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West Indian fiction in the 21st century continues a tradition begun in the late 1990s as the fourth generation of Anglophone Caribbean writing. Though West Indian writing dates back to the early 19th century, West Indian literature began coalescing into a discrete field of study in the 1930s, motivated in large part by the political imperatives of anti-colonialism, political independence, and decolonization. Much of the fiction published in the late 90s to the present continues to adhere to the realist mode of representing Caribbean life—both in the region and in diaspora—as well as thematic engagements with decolonization, cultural nationalism, migration, diaspora, race, class, gender, and sexuality. Historical novels, modernist narratives, coming-of-age stories, and neoslave narratives remain significant features of West Indian fiction, in ways that are geared toward negotiating sovereign realties for individuals and communities that share a history of colonial domination, slavery, indentureship, and more recently, depleted cultural nationalisms.
In the last decade, scholars in the field have begun the work of theorizing the recent fictional output as constituting its own discrete moment in literary development. What is distinct about contemporary writing is the way in which some authors have begun to ironically rework now-familiar forms, themes, and politics of West Indian writing. Some recent West Indian fiction produces atypical, often incomprehensible, and ultimately dissonant conclusions designed to complicate the political priorities of previous generations. This ironic approach typifies 21st-century West Indian fiction’s skepticism about the nation building and identity politics developed in previous waves—in particular, the conflation of identity with sovereignty. At the same time, this fiction doesn’t simply reject earlier modes: one of its defining aesthetic features is a re-inhabitation of the central forms and politics of preceding waves, in order to complicate them.
The central feature of the fourth generation of West Indian fiction, then, is a continued engagement with the region’s history of colonization, slavery, and decolonization that is also marked by critical and self-reflexive engagements with the Caribbean literary tradition.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opened not only the doors of a “double-bolted land” as Herman Melville called Japan in Moby-Dick (1851) but also the possibilities of modern literature. While it is a half-Chinook, half-Scot American called Ranald McDonald who smuggled himself into Japan in 1848 and became the first teacher of English in the country, Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished Native American novelist, completed a postmodern novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 (2003), remixing Moby-Dick with Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Far North, Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and Ranald MacDonald’s Japan: Story of Adventure. After the opening of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901), one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, visited Europe and the United States of America, and decided to Westernize his own country. Being the first translator of Thomas Jefferson’s composed “The Declaration of Independence,” Fukuzawa published a million-selling An Encouragement of Learning (a series of seventeen pamphlets published from 1872 to 1876), in which the author emphasized the significance of sciences and the spirit of independence in the way comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1837) and “The American Scholar” (1841).
While Professor Thomas Sergeant Perry, a great nephew of Commodore Perry, started teaching American literature in 1898 at Keio University, which Fukuzawa established, Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejiro, 1875–1947), a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Matsuo Basho, became famous as a cosmopolitan poet in the United States, receiving good reviews for the first collection of poems all written in English, Seen and Unseen (1896). It is highly plausible that his correspondence with Ezra Pound provided the latter with a key to promoting the poetics of imagism. Following the example of Noguchi, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894–1982), another cosmopolitan poet famous for the translation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, studied English literature and philology at Oxford University and published in 1925 the first volume of poetry Spectrum in London. Thus, Ezra Pound, who once admired Yone Noguchi in the 1910s, came to recommend Nishiwaki as the finalist for the Nobel Literary Prize in 1957.
The year 1955 saw the first postwar climax of transpacific literary history. William Faulkner, a major American modernist and recent laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, paid his first visit to Japan in the summer of 1955, giving a series of seminars in Nagano. Speculating on Japanese culture, he gave an insight into the literary affinity between Japan and the American South in an open letter entitled “To the Youth of Japan.” American as he is, Faulkner shares the memory of lost war with the postwar Japanese, for he came from Mississippi, part of the Deep South, the very defeated nation in the Civil War. Without this memory of lost war, Faulkner could not have developed his apocryphal imagination. Therefore, it is very natural that Faulkner’s visit to Japan invited quite a few major Japanese authors to develop their own apocryphal imagination, ending up with major works published in 1973, the year of Oil Shock, all inspired by Faulkner’s double novel The Wild Palms (1939): Endo Shusaku’s Catholic novel Upon the Dead Sea, Oe Kenzaburo’s nuclear novel The Flood Invades My Soul, and Komatsu Sakyo’s science fiction novel Japan Sinks. Noting that the year of 1973 also saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we could well locate here the genesis of transpacific postmodern literature in the 21st century.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
As with other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Latin America had been problematic since the period of early modernity. From colonial times, their emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a re-description of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a decent entry into the public sphere from which they had previously been excluded. Latin American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th century may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult, but nonetheless sustained and very productive, occupation of new ground. Authorization of their word passes through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the re-description of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and, eventually, imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading in highly illiterate colonial society—especially within the female population—and in 19th century society, in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for the understanding of their writing. Female authorship during the colonial period mainly took the form of religious writing; it was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But female authors were not only nuns; and we can find some examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (witches, travelers). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, but it would eventually become a problem for the women writers of the young independent republics, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication. Women’s relationship to newspapers as readers and/or as authors was definitive in this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—within the Americas and across the Atlantic—without which their writing projects cannot be properly understood. Early 20th century female writers would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. With 1936 as a provisional closing date, marked by the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the preamble to the Second World War, one can think of 20th century literature as one of the forms of the crises of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and can no longer openly exclude women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.