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Dean J. Franco’s Ethnic American Literature: Comparing Chicano, Jewish, and African American Writing is well worth reading and, despite some conceptual problems, it provides the reader with significant insights gained by comparing Chicano and Jewish American literatures and by discussing Chicano and Jewish American literary theory smartly and suggestively. Like much of literary criticism, it could do without sentences like these: “The terminology of trauma theory is efficacious and compelling because it grants the aporia of history and the impossibility of self-presence described in poststructuralist theory while bridging those aporias with affective and nonrational encounters with history, through experience” (11). Excuse me? Fortunately, most of the chapters avoid this level of abstraction, but it returns to haunt the book’s conclusion.
The introduction insists that comparative approaches to ethnic literatures must be grounded in historic and cultural specificity, and it also makes clear that, despite its subtitle, the book will not really be about three literatures but two, since it discusses the similarities between Chicano and Jewish American cultures only. The first three chapters examine how “American ethnic writers represent and respond to cultural histories of trauma and loss” (24). In the first of these chapters, Franco shows—in part with reference to trauma studies and to Homi Bhaba’s concepts concerning the role of difference in nationalist discourse—how Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer and Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm grapple with the role that the Holocaust plays in Jewish American identity formation. The book is at its best here, laying out the complexities of this issue as the two novels bravely explore it. The role of trauma in ethnic identity formation is far from unambiguous. Franco elegantly encapsulates one of these ambiguities by arguing that, on the one hand, “[t]raumatic histories have made groups of people . . . ‘other’ to ‘host’ communities” and thus “alterity is integrally a part of the ethnic community’s identity”; on the other hand, “traumatic histories interrupt generational continuity, dividing ethnic communities across political or moral axes” (52).
Whereas the Holocaust provides the touchstone for Franco’s discussion of Roth and Ozick, Chicano/a literature needs a different paradigm to address trauma. Little of Chicano/a history is publicly acknowledged and therefore often needs to be recovered, which is the cultural work that Franco argues Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues is doing. Using the trope of the Archive, a repository of [End Page 432] cultural memory, the chapter explores how Morales is engaged in the work of recovery by illustrating how the history of colonialism has left traces in three related characters in three centuries, the Archive being “the result of and the means for working through traumatic history” (69).
The third chapter argues that a rhetoric of reparations best addresses the ethical claims posed by the trauma Toni Morrison’s Beloved works through. Franco makes his argument with a subtle reading, employing the multi-layered meanings of the term “reparations,” and he convincingly engages some reparation critics while doing so. But why does “reparation” provide a better explanatory framework for some African American literature than for Jewish or Native American literature? Why should a reading of Beloved spring a reader into action more than a reading of other ethnic novels? Franco puts side-by-side three suggestive readings addressing how trauma theory might provide a framework for reading some ethnic American literature, and this could have easily been the topic for his entire book. One wishes he had continued along this line of inquiry and actually compared these texts—and maybe others—to each other explicitly. Instead, he focuses only on Beloved and drops the topic of African American literature after that. Except for Adam Zachary Newton’s Facing Black and Jew, none of the considerable literature dealing with African American and Jewish American relations, such as Robert Philipson’s The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and America (2000), Emily Miller Budick’s Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation (1998), or Laurence Mordekhai Thomas’s Vessels of...