- Activism and the American Novel: Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of Color by Channette Romero
Among the many “posts-“ that characterize our present age, “postsecular” is one of the most interesting and contentious. If the motivating idea of secularism is that religion be relegated to the private sphere, and if its foundational faith is in the transformative power of reason beyond the boundaries of belief, secularism is a god that has failed. As Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen point out in their work, The American University in a Postsecular Age, the return of religion is primarily a renewal of academic attention. Religion never went away. Not even in the 1960s, when Time magazine proclaimed the Death of God, or in the decades following when students ceased praying in public schools. Instead, we recognize that religions remain vital forces to the vast majority of human beings and the cultures they create, however diverse their manifestation for good and for ill.
While we have yet to find a critical language adequate to this realization, the stubborn fact of religion has proved difficult to wish away. Indeed, interest in the role of religions in literary and other cultural work has surged, asking new questions about various cultural movements and literary artifacts. In what ways do novels draw upon religious traditions, or use spiritual themes as motive forces within their creative work? How do religious traditions shape and inhabit literary and other cultural forms? How might literary works and their readings be themselves religious or spiritual acts? Channette Romero participates in this renewed attention to religions in her new book, Activism and the American Novel: Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of Color. Romero gives particular attention to the work of women of color since the 1980s, believing that the literature manifests several new emphases. It is political in intention, it moves beyond identity politics into crosscultural collaboration, and it seeks to do both of these by deploying the religious traditions of people of color in new and vital ways. [End Page 224]
The project, expressed in a variety of ways, is to deprivatize reading, to use it to inspire social critique. This politicized fiction offers itself as a means to re-create the public sphere, a space of public debate and dialogue that is critical of state power. The novel form’s historic connection to the public sphere is appropriated in an effort to engender a fuller democracy than that envisioned by the concept of nationalism. The religions and spiritualties of people of color are also deployed, as they contain rich histories and models of engagement. Fiction by women of color since the 1980s enlists the political potential latent in novels and the belief traditions of people of color seeking to inspire readers with visions of resistance to injustice.(2)
Although others have addressed all of these issues, Romero highlights and underscores them in some new ways. She especially draws new attention to the question of cultural collaboration and how the novel might provide a venue for enacting a political and religious activism that crosses the bounds of established communities. For Romero, this spiritual activism is possible because the religious traditions of women of color are inherently inclusive. This is a disputable claim, but she is right that many women writers of color have drawn on or created religious practices that seek a broad inclusiveness in order to pursue social justice and political change.
Romero brings these issues to light best in some good close readings of various texts. A discussion of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves illuminates the different ways that Native American writers have wrestled with international, multiracial and multicultural alliances, especially where one’s relationship to the land is fundamentally spiritual and oriented toward an indigenous community. Romero’s reading of Toni Morrison’s Paradise is the best chapter in the book. She suggests that Morrison uses a particular reading of African American Christianity to question American...