Teaching literatures of the Americas

Date: 18 October, 2007
Location: Rm LG33, Building 28 (Learning Centre), Edgbaston Campus, University of Birmingham
Event type: Seminar

Past event summary

The event was organised by the English Subject Centre and the Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS).

The Subject Centre for English The Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Keynote speakers

Philip Swanson

Professor of Hispanic Studies, University of Sheffield

Author of: Latin American Fiction: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) The Companion to Latin American Studies (London: Arnold, 2003)

Marcus Wood

Professor of English, University of Sussex

Author of: Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (2000), High Tar Babies (2001), and Slavery, Empathy and Pornography (2002).

Programme for 18 October 2007
Time Session
10.30 - 11.00 Registration and coffee
11.00 - 11.15 Housekeeping and conference introduction
11.15 - 12.00 Slavery freedom and memory 1807-2007
Marcus Wood, University of Sussex
12.00 - 12.30 Borderlands within: la Louisiane française, black and white - a modest proposal
Robert Lewis, University of Birmingham
12.30 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.15 Bursting borders: Latinity and the idea of América in literature and culture
Philip Swanson, University of Sheffield
14.15 - 14.45 Whats the point of Chicano studies?
Thea Pitman, University of Leeds
14.45 - 15.00 Tea
15.00 - 15.30 From here to eternity: (neo)Baroque, Modernity, Postmodernity and Tres tristes tigres as pedagogical puzzle
Luis Perez, Princeton University
15.30 - 16.00 Introducing students to research in Transatlantic/borderlands topics through a research module
Sara Wood, University of Birmingham
16.00 - 16.30 Plenary
Claire Lindsay, University College London



Slavery freedom and memory 1807-2007

Marcus Wood, University of Sussex

The film traces varying cultural responses to the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the British Slave Trade. It is a forty minute documentary, and meditation upon what the memory of slavery might mean across the slave Diaspora, from Britain, Rio and Salvador Bahia, to Elmina in Ghana, and Dahomey in Benin.

Borderlands within: la Louisiane française, black and white - a modest proposal

Robert Lewis, University of Birmingham

Unfortunately, those teaching transnational themes in literature of the Americas must face uncomfortable but practical reality: the limited foreign-language competence of students (and staff) in Spanish or Portuguese, even French. However, modest additions can enrich the syllabus. In US literature, it is possible to introduce multicultural voices indirectly in a "mainstream" author [Willa Cathers My Antonia on immigrants in Nebraska] or in translation [minority-language fiction in anthologies edited by Werner Sollors]. And then there is Louisiana, unique in the US for its longstanding and separate "French" fragment culture that owed very little to new immigrant influences in the past two hundred years. After the territory was acquired by the US in 1803, whites and blacks of French descent in the southern part of the state retained a living language [in various forms and dialects, oral and written] as late as the 1950s, and a sense of "French" identity to the present day. For the Nineteenth Century, the short-story fiction of Kate Chopin or George Washington Cable explores the worlds of white Creoles in New Orleans and rural white Cajuns who considered their culture as a world apart from les Américains.

But how is it possible to approach the imaginative worlds of most Louisiana French speakers, the Cajuns or les nègres ["African American" is misleading for those who recognised African descent but questioned Americanism], who remained illiterate until the 1920s? There are "French" oral traditions in folktales and song or radio transmissions that record Louisianas borderland cultures within the US. But is this "literature"? Even if the definition of literature is enlarged to "discourse" - plays, journalism and non-fictional speech - does literature mean written communication, and written communication of high quality, and access is possible only via a Chopin or a Cable? As with early Native American literature and oral transmission, the key issue in exploring borderlands cultures in Louisiana is less one of borderlands or even "American", but an agreed definition of "literatures" and the relevance of cultural-studies methodology (and, for most, translation from non-standard French languages).

