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  • Where Confusion Is:Transnationalism in the Fiction of Jessie Redmon Fauset
  • Valerie Popp (bio)

It has been fifteen years since Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic introduced a new paradigm for conceptualizing the black diaspora. While Gilroy's work initiated a surge of critical interest in the Caribbean and Latin America, these regions remain on the fringes of literary discourse, particularly the discourse surrounding the Harlem Renaissance. The considerable cultural, economic, and bodily traffic linking Harlem to Europe during the 1920s and '30s continues to be the principal area of focus, and justifiably so, as the lingering notion that the American expatriate movement was a white and largely male phenomenon deserves a sustained challenge.1 From the Copenhagen of Nella Larsen's Quicksand to the specter of wartime France in Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, Renaissance writers, like their white contemporaries, cast the European continent as the place to go when America is "not enough" (Women 98). Unfortunately, the project of reconsidering America's Lost Generation often presents Europe as the only place to go. This Eurocentric vision of black movement is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only does it tend to reify the worn binary of Europe against America, but it also excludes those Renaissance artists who, upon finding the transatlantic model insufficient or inaccessible, choose alternate discursive strategies that feature non-European locales.

I want to suggest that Harlem Renaissance "midwife" Jessie Redmon Fauset is one such artist. Her fiction, (in)famously described by McKay as being "fastidious and precious," may be an unusual point of departure for a discussion of transnational African American literature (qtd. in McDowell 30). Fauset's works are consummate drawing-room dramas, but the critical community has been relatively slow and at times unwilling to recognize their broader significance. Cheryl Wall's retrospective article "Histories and Heresies: Engendering the Harlem Renaissance" discusses this very phenomenon: "When the Harlem Renaissance was rediscovered by historians in the 1970s, [Alain] Locke's vision shaped the formal record of the past. Jessie Fauset merited little more than the equivalent of a footnote" ("Histories" 63). Locke's desire "to offer through art an emancipating vision to America" (qtd. in "Histories" 63) ensured that the bourgeois novel of manners would be overshadowed by the more outré fiction of the period. Yet recent projects have complicated Fauset's abiding reputation as a chronicler of the black middle class—a woman, Wall elsewhere suggests, whose work is "crippled" by domesticity (Women 84). The fruits of the reappraisal are promising: critics are reading her characters as experiments in hybridity, questioning her allegedly unequivocal support for the black bourgeoisie, and bringing the quiet irony in her narratives to the fore. Deborah McDowell's scholarship has been especially instrumental in this regard, for she has argued that Fauset transforms convention into a cunning strategy: "the novel of manners," she writes, can be seen as "a deflecting mask for [Fauset's] more challenging concerns" (qtd. in Wall, Women 66).2

Especially salient here is the growing interest in Fauset's pan-Africanism and its effects upon her visions of nationalism and national identity. Fauset's writing reveals her belief in the possibility of acquiring a transnational "world citizenship" that is anchored in the African American home (Allen 55). This type of citizenship proffers a novel take on expatriation; it requires multiple foreign locations and multiple narrative [End Page 131] strategies, all of which operate in concert to produce a subtle reconfiguration of domesticity. And while Europe may be the most obvious of these locations, we must recognize that Fauset's work cannot be read solely in terms of transatlantic exchange. The project of recuperating marginalized women writers often disturbs sacrosanct geographic borders as well as gendered ones, and the case of Jessie Fauset is no exception.3

Accordingly, I want to bring Fauset's interest in Latin America to bear upon her notion of global citizenship, for Latin America is a small but unusually persistent presence in both her fiction and nonfiction. From the girls who believe Joanna Bye to be "South American" and Tom Mason's mention of South America as a possible place of escape, to the Latin American lineage...


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