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  • Editor’s Introduction: Thick Historical and Cultural Contexts for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literary Texts
  • Martha J. Cutter, Editor (bio)

While most literary works engage with historical frameworks to some degree, multi-ethnic literary texts always seem to be embedded and layered within thick social, cultural, and transnational contexts. I use thick in the sense that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz uses it in his essay, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” (1973); thick description entails comprehending “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which [the ethnographer] must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render” (10). How do authors create thick historical and cultural terrains for multi-ethnic texts—literary environments that both render and remake an assortment of complex conceptual and social structures? And how do we read these complex structures, sometimes superimposed onto each other and knotted together? How can we best apprehend the intricate and dense explicit and inexplicit worlds in which multi-ethnic literary texts are entrenched?

Our issue begins with two essays on a novel that itself seems inextricably knotted within historical, cultural, and transnational frameworks—Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). According to Norman K. Denzin, “thick description ... goes beyond mere fact and surface appearances. It presents detail, context, emotion, and the webs of social relationships that join persons to one another.... It inserts history into experience” (83). Certainly, this is the case with Díaz’s novel, which implants history into experience as well as experience into history. As Jennifer Harford Vargas argues in “Dictating a Zafa: The Power of Narrative Form in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” the novel’s narrative techniques and formal structures tell a thick story about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930–61) and about one family’s intergenerational sufferings [End Page 1] under this regime. However, the novel decenters the dictator in the overall narrative structure, centralizing socially marginalized characters and utilizing “underground storytelling modes”—hearsay, footnotes, and silences—to criticize the repression of information under dictatorship. In so doing, the novel negotiates “between being complicit with and resisting authoritarian discourses and structures of power.” Harford Vargas also argues that storytelling and writing function as a zafa (a release or an escape), as a powerful “counterspell, a transamerican counter-dictatorial act.” Situating this novel within another thick cultural background—that of the emerging genre of dictatorship novels by Latina/os—Harford Vargas argues that authors like Díaz create “a Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary” that resists authoritative modes of generating knowledge through formal and narrative structures.

Rune Graulund’s essay, “Generous Exclusion: Register and Readership in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also assesses Díaz’s novel as a thick cultural work that moves away from dictatorial modes of writing and reading. Graulund argues that the novel’s polyphonic and multilingual discourse defies easy classification: there is no one linguistic register that can crack the code of this text, whether it is Spanish, English, academic jargon, or nerd-speak. The novel also positions a number of different linguistic registers on a level playing field so that they intersect and interact; in so doing, the text achieves a kind of “generous inclusion” by making clear that no one reader’s expertise could allow comprehension of the many esoteric registers that the novel deploys. Rather than asking if Díaz presents an “authentic” voice of the Dominican diaspora, it is therefore “far more useful to ask how his different mutated voices interact [and] where such mutations may lead.” Ultimately, Díaz’s goal is for readers to accept the voice of the other, even if this voice seems baffling or displeasing; the narrative offers a space for different types of discourse and, more importantly, for different readers to clash and perhaps find common ground.

These two essays verify that the attempt to render an intricate historical and linguistic literary domain for the era of the Trujillo regime and its aftermath leads to some remarkable anti-dictatorial narrative strategies...


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pp. 1-7
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