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Nashville Scene Mixing It Up

Literary conference celebrates the contributions of ethnic writers

By Lisa A. DuBois

MARCH 22, 1999:  During the last decade, Americans have awakened from a collective amnesia to appreciate, once again, the contributions of ethnic writers to the nation's cultural heritage. Such authors as Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, Sandra Cisneros, and Bharati Mukherjee are enjoying widespread popularity as Americans of diverse backgrounds carve out a unique identity within the melting pot.

What people have forgotten, says Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University English professor, is that ethnic writers have informed American literature from the earliest days of this country. "There were cultural productions by Native American writers that predate the arrival of white settlers on the continent," he says. "Much of Native American poetry and song comes to us in the same way that Homer originally comes to us--descended from oral text. That's still a huge part of our literary heritage.

"And all through the 19th century, there is a powerful strain of African American literature, which we primarily know through slave narratives."

Along with Vanderbilt professor Thadious Davis, Clayton is co-chairing the 25th annual MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) Conference, titled "Migrating Bodies: Movements in Ethnic, Racial, and Gender Discourses," Mar. 18-21 at Vanderbilt University. During the conference, which is open to the public, scholars from across the country will examine the current and historical impact of ethnic American literature on the nation's social consciousness.

The title refers to individuals migrating through social spaces. "It occurred to us that Nashville and the Tennessee region are connected to the ethnic experience in two great migrations--the migration of African Americans out of the South toward the urban North after the Civil War, and the forced migration of the Cherokee people during the Trail of Tears," Clayton says.

For this reason, the conference will feature a reading by Caribbean American writer Edwidge Danticat, whose Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones were recently featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as readings by two Cherokee authors, Marilou Awiakta and Betty Louise Bell.

While scholars have studied early ethnic American writings for over 100 years, only in the last decade have they recognized the influence of 19th-century minority literature on white writers of the same period. Slave narratives, for instance, gave perspective to abolition, the most divisive social issue of the 1800s. As a result, those works were perused and pondered not only by politicians and crusaders, but by all the major white writers living in America. "Mark Twain is obvious," Clayton says. "But there's a huge cross-pollination from African American literatures to writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Stowe. For example, one of Melville's most powerful novels is Benito Cereno, adapted from an account by a slave who was one of a group of slaves who took over a slave ship."

Clayton emphasizes, "I would say African American slave narratives were as widely read then and had the same cultural impact on literary discourse in the 19th century that Toni Morrison does today. We forget how prominent and how fully a part of the national debate these contributions by minority writers were."

In addition to 19th-century compositions, a large portion of the MELUS conference will focus on literature generated by turn-of-the-20th-century African Americans. In 1912, James Weldon Johnson anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which many consider to be the first influential work of fiction by an African American writer. Along with other minority scribes of that time, Johnson laid the seeds for the Harlem Renaissance, a period during which African American fiction, poetry, art, and drama flourished.

Panelists will also discuss the impact of early 20th-century immigrants on the nation's humanities. The immigrant experience included not only Jewish, Italian, Irish, and other European-born Americans living in Northeastern tenements, but also lesser known migrations by Chinese, Japanese, and Asian groups.

Several decades later, Chicano and Latino American writings emerged, reaching full flower during the 1940s. The popularity of Hispanic fiction continues today, thanks to the contributions of Sandra Cisneros, Oscar Hijuelos, Julia Alvarez, and others. More recently, mixed-race and multi-ethnic authors are finding an outlet for interpreting the "creolization" of America. In fact, one panel of professors will discuss Louisiana foods as presented in literature, under the topic "Gumbo as Metaphor."

"What is encouraging about this boom in ethnic writers in the United States," Clayton says, "is that they are reaching large multi-ethnic audiences through works that treat their own ethnic experiences. A hallmark of good writing has always been that the route to the universal is through the particular."

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