Voices from the American Frontier
The aim of the project launched by edit gilbert is to initiate dialogue and discussion among literary scholars engaged in the study of distinct national and regional literatures. Writing on critical issues related to our own fields of research, we make attempts to find points of intersection between the literatures we read, as well as the critical paradigms specific to our areas of research. The intentionally ambiguous project title „From Periphery, to Center” allows for a variety of interpretations. We may, for instance, see ”periphery” as the primary term. In this case it serves to express our preference for the marginal to the mainstream. It also locates us, Central European academics on the fringes of academic discourse conducted in the ”center” by our colleagues who belong to the cultures they study. There is, however, a possibility to read our project title shifting the stress on ”center.” Such a choice implies a note trustfulness that we are highlighting authors and works not yet in the mainstream, and that our critical views are relevant. The principle for selecting our themes was individual affinity and personal interest. The aim was to offer subjective approaches to particular aspects of the literatures we specialize in, and to draw together critical discourses that so far were marked by their differences. My essays published so far in the three volumes of ”From Periphery, to Center” discuss issues related to American ethnic literatures. They explore the theme of borders and borderlands, inquiring into the relationship between geographical space and ethnic identity.
The essay ”Voices from the Borderlands: Identity and Expression in Native American, Mexican-American and Asian-American Fiction” gives an overview of American ethnic writing since the 1960s, focusing on the redefinition of the term ”frontier” as a critical paradigm. A brief survey of the disciplinary history of American literary studies brings into focus historical and critical narratives claiming that American culture owes its distinctness to the Frontier. Initially elaborated in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, the hypothesis inspired, between the 1920s and 1960s, several nationalistic critical narratives. Such narratives imply that great literary works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – from Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Twain to Salinger, Ginsberg and Kerouac – reflect a redemptive experience of space. On the periphery of the „traditional” Anglo-American literary canon, however, there are works that record experiences in which the Frontier is not the scene of spiritual liberation, but a homeland invaded. Native American, Chicano/a and Asian-American literary expression runs counter to both the Anglo-American expansionist view of the Frontier, and the major ethnic stereotypes of Euro-American culture.
The question of identity is central in recent ethnic fiction. Native American authors N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich problematize racial and cultural hybridity: many of their novels rest on plots of alienation from, and reintegration into the ethnic community. The works of Chicano/a writers Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldúa integrate distinct cultural practices and celebrate multiple loyalties. Asian American authors Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Frank Chin view identity as a construct, one that is consciously assumed and adopted, constantly contested and negotiated. In recent ethnic writing, quests for healing and belonging are rendered by narrative techniques building on strategies of oral storytelling. Such techniques owe less to Modernist predecessors than to traditional, communal story-telling practices. The works of American ethnic authors invite readers to widen their interpretive horizon, inspiring major paradigm shifts in critical discourse as well.
Edit Gilbert invited contributors to the project consider, in their own fields, possible points of intersection with her admittedly subjective narrative on the last decades of Russian writing. Along my discussion of a section of recent American literature several unexpected similarities occurred which challenge the prevalent conception of Russian and American literatures as polar opposites. The most relevant common features are the counterpointing of the experience of empire-building, and the resistance to imposed discursive strategies of hegemony. Even some of the themes are common, such as experiences of internment, pioneer stories and narratives of Russia and America as paradise or hell (P/C 1, 152-53).
The second essay, ”Journeys to the West, or, the Stories of Tricksters: The American Writer and the Spirit of Place” crosses borders between interpretive paradigms, drawing together works of authors with distinct ethnic backgrounds. In a discussion of Edward Dorn's long poem Gunslinger (1968) and Maxine Hong Kingston's novel Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book (1989) I explored whether Anglo-American and ethnic writings can mobilize the same set of critical criteria. My objective was to apply the ”frontier” paradigm to literary works belonging to different canons.
