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Living Borders: Ethnicity in 20th-Century American Literature
Kristie Hamilton, Associate Professor of English


Required Texts (Will be available at Peoples' Books, 2122 E. Locust Street):
Castillo, Ana. So Far From God. Penguin, 1993.
Chin, Frank. Donald Duk. 1991. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. NY: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban: A Novel. NY: Ballantine Press, 1992.
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. NY: Doubleday, 1994.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand.1928.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. NY: Penguin, 1977.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. 1925. NY: Persea Books, 1999.

Course Description

In Dreaming in Cuban, one of Cristina Garcia's characters Celia del Pino writes: "If I was born to live on an island, then I'm grateful for one thing: that the tides rearrange the borders. At least I have the illusion of change, of possibility." (99). In the books we shall read, a group of 20th-century authors "rearrange the borders" of North American culture to make room for the more complicated story their diverse experiences tell. These stories are, by turns, lyrical and grave, magical and humorous, sensual and heartrending.

Our touchstone for the semester will be the theme of border crossings--of passing over borders, of crossroads or contact zones between cultures, neighborhoods, and nations, and of mixings within individuals and communities of ancestry and of ethnic, racial, and national heritages. Among the eight stunning books of fiction we will study, many are rooted in the experience of immigrants crossing national borders (from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Eastern Europe, and China to the United States, and from Japan to Canada) and, more centrally, of the descendents who come of age in the new country. Some stories take place in homelands from which characters have immigrated, some are set in the U.S.; most are mixed. Others though, like Castillo's and Silko's novels, describe communities (Chicano, Native American, respectively) that have stayed put while national boundaries changed or were created around them. Nella Larsen's Quicksand focusses differently on migration and emigration, as a young woman crosses from the American South to Harlem to Denmark and back to the U.S. in search of a place to stop and belong.

Larsen's novel provides an early 20th-century example of the ways the boundary-crossings we will be interested in are not only geographical. Her character Helga's ethnic, racial and national heritage is mixed (African American and Danish), and we will see that her literal crossing of an ocean is an attempt to make sense of a self that is not monolithic but, rather, is a self struggling in everyday life with the effects of what scholars are now calling "cultural hybridity." In fact, all of the other stories we will read revolve around characters whose selfhood is made up of influences from more than one culture and whose ambivalent relation to "Americanization" is central to the stories' plots. Other crucial "borders" the class will explore include generational differences (main characters are often 2nd or 3rd-generation descendents of immigrants) and the symbolic and material social boundaries of race, class, and gender. As we shall see, these often discussed categorizations of identity have different histories within specific cultures and, so, shape and affect people differently.

According to Garcia's character Celia del Pino "To survive is an act of hope" (Dreaming 99). There is a kind of hope to be taken from the collective vitality of the books we will read this semester, for all of them, singly and together, rearrange the borders of what for a long time had been too narrow a way of imagining American identity and culture.

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