Kingston, Griever and Wittman "loosen" knowledge by the way they shake the established order, frequently through their irreverent humor and by the way in which that humor points to the irreconcilable ambiguities of life, which in their absurdity create Freud's classic humor of juxtaposition of opposites. Our three tricksters make us laugh primarily because, in classic fashion, they go further than merely making us laugh at others; they also create intimacy by laughing at themselves, through self-reflexive humor. Further, and more productively, through their antics, they make us laugh at ourselves, a classic case of trickster's basic mode of expression, direction through indirection.
Part of this double bind's most claustrophobic aspect lies in the opportunity the characters' potential as representative ethnic figures, both singularly and jointly. Since this position can be either positive or negative, negotiating its representation is fraught with both peril and prospect. In all three novels under consideration here, the writers seem intent on breaking out of the prisons of "representation" and "taste" -- that is, the requirement placed on ethnic writers to provide protagonists and situations that accurately reflect the conventionally accepted reality of ethnic identity and culture, be it within or without their particular ethnic community, and the expectation that they will write in the mode of the "classics." Although he seems oblivious of ethnicity in his reflections on postmodernity, Lyotard has adroitly pointed to the centrality of a parallel emphasis in the attack on the avant-garde by neo-conservatives. "Artists and writers must be made to return to the fold of the community; or at least, if the community is deemed to be ailing, they must be given the responsibility of healing it" (4). For Lyotard, however, "If the painter and novelist do not want to be, in their turn, apologists for what exists (and minor ones at that), they must renounce such therapeutic occupations. They must question the rules of the art of painting and narration as learned and received from their predecessors" (6). But what if this "return" is to one's ethnic community? Further, what if the writer seems …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Monkey Kings and Mojo: Postmodern Ethnic Humor in Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor. Contributors: Lowe, John - Author. Journal title: MELUS. Volume: 21. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1996. Page number: 103+. © 2007 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.