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Biography 24.3 (2001) 678-680



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Steven V. Hunsaker. Autobiography and National Identity in the Americas. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. 148 pp. ISBN 0-8139-1844-8, $50.00 cloth; ISBN 0-8139-1845-6, $17.50 paper.

This book proves to be a surprisingly good read. I say that because it opens with a meaningful yet dry theoretical discussion of its central points, accompanied by an initial analysis and justification for selecting and discussing the diversity of autobiographical accounts in the book, revolving around the "imagined" community and national identities of the authors.

The discussion of authenticity and imagined nationhood or identity in the writings of Rigoberta Menchú is especially poignant in light of the considerable controversies surrounding I Rigoberta Menchú, the work examined in this book. In defending her assertions, Hunsaker states "Rigoberta Menchú argues that indigenous people cannot forget the violence that created and still sustains Guatemala" (15). He later observes that in this struggle, "Menchú and her people have bravely and creatively sought to resist power through the defense of traditional culture and through the selective incorporation of foreign ideologies" (31). Hunsaker has correctly identified the strength of the work, which others see as its weakness, in its presentation of "traditional culture" along with selected "foreign ideologies."

Even so, it is the mythic, revolutionary phrase "La Montaña es algo más," quoted when discussing Omar Cabeza's work on the Sandinistas in [End Page 678] Nicaragua, that I found so compelling. During the hotly contested 1990 elections, many Sandinistas told us that they would return "a las montañas" if the United States invaded to support the Contras. As the author notes, the power of this mythic construction arises from a successful revolution, in contrast to Pierre Valière's criticism of the urbane life of the Québecois, who are never entirely free to attempt true sociopolitical separation.

Sandwiched between these paragons of revolutionary discourse and cultural critique are discussions of the more nuanced relationships between state, national, and gender identities. Or as Hunsaker puts it, "Reading Campbell, de Jesus, and Chungara together creates a spectrum of reactions to the status of the woman in the nation" (35). Maria Campbell in particular takes on these conflicting issues, by observing in Halfbreed the inherent tensions in the culturally constructed Métis people, further described as a cesspool of "unemployment, social ostracism by Whites, spiritual and physical degradation." Hunsaker observes Campbell's central point, that the "Métis will lack full citizenship as long as their culture marks them as different" (40). The Carolina Maria de Jesus book is also concerned with depths of poverty, whether it is physical hunger in Brazil, or a poverty of meaning, for "when marginalized people die, they lose whatever minimal meaning they might have had in life" (43). Finally, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, describing Bolivian revolutionary struggle in Si me permiten hablar, attacks "plunder capitalism" through means of "national transformation since revolution will liberate the poor from oppression" and, more tellingly, the rich from "false consciousness"--a true Marxist analysis (49-54). Thus, Chungara participates as a "full-fledged citizen" with her people in "mutual dependence, unity and love of nation," which is obviously impossible for Campbell and de Jesus, because the locus of their identity lies in deep struggle with the dominants of their nation-states.

Culture, identity, historical struggle, assimilation, and the peculiar and unanswered situational conflicts arising from immigration and intercultural tensions are what mark Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior in Hunsaker's account. Kingston must decide if "one's home is the place of residence or the place of parental origin," a choice further complicated because "national and cultural identities cannot be exchanged without significant loss" on many levels, resulting in a "deterritorialized national identity" (86- 88). Struggling to reconcile a "Chinese modifier" with an essentially American identity, Kingston invents a "usable past" that as an autobiographer works through relationships of consent, but that others may insist are invalidated through many "relationships of descent" that force a minority writer to serve as "spokesperson" for ethnic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 678-680
Launched on MUSE
2001-06-01
Open Access
No
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