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Reviewed by:
Jeanne Rosier Smith. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. xv + 196 pp.

This critical study examines the trickster as character and trope in selected novels by Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and Toni [End Page 404] Morrison. In Smith’s opening chapter, she defines a “trickster aesthetic.” Though her theoretical apparatus will strike some readers as derivative of the theorists she discusses, Smith argues persuasively that such an aesthetic pervades contemporary American literature by minority authors. In subsequent chapters examining particular novels by this trio of Chinese American, Native American, and African American women writers, Smith intelligently demonstrates how understanding specific embodiments of the trickster aesthetic in their work may lead us to appreciate some mutual aims of contemporary ethnic writers. According to Smith, “the common focus on tricksters in the works of Erdrich, Kingston, and Morrison suggests kindred impulses toward challenging the possibility of a unified [cultural] perspective, disrupting perceived histories of oppression, and creating new narrative forms.” Furthermore, Smith sees a “trickster aesthetic” as fundamental to the personal and cultural survival of ethnic writers during the late twentieth century, owing to the role such an aesthetic plays in the maintenance and expression of communal identity and values through art.

In the work of these writers, Smith contends, an authorially controlled, trickster agenda undermines conventional reading practices, especially those covertly iterating the norms and values of Western “master narratives.” Kingston, Erdrich, and Morrison incorporate trickster tactics at the levels of content, style, and narrative design that foster reader awareness of the verbally constructed basis of culture. This awareness grows as readers’ experiences track those of Kingston’s, Erdrich’s, and Morrison’s narrators, many of whom learn how to listen to stories and deal with inconsistencies in their various messages concerning what is “real” and “true.” Smith shows us how Brave Orchid in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, for example, tells her children stories conveying messages at odds with her own behavior. As a trickster storyteller, Brave Orchid’s apparent aim (replicated in Kingston’s own narration) is to ensure her daughter’s survival by instructing her in the contradictory nature of experience. Smith contends that, like Kingston, Erdrich and Morrison also encourage deconstructive reading strategies in order to expose the underlying assumptions and verbal machinations of colonialist master narrative. Quite rightly, Smith also reminds us that racism and ethnocentrism are not unique to Western peoples; she shows us how all three of these writers expose oppression generated [End Page 405] by and within non-Western cultures, as well as oppression imposed from without. Smith persuades us that these authors’ strategies for disorienting their readers, together with a variety of metafictional elements in their texts, cumulatively produce an experience going beyond mere postmodern disjunction and toward the formation of a communal ethos based on recognition of the unstable nature of the “real.”

The author is insightful about implied reader roles in the novels she examines; for example, when she traces the potential responses of the reader of Tripmaster Monkey, who may be “startled” out of “detachment” into more self-aware, self-critical modes of reading, Smith finds her best critical voice. Her treatment of differences between the two published versions of Love Medicine (1984, 1993) likewise pursues lucrative points, especially her point about how the existence of the two versions invites contemplation of the oral origins of storytelling that print media obscure. By changing her story, Erdrich emphasizes the processual nature of verbal art, according to Smith.

Somewhat irritating by comparison to Smith’s specific analyses of texts, however, are a few perhaps careless lapses into unwarranted generalizations: unqualified declarations of a “western aversion to paradox and disorder,” the dubious assumption that strong communal values are a non-Western trait, and the unquestioned pronouncement of the “‘monolithic, racist views of White America’” (quoted from another critical work) amount to annoying overstatements. Such careless assertions potentially deflect the reader’s attention from the argument at hand. A related, shortsighted observation occurs when Smith implies that Kingston’s and Erdrich’s valorization of outlaw-status is somehow new or unique in American literature. If we shift our focus from...

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pp. 404-407
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