In its broadest sense, my scholarship is characterized by my sustained effort to listen for submerged voices, to unearth the subterranean experiences of marginalized and silenced figures. The primary focus of my current research is the exploration of identity formation and contestation in twentieth century multiethnic American fiction. The projects I describe here explore literary representations of fraught and fragmented identities—racial, communal, familial, civic, and national. My approach combines methodologies from literary and cultural studies, law, and racial formation and critical race theories.
My dissertation, “Contested Identities: Racial Ambiguity, Indeterminacy and Law in the American Novel, 1900-1942,” explores why Charles W. Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner create characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable, and why they intentionally position these figures in relation to the law. Critics tend to simplify racial indeterminacy in these texts by treating it as synonymous with racial “mixture;” my project advances and complicates the conversation by underscoring the uses of indeterminacy. The characters treated in this study are not essentially “black” individuals who pass for “white;” they are racially indeterminate characters who are reductively defined as “black” by representatives of law and through narrative representations of the legal discourse on race. Racial indeterminacy is rendered invisible by formal legal discourse; Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner explore and exploit indeterminacy in their novels by charting the lives of individuals whose identities are un-reconciled and un-reconcilable in legal and cultural discourses. In doing so, they each expose the rhetorical boundaries of law, boundaries that are designed to eliminate ambiguity, to establish authority, and to define knowledge.
Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner not only depict the shaping power of turn-of-the-century legal discourse on race; they also expose the gaps, silences, and ruptures inherent in this structure by producing a body of literature that represents multiple and conflicting iterations of identities. In doing so, they each reveal the ways in which the law operates as a controlling discourse that covers over (but cannot eradicate) the void at the center of each narrative, a void that specifically concerns racial identity. Critics tend to ignore or disregard this void, instead reading works by early twentieth century writers through the reductive lens of the racial binary put forth by the law. In Contested Identities, I push the critical conversation beyond the current limitations implicit in this binary, and my project remedies critical erasures of indeterminacy in contemporary scholarship. This work has been positively received: I won the Faulkner Paper Prize in 2013; my article “Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case” appeared in African American Review where it won Honorable Mention for the Joe Weixlmann Prize (2015). William Faulkner’s work continues to inspire me, and I currently have an article under consideration with The Faulkner Journal that explores sexual intimacy, racialization, intersectional and intersubjective identity formations in Light in August.
As I prepare this manuscript for publication, I have begun a second project dealing with portrayals of what I term “para-legal” actions in ethnic American novels as forces that can both establish and undo individual and communal identities. In this project, I am interested in ethnic American writers who explore breaches of law outside formal legal processes, and the ways that these actions help to create alternative systems of justice and alternative ways of being. Specifically, the project explores internment and the potential for reintegration in John Okada’s No No Boy (1957); murder, incarceration and restoration in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968); communal forms of justice and the enforcement of social mores in Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1999); and vigilantism in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (2012). The characters in my study identify with disparate social groups as veterans, immigrants, citizens, and outlaws; their identities are fragmented, and they seek unified selfhood and integration into society. At issue in my project are the fraught relationships between individual characters and the communities in which they seek recognition, membership, and citizenship.
I presented a section of this work at the New England Modern Language Association conference: my paper, “Synthesizing Justice in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House,” analyzes the interconnections between extra-legal, tribal, state, and national legal processes. On the surface of things, the novel is both detective story and bildungsroman, charting a teenage boy’s attempt to solve a horrific crime. Joe Coutts is barely thirteen when his mother is viciously attacked and raped by an unknown assailant. Significantly, the attack occurs in a ceremonial structure—the Round House—which was built in a place where three classes of land meet: tribal trust, state, and fee. The Round House’s legal liminality is intentional: built at a time when Anishinabe religious rituals were outlawed, its particular location enabled people to worship there freely. As Joe comes to understand, where the crime was committed—on state or tribal land—and who committed it—an Indian or a non-Indian—will not change the “facts” of the case, but they will inevitably change the way that justice may be sought. Seeing the failures of state government, local authorities, tribal police and the tribal judge (his own father), Joe takes it upon himself to enact justice. My paper charts the emergence of alternative forms of justice, and also explores their limitations. I am currently preparing an article-length version of this work for submission to American Indian Quarterly.
In addition, I am working on a project that explores how contemporary African American novelists Paul Beatty, Mat Johnson, Percival Everett, and Colson Whitehead expose the ways that “race” operates in American political institutions, social practices, and cultural discourses. These writers explore examples of legally sanctioned racism through the lenses of satire and humor. As I demonstrate, satire becomes a powerful means for undermining the legal discourse on race. Today, African American writers are pushing beyond the cynicism that has historically accompanied racial satire. This body of work challenges us to embrace alternative narratives of empowerment. My work on this project so far has been positively received at the American Literature Association’s annual conference. A second section of it will be presented at the Center for Mark Twain Studies in May 2018 during my tenure as a scholar-in-residence participating in their annual “Trouble Begins” lecture series.
The “Trouble Begins” project explores how satire can be used to expose the ways that “race” operates in American law, social practices, and cultural discourses. I focus on two American novels: Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (1894) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015). Both novels demonstrate the ridiculousness of adhering to reductive practices of defining race. In this paper, I explicate Twain’s satiric treatment of blood quantum theory, and Beatty’s treatment of the concept of post-racialism in the de facto segregated southern California town of Dickens. Twain demonstrates the conflict between legal and social racial identity practices; similarly, Beatty dramatizes the conflict between contemporary racial identity politics and the concept of post-racialism. These writers encourage us to ask ourselves serious questions: How do we forge meaningful connections? What are the possibilities for common identity and solidarity in a society that tries so hard to be post-racial, and fails at it so ingloriously? Both writers challenge us to recognize our reliance on racist structures to define our identities, create our communities, and order the worlds we inhabit. As Beatty and Twain demonstrate, we cannot escape these fundamentally racist legal and social structures until we have created other options for defining the self.
Much of the day-to-day work we call “research”—reading, contemplating, drafting, and revising—is done in isolation; but I believe our scholarship is at its best when it is deeply engaged not only with the critical conversations we choose to enter, but also with the world around us. My own work is inspired by the belief that careful reading, mindful reflection, engaged writing and critical thinking are fundamental practices of active citizenship. I strive to realize this ideal in my teaching, encouraging students to cultivate habits of mind that enable them to challenge their ideas and assumptions both within and beyond the classroom. This is the vision that motivates my scholarship and my pedagogy: the conviction that higher education has the power to lay the groundwork for a more just society. This ideal, I believe, is the essence of what I would bring to your program as a scholar and a teacher.