- Emergent U.S. Literatures: From Multiculturalism to Cosmopolitanism in the Late Twentieth Century by Cyrus R. K. Patell
Toward the end of Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995), the protagonist muses:
I love these streets lined with big American sedans and livery cars and vans. … I love how the Spanish disco thumps out from windows. … I follow the strolling Saturday families of brightly wrapped Hindus and then the black-clad Hasidim, and step into all the old churches that were once German and then Korean and are now Vietnamese. And I love the brief Queens sunlight at the end of the day, the warm lamp always reaching through the westward tops of the magnificent city.(346)
Lee’s novel is haunted by the death of the protagonist’s young multi-ethnic child but also by the hope of a US nation-space that is not continually plagued by loss, violence, absence, and destruction; at times it offers the prospect of numerous cultural identities in dialogue with each other, or of what Cyrus R. K. Patell terms “the dynamics of multiple, overlapping hybridities” (239), in fructifying, if not always peaceful, negotiation. For some time now, literary critics have struggled to formulate a term for contemporary US multi-ethnic literature that takes account of the way that it may have evolved, post-Civil Rights Movement and after the emergence of many ethnic activist movements, in a world in which borders and boundaries between cultures and ethnic identities are themselves increasingly porous and permeable. Shall we call contemporary literature written by multi-ethnic individuals “post-ethnic” (as David Hollinger does), “interethnic” (as Caroline Rody phrases it), “interstitial” (to borrow a term [End Page 218] from Leslie Bow), or “cosmopolitan” (as many other critics have proposed)? What are the limits and values of each of these terms—and why do we need a new label in the first place?
Patell answers these questions by arguing that the appropriate term for many multi-ethnic texts, post-1968, is “emergent,” defined as “a dynamic model of the interactions of literary cultures” (8). The emergent is conceptualized (following Raymond Williams) as a mode of negotiation between margin and center over the right to control meaning, values, and practices. Like the term “cosmopolitanism” (also in Patell’s book title), the idea of the emergent sees “difference” not as a “problem to be solved … but rather as an opportunity to be embraced” (16). Emergent literature also can be conceptualized in terms of a conversation across boundaries and divisions, as a site (to use Williams’s terms) where “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship are continually being created” (20). Of course, as Patell also notes, this newness is a matter of perception, and at times Patell may overstate his argument about the “newness” of the emergent. Nonetheless, his book—expanded and modified from a long essay written by Patell for volume seven of The Cambridge History of American Literature (1999)—provides a valuable overview of the history of multi-ethnic literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and useful insights about what might be different about the group of authors who create literary texts post-1968.
The book mainly focuses on Asian American, Native American, Hispanic American, and gay and lesbian writing after 1968. It does not discuss Jewish American or African American authors because Patell believes their texts are not emergent in this period but have achieved a kind of institutional standing and therefore are no longer marginalized in the same way they were prior to 1968. This claim could use more support and seems largely based on the idea that when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, she was lauded as a visionary American writer rather than a visionary African American writer (109). I find this exclusion ironic given that at many universities African American writers still make up a tiny part of the literary curriculum, apart from...