Academic journal article MELUS

Diamonds within Diamonds within Diamonds: Ethnic Literature and the Fractal Aesthetic

Academic journal article MELUS

Diamonds within Diamonds within Diamonds: Ethnic Literature and the Fractal Aesthetic

Article excerpt

Two questions of central importance to the study of ethnic literature define this particular kind of literature and how it might be read. Both questions exist as inseparable concerns: unless readers have knowledge about what makes literature ethnic, they can easily misunderstand or underrate an ethnic author's work.

In the effort of black critics and authors to establish a black literary criticism, there is much to tell us about defining and reading ethnic children's literature. Henry Louis Gates has said, "`Blackness' is not a material object or an event but a metaphor; it does not have an `essence' as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity. Even the slave narratives offer the text as a world, as a system of signs" (254). For Gates, a "Black Aesthetic" is "measured not by `content,' but by a complex structure of meanings" (254). Quoting Raymond Williams, Gates speaks of a "relation of structure" that "`can show us the organizing principles by which a particular view of the world, and from that the coherence of the social group which maintains it, really operates in consciousness'" (254).

Writers for Adults and Children: A Network of Relations

Toni Morrison has unfolded a great deal about how she creates ethnic literature and why critics need to understand the metaphor of "blackness" she is creating. In 1983, she said:

   Critics of my work have often left something to be desired, in my mind, 
   because they don't always evolve out of the culture, the world, the given 
   quality out of which they write. Other kinds of structures are imposed on 
   my works, and therefore they are either praised or dismissed on the basis 
   of something that I have no interest in whatever, which is writing a novel 
   according to some structure that comes out of a different culture. I am 
   trying very hard to use the characteristics of the art form that I know 
   best, and to succeed or fail on those criteria rather than on some other 
   criteria. (McKay 407) 

Morrison wants critics to know what she meant when she said words like "community" or "ancestor" because, as she explains, "my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the black cosmology" (407). What makes her books "black," she says, is a "deliberate sound" (409) that she is trying to catch, an oral quality that reveals the way black people talk and the "uses to which stories are put in the black community. The stories are constantly being retold, constantly being imagined within a framework" (409).

In 1990, Morrison again called for "the development of a theory of literature that truly accommodates Afro-American literature: one that is based on its culture, its history, and the artistic strategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits" (377). As more critics have studied Morrison's work in terms of her own intentions, a substantial body of criticism has emerged, which focuses on her narrative strategies, an area that has important implications for the study of children's ethnic fiction with its roots in the storytelling tradition. Like many authors of the African diaspora, Morrison expands her canvas with rich cultural--often subtle, metaphorical--references to black history and black oral traditions and multigenerational casts of characters as storytellers. The "network of relations" from which she draws forms an important continuum from adult to child and child to adult, for critical examination.

In all of Morrison's fiction, stories become a way of knowing and of cultural survival for African Americans. Narrative, says Morrison (Book TV) is the "major way we absorb and acquire knowledge and remain intelligent," and her black characters share a cultural history that she illuminates through a variety of ingenious narrative strategies. One of the most important is a story structure, or framework, of contrapuntal narratives: characters tell stories to one another and to themselves, within the larger "main" story, with the narrator moving in and through the characters' words to fill in gaps and add more to the story pattern. …

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