Reading Through the Lines: American Literature in/as Global Literature

Huang, Karen, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chong, Sylvia, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

My dissertation, “Reading Through the Lines: American Literature in/as Global Literature” focuses on three contemporary, U.S.-based novelists whose works have an explicitly global or diasporic bent – namely, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Junot Díaz – and reconsiders their works by way of two interrelated issues. On the one hand, my project examines the ways in which they address America’s embeddedness in international geopolitics, arguing that this aspect of their writing illuminates the intersection between global and American literature. On the other, it readdresses the terms of reception for these writers of color, particularly in relation to readers’ and commentators’ accumulation of what I call “multiculti capital” – in effect, a specific kind of cultural capital that signals an ostensible knowledge and tolerance of multiracial, multicultural makeup of the United States. I propose that a reappraisal of this dynamic is crucial to understanding why certain writers of color have become so prominent in the public sphere.

The works of writers like Nguyen, Adichie, and Díaz are now often read through the lens of the transnational, in the wake of what Paul Jay identifies as the embrace of the “transnational turn” in American literary studies proper. This conceptualization of the transnational, however, belies the continued persistence of nationalist or nation-based ideas about what certain categories of literature should look like, even when they are labeled as “cosmopolitan” or “global.” It is also highly reminiscent of earlier notions of multiculturalism, even as the transnational turn is marked as a paradigm shift distinctive from these older critical concerns. My project highlights how Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Adichie’s Americanah, and Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao represent the U.S. in a more globalized sense, by attending to the imperialist, interventionist, and neocolonial dimensions of modern and contemporary American history.

This dissertation also emphasizes how Nguyen, Adichie, and Díaz’s works and author-personas have become co-opted in the display and accumulation of multiculti capital. What one sees here is effectively a form of virtue signaling, which does not acknowledge these novels’ representations of America as a globalized entity. More importantly, although the widespread recognition of these writers and their incorporation into the canon seeks to address issues of diversity in literature, their prominence rarely signifies a deeper awareness of the racist history that has shaped the American cultural imaginary, nor a reconceptualization of the tokenizing ways in which writers of color have been typically located within American literary history. Instead, the literary celebrity of a small number of non-white authors casts them as exceptional writers whose works are sufficient for apprehending the whole of the ethnic communities to which they belong. The popularity of Nguyen, Adichie, and Díaz as especially noteworthy writers of color allows a wide American readership to signal awareness of writers of color in general, while at the same time refrain from engaging more deeply with the history, culture, and politics these writers are negotiating in their fiction. The tokenizing of these specific authors also indicates how the literary establishment – which still recognizes whiteness as the default – activates, perpetuates, and furthers certain race-based ideologies of American national culture.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
american literature, global literature, ethnic studies
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