MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June 30-July 1, 2018: June 2018 Recap


[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
June 4: McCarthyism Contexts: The Palmer Raids: A McCarthyism series starts with the WWI raids that foreshadowed McCarthy’s excesses.
June 5: McCarthyism Contexts: Roy Cohn: The series continues with the figure who embodies McCarthyism’s hypocrisies—and something more.
June 6: McCarthyism Contexts: McCarthy’s Lies and Rise: Three telling falsehoods that foreshadowed McCarthy’s public role, as the series rolls on.
June 7: McCarthyism Contexts: Edward R. Murrow: The special report that helped begin McCarthy’s fall, and the response that only hastened it further.
June 8: McCarthyism Contexts: The Crucible and The Front: The series concludes with an allegorical and a literal cultural response to McCarthyism.
June 9-10: McCarthyism Contexts: The Beginning of the End: A special post on the anniversary of Joseph Welch’s famous question about McCarthy’s decency.
June 11: The Supreme Court and Progress: Worcester v. Georgia: For the week of #LovingDay, a Supreme Court series starts with the decision that couldn’t stop a tragedy but did make history.
June 12: The Supreme Court and Progress: Loving v. Virginia: The series continues with two underremembered contexts for the historic 1967 decision.
June 13: The Supreme Court and Progress: United States v. Wong Kim Ark: One positive and one negative side to two historic 1890s decisions, as the series rules on.
June 14: The Supreme Court and Progress: Brown v. Board of Education: The forgotten figures at the heart of one of our most crucial decisions.
June 15: The Supreme Court and Progress: Lawrence v. Texas: The series concludes with two historical contexts for a shockingly recent case.
June 16-17: The Courts and Progress in 2018: A special, now frustratingly relevant weekend post on the courts and progress in our own moment.
June 18: Beach Reads: The Hardy Boys: A summer reading series starts with one of the books that powerfully sparked my young imagination.
June 19: Beach Reads: John Bellairs: The series continues with the author and book that helped push me out of my comfort zone.
June 20: Beach Reads: Trout Fishing in America: A book that greatly expanded my sense of what literature can be and so, as the series reads on.
June 21: Beach Reads: The Kingdom of Matthias: The book that helped open my eyes to a career opportunity and disciplinary path.
June 22: Beach Reads: The Day of the Locust: The series concludes with a book that reminds me of how far I still have to go.
June 23-24: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads: One of my favorite crowd-sourced beach reads of the year, featuring tons of suggestions from fellow BeachReadStudiers—add yours in comments, please!
June 25: Summer Class Readings: “The Tenth of January”: A series following up my summer teaching starts with Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ genre-bending short story.
June 26: Summer Class Readings: “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”: The series continues with Martín Espada’s controversial and crucial poem about work and war.
June 27: Summer Class Readings: “Of the Passing of the First-born”: The most painful, difficult and powerful chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois’s American classic, as the series rolls on.
June 28: Summer Class Readings: Love Medicine: Two complementary roles for the framing chapters of Louise Erdrich’s wonderful short story cycle.
June 29: Summer Class Readings: The Book of Salt: The series concludes with Monique Truong’s wonderful historical novel.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, June 29, 2018

