Adventures in Teaching Literature: David Henry Hwang and the Ethnic Debate

In an attempt to bring some of what I do as a teacher (and, in other posts, as an academic) to this blog, I've decided to start these little "Adventures in Teaching Literature" posts to explore my class experiences.  Some of these will focus on what I take from a text (or tried to teach my students to take from it) and others will deal with their responses, which will vary from profound to odd to incorrect-but-still-quite-interesting (I'm not sold on the use of "incorrect" here, though).

Now to today's post:

David Henry Hwang and the Ethnic Debate
If you're not familiar with Hwang's work, that is unfortunate.  While he is not remotely a genre writer, his plays are quite brilliant.  He is perhaps best known for M. Butterfly, which won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play and was based on a true story (I once saw an opera version of the story in San Francisco, which was written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1904 -- that version was
based on another short story of the same name, written by John Luther Long in 1898).  One of Hwang's other fascinating works is "Trying to Find Chinatown," a one-act play set on the streets of New York City.  The only characters of the play are Ronnie (an Asian-American musician who one might describe as having a "chip" on his shoulder) and Benjamin (a white man trying to find his roots in Chinatown).

To say that "Chinatown" (my abbreviation from now on) is about racial or ethnic identity would be like saying  Subway makes sandwiches.  The play's central conflict is precisely over what "ethnic identity" means.  For Ronnie, the problem is two-fold:  on the one hand, he cannot stand it when people assume he knows something about Chinese culture simply because he looks Chinese; on the other hand, he also cannot stand the thought of Benjamin claiming to be Chinese simply because he was raised by Chinese parents (adopted). 

Benjamin, however, takes a different path:  he sees ethnicity not so much in terms of race or its immediate stereotypes, but rather in terms of one's upbringing and self-identification.  For Benjamin, a familial and/or blood connection to the past is all one needs to identify oneself with a group.  I'm oversimplifying their positions here; regardless of how they articulate their messages, neither character can come to an agreement on what it means to be Chinese -- both believe they have a right to claim themselves a part of that group, but for drastically opposite reasons (and often through contradictory logic -- Ronnie's no-race/race argument and Benjamin's academic acquisition of ethnicity).

What "Chinatown" shows us, to take one of the obvious interpretations of the text, is how unstable a term like "ethnicity" can be.  If these two individuals cannot agree on what it means to be "Chinese," then what value does a term like "ethnicity" have, except insofar as it allows us to identify ourselves with a group?  While Hwang would likely not extend this analogy to questions of ethnocentrism and other related isms, "Chinatown" does at least open up the possibility for such considerations.

But I think the text also protects itself from falling into that trap in unique way:  by effectively tearing apart the stereotypes associated with ethnicity and race.  Most of these deconstructions are performed by Ronnie, who loudly proclaims the falsity of the racial assumptions made about him -- "loudly" both in voice and action (he plays jazz on a violin, which subverts cultural assumptions about Asians and music).  But Benjamin explodes stereotypes too by suggesting that Ronnie's rigid assumptions about ethnicity are inadequate to the experience of ethnic identity -- he is raised by Chinese parents, and, thus, cannot separate himself from the experience of being raised "Chinese."  Alone, neither definition holds up, but collected together, they attempt to embody the variations of ethnic identity that must exist in order to account for "real life."

Teaching this text, then, requires a direct engagement with ethnic experience, which is often difficult when such a text is being taught in an introductory course.  Concepts like "ethnicity" and "race" are complicated and need considerable space/time to be fleshed out for students.  Yet, even the basics, as outlined above, can be fruitful for discussion for students in introductory courses; perhaps it can be used as a gateway into learning about ethnic experience, or at least a unique perspective on life.  I certainly hope so.

And on that note, I'm off.  Feel free to leave a comment!

Survey Says: My American Lit Course Reading List

I've finally finished my bloody syllabus for the survey in American lit that I will be teaching this fall.  Since some folks expressed interest in what I will be forcing my little college students to read, I've compiled the list in no certain order here (mostly chronological, though it may be).  The theme of the course is "labor and race," though that is loose theme since the course is a survey, not a special topics.  But you'll notice that the majority of the texts have to do with the working class, the Great Depression, race, Civil Rights, and so on.

Anywho.  Here's the list:
  • (1901) "Old Rogaum and His Theresa" by Theodore Dreiser
  • (1915) "War Brides" by Marion Craig Wentworth
  • (1918) "Mine Eyes Have Seen" by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
  • (1901) Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington (selections)
  • (1926) "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" by Richard Bruce Nugent
  • (1931) Black No More by George Schuyler
  • (1922) "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • (1930) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • (1933) "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West
  • (1935) "The Grave" by Katherine Anne Porter
  • (1939) Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato
  • (1955) "The Artificial Nigger" by Flannery O'Connor
  • (1965) "Going to Meet the Man" by James Baldwin
  • (1977) "Advancing Luna--and Ida B. Wells" by Alice Walker
  • (1990) "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World" by Suzan-Lori Parks
  • (1968) "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth
  • (1972) "When it Changed" by Joanna Russ
  • (1969) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • (1987) Dawn by Octavia Butler
  • (1973) "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Suggestions and thoughts welcome!