Bursting borders: Latinity and the idea of América in literature and culture

Philip Swanson, University of Sheffield

The literal US-Mexican border has often been metaphorically construed by chicano/a intellectuals as an open wound where the Third World grates against the First, generating a third country and a place of indeterminate identity. 'Latin' identity (North and South) is thus intrinsically associated with ideas of suffering, rupture and displacement. In Latin American studies, such a notion of identity has been more routinely applied to the subcontinent as a whole, and its literature and culture has typically been interpreted in terms of a frustrating or frustrated quest for identity, even in the more celebratory era of the promotion of notions such as hybridity. Nonetheless, there is a tradition of positive (if often problematic) engagement between 'North' and 'South' 'America' in the subcontinents literature and culture, a process that began to accelerate in some senses from the so-called Post-Boom period onwards. The internalized 'border' mentality is often, for example, expressed via a fascination with North American culture or via the setting of fiction in North America. Moreover, themes of exile or immigration have led to surprisingly nuanced explorations of the place of the Latin American in the United States. More recently, the rise of Hispanic American fiction in the US has been accompanied by that of the resident Latin American superstar author now implicitly targeting his or her work to an essentially North American and 'First-World' audience. Add to this the broader phenomenon of the internalization of Latinity within mainstream North American literary, popular and consumer culture, and a sense develops that, in terms of imaginary geographies at least, Latin America has in some ways transgressed its own boundaries and thoroughly penetrated the cultural unconscious of the North and the West.

Whats the point of Chicano studies?

Thea Pitman, University of Leeds

Pushing at the borders of what is traditionally considered the remit of modern languages departments in the UK with regard to the teaching of content modules (ie. the primary content of such modules needs to be exclusively in the target foreign language), I have taught a module on 'Identity in Chicano/a Literature and Film' in the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of Leeds for the last 5 years. I first designed the module because I thought it might bridge the gap between the still 'exotic' cultures of Latin America (in students' eyes) and the rather more familiar culture of the United States and help make the former more real to them. I also thought that students might perceive a direct relevance in the kind of issues raised, in particular the subject of racism, with ones that they might face in their own lives here in the UK, and, indeed, wherever else they may subsequently choose to travel and live. This year, to test the veracity of my suppositions I set a 'wildcard' question on the final exam paper: 'What is the point of Chicano Studies?' Of course, none of my students dared to answer under those circumstances, so I asked them again via email once the exams were over. The current paper provides a summary and analysis of their responses.

From here to eternity: (neo)Baroque, Modernity, Postmodernity and Tres tristes tigres as pedagogical puzzle

Luis Perez, Princeton University

If as Lyotard said when describing postmodern knowledge, that no self is an island, that each exists in a fabric of societal relations or portals, then I wonder if a valid syllogism can be derived and exploited to better understand the mechanisms which govern the changes in the function of the individual within the modern State through the study of contemporary Latin American literature: that a network of nodal points of communication in search of regeneration and certainty can constitute an island, or a self. One long (repeating) night, popular culture, a host of intransigent characters and the total absence of the nation-state constitute one of the pillars of the Latin American literary 'boom' and can be emblematic of an entire generation. I propose to explore some of the many discursive and performative strategies of Tres tristes tigres in order to show how this controversial work (and perhaps other such novels) can distill and facilitate a students understanding of the socio-historic forces that structured our current understanding of Latin America and of the postmodern period itself.

Introducing students to research in Transatlantic/borderlands topics through a research module

Sara Wood, University of Birmingham

This paper will explore how group-based projects can be used to foster independent study and introduce undergraduates to transatlantic/borderlands topics. Drawing on the experience of teaching this course to first year undergraduates, this paper will explain how students might manage their own projects and strengthen their research skills in the process.

Event report: Borderlands: Themes in Teaching Literatures of the Americas

by Shoshannah Holdom

This one-day conference, organised by the English Subject Centre and the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, and hosted by Dick Ellis at the University of Birmingham, brought together scholars from a range of disciplines including History, English, American Studies, Spanish and Latin American Studies, and the Visual Arts. The conference aimed to identify and discuss burgeoning themes in teaching literatures of the Americas, an area characterised by complicated boundaries and borders and a multilingual landscape.

Two of the papers introduced me to texts and ways of reading that will definitely feed into my teaching

- Seminar attendee

In his opening address, Professor Ellis introduced some of the themes that would be considered over the course of the day, including migration, colonial conquest and slavery. He emphasised the complexities of hemispheric exchanges and paved the way for discussion of how students might be engaged with such complexities.

Professor Marcus Wood began by outlining his interest in hemispheric exchanges between Brazil and North America in particular, which are borne out in his current Leverhulme-funded work. He argued that literary studies of Brazilian slavery are inflected by Anglophone culture, since the Brazilian abolition movement is has a performative rather than a narrative base. Furthermore, Professor Wood argued that western scholars need to approach their understanding of Brazilian abolition via a different model; one that takes into account the Brazilian perspective itself. Part of his work seeks to problematise concepts of emancipation, in particular how cultures set up significant moments wherein the gift of freedom is bestowed upon the enslaved. Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Professor Wood’s work argues from the position that no culture has the right to bestow freedom upon another.

