Ethnic Literature Essay
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The term “ethnic” when in conjunction with the word “literature” in the academic discourse community of students, often brings out mixed feelings of excitement and dread. On the one hand, students understand that they will be getting away from the canonical American literature – which can equal boring in their eyes; on the other hand, students interpret the term “ethnic literature” to mean distinctive – which can equal confusing or ambiguous – and perhaps at times not relatable because it is outside their scope of experiences.
Perhaps before jumping into why it matters, the term “ethnic literature” should be defined first and because I am still learning how to interpret this term myself, I searched for a suitable one I could agree with. I found one in an article entitled “Assessing Teachers’ Knowledge of Multi-Ethnic Literature”, and the article actually used another source themselves to come up with a workable, layman’s definition. Ethnic literature as defined by D.E. Norton (as the article’s source) is, “Literature about racial or ethnic minority groups that are culturally and socially different from the white Anglo-Saxon majority in the United States, whose largely middle-class values and customs are most represented in American literature” (qtd. in Hager & Thompson 22). I think this definition works well to define what ethnic literature is on a surface level, but the more I dig in, I feel that this idea goes much deeper.
I asked myself, who can write about ethnic literature? Can anyone just pick up a pen so to speak and tell a story about a young Japanese boy, or a Hispanic family? Can an African-American writer write about Hispanic or Chinese people and claim it is ethnic literature? And the answer to myself is no. Why? Because unless that African-American has been submersed in the Hispanic or Japanese culture from the time of childhood, how are they going to capture the very essence of being, thinking, and living day-to-day in that culture? And even if that African-American had, they would still most likely have a different perspective from the average Hispanic or Chinese person because of being different themselves (i.e black) and perhaps are treated different by the community at large which corrupts the “normal” cultural thinking.
At this deeper level I am trying to get at, I find John M. Reilly’s article “Criticism of Ethnic Literature: Seeing the Whole Story” helpful in acquiring this. He states that, “the assertion of ethnicity in literature can be made only through a procedure by which the writer resolves formal problems… what moves from recognition of identity to creation of a strategy for handling reality still is not literature until the individual author sustains her or his ethnic identity through a sequence of formal choices” (4). I am interpreting this to mean that as a reader of this literature, I should see and feel throughout the story (perhaps subtlety) that in some way, the characters mindset (and perhaps actions) in the story differ from my own specifically because of the culture they have grown up in in, which has shaped that character’s thinking.
There are thoughts and feelings – ideas, I don’t understand without further explanation from the author, which is sometimes provided, and sometimes not. An example of this is in Brando Skyhorse’s novel The Madonnas of Echo Park, I find myself wondering what the significance of the jacaranda trees mentioned in different parts of the book. Looking up what they are, it becomes apparent to me as jacaranda trees are native to Central America – roots back to their homeland. The blossoms from the trees fall and are scattered everywhere. Felicia in chapter 2 states that “there’s no way getting away from them” (25). Basically meaning, you cannot escape who you are and where you come from. I would not have understood this had I not explored the history of that tree to uncover the significance in the book.
Another example is in Seventeen Syllables in the story “Seventeen Syllables”. The story about a Japanese family is easy to read, but is hard to connect with as I don’t share the same philosophies about a woman’s place in the Japanese culture. A specific instance in the story was when Mrs. Hayashi, Rosie’s mother received her the first place prize for her stellar Haiku. When the man from the newspaper presented her with a package, Mrs.
Hayashi, stating she knew it was unorthodox, asked if she might open it because she was very curious. (Yamamoto 17). At this point, I am thinking to myself, “I don’t get it – why wouldn’t she open it?” but upon reflection, I considered the patriarchal society that is dominant in this culture, and perhaps it is the wife’s obligation to consult or have the husband open the gift, even if it is not specifically for him.
Yet another example is in Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. To come specifically to the point, I do not understand this idea of why it is understood that Dominican men are supposed to be these “manly men” that women flock to and fall on their knees for. That the sexual appetite along with innate sense of charisma from Dominican men is expected, and when it’s lacking, it doesn’t go unnoticed. “Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands” (24). Why is this idea so indoctrinated in this culture according to the book? This is perhaps something I will never understand, except that it is a part of their culture.
All of these examples are all good and well, but the important question is why is ethnic literature important? What can be gained from reading it? From a most basic viewpoint, it is a highly effective vehicle for helping people understand themselves and the world around them. Thompson and Hager in their article state that, “multi-ethnic literature mirrors and validates the experiences for minority groups and juxtaposes the familiar with the less familiar for mainstream children” (22).
In other words, through reading ethnic literature, readers can find ways to connect with others around them that are different. The article also states that when readers are exposed to divergent thoughts, language patterns, value systems, and different ways of living, that it can open up awareness about others and create compassion and understanding towards them that might not have happened without the literary exposure (23).
To sum it all up, I will never argue against the instruction of ethnic literature in the school setting. In fact, I think teaching it should begin right from the beginning in kindergarten, and perhaps one day we won’t need the designated term “ethnic literature” – perhaps one day it can just be “American Literature” and part of the regular American canon of literature.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
Reilly, John. M. “Criticism of Ethnic Literature: Seeing the Whole Story”. Critical Approaches to Ethnic
Literature. 5.1 (1978): 2-13. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
Skyhorse, Brando. The Madonnas of Echo Park. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.
Thompson, Deborah L. and Jane Meeks Hager. “Assessing Teachers’ Knowledge of Multi-Ethnic
Literature”. Yearbook of the American Reading Forum. 1990. 21-29. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
Yamamoto, Hisaye. Seventeen Syllables. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Print.