Imperilled Communities in Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City and Dagoberto Gilb's the Magic of Blood
Kennedy, J. Gerald, Beuka, Robert, Yearbook of English Studies
Proceeding from the notion that short-story sequences construct semblances of 'community' through their interweaving of distinct but related fictional voices, we examine the 'visions of community' offered in these two recent story sequences. Portraying, respectively, the African American inhabitants of Washington, DC, and the dispersed Chicano peoples of the Southwest, Jones's and Gilb's collections depict the tensions experienced by minority groups between assimilationist desires and dreams of ethnic identification and continuity. Ultimately, each collection constructs a vision of community whose values and desires reflect an ironic, supplemental relationship to the national narrative of the United States.
The semblance of community in the short story sequence, its tendency to produce a collective metanarrative through a series of discrete, multivoiced tales, gives this form peculiar relevance to the social transformations of the millennial era. Continuing population shifts and border crossings in a 'polyethnic, diasporic world' (to borrow Frederick Buell's phrase) make the concept of community in its various linkages with multiculturalism, ethnicity, and postmodern nationhood crucial to both cultural theory and to critical readings of contemporary sequences. Many recent collections of stories represent minority peoples inhabiting what Homi K. Bhabha calls the 'unsettling space' between 'the phantasm of rootedness and the memory of dissemination'. If all communities are inherently 'imagined' and socially constructed, as Benedict Anderson has insisted, they nevertheless determine the production and definition of social identity by marking the convergence of shared memories, beliefs, and cultural practices, developed in relation to specific places, landscapes, or homelands. Because story sequences 'construct tenuous fictive communities' through their aggregation of separate yet conjoined narratives, producing at least a simulacrum of composite unity (e pluribus unum), each sequence thus also replicates in microcosm the formation of an imagined national community and the coalescence of its sustaining narrative. Story sequences that emerge as minority discourse consequently have a doubled, paradoxical relationship to the national narrative from and against which they are written, representing community narratives that challenge even as they supplement the dominant discourse of nationhood.
Two recent American story sequences, Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City (1992) and Dagoberto Gilb's The Magic of Blood (1993) illustrate this ironic, supplementary relationship to the national master-narrative, which in the United States idealizes New World settlement ordained by God, heroic revolution against colonial oppression, and establishment of a democratic republic ensuring pursuit of the 'American Dream' of prosperity. These ethnic counter-narratives (both first books by winners of the PEN/ Hemingway Award), present alternate versions of minority life in the United States in the late twentieth century. Without essentializing either African American or Chicano experience, respectively, we can read these texts against each other as articulations of specific histories and cultural identities that differ from each other even as they differ from the 'mainstream' Euro-American narrative of the nation. Each sequence evokes a particular geography and an ambiguous sense of community, one 'located', the other disseminated. Neither text features a recurrent protagonist or interwoven fictive lives (characters from one story encountered briefly in another); both, however, imply commonalities of experience through repetitions of character type, circumstance, and event. In short, both subtly construct from disparate stories an overarching narrative that registers the practices and rituals, the conjunctions and disjunctions, of an ethnic group distinct from the dominant culture. Through the hybrid form of the sequence (between short story and novel), the metanarratives of Jones and Gilb recall the 'strategies of hybridisation' defined by Bhabha: 'They deploy the partial culture from which they emerge to construct visions of community, and versions of historic memory, that give narrative form to the minority positions they occupy: the outside of the inside: the part in the whole.' We seek to elucidate here the 'visions of community' projected by Jones and Gilb as they may be read against the national narrative of American striving and success.
In the fourteen stories that comprise Lost in the City, Jones maps the terrain of African American Washington, DC, situating his narratives precisely in areas (Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest) defined by their compass relation to the 'Washington they put on post cards', the city centre that 'the white people called the federal enclave'. Attentive throughout to sectors and boundaries, to unmarked yet unmistakable racial zones, Jones reminds us that the geographical difference between 'the land of white people' (p. 110) and the neighbourhoods inhabited by his characters physically reflects the centre-margin relationship of dominant and minority cultures. Yet aside from a few sardonic references to racial discrimination, Jones largely ignores the white world and the much-photographed public space that enshrines and monumentalizes the national narrative. Instead he constructs a composite narrative of the African American community that subtly disrupts the 'pedagogical' master-discourse of the majority, not by confronting its ideology of 'liberty and justice for all' and its sanitized version of history, but by inscribing an alternate narrative of metropolitan survival. Through multiple, slice-of-life perspectives, Jones exposes a different view of the nation's capital that tacitly questions the ubiquitous patriotic iconography of the city.
Compared to Gilb's representation of an ongoing Chicano diaspora across the American Southwest, Jones's story sequence portrays a settled, post-diasporic community that includes many folk with Southern roots, presumably descendents of African Americans who flooded into the District from the South during the 1930s. Some characters, such as Woodrow L. Cunningham of 'A New Man', have relatives still living in the South; others, such …
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Publication information: Article title: Imperilled Communities in Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City and Dagoberto Gilb's the Magic of Blood. Contributors: Kennedy, J. Gerald - Author, Beuka, Robert - Author. Journal title: Yearbook of English Studies. Publication date: Annual 2001. Page number: 10. © 2008 Modern Humanities Research Association. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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