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Herald the Day: Calling for a Change in the Landscape of American Fiction

Contributed by Valerie Nyberg

The first time I became aware of the debate concerning the representation and categorization of literary "blackness" and the need for interviewers and readers alike to ascribe the title of "black" to the writer was when I read '''Lorraine Hansberry's''' To Be Young, Gifted and Black as a junior in high school. At the time, I simply took issue with the categorization of Hansberry's "blackness" by labeling her as "a writer who happened to be Negro. " Although I in no way envisioned myself as writer, I was angered by the implications that she was a "good" writer despite the fact that she was also Black. As a Black American, I got the message loud and clear that no matter my subject, the content of my work, or the literary merit, I will always be perceived as a "Black writer" or as they so graciously extended to Lorraine Hansberry, "a writer who happen[s] to be [Black]. "

The need to categorize, label, and identify is born from imperialistic white-male capitalistic patriarchy. In the continued support of its own agenda, capitalist patriarchy works to continuously construct and reinforce the notions of race and sex in order to manufacture a hegemonic discourse that aims to eliminate the unification of antiracist and antisexist activist discourses. Labels like "American minority woman writer," then, function to limit and narrow, not only the writing that takes place, but also the discourse it traffics, and the arena in which its published and read.

Despite the fact that I grew up with the notion that hard work and education were the universal equalizing tools, as I have met more people, I am continuously surprised by their need to classify me as "Black" and as "female. " Although I know and understand that these are the obvious categories to which I belong, I don't accept that these are the only ways by which I can identify myself and find voice. The search for like-minded voices who desire the ability to represent themselves on their own terms has taken me in new directions through literary theory and criticism. Although there is a universal acknowledgement of the degree to which hegemonic discourse has limited minority voices by romanticizing, categorizing, and limiting their ability to situate themselves outside these configurations, I can find few examples that call for a new manipulation of the categories "minority" and "woman" within the realm of fiction.

Having discussed these issues with colleagues of mine, I was encouraged to consider '''Toni Morrison's''' Playing in the Dark. Although I found her work quite promising, I still found that it lacked the emphasis I sought, which frustrated me. Within the preface, Morrison sets up a number of questions about the white-centeredness of American fiction. Specifically, she asks, "What happens to the writely imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing ones own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be 'universal' or race-free?" (xii). Even though I do understand her caution in regards to the consideration of a humanistic approach to readers absent awareness of the "embedded assumptions of racial language" (xii), I have trouble with the notion that the writer "always" consciously writes from a position of race. As such, I refuse to believe that the color of my skin necessitates that I "always" write from that position. Can't a minority writer construct a text that does not come from the self-centeredness of her own race?

Reading further, in the opening page of Morrison's work, she endeavors to "outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project, unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at fortress walls" (3). I take this to mean that she wants to start a new critical theory discourse devoid of the political charge of using it as a call for change. Why? Why does she take this stance? Is it merely because what she's doing is in the vein of planting the seeds of a new literary discourse? Of course, despite the push to revel in the authorial intent from the reader's perspective, I can't really know why she takes this stance or what forces (internal or external) led her to take such a stance. What I can consider is my own point of view as a black female writer who is looked to write from within the current hegemonic literary structure and respond from my own position.

I think that if minority female writers truly want to change the discourse that Morrison advocates examining, there comes a point where they must decide to either accept it as the way things are or choose to oppose it and call for its destruction. I vote for the latter. As I see it, American fiction is colonized to the degree that white writers have the agency to write from racial, cultural, and gender perspectives that arent their own, whereas minority and women writers seem to be pigeonholed into perpetuating the very categories that they are assigned.

The notion of the American fiction canon consisting almost exclusively of white male writers isnt new. However, what is widely unexplored is that within this tradition, texts remain fixed in a seemingly rigid binary of race. From the racial identities of characters to the embedded ideological underpinnings which canonized texts reinforce and reinscribe, they work within the constructs of the larger hegemonic discourse. For example, its not uncommon to see '''Amy Tan's''' Joy Luck Club, Toni Morrison's Beloved or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man taught along side Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. What is uncommon is for minority and/or female writers to transgress the categories of race and gender to construct a text that works outside such constructs. Whenever this is achieved, like in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha or Pearl S. Buck's Good Earth, the writers, typically but not always, are white.

For example, last fall a colleague and I talked about the frustration she encountered when she tried to write fiction. By virtue of the fact that she is half-Vietnamese and she wrote using that perspective, her fellow classmates assumed that the content must have come from her personal experience, therefore questioned her about why she hadn't written her piece as nonfiction. She was shocked and concerned that her positioning of her work from a minority perspective meant that the events were necessarily true ones that she had experienced versus being consciously created constructions. Therefore, it seems that to be a minority writer means that the writer writes about issues of race and ethnicity (and in many instances, class), relying heavily on personal experience, whereas, authors not designated as minorities aren't so readily questioned about the cultural or ethnic origin of their own work. It is assumed that fiction isn't real, and therefore can be separated from the writers own self. Thus, the label minority encapsulates an idea of "the Other" who is finally able to stand up and speak about that position as the other. This same handling and mentality can also apply to women writers; examples include women writers who construct male protagonists, but then publish using their initials rather than their full names (i.e. S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling). Since the power of transgression remains within the hands of white male writers, American fiction recreates its imperialistic structures, which is the reason I see the need for a call for change.