Teaching Rambles: Failing “African Literature,” Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola

(This is the first in what I'm calling "Teaching Rambles," which have more to do with random ideas, concerns, and problems I've experience in teaching non-Western or non-traditional literatures in class than actual teaching experiences.  Hopefully that makes sense.)

I should start by saying that there is no such thing as "African Literature."  There is only literature which happens to be written by people who live in countries that reside in the continent of Africa.  I've never bought into the idea that Africa can act as a homogenous identity for the variety of peoples, histories, mythologies, and religions that make up the would-be-nations of that continent (would-be because the national boundaries we know today never existed prior to colonialism).  Yet even when I say "I don't buy into this," I still use phrases like "World literature" or "African literature," despite the implicit othering embodied by them.

Others have said similar things elsewhere (I don't know where, but I'm sure it's happened).  To describe something as "World literature" is to exoticize all things non-Western (even where Western literature happens to exist in the "World" category, such as for those works not written in
English -- France, etc.).  Really, the opposition is lingual.  Since the publishing world is centered in the Anglophone world, and more specifically in the U.S. and U.K., all things not-English and not-Western is "other."  A double othering.

And so when I talk to my students about "African literature," I'm always careful to remind them that there is no such thing as "Africa" the country.  We have to talk about actual countries, and not within the context of their value to the West, but their value to their specific geographic, social, and political "climate."
That's not something Westerners find easy to do.  When talking about Amos Tutuola's The Palm-wine Drinkard, for example, many of us automatically make connections with literary works from the Western literary tradition.  One of my students likened certain scenes in Tutuola's novella to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which is an interesting connection indeed, but one which privileges the Western tradition over the native one.*  But there's something unfair about expecting students, or anyone, to be able to connect with a text from a culture they don't know anything about.  There are, of course, other problems here.

Simon Gikandi, if I recall correctly, had enormous difficulties pulling Westerners out of this worldview, in part because so much of the Western tradition is moralistic, leading us to make moral connections over explicitly literary ones.  Gikandi argued this by way of his own teaching experiences as an "African scholar" in a "Western world."  In reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, an enormously important literary work from a Nigerian writer (he has yet to win a Nobel for his work, though Wole Soyinka, another important Nigerian writer, has), Gikandi's students often focused their attentions on moral questions about the indigenous characters of the novel.  Gikandi was concerned with this moralistic approach because students seemed unable to detach themselves from the legacies of colonialism, showing, in my opinion, that those legacies had rooted themselves in the Western psyche.  The question is not "what is Chinua Achebe up to," but "why is Okonkwo so violent against his wives and why does his culture condone infanticide."
These two problematics bring me back to the start of this post.  While we can expect students (and readers) to disentangle the othering discourse of "African" and "World literature," it is much more difficult to have the same expectations about the moral or literary questions/connections made by Western readers.  Westerners are as human as any other "people," and that means that we will make connections between things in any way we can.  That's how we make sense of the world.  As such, I'm not sure where to put the line between "appropriating connectivity" and "appropriation and devaluation."  Perhaps someone else has some thoughts on that.

I do agree with Gikandi, however, that focusing on moral questions is a kind of infantilization of non-Western traditions.  Why is it that we can read a novel by an American author writing about strangely mundane things (everyday morality on the ground) and miss the moral problematics there, and yet cannot do the same with a Nigerian novel?  Is it because Americas are so utterly removed from the world of colonialism -- the colonial world as it appears to those most recently affected by it -- that everything appears sensationalist in Things Fall Apart?  But then what do we do about The Palm-wine Drinkard, which at no point pretends to be a story about "the world as it is," opting instead for the world of myth, folktale, and, in a certain sense, traditionalism?  Surrealism?  So few of my students are widely read in genre fiction of any stripe, which means their experiences with the unusual (by Western standards) are severely limited.  Tolkien is hardly the "great wonder of fantasy literature" that he once was.  He's become mundane in the Western tradition.

Then again, the same could be said of Tutuola  He's telling us tales relatively familiar to Nigerians.  He simply put his own spin on it.

I think I've rambled enough on this.  The last thing I'll say is that I hope someone challenges me on the use of "Western" and "Non-western" in the comments.  Those terms deserve criticism, because they are wholly inadequate.

What do you think about all of this?  The comments section is all yours.


*I say this knowing that native literary traditions have been irreparably influenced and changed by contact with the West.