Border Fictions: Globalization, Empire, and Writing at the Boundaries of the United States is a sweeping comparative study of ethnic writing at the northern and southern land boundaries of the US. While interested in fostering larger hemispheric models of textual analysis, Claudia Sadowski-Smith focuses specifically on US borders as cultural geographies and operative metaphors in ethnic fiction. She argues that border cultures negotiate migration, territorial expansion, and changing economic structures of US imperialism to produce varied yet overlapping literary formations. Sadowski-Smith posits, “The transnational nature of borders significantly affects those who reside or travel through these areas, both their views of themselves and their relationship with these locations. At the same time, however, the specific cultural beliefs, histories, and material circumstances of individuals and communities also produce diverse conceptions of border spaces” (3). She examines territorial commonality in seemingly divergent literary traditions to reveal historical and aesthetic connections between various cultural communities.
Border Fictions is attentive to material conditions of globalization while sensitive to local inflections of culturally specific discourses. For example, Sadowski-Smith’s close readings of works by Richard Yañez and Lucrecia Guerrero do not collapse cultural experiences along the 2000-mile US-Mexico border. Instead, she analyzes how developments in global trade and migration (re)produce cultural formations within particular US-Mexican communities. Furthermore, she never fails to realize that the southwest border is also a northern frontier for Mexico. She places twentieth- and twenty-first-century Chicana/o writers in conversation with Mexican-born authors such as Carlos Fuentes and Federico Campbell to highlight a range of borderlands poetics. Her study pluralizes the borderlands in order to locate similar cultural and social concerns between Chicana/o, Mexican, Asian American, and Native American conceptualizations of this boundary.
Sadowski-Smith’s attention to ecological themes in Chicana/o literature, specifically, situates recent border discourses within a larger history of migrant labor and binational trade agreements that have had tremendous environmental consequences. Chapter One, “Chicana/o Writing and [End Page 203] the Mexico-U.S. Border,” positions the ecological substance of contemporary border narratives within the context of NAFTA, which permits US industry to bypass domestic environmental laws in its maquila factories. Sadowski-Smith never reduces her examination of Chicana/o texts to a literature conditioned purely by race or ethnicity. Instead, she argues that ethnicity, neoliberalism, and geography operate in concert with ecological concerns to organize Chicana/o cultural forms. Her analysis of Ito Romo’s El Puente (2000) identifies environmentalism as the book’s organizing principle; in this work the pollution of the Río Grande generates a narrative about fourteen women who ultimately converge to witness the river’s color transformations due to maquila contamination. The recent ecological emphasis in Chicana/o border fiction, Sadowski-Smith argues, reactivates environmental concerns in Chicana/o thought dating back to César Chávez’s United Farm Workers movement, which protested against the threat of pesticide poisoning.
The book’s inventory of the North American ethnic literary archive, ranging from Asian American novels to Latin Canadian drama, maps both the developments and limitations of institutionalized border discourses. Sadowski-Smith historicizes institutional paradigms of ethnic and area studies, then contextualizes her analyses of border writing against their current articulations. Her broad examination gestures to the potential of more comparative intellectual conversations among scholars throughout North America. Sadowski-Smith unapologetically “participates in ongoing efforts to internationalize the humanities through comparative and transdisciplinary dialogue” (16). She does not propose institutional curriculum changes in order to collapse ethnic or area studies. Rather, Border Fictions generates conversations by pointing to shared economic conditions, geographies, and literary discourses under US empire.
Border Fictions anticipates transnational discussions across cultural and institutional borders. However, Sadowski-Smith regrets the expected anxiety regarding her brand of inter-American scholarship, one that is restricted to Anglophone writing, texts translated into English, and literary works produced in certain locations. In response to the latter concern, she attentively looks at...