Tag: literature

January 4, 2011 / / Outside the Binary

by Latoya Peterson

Cane book cover

Who exactly is Jean Toomer?

Scholars, academics, and American literature buffs know him as the author of Cane, one of the landmark works to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.

And yet, Toomer’s legacy is a bit more complicated than just his work. Back in the 1920s, in spite of segregation, Toomer articulated a vision of multiracial identity that was rejected by the norms of the time. Splitting time between exclusively white and exclusively black environments, Toomer decided that he was neither – he considered himself an American, a mixture of several different races and nationalities. However, he grew increasingly frustrated with the restrictions placed upon him due to his identification with black literature – in later life, he allegedly denied having any “colored blood.” As a result of this, Toomer’s legacy and the meaning of Cane has been left open for wide open for interpretation – and a new release of Cane has done just that, with scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd, asserting that Toomer wasn’t pioneering a new identity – he was trying to pass for white. Read the Post To Be Young, Gifted, and Mixed? Jean Toomer’s Cane and Questions of Identity

September 2, 2010 / / books

by Latoya Peterson

reading

The quest is over, aspiring writers, you can go home. Jonathan Franzen has been crowned the Great American Novelist by Time magazine.

The writer gushes:

In a lot of ways, Freedom looks more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one. The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm. After the literary megafauna of the 1990s — like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.

Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he’s a throwback, practically a Victorian. His characters aren’t jewel thieves or geniuses. They don’t have magical powers, they don’t solve mysteries, and they don’t live in the future. They don’t bite one another, or not more than is strictly plausible. Freedom isn’t about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.

Yet, there were those of us who were not moved.

The anointing of Franzen has sparked a round of what is being termed “Franzenfraude,” with major writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner coining the term after hearing the accolades surrounding Franzen. Picoult commented on Twitter, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

And here is the crux of the argument. It isn’t so much that Franzen is or isn’t a good writer – but rather the question of who represents the American experience, and what critics make that determination.

As Michelle Dean writes:

So let’s look at the phrases that have been used to justify the effusive levels of praise being directed at Franzen. Tanenhaus, for example, says that Franzen’s book was great because it spoke to “our shared millennial life.” Grossman, the Time critic, admires the way Franzen “remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.” Even the Brits agree that Franzen has tapped into some kind of shared experience psyche: the Guardian called The Corrections “a report from the frontline of American culture.”

It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: “What’s this ‘we,’ white man?” Read the Post And”We” Are?: The Quest for the “Great American Novel”

July 9, 2010 / / LGBTQ
August 25, 2009 / / books

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger, originally published at Justine Larbalestier

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose. Read the Post From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color