Two short films were then shown: “Kiss the Bat” and “The Horrible Gift of Freedom” .The first film juxtaposes two environments. One shows a gathering of people filmed in colour: there is a party atmosphere, music is playing, chatting can be heard, and the main activity is the application of lipstick as preparation for the second scenario. Here, individuals enter a separate room to confront two oversized sculptures of baseball bats. This scenario is filmed in black and white and there is no sound. The participants have been asked to kiss the bats (in any way they wish), and each individual’s approach to this is recorded. The participants do not know that their encounter with the bats is being filmed. Wood’s film plays with the symbolism of the baseball bat. It highlights its significance as a symbol of at once American achievement - in that the sport is a successful cultural export - and ghetto brutality, disfunction and violence (the bat being a weapon of choice).

The second film chronicles social gatherings in Rio de Janeiro and London at the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery, together with the installation of an exhibition of artefacts relating to slavery.

Robert Lewis’s paper addressed approaches to minority literatures of the US, in particular that of Louisiana, which is unique in the US for its longstanding and separate "French" fragment culture that has owed very little to new immigrant influences over the past two hundred years. Taking into account three issues -1) the declining competence in foreign languages among UK students; 2) the usefulness of translation; and 3) the problems of oral transcription (and the difficulties students have reading these texts) – Dr Lewis made the modest proposal that the imagined worlds of Louisiana French speakers can be approached effectively through the literature of certain 19th century writers. Kate Chopin, an American writer from a Louisiana Creole background, and her short story “Desirée’s Baby” - a brief sketch of black and whiteness - was used as a case study here.

The discussion of magical realism by Professor Swanson was outstanding

- Seminar attendee

Phillip Swanson’s keynote address considered the idea of “bursting borders” and the difficulties of locating Latin America in an age where Latinity seems to have thoroughly infused western culture. He emphasised the “imagined geography” that is Latin America: our notions of Latinity (in the shape of figures such as Antonio Banderas, Joaquín Cortés and J-Lo, and the mishmash of clichés manifested in themed restaurants such as Las Iguanas) – reduce Latin identity to an exotic, dark and libidinal ‘other’ that is deemed to be valid and real by the west. Swanson noted that the rise of cultural studies parallels increasingly modularised degree courses driven by student market demands (for example, a preference for film over literature). He argued that the oft-discussed boom in Latin American literature was a European rather than a Latin American phenomenon. Promoted primarily by Spanish publishers and American magazines, the Latin American literature boom actually took place in Europe. ‘Magical realism’, a key characteristic of much of the ‘boom’ literature, is based on French surrealism and as such is of primary appeal to a western audience, providing the opportunity to ‘gawp’ at the exoticism of Latin America. Continuing with the difficulties of locating “latinidad”, Professor Swanson noted that Isabel Allende, a hugely successful Chilean writer, is routinely rubbished for the bourgeois norms and emotional idealism her works is perceived to reinforce, and for leaving Chile in the first place. However, Allende’s works do not seek to be specifically Latin American: translations of her works appear on in bookshops simultaneously, and some of her novels are in fact set in North America rather than South America. José Donoso, another Chilean writer, also focuses on ‘transborder interactions’ and works to invert Latin American stereotypes (North America is portrayed by Donoso in his last novel as exotic, violent and so on, characteristics that are usually reserved for depictions of Latin Americam culture). Professor Swanson stressed the tutor’s duty to give students the chance to read the whole gamut of Latin American literature to enable them to think independently. He affirmed that works need to be located but the reader’s own cultural specificity inflects his or her reading and is changeable. Borders are therefore both real and imagined.

Thea Pitman’s paper posed the question, ‘What’s the point of Chicano studies?’, based upon her own experiences of teaching a Chicano studies module for the past five years. She outlined her own rationale for offering this module - the need to produce an attractive option that has a point other than equipping students with ‘transferable skills’ – and noted the questions she continues to face regarding the intellectual validity of such a course (not all the texts studied are in Spanish, for example, and not all are particularly highly prized). Dr Pitman hopes this course provