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Magali Cornier Michael’s New Visions of Community in Contemporary American Fiction insightfully analyzes how contemporary fiction by American women writers mines racial and ethnic conceptions of community. She argues that the novels she examines deploy hybrid visions of community that are particularly useful at the beginning of the twenty-first century as the United States becomes increasingly multicultural. By offering close readings of five novels—The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver, So Far from God by Ana Castillo, and Paradise by Toni Morrison—she unravels the complex interactions of varying concepts of family, kin, coalition, and, most centrally, community. Along with these concepts, she mixes her critique of dominant narratives of the American dream, the nuclear family, and the legacies of the coalitions formed in America during the 1960s and 1970s by various social movements (such as the Civil Rights movement and the New Left, which she claims led to a concept of politically effective coalitions as hierarchical, centralized, and masculinized). The hybrid communities that result from this mixing “revalue caring, nurturing, loving interaction, and support as well as notions of nonhierarchical justice and of the common good,” all of which helps create new spaces of agency that work against oppressive practices that continue to marginalize women and ethnic and racial minorities (3). Michael’s study offers a perceptive analysis of community, a concept that has been the focus of a good deal of criticism of late. Michael provides both a clear outline of the dominant notions of community and a set [End Page 886] of provocative readings of these five novels that add significantly to existing criticism.
The authors Michael analyzes critique both dominant notions of individualism and exclusionary processes that define a community by delineating who cannot belong. Each of Michael’s readings highlights how individual novels reimagine kinship ties and how they depict characters who create agency in a society that continues to devalue the private sphere—a construct that also comes in for much criticism—and the people who operate there. Michael notes that these novels, despite sustained attention to racial and ethnic groups, do not advocate a logic of separatism but instead depict hybrid constructs of family and community that are applicable to a wide readership.
In particular, Michael’s chapter on The Joy Luck Club significantly adds to the body of Tan criticism, much of which deals with the vexed mother/daughter relationships in the novel, by focusing on the Joy Luck Club itself as an “enabling presence” that does different work for the first generation than it does for the second (58). Her reading examines, as all of her readings do, issues of extended kinship ties, activist mothering, and the tensions between individual and community as they impact the possibility for agency and identities in process. The club offers to the women “a larger, more dynamic familial structure that does not depend solely on genealogy and thus offers the flexibility that Chinese immigrants and their descendents require if they are to create communities to sustain their Chinese heritage while living in the United States and within the context of American culture” (69).
Such extended and chosen kinship networks also appear in the other chapters and none of the readings accept or valorize the biological or nuclear family itself as a privileged site of agency. Michael shows how The Joy Luck Club provides a kind of extended family that nonetheless revises Confucian ideals of the family that stress both interdependence and hierachical power. Likewise, she focuses in her other readings on communal groups that, although similar in some ways to families, extend those ties and create political entities that complicate the divide between public and private. While the more detailed discussion of the chapter on Tan serves to illustrate Michael’s methodology, her other readings examine a range of different political collectives. In Castillo’s So Far from God, Michaels points to MOMAS, Mothers of Martyrs and Saints, the group founded...