- Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction
Since the turn of the century, a new generation of minority writers has come to prominence whose work signals a radical turn to a postrace era in American literature.1 Outlining a paradigm that I term historical fantasy, I argue that in the twenty-first century, the relationship between race and social justice, race and identity, and indeed, race and history requires these writers to invent a new “imaginary” for thinking about the nature of a just society and the role of race in its construction. It also requires the invention of new forms to represent it. In this light, I address the topic of race and narrative theory in two contexts: in relation to the question of literary form and in relation to history. Doing so will allow me to explain the reasons for what I take to be the inauguration of a new stage in the history of the novel by twenty-first-century US ethnic writers.
At the outset, I wish to make one thing clear about my use of the term “postrace”: race and racism, ethnicity and difference are nowhere near extinct in contemporary America. W. E. B. Du Bois’s momentous pronouncement in 1901 that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” could not have been a more accurate assessment of the fate of race during the twentieth century (354).2 Today race remains a central question, but one no longer defined exclusively in shades of black or white, or in the exact manner we once imagined. That is, apart from the election of Barack Obama, one other matter marks the present differently from the racial history of the American past: [End Page 574] race can no longer be considered exclusively in the binary form, black/white, which has traditionally structured racial discourse in the US. If for no other reason than the profoundly shifting racial demographics of early twenty-first-century America, a new racial imaginary is required to account for the persistence of race as a key element of contemporary American social and cultural politics. For these reasons, the term “postrace” does not mean that we are beyond race; the prefix “post” here does not mean a chronological “superseding,” a triumphant posteriority. Rather, the term entails a conceptual shift to the question of what meaning the idea of “race” carries in our own times. The post of postrace is not like the post of post-structuralism; it is more like the post of postcolonial, that is, a term designating not a chronological but a conceptual frame, one that refers to the logic of something having been “shaped as a consequence of” imperialism and racism.
I believe it is worth exploring the aesthetic principles guiding the emergence of a body of literature dealing with this conceptual shift. I thus use “postrace” to refer both to the critical difference between the social and aesthetic conditions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the significance of this difference for the form of fiction in the contemporary American context.3 This is what I mean by “postrace.”
Now, in making my case about form and history in relation to contemporary notions of race, narrative theory, and the novel, I concentrate on racial symbolism and its relation to the ways that life experiences such as migration, diaspora, and the history of economic, social, and legal injustice in the Americas are represented in fiction as it addresses the enigma of race in contemporary America. While the argument can be made with reference to a broad range of texts and authors spanning the contemporary ethnic archive, I will, of necessity, be acutely selective with my choice of examples here, focusing on just two novels, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Both illustrate well the postrace, neo-fantasy, transnational turn in American ethnic fiction and the new aesthetic it is creating to deal with the meaning of race in a time when race supposedly no longer matters. I trust that my comments will...