But, its important to reemphasize that Morrison is not calling for change. Instead, she wants to begin a new critical literary discourse that examines "American Africanist" by "investigat[ing] the ways in which nonwhite, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served" (6). However, in creating such a discourse, to a degree Morrison supports the maintenance of the black/white binary. Discourse alone does nothing to "explode and undermine [the fabrication of racism]" (16) which she states she's looking for. Yet in creating such a discourse, she does open up a valuable opportunity to begin discussions on such constructions, but in our politically correct atmosphere, such conversations, even within the classroom, lack the passion and engagement that they could engender.

Two days ago, I sat amongst my colleagues discussing the different responses undergraduate students had to '''Gloria Anzaldua's''' work versus Carole Maso. In both cases (yet in different ways and to different purposes) both writers transgress language borders within their texts. Generally, undergraduates, from entering freshmen to upperclassmen, respond to Anzuldua by criticizing her angry tone, and they complain about the feelings they have of being locked out of her work since much of it is in Spanish. With Maso, students feel that the French is more welcoming and more of a natural part of the fabric of the work. Both writers use language to reconstruct and toy with notions of identity, yet they are perceived differently. Why?

When my colleague asks her class questions such as these, she's always surprised by the lack of passion that follows. Students can use critical theory such as post-colonial theory and cultural studies to look at texts, yet the fear of becoming impassioned and angered and/or of offending others, leads them to couch their thoughts and make statements that are more aimed to please rather than at questioning and examining why these categories exist. Unfortunately, this is a condition that even extends to graduate classrooms, therefore I believe that such occurrences have less to do with pedagogy than with our ability (or lack thereof) to conduct such business. Even as Morrison writes that America has an "absence of real knowledge or open-minded inquiry under the pressures of ideological and imperialistic rationales for subjugation," (8) nowhere in her text does Morrison mention how to overcome these tendencies. In fact, she even as acknowledges that: "[j]ust as the formation of the nation necessitated coded language and purposeful restriction to deal with the racial disingenuousness and moral frailty at its heart, so too did the literature, whose founding characteristics extend into the twentieth century, reproduce the necessity for codes and restrictions" (6). Studying these matters is important because it does fuel awareness, but awareness alone is not enough to create change.

Rather than conceiving of a new perspective to examine texts from the likes of Willa Cather, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom are white, I would rather spend my time and energy creating new literature, written by minorities and/or women absent of the confines of always writing from a specific racial or gender-situated point of view.

Going back to Hansberry, I am struck by the radical tone that her text, To Be Young, Gifted and Black takes. She lived in a time of great social upheaval, and as a result, for me, her text has a sense of purpose and clarity that I have not been able to find elsewhere. For example, in response to Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, an interviewer said to her, "This is not really a Negro play; why, this could be about anybody! Its a play about people! What is your reaction? What do you say?" (To Be Young128). Of course her reaction was to point out that "Negroes are people" (128), emphasizing the humanity which was inherently denied the moment the interviewer implied that Negroes fell somewhere outside the category of people. However, she then goes on to state, "I think people, to the extent we accept them and believe them as who they're supposed to be, to that extent can become everybody. So I would say it is definitively a Negro play before anything else" (128). I found this particularly perplexing because on the one hand she clearly distinguishes her play from "propaganda plays" (128) that represent characters in one-dimensional ways, she still reinscribes such notions by denying the degree of transcendence her characters achieve by calling it a "Negro play" (as though that's all it could be). Yes, the specific situation in the play was one that pertained more to black Americans than other groups at the time, but prejudice and discrimination aren't just related to race, therefore, why doesn't she call for it to be simply called a play?

In opposition to this tendency to adopt and accept the categories the hegemonic discourse provides, Id like instead to create a new strand of literature that is socially and politically aware in its creation of an imaginative reality. Instead of only allowing writers like John Stienbeck to pick up a pen and write a social criticism of the treatment and lifestyle of migrant workers in the depression-stricken California, I want to see more minority writers do the same. As of right now, the more socially aware, politically charged books like Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, Aint I a Woman by '''bell hooks''', and even Morrison's text, Playing in the Dark are written and marketed to audiences who are academic in nature. What would happen if Morrison took her experimental short story "Recitatif" off the shelf and strove to use her talents to write more stories that played with and called into question the categories of race and gender?

As it is right now, the category "American minority woman writers" serves to create separate discourses where, as my mother puts it, "Black women are reading black women's literature in order to see themselves and become empowered because they must live in a society that denigrates them daily. " By working within "blackness," "chicanoness," "asianness" et cetera, these discourse communities remain fractured, thus unable to unite and collectively abolish the structure as it is by creating a new one. In doing so, the coalitions within each racial and gender category are competitive, where one group fights another for admittance into the "mainstream American capitalism" (hooks 149) where such admittance consists of only a few. Instead of continuing to subscribe and re-inscribe these relationships, minority and women writers should work towards creating a heterogeneous hybrid discourse that allows them the ability to cast off the "slave's idea of freedom" (156). By doing so, they can create literature that is not assessed or categorized by the authors race or gender, but is viewed in terms of what the writing achieves outside of the confines of race and gender.

I have come to this idea, not as an angry black female who feels marginalized, but as a writer who sees the landscape of imaginative opportunities that is constrained and limited by being forced to work within a very narrow literary discourse in order to be heard.

Works Cited