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Karen Christian’s Show and Tell exemplifies an important paradigm shift taking place in American literary studies, one in which “the categories ‘ethnic’ and ‘American’ can no longer be viewed as easily distinguishable entities” (17). Christian begins by posing two crucial questions: “What insights do literary works lend into the complexities of U.S. Latina/o identity? How can Latina/o literature illuminate the processes through which the self is constructed?” (4). Using the work of cultural studies theorists such as Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and Stuart Hall, Christian further addresses similar questions of identity and representation. Importantly, in addition to investigating the ways selected novels attempt to create a dialogue with dominant culture’s representations of Latina/o identity, she also explores how they reflect significant changes in approaches to Latina/o identity within the body of Latina/o literature itself, especially by those voices marginalized inside the culture, that is, writers who align their works more with sexuality than ethnicity or refuse to foreground a readily identifiable sense of Latinidad. What results is a strong work of literary criticism for scholars of twentieth-century American literature generally as well as more specialized critics of U.S. Latina/o literature. The clarity of Christian’s prose combined with a concise introductory overview of [End Page 496] the critical and cultural context from which she writes also make Show and Tell a sound consideration for a survey course on contemporary Latina/o literature, especially since it complicates its subject.
The four principle chapters focus on eight contemporary authors—Sheila Ortiz Taylor, John Rechy, Oscar Hijuelos, Elias Miguel Muñoz, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Christina Garcia, Cecile Pineda, Ana Castillo—and the issues raised by their respective novels: the negotiation of queer subjectivity within existing collective fictions of Latina/o identity; the immigrant generation’s adoption of dominant cultural values and the relative importance of “passing” as American; ethnic consciousness and its impact on conceptualizations of masculinity, nationality, and race; and the dominant culture’s presumption that magical realism is paradigmatic of U.S. Latina/o culture. Drawing on Butler’s deconstructive explorations of gender identity, which posit that any concept of identity as essence is a fabrication and an “illusion of origins,” Christian uses the controlling metaphor of performance to complicate how Latina/o literature often gets treated as a sociological or ethnographic text representative of all Latina/o culture. She sees her chosen group of authors as particularly concerned with narrative attention to gestures, role-playing, appropriation of persona, scripting of events, costuming, and theatricality. Christian thus finds these Latina/o novels useful for their pointed grappling with larger cultural myths of a normative American identity staged as white, middle-class, and heterosexual, with minority groups type-cast in stereotypical roles such as the macho, the Latin lover, and the spiritual grandmother.
Though Christian productively invokes Butler’s ideas, statements such as “all identity is to some extent a drag show” (x–xi) seem problematic without some attention to the critical scholarship on drag performance (by, for example, Kate Davy and Carole-Anne Tyler). The book’s weaker moments stem from Christian’s lack of full attention to genre and theater studies. A more explicit discussion of the particularities of the novel would have greatly bolstered her analysis. For example, she claims, “writing offers a space in which ethnicity can be explored” (151). But doesn’t all art offer such a space? Do Latina/o writers explore identity issues in novels differently than they do in, say, poetry or the short story? Also significantly, given the controlling metaphor of performance, there is virtually no discussion of U.S. Latina/o drama or American dramatic criticism. [End Page 497]
Christian’s critical goal, as she describes it, is to “find adequate ways to talk about ethnic identity without homogenizing or relying on standards of ethnic authenticity” (x). She therefore at the outset queries her readers about what she calls her “outsider status” as a “blue-eyed gringa” professor of Spanish...