Despite the differences in date of publication, genre, or the authors' ethnicity, these works convey a similar concern with space. Both Dorn and Kingston grasp the experience of marginality, of living on the periphery and being in a subversive dialogue with the center. As early as the 1950s Charles Olson, Ed Dorn's mentor at Black Mountain College, called for a cultural archaeology of space that would be the basis of aesthetic ”production.” Dorn's Gunslinger features characters hovering in the geographical and cultural borderland of the American West, looking for the ever eluding unifying principle of Americanness. During the 1980s, the ”borders school” of criticism represented by Gloria Anzaldúa and David Saldívar started exploring the experience of living on the border, in a state of cultural, ethnic, and racial hybridity, which is also Kingston's concern in Tripmaster Monkey. Olson specified space as the central area of interest for the American author. Ed Dorn shifts his attention to the linguistic distillation of space in clichés of popular culture. The title hero of Gunslinger lives in a continuous border-state, not between reality and fiction, but between different fictions. Kingston's hero, Wittman Ah Sing of Tripmaster Monkey inhabits a racial body and performs a range of identities, from popular American stereotypes of Asians to Chinese mythic characters. Both Gunslinger and Wittman, the „monkey” are both trickster figures and icons of postmodernity, inhabiting a space of in-betweenness and performing roles of mediation.
From among the other national literatures and themes discussed in ”From Periphery, to Center”, I associated the paradigm of the frontier with ”mytho-geographical” conceptions of space in recent Polish literature presented by Lajos Pálfalvi (P/C 2, 148, 150). As for writing in a cultural and linguistic border-position, a possible analogy occurs with „écriture de l'entre-deux” of francophone postcolonial literatures, discussed by Miléna Horváth in connection with Maghreb women writers. Common characteristics are the intercultural situation and the polyphony of writing, as well as the integration of the voice(s) of the Other(s) (P/C 2, 153).
Compared to the previous two, the essay ”'The Unmarked Path': Conceptions of the Afterworld in the Novels of Louise Erdrich” examines a much more specific case of spiritual border-crossing: the representation of the afterworld in recent Native American fiction. I discuss Louise Erdrich's novel sequence that includes, in the chronological order of the plot, Tracks, (1988), The Beet Queen (1986), Love Medicine (1984) and The Bingo Palace (1994). Knowledge and rituals related to death belong to the experiential reality of Ojibwa culture that frames the novels. However, the problematic history of contact with Anglo-Americans has also made death a central metaphor in Native American literary expression.
The essay explores how Louise Erdrich addresses the themes of death and the afterworld in order to recover Ojibwa history and identity. The epistemological foundations of Native American culture do not accommodate European notions of the linear progression of time, or the dichotomy of rationality and irrationality. Thus, in Erdrich's novel sequence history is manifested not as a progression of events, but as recurring cycles of death. Losses of lives in wars, famine or epidemics jeopardize the survival of the community. Communal identity, on the other hand, depends as much on those who are dead as on those who are still alive. Past and present, the living and the dead are interwoven in the texture of a narrative based on traditions of oral storytelling. By applying multiple narrators and narrative perspectives, as well as the discursive strategies of oral the tradition Erdrich succeeds in rendering the complexity of communal experience. In recent Native American literature the European framework of the novel and the English language become vehicles of an essentially different historical experience and identity.
It is precisely the radical cultural otherness at the root of the Native American novel that made it hard to find links with other literary works tackled in the project. The fundamental difference between recorded history and the lived experience of the Native American community may serve as such a link. Edit Gilbert discussed Russian alternatives to the ”official” history of the empire. In both cases, ”unofficial” versions of lived history are conveyed by stories of survival (P/C 2, 14-15). In view of the outburst of literary creativity among those whose share was silence, of their powerful rendering of peripheral experiences, it seems entirely justified to question the validity of the terms ”marginal” and ”mainstream.”
Kiadványunk felsőoktatási segédanyag, mely A Pécs / Sopiane Örökség Kht,a Pro Renovanda Cultura Hungariae Alapítvány „Klebelsberg Kunó Emlékére” Szakalapítványa,valamint A Pécs2010 Programtanács „Európa Kulturális Fővárosa - 2010” cím elérésére kiírt pályázatán megítélt Nívódíj segítségével, a kiadványhoz kötődő konferencia pedig a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Rektora, a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Bölcsészettudományi Karának Dékánja, a Modern Irodalomtörténeti és Irodalomelméleti Tanszék, a magyar szakos levelező képzés és a Liber-Arte Alapítvány által nyújtott támogatásokkal jöhetett csak létre. Segítségükért ezúton is köszönetet mondunk.