June 29, 2018: Summer Class Readings: The Book of Salt


[This week my two Summer session courses—an FSU grad class on Ethnic American Lit and a MAVA class on the Literature of Work—conclude. So for this week’s series I’ll highlight and analyze some of the texts we read in both courses! Hope your summers are going well!]
On the historical novel that provocatively combines the themes of my two summer classes.
For the last long text in my Ethnic American Literature grad class, I decided to teach for the first time a novel I first read long ago and revisited when its author delivered the opening creative reading at my 2016 NeMLA convention in Hartford: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003). Set in early 20th century Paris, Truong’s historical novel is narrated by the Binh, a gay Vietnamese immigrant who is working as a private chef for Gertude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As I understand it, Binh is an entirely fictional character, while of course Stein and Toklas are very real historical figures, and so Truong’s novel intertwines history and fiction in complex and ambiguous ways. Those blurrings of genre likewise reflect various liminal sides to Binh’s identity, from his cross-cultural story and related questions such as those of language and family/heritage to his private and hidden sexuality and the homosocial and romantic relationships he remembers and narrates. These themes are all both embodied in and allegorized through Binh’s frequent observations and reflections on food and cooking, and particularly the uses and abuses of the titular mineral.
Those culinary observations are more than just a representation of or allegory for other themes or aspects of the novel, however. They’re also central elements of Binh’s professional life and identity, and Truong’s consistent emphasis on those elements make Binh’s profession an equally prominent part of her novel as a whole. That sounds straightforward and non-controversial enough, but to be honest in thinking about the Asian American novels I’ve read (a decent number, if I still have far more to delve into of course) I have to say that there are few that focus in any significant way on the professional identity or work experiences of their protagonists. I’m not saying that readers don’t learn what characters in these novels do for a living, but rather that what they do for a living is almost always a relatively minor detail, one of many character traits but not a central focus or theme of the text. This is particularly true of novels that focus on first or second generation immigrant characters, likely because other themes such as cultural conflict and assimilation are so central to those texts, but also perhaps because professional success can seem like a latter stage for these characters compared to the initial, foundational elements of the immigrant experience.
Of course many immigrants do not have the chance to find personally fulfilling work upon their arrival in a new nation, and many others have to work at jobs or professions far below their level of training and experience in their home country. But novelists are not limited by the general realities of any community, and instead can imagine stories that allow them to push readers toward new perspectives and possibilities. By linking her protagonist’s professional identity and passion so fully to other aspects of his identity and perspective, and indeed by using it to connect him to many other characters and communities in the novel, Truong does just that. She asks her readers to consider Binh’s profession alongside his culture and heritage, his sexuality and secrets, the many facets that contribute to his voice and identity. This choice certainly affects the way we see Binh and his story, and adds a vital layer to the novel that otherwise would be absent or downplayed. But it also has the potential to shape the way we see immigrant stories overall, asking us to link ethnicity and work in intersectional ways that can only create fuller and more nuanced perspectives on the individuals, families, and communities in our own society and culture.
June Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this text? Other readings on ethnicity and work you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

June 28, 2018: Summer Class Readings: Love Medicine


[This week my two Summer session courses—an FSU grad class on Ethnic American Lit and a MAVA class on the Literature of Work—conclude. So for this week’s series I’ll highlight and analyze some of the texts we read in both courses! Hope your summers are going well!]
On two complementary roles of the opening story in a devastating, beautiful short story cycle.
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (originally published in 1984 and revised and expanded in 1993) opens with a complex, multi-part short story, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (note that, like many of the stories/chapters in Erdrich’s book and most short story cycles, “World’s” was initially published separately in the magazine version at that link). “World’s” focuses first on a particular moment, the last day and death of one character, June Kashpaw, as described by a third-person narrator; then its second through fourth sections feature the first-person narration of another character (June’s niece Albertine Johnson) portraying what the aftermath of that moment reveals about the Kashpaw family and Ojibwe (Chippewa) reservation that will be focal points throughout Love Medicine. In all those ways, “World’s” serves as a framing story for the book that follows—but it also serves two other, complex and resonant roles in Erdrich’s text.
For one thing, “World’s” helps us understand the chronological shifts that comprise Erdrich’s structure. While this opening story is set in 1981, roughly the book’s present, the next three stories are set in 1934, the earliest moment on which it will focus; the remainder of the book gradually moves back up to the present, culminating in a group of stories set later in the 80s than “World’s.” There are many ways we might analyze this structural choice, but I would link it to a central thread of “World’s”: Albertine’s return to her reservation home (she is studying nursing at a college in Fargo) and the questions and conversations about family histories and identities that she finds and participates in there. Given that the three 1934 stories are narrated by Albertine’s grandparents Marie and Nector (the first two of the stories) and their peer and fellow family matriarch Lulu (the third story), it’s fair to say that these stories—and thus in a real sense the rest of the book—represent direct responses to such family history questions, opportunities for these individuals to express their identities, relationships, and understandings of the families and communities of which they’re part.
The book’s structure culminates in another four-part story, “Crossing the Water.” Like “World’s,” “Crossing” has plenty to do on its own terms, such as introducing one final first-person narrator (young King “Howard” Kashpaw, a fourth generation character who despite being five years old has plenty to add to the book’s narratives) and culminating the self-discovery arc of another (Lipsha Morrissey, who learns of and meets his father Gerry for the first time). But since Lipsha is June’s son (another fact he has learned in the course of the book and comes to understand fully here), and since he ends the story driving back to his reservation home in a car that the family metonymically associates with June (it was purchased with her life insurance payout), Lipsha and “Crossing” also echo and complement Albertine and “World’s” and their framing roles in Love Medicine. Taken together, these two stories frame the book’s multi-generational family histories through the lens of two of its youngest characters, both separate from the reservation and its Ojibwe community and culture yet still deeply influenced and even inspired by them. I can think of few better arguments for the unique value of a short story cycle than the role that Love Medicine’s individual opening story plays in framing these structural, perspectival, and thematic elements.
Last reading tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this text? Other ethnic American readings you’d highlight?