- A Transnational Critical Optic, Now
In winter 2017, I prepared to teach Sarah Orne Jewett as I usually do, by focusing on Jewett's New England roots, her female friend-and mentorships, and her importance to American regionalism. But as the students in my American Realism class and I delved into Jewett's fiction, we became struck by its powerful transnational themes and currents, which contest the common understanding of Jewett as primarily a regional writer. One character in "The Queen's Twin" travels to see the Queen of England, convinced that since they share the same birthday, they are twins.1 Another pulls old Indian muslin, a waistcoat of "strange old-fashioned foreign stuff," and "old French and Spanish and English gold" out of a sea chest after her father's death in the story, "In Dark New England Days." There are constant references to sailors off to the Spice or South Sea Islands. And most compellingly for my class, the story "The Foreigner" revolves around events in Kingston, Jamaica that bring a "French" Catholic woman back to protestant Dunnet Landing, Maine, and showcase the lonely life she lives as "the foreigner" in town. Despite the fact that she is befriended by the narrator, Mrs. Todd, the presence of the foreigner, Mrs. Tolland, at first shocks and later haunts the town. In developing the gothic dimensions of this tale, Jewett shows us the uncanny power of the omnipresent "stranger" in our midst as well as the ongoing challenge transnationalism poses [End Page 475] to many of our standard narratives of shared identity. Her work shows us yet again that American literature is and has always been transnational, that one can't separate the "foreign" among our texts from the "home grown" and that, in an age of nationalist resurgence, recognizing those facts becomes a necessarily transgressive act. By the end of the course, when we tackled Dinaw Mengestu's wonderful novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and Ramin Bahrani's underappreciated film, Man Push Cart, our joint reading had exposed the inescapable transnational debts and investments of US literature and their complicated intersection with other issues of identity, especially questions of gender.
I begin with this example to argue for the importance of reading with a transnational critical optic, now. I understand this optic as a way to see how particular texts or media practices gesture beyond and critique national categories of identity and meaning making and also to recognize the deep imbrication between discourses of nationality and the rigid binary system of gender that undergirds contemporary regimes of nation-state power. While scholars have often used the term "transnational" to describe the web of interrelationships linking a collection of texts worldwide or as an adjective defining a new canon of work that operates within global rather than national frames (Ashcroft 2009, 13). I want to claim that we might best deploy the transnational as a critical optic or practice that engages with the discursive categories of nationality while recognizing activities that critique and transcend them. Through this optic the term "transnational" comes to function through the power of its prefix, indicating a position, action, or attitude toward the nation and its cultural apparatuses, rather than as a way of describing a given set of texts or a canon of writers. The transnational thus becomes available as a practice that requires activity from us. Now more than ever, in an age of rising nationalism, it seems necessary to embrace that activity and to take up a broadly capacious, transnational practice.
My use of the term "transnational" bears affinities with the ways that those like Bill Ashcroft or Jahan Ramazani use the term, even as I hope to extend it beyond reference to a specific geographical space or nation or to the specific travels, influences, or allegiances of writers and their texts. Ashcroft proposes "the concept of transnation to extend the post-colonial critique of nation, (or more specifically the linking of nation and state) and to argue with the entrenched idea [End Page 476] of diaspora as simply defined by absence and loss." He posits that "national borders may not in the end need to...