Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature-Part Two: Contemporary Texts and Authors

In November, I blogged about teaching ancient oral literatures at the beginning of a semester-long survey course in American literature. Here’s the follow-up on coming full circle from oral tradition (in weeks one and two) to contemporary Native American literature (in weeks fourteen and fifteen).

Bookending a survey course with studies of Native literature is not only structurally satisfying, but finishing an American literature course with study of contemporary Native literature is also a good latter-half or latter-third of the semester review: since “contemporary” Native American literature is usually understood to include the 21st and 20th centuries, you could easily end up reviewing over a hundred years of the literary landscape. In other words, if the course has put Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism, and Postmodernism on the table, turning to contemporary Native American literature gives you a chance to revisit any/all of these, but from a sometimes surprising standpoint. Students discover how the big moves happening in published Native literature sometimes align—and often don’t align, or don’t align in expected ways—with the canonical literary landscape they’ve been probing in the course.

Second wave/Native Am. Renaissance: Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows

For example, scholars see “pairs of opposing foci”—a structural staple of Native American Renaissance literature of the 1970s and 80s—as a re-emergence of Modernist binaries. Indeed, Native American Renaissance texts often construct stark contrasts between rural/urban, reservation/city, white/Native, tradition/Anglo-European, etc., opening the door for class discussion to delve into the aesthetics and politics of reviving and repurposing Modernist techniques and methods of expression in a new cultural and historic moment.

Below, I’ll introduce two critical resources helpful in teaching, lecturing, and shaping analytic discussion of contemporary Native American literature. Then I’ll touch on some of my own experiences and reflect on what worked… as well as where I dropped the ball.

Critical Resource #1

Simon Ortiz’s 1981 “Toward a National Indian Literature” discusses the way in which Native Americans have been adopting, adapting, incorporating, and repurposing colonial languages—especially Spanish, French, and English—on their own terms. “It is the way that Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization,” writes Ortiz. And along with repurposing languages themselves, Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins. The thrust of Ortiz’s argument is that we must understand this particular fusion—the fusion of language adoption/repurposing with the continued use of oral tradition—as the foundation of Native American contemporary literature.

Ortiz’s argument makes for rich lecture and discussion material in the classroom because it introduces students to a basic interpretive practice: part of an analytic encounter with contemporary Native American literature entails re-engaging knowledge of the basic literary features that characterize oral tradition. As I wrote about in November, Robert Bringhurst’s 2014 interview in Guernica Magazine foregrounds oral traditions’ (a) emphasis on the more-than-human world, and (b) its exploration of how “mythtime” interacts with “realtime.” These two characteristics give students something concrete to draw out, close read, compare across texts, etc.

Critical Resource #2

Erika Wurth’s 2016 article in Writer’s Chronicle, “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” lays out a historic framework and charts four major literary developments. Wurth’s claims are specific to fiction, so her article might be less useful for instructors
wanting to emphasize another genre (e.g., poetry, a genre with respect to which a westernized literary audience is arguably already comfortable discussing orality). On the other hand, many Native American writers contest westernized genre-boundaries, so bringing poetry to the table alongside Wurth’s arguments could be an interesting exercise.

Either way, Wurth’s writing is accessible (the article can be assigned to students if time and reading load allow) and her division of over a century of literature into four distinct and digestible parts provides landmarks. Here’s a compressed run-down:

  • The first wave of contemporary Native American fiction anticipates an
    First wave: D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded

    untrained, unfamiliar audience. In texts from the early 20th century, plot, action, and character development are all apt to be “interrupted” by explanation of cultural references and/or history lessons.

  • Literature of the second wave (which corresponds with what is usually called—albeit problematically—the Native American Renaissance) tends to work with one general plotline: stories of individuated pain give way in the end to collectivity, shared consciousness, and realization of embeddedness across boundaries of time, space, and species.
  • Wurth’s third wave is “language first” fiction; that is, stories and novels no longer bear the second wave’s burden of asserting communal healing, and instead prioritize lyricism.
  • The most recent shift Wurth identifies is that writers contributing to the fourth wave
    Fourth wave: Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed

    take a Native point of view as self-evident, thus requiring the reader to bring a degree of historic and cross- or multi-cultural familiarity to the table.

My Experience

Students seemed to find the most traction when tasked with returning to what they had learned about features of traditional oral literatures. They approached contemporary Native American texts as a scavenger hunt, seeking out evidence of emphasis on the more-than-human-world, mythtime, and realtime. Our most lively discussions revolved around describing and questioning these features’ functions in contemporary (as opposed to ancient, sacred) texts. The “active, ongoing presence of the past” became a theme for us, one students applied to pop culture references as well as to class texts.

On the other hand, students had more trouble applying Wurth’s four waves as an interpretive tool—they wanted it to work as a roadmap. In other words, they sought firm dates to associate with each wave, and were game to seek out evidence of, for example, “language-first” lyricism in a text if that text was pre-designated as third wave. Lessons learned? I feel that Wurth’s schema would have been a better teaching tool if I had framed it more directly as grounds for debate. For example, asking half the class to argue that Louise Erdrich’s “Fleur” is most productively understood as second wave, and the other half of the class to argue that it is most productively understood as third wave—or that Sherman Alexie’s “War Dances” belongs more squarely to the third versus the fourth wave—would have positioned students to engage Wurth’s ideas less as a system of classification and more as an analytic lens.

In Closing… Texts and Authors?

The Open Education Database proposes this list of twenty Native American must-read authors. Ernestine Hayes, Debra Magpie Earling, Eddie Chuculate, and Eric Gansworth are four more I’m eager to mention…and of course I would be happy to supply additional authors/titles to anyone interested!


Teaching Junot Diaz’s Drown through the Lens of Critical Patriotism

PALS Note: This post is part two of a post on teaching Junot Diaz. Part one is here. This post gets into more specifics on how to use the critical patriotism framework offered by Ben Railton’s book. Also, please check out the post that started this all: Shelli Homer’s look at Railton’s ideas about Charles Chestnutt. 

In the previous post, I outlined how I was disappointed in some of the materials I found about Junot Diaz. I used that disappointment as a teaching tool to help my students think about the frameworks for exploring contemporary authors. Neither of the examples I was disappointed in, however, were scholarly in nature. In this post, I will turn to the scholarly to explore teaching Diaz through the framework proposed by  Ben Railton in his book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism.

Matthew Colvin de Valle

In the introduction to Railton’s book, he asks us to not turn away from the darkest parts of American history but to face that darkness squarely in order to find hope for a better future where we have learned from our history. Things can only change if we can look soberly at history. Too often we have been taught that what it means to be patriotic in or country is to be uncritically positive about it’s state. Railton, instead, proposes a critical patriotism that has hope not because it looks away from the darkness but because it looks at the darkness head-on and learns from it. He states, “Critical patriotism and hard-won hope might seem, like a fearful bravery or a shadowy light, contradictory, but they instead represent crucial contingencies, ones through which our national community can be genuinely and meaningfully strengthened.”

The fourth chapter in Railton’s book discusses Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker. Railton makes the specific point in the beginning of this chapter that Americans do not know a lot about the Caribbean and, therefore, are missing out on not only larger hemispheric history but also are obscuring stories about huge swaths of Americans from the Caribbean or of Caribbean descent.

I have taught The Dew Breaker, and I will write a future post about teaching that book. But in this space, I want to outline a few of the ways that Railton discusses The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and explore the connections between his points about this novel and my own experience teaching Diaz’s Drown.

One of the aspects of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that Railton investigates is the way that the footnotes, which draw connections between the text and real life historical events, explain and implicate the U.S. in Dominican history. He writes that the “footnotes…extend that sense of cross-cultural connection and complicity.” For example, one footnote is about the murder of Jesus de Galindez, who was a graduate student writing his dissertation on the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. While the murder was carried out by Trujillo’s agents, U.S. officials may have been aware of the role that a U.S. citizen played in the event and even facilitated contact between the U.S. citizen, who was the pilot, and Trujillo’s forces. The footnotes, which point out these bits of history, ask the reader to consider the connections between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic they had not paused to note before. Railton argues that the footnotes are addressed to a largely American audience who “might not have this historical knowledge” and that the text asks its readers to think about history in this complicated way, which reveals the “shared sense of these histories and their cross-cultural meanings and impacts.”


There are no footnotes in Drown, but just as the footnotes present a way of reading the text, Drown also teaches us how to read it. The main character of Drown, Yunior (who reoccurs in Diaz’s books) is not a particularly forthcoming narrator. You cannot necessarily rely on him to explain how he feels or to analyze his own involvement in a situation. Yunior resists analysis, but Diaz gives us spaces and gaps in the text to pause and assess Yunior. In the very first story in Drown, “Ysrael,” Yunior and his brother, Rafa, go on a trip to find Ysrael, who wears a mask to cover his deformed face. Rafa has the idea to go and find Ysrael; he says, “We should pay that kid a visit.” This is in the very first section of the story which is demarcated with a “1.” After Rafa’s comment comes the next section, “2.,”  which starts with “Mami shipped me and Rafa out to the campo every summer.” We learn basic ideas about the family’s relationships here. We learn that Yunior follows Rafa around and that he doesn’t always think critically about the missions that Rafa comes up with. We learn why Rafa and Yunior are on their own and what their mother is doing to support them. We also don’t get a mention of Yunior’s father. We might not know to ask where he is this early in the text, but we will learn more later about how his absence shapes Yunior’s life.

Like much of Drown, “Ysrael,” is about movement. “Visit” and “shipped” are very important words on this first page. A lot of Drown revolves around where people are in relation to each other spatially. Yunior’s father goes to New York, and then he comes back (and doesn’t visit them). And then they are all in New York. Yunior is often walking around the neighborhood. Or he is taking trips to deliver pool tables. Or he is listening to the woman downstairs walk around her apartment. The beginning of the book is firmly rooted in Yunior’s childhood in the Dominican Republic while the rest of the book goes back and forth between the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

To be a reader of this book is then to be in movement. It is to read in this spatial continuum. We are very rarely here or there. Rather the reader moves back and forth in time and space with Yunior and his family. The text is asking us to be a reader who can hold more than one place or idea in our mind. It is asking us to avoid simplicity, and as Railton says, it is asking us to embrace this complexity through movement between and knowledge of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.

While Railton’s project is designed to express hope, he does acknowledge that it is difficult to find hope at the end of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Railton locates the hope in this novel in the zafa, which is the counterspell to the fuku. The fuku is, as Railton quotes from Diaz, “generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The fuku follows Oscar and his family throughout the novel. Railton argues that the zafa and the “symbolic representation” of the zafa, which is “the mysterious golden mongoose that appears at some of the family’s darkest moments” are the counterpoints it the fuku. Railton locates the hope in several points throughout the book, including in the closing sections where Yunior is affected by Oscar’s memory. One of the ways that Yunior enacts the zafa is by writing and specifically writing the book the reader is consuming. He also plans to teach Oscar’s niece, Isis, about her uncle by introducing her to all of his writing and his books. Railton writes that “Isis’s triumph” would not “be an end,” but it “would simply and crucially be hope.”

To note that there is hope in not ending is directly tied to Drown, which has no real conclusion. In fact, Drown ends with Yunior’s father about to make the trip to the Dominican Republic to retrieve Yunior and the rest of his family to move back to the United States. In terms of the timeline, the book, therefore, ends just about where it starts.

The entire last story is not about Yunior but about his father, Ramon. The very last paragraph is about Ramon’s trip to the airport to go back to the Dominican Republic. Diaz writes, “The first subway station on Bond would have taken him to the airport and I like to think that he grabbed that first train, instead of what was more likely true, that he had gone out to Chuito’s first, before flying south to get us.”

via Jose Carlos Machado

Yunior’s sadness and hope is present here. He imagines what his father might have done. Even if he doesn’t think it is true in this moment of retelling he can insert a tiny bit of hope—hope that his father came straight to them. That isn’t much hope, but as Railton says, Diaz is not necessarily counting on a lot of promise.

What Diaz is giving us though is narratives that bear witness to these lives and ask us to bear witness too. At the end of the interview I discussed in the first post, Diaz says that when he thinks of himself as a writer he thinks, “I am bringing news of the world.” The circular nature of Drown—ending at the start—asks us to trace the path of the book over and over again. Diaz is showing that is his world is our world, and he wants us to linger there. Don’t read Drown once. Read it over and over. Start at the beginning. And then start again. This is Yunior’s life, and it is our life. It is not often pretty. It is stark and bleak and sometimes brutal. But there are moments of pleasure and connection. And all we have are our stories. All we have are our voices, and this is us.