Diaspora, Social Protest, and the Unreliable Narrator: Challenging Hierarchies of Race and Class in John Fante's Ask the Dust

By Roszak, Suzanne | Studies in the Novel, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Diaspora, Social Protest, and the Unreliable Narrator: Challenging Hierarchies of Race and Class in John Fante's Ask the Dust


Roszak, Suzanne, Studies in the Novel


Although the work of John Fante remains relatively understudied, with only a few articles published to date about Fante's novel Ask the Dust (1939), (1) the conversation about his fiction has shifted and developed in important respects. Notably, this includes the discussion of Arturo Bandini's Italianness in Ask the Dust, which has gradually given way to discourse about his whiteness and the prejudices that accompany it. If earlier readers were interested in interrogating how Fante's narrator navigates the space between assimilation and cultural identification, (2) more recent critics such as Matthew Elliott have dedicated themselves to examining Bandini's complicity with racist ideology: the ways that he embraces and asserts his own whiteness while essentializing and even denigrating people of color, including individuals from other diasporic communities such as the Filipina/o community and especially the Chicana/o community in 1930s Los Angeles. (3) And indeed, this perspective is more than valid. While Arturo Bandini might loudly proclaim himself to be an outcast incapable of winning true acceptance in an urban society whose vision of white American culture only intermittently includes Italian Americans, Ask the Dust ultimately presents us with a protagonist whose own investment in joining this white society is matched by his disdain for the non-white city residents with whom he is so routinely associated in the eyes of others.

Should we conclude, then, that Ask the Dust itself is ultimately a conservative rather than a subversive text, that it consolidates more than it protests the hold of racist ideology on Depression-era American society? Does the novel itself encourage us to turn a blind eye to the intermittent bigotry of its protagonist? Given that Ask the Dust is widely read as a roman-a-clef (4)--and with good reason given the biographical correspondences between Bandini and Fante, on which Fante himself is known to have commented (5)--we might feel some temptation to assume that Ask the Dust positions Bandini in the role of hero. Certainly, this is the perspective that Charles Bukowski seems to have assumed in identifying so closely with Bandini in the introduction to the 1980 edition of the novel. (6) My contention, however, is different. In this article, I argue that Fante's novel encourages readers to protest white supremacist logic--and, in particular, racist depictions of Chicana/o culture--in the same way that it encourages us to challenge class hierarchy: via negative example. I also argue that to understand how this occurs, we must consider Bandini as a diasporic character struggling and failing to cope with the intersection of his own diasporic trajectory with those of other displaced individuals--most importantly, the Chicana waitress whose ethnic identity Bandini repeatedly insults and essentializes. (7) This is a new approach that previous criticism has not considered in depth.

In colliding Arturo Bandini with Camilla Lopez, Ask the Dust creates a diasporic triangle that connects Italy and Mexico with Bandini and Camilla's shared adopted homeland of the United States. Interestingly, rather than modeling the type of solidarity that we might imagine stemming from such a collision, Ask the Dust instead presents us with a cautionary tale of intersecting diasporas: Fante illustrates what occurs when one diasporic community competes for class standing and acceptance into white "majority culture" rather than resisting claims of both white superiority and socioeconomic elitism. Fante's text is narrated by an often misguided diasporic voice: the voice of a very young man who as often succumbs to classist aspirations and judgments as he resists or battles them, and who as often resorts to stereotyping or bigoted views of other diasporic communities as he denounces such views. Still, Fante shapes Bandini's character in ways that ultimately encourage us to question this example that he sets rather than embracing or even passively observing it. …

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