Blog Post

Race and Narrative Theory in “Postrace” American Fiction

A whole new generation of minority writers has come to prominence whose work signals a radical turn to a "postrace" era in American literature. Commenting in a November 3, 2009 New York Times Op-Ed contribution, Colson Whitehead writes sardonically about our collective "Year of Living Postracially." Like Virginia Woolf ironically identifying the beginning of the modern era "on or about December 1910," Whitehead marks the anniversary of the election of the first black man to the presidency of the United States by proclaiming that "One year ago today, we officially became a postracial society." Whitehead is not alone in his regard of a new "postrace" America. In addition to Whitehead, novelists such as African Americans Zadie Smith, Darieck Scott, and Touré; Asian Americans Karen Tei Yamashita and Sesshu Foster; Native American Sherman Alexie; Latina and Latino writers Marta Acosta, Michelle Serros, Yxta Maya Murray, Salvador Plascencia, and Junot Díaz express similar concerns about a postrace America.   For this generation of writers, born for the most part in the 1960s and ‘70s, the heroic era of the struggle for Civil Rights is not a memory but a matter of history. Outlining a paradigm that I term historical fantasy, I propose in this new work that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the relationship between race and social justice, race and identity, and indeed, race and history requires American writers of color to invent a new “imaginary” for thinking about the nature of a just society and the role of race in its construction.

Focusing on the topic of race and narrative theory in relation to the question of literary form and history allows me to explain why it is the case that twenty-first century US ethnic writers have initiated a new stage in the history of the novel.  I am concerned with understanding how the traditional forms of the ethnic novel, including its realist, protest novel, and Bildungsroman forms, as well as the historical novel, the magical realist, and the postmodern metafictional novel are altered in the context of the contemporary drive to represent a new stage in American race relations. How do these forms adjust the traditional modes of literary realism to represent the experiences of decolonization, modernization, and postmodernity in the Americas from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries?   In my new work, I address the poetics of genre and the generative power of generic hybridity in classic narrative forms in order to show how versions of aesthetics as well as conceptions of history linked to the historical novel and the Bildungsroman in their modern and postmodern versions are being fundamentally reshaped by contemporary American writers of color.  

In making my case for the inauguration of a "postrace" era in American fiction, I wish to make one thing clear about my use of the term “postrace”: race and racism, ethnicity and difference are nowhere near extinct in contemporary America. W. E. B. DuBois’s momentous pronouncement in 1901, that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” could not have been a more accurate assessment of the fate of race during the twentieth century. In the early twenty-first century, the color line remains a central problem of American modernity, but one no longer defined exclusively in shades of black or white, nor in the exact manner DuBois imagined. I believe it is necessary to explore the aesthetic principles guiding the emergence of a body of literature dealing with, to paraphrase DuBois, "the strange meaning of race in the dawning of the twenty-first century." In making my case about Form and History in relation to changing notions of race, narrative theory, and the novel I think that it is imperative to concentrate on racial symbolism and its relation to the ways that life experiences such as migration, diaspora, and the history of economic, social, and legal injustice in the Americas are represented in fiction. Focusing on the writers I referred to above, with special attention to Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), I trust that my work will suggest possibilities for richer and larger conjectures about race, narrative theory, and the form of the novel in postrace America. These and other “postrace” authors of color illustrate the postrace, neo-fantasy, transnational turn in American ethnic fiction and the new aesthetic it is creating to deal with the meaning of race in our supposedly postrace era.