Suzan-Lori Park’s “Venus”

March 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm (Multicultural Lit)

This play was very contemporary, and took full advantage of the ability of modern playwrights to experiment with staging, pace and tempo in drama. Its subject matter also necessarily deals with issues of race, gender, and sexuality.  The issue of race follows many of the expected tracks when the subject under discussion is a black woman who is exhibited for a white audience. The issue of slavery is certainly present in the background, as is the issue of sexual relations and sexual attraction between the black and white characters. However, one of the aspects of the race issue that was most interesting to me was the extensive use of chocolate throughout. The Venus character is motivated to perform certain actions throughout the play by being given chocolate, and at several points chocolate is associated strongly with love. However, the associations between chocolate and love and chocolate and Venus must point the reader in the direction of interracial sexual relations, a problematic subject in this text, as the interracial sex taking place has definite overtones of coercion and slavery. The use of chocolate in this play is further complicated by scene 3 “A Brief History of Chocolate.” This scene reminds/informs the reader as a substance originating in the Americas, and one that was associated with religious ritual. This scene seems to me to complicate the way that chcolate is used in the play even further. On a very simplistic level I suppose that one could equate the “primitive” tribes of Africa with the “primitive” tribes of the Americas, but that feels reductionist and overly simple for a playwright who succeeds in bringing up a whole host of other issues in a much more subtle way.

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Teshome Gabriel, Nomadic Aesthetics and Black Independent Cinema

March 2, 2010 at 1:05 pm (Multicultural Lit)

I found many of Gabriel’s arguments about Nomadic culture and black cinema fairly problematic. First, he starts off by conflating all nomadic cultures, and categorizing the contributions of all nomadic cultures in two sentences. While I find his assertion that an aesthetic “without frontiers or boundaries” reductive and problematic, I also like it (396). However, I’m not sure that I actually like the idea that Gabriel is trying to express, and instead I have a sneaking suspicion that what  I like may be instead a romanticized idea of the nomad, created by the power that Gabriel is writing against, the power of Hollywood. Another idea of Gabriel’s that I find simultaneously alluring and problematic is his statement, “In black films there is often the depiction of journeys across space or landscape” (403). Claiming the idea of a “journey” as a space that is occupied by black cinema seems to at least imply the exclusion of other cultures. However, the story of a journey is one that transcends cultures, and is as old as literature itself, with some of our most famous examples of early literature being journey literature (thinking of the Odyssey, or the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer”). I think there is certainly a space within this tradition for black literature and black cinema, and the African-American community might have a unique space within the journey narrative, telling the story of the Middle Passage, but as always, the trick of multiculturalism is inclusion without conflation or degradation.

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David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly

February 22, 2010 at 10:02 am (Multicultural Lit)

I have to start off by saying I loved this play. One of the things that I was very interested in is how relevant the issues and critiques raised by the play still felt, twenty years after its first performance.  I think some of Hwang’s critiques, particularly those involving orientalism seem like old hat, particularly to an academic audience, there are other critiques that are much more subtle that make this play age well, where other plays, particularly issues plays (I’m particularly thinking Angel in America here) show their age at every turn. One of the things that I think make Hwang’s play so ageless is that it doesn’t do a straight reading of anything. Any time you think you might be on solid footing with a topic, there’s a twist and your perspective changes. I think possibly the most interesting thing that Hwang does for me is his critique of what we might call Western denialism. I think even in the late 80’s and the early 90’s Hwang’s use of Said and critique of the orientalist tendancies of western culture would be familiar to a western audience, but no one in the audience wants to admit that they have these feelings. However, I would be willing to bet that same educated, western audience is at least familiar enough with the music of Madame Butterfly that they recognize the famous songs, otherwise the use of the music would lose the majority of the effect. At the point where the music is working in its role in the play, one is forced to admit to an enjoyment of this opera, which on reflection is incredibly Orientalizing and racist.

There is a similar type of critique going on here with gender and sexuality I think. We all like to say that we are open-minded, at least typically in a liberal, academic setting, but we’re all also sucked into our curiousity about the sex lives of these two men. If Song Liling had truely been a women, this story wouldn’t have been half as interesting and sensational, and the focus of the newspaper story that inspired the play would have probably been directed exclusively at the act of espionage, rather than including the details of the sexual affair. This kind of curiosity provides the same kind of realization as the question of race does in the example above. When the reader or viewer realizes that they too are waiting for the details of how a man could have been sleeping with another man for twenty years and never realizing it, we are drawn into an examination of our own feelings about gender and sexuality.

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Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots and Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties

February 12, 2010 at 11:41 am (Multicultural Lit)

These two selections of reading are very interesting in comparison to one another, because they present the reader not so much an “authentic” history of women in the Americas, as two modern strategies for dealing with a legacy of women in the colonial sphere.

Mojica uses a technique that draws on native traditions of story-telling, but also draws on aspects of post-modern and feminist narrative and theater. She has 13 transformations in her play “Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots,” which she links to the 13 yearly lunar cycles, but the way in which she sets up the play, with multiple actors playing different characters, and using the contradictions inherent in that to call relationships into question is also a move that is seen in other feminist and postmodern drama, like Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine.”

Van Kirk on the other hand, is creating an academically engaged history of women in the fur trade. Like Mojica, she is trying to get her readers to think about and understand the role of women in a new way, but the way she goes about it is in a traditional framework of the academic monograph. This means that she feels to the need to engage with and, in some cases, combat the official history of the fur trade that has been written for and about white men. Van Kirk is engaged with the feminist struggle, but not in the activist way, or in the postmodern way that Mojica is. I was actually more interested by Van Kirk’s work, but I think that is probably a relic of my own personal history growing up in the Pacific Northwest with historically inclined parents. I think pairing these works together however, makes them more interesting than either one might have been separately because it shows that our historical past is under consideration and re-evaluation, not just in one way, but in multiple ways.

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Frederick Douglass and the Canon

February 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm (Multicultural Lit)

One of the  questions that occurred to me as I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography this time around, particularly in relation to Michele Wallace’s article on visual culture, modernism and postmodernism, was to wonder why this book is so much a part of the contemporary canon. There are other books that tell similar stories, and that are also assigned in similar contexts (Equiano and Harriet Jacob’s autobiographies both come to mind here), but neither is as pervasive as Douglass, who seems to have become the academic voice of slavery. In some ways I find this troubling, because as Ann pointed out in her post on Garrison’s Preface, Douglass proves his worth by speaking in a way that was impressive to white abolitionists and is still impressive to the academic elite today. I would like to think that this isn’t the only reason Douglass is so widely canonized today, but the only other book that seems to be close to being assigned as much as his is, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography is certainly far less formally refined.

I also wonder if Douglass is so throughly canonized through sheer inertia. He stands for the American slavery experience, so we don’t need to look any further. By including this already safely canonized book in high school and undergraduate curricula, teachers don’t have to risk rocking the boat and reaching outside a predefined idea of what the experience of American slavery is. I would like to think better of us as a culture, but unfortunately, I don’t have any faith that this is true.

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Forgetting the Alamo or Blood Memory by Emma Perez

February 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm (Multicultural Lit)

In her “Introduction” to the “Decolonial Imaginary” Emma Perez identifies two problems with the traditional practices of history. First, that women are typically historicized as adjuncts of men, if they are historicized at all. As Perez points out women of color are rarely included in mainstream forms of history.

She also brings up the issue of valorization of certain types of narrative. “Literature is reduced to or expanded by the “imaginary” while only history is “real” (xvii). This issue of the reality of history, and “imaginariness” of literature reinforces the ghettoization of women. Literature, and novels in particular, are often seen as the province of women, because they are perceived as imaginary, romantic, fluffy, silly, inconsecquential and a whole host of other unflattering adjective.

Taking these two problems together, Perez has a difficult task to tell the history of a chicano woman, particularly a chicano woman who rejects the categories that are made for her by men (heterosexual, homebody, mother, etc.). She tackles this problem in the only way that she can, given the critical framework that she has laid out, by writing a historical narrative or historical fiction.

My question is how does the reader know that this is supposed to be history? Unless the reader is astute (or possibly a grad student) they are unlikely to read the acknowledgements section, in which Perez states that she has revised her novel to make the plot more compelling, a sure sign that this is intended to function as a history. Other than that the reader is given only clues. I think that the title is one clue, with its reference to the dot on the timeline of traditional history, in its invocation of the Alamo. The mainstream historical reference is then undermined by the alternative title “Blood Memory,” a title which invokes the more feminized rhetorical tradition that Perez is going to engage for her novel. However, not a lot of other clues or engagement with mainstream history leap off the page at me. Are there others that I missed? Am I being too literal?

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Mestiz@ scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing, by Damian Baca

January 25, 2010 at 1:08 am (Multicultural Lit)

One of the most interesting things for me about Baca’s book is that it posits the visual image, and systems of visual communication as forms of rhetorical that are as vital and important as the European system of alphabet-based, linguistic oratory. As an art historian, I have always believed in the importance and primacy of the visual image, even in a strongly alphabet-biased culture, but the culture itself tends to denigrate the importance of the image. (Any art historian can tell you that this is true-because they’ve all been asked, “You’re getting your degree in what? And what are you going to do with THAT?”).

My main problem with Baca’s book is that he tries, in some ways like Cornel West and Homi Bhabha to reform the system of teaching writing and rhetoric in this country by participating in the mainstream discourse and ends up demonstrating the very biases that he is protesting against. On page 45, Baca describes four of the leaders of the Pueblo Revolt as “martyred” a word that carries the implication of thousands of years of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism and its large pantheon of saints. He also writes a whole book about the primacy of visual culture for mestiz@ people, without one single picture in the book itself.

I also wondered if I was missing part of the intentional alienation effects that Baca was trying to reproduce from Anzaldua’s text, because I am an art historian. While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, I am familiar with the historical codices that Baca mentions because they form part of the curriculum that I teach in my world art class. I don’t know if I am already doing what Baca wants me to do, because I do try to draw my students attention to how unbalanced the course is between the history of western art and the history of the art of other cultures. I also make a point to discuss issues like repatriation of historical artifacts, the appropriation of history by western cultures (not just Greece, as Baca claims although it is by far the most prevalent), and the uses of artifacts in their culture of origin. Is there something more I can be doing? Is there a point that I am missing?

On an unrelated note, I was also curious about Baca’s claim for Diego Rivera as heir to the mestiz@ tradition (75). To me this is a parallel that doesn’t seem quite warrented.  Many of the other contemporary artists that Baca cites are conciously engaged with this tradition, but Rivera’s work, and that of his wife Frieda Kahlo (who Baca fails to mention), seem to me to be driven by an engagement with Marxism and western culture (possibly even Regionalist art), than it is with a specifically mestiz@ context.

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