Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Literatures between Borders

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Literatures between Borders

Article excerpt

Ethnic American Literature: Comparing Chicano, Jewish, and African American Writing

by Dean J. Franco

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. 219 pages

Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America

by David Cowart

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 249 pages

At the end of John Sayles's film Lone Star (1996), former teenage lovers finally reunite two decades later in spite of family opposition. As an ethnically mixed couple living in a contemporary Texas border town divided by multiple and conflicting legacies, the star-crossed lovers logically assume their families' objections are related to matters of segregation, the xenophobic need to keep races and cultures distinct and separate. The Oedipal-like revelation that ends the film--the lovers are in fact half brother and sister--comes as part of a murder investigation conducted by the hero, who delves into his late father's dubious past as well as the town's racist history. Genealogy is represented in the film not as a historical inquiry into a remote past but as an ongoing criminal investigation that implicates everyone in the present. Lone Star's provocative inquiry into border culture and its competing ethnic legacies and historical moments reflects accurately the current complex landscape of America's strained multiculturalism and diversity. Is it possible to construe a national genealogy that does justice to diversity and the elusive remembered time of the nation configured differently by various and competing groups? Two new studies, Dean J. Franco's Ethnic American Literature and David Cowart's Trailing Clouds take up this question in their analysis of the diverse corpus of contemporary American literary voices and literatures.

Dean J. Franco's study begins with a chapter titled "The Jew Who Got Away," in which he asks the question whether ethnic literature can ever be written without the shadow of a legacy, a past, and a tradition. In particular, he explores how authors such as Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick "resist the totalizing gravity of Holocaust history in America" (30). The concern here is not to weaken the legacy of the Shoah but to challenge a tendency in which "popular US history assimilates the histories of ethnic groups into a single history, often divesting plural histories of their particularity" (31). Franco warns that the imagined homogeneity of ethnic groups repeats older, exclusionary models and contributes to the problem of the "repression of a nation's difference." Once meant to work through problematic legacies of slavery, colonialism, and genocide, remembrance in art and literature has turned into a commodity enterprise, often producing cliched narratives of traumatic histories and easily digestible ethnic identities. Historical distance from an event such as the Holocaust has led, according to Franco, to a Freudian defense mechanism in which "America's nationalist culture has transferred its own cultural problems onto the story of the Holocaust" (32). The key question that arises for literature is its ability to memorialize a traumatic event or legacy without distorting it and making it subservient to dominant narratives of the nation. Can the Holocaust be remembered as a "catastrophic event without redemption" rather than being "overwritten in American culture with the narrative of hope and renewal" (33) in light of the success and sanctuary that Jewish culture found in America? Success narratives of post-World War II Jewish American culture often read like a hybrid of "posttraumatic stress disorder with the Protestant work ethic" (35), recapitulating the promises of the American dream and exhorting other minorities to do likewise. In light of this distortion, writers like Ozick and Roth present narratives that confront the co-optation of memory and critique the "appropriation of Holocaust history by non-survivors" (53) in Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm and Roth's The Ghost Writer, foregrounding the "extreme distancing of the Holocaust in American life through banal and universalizing performance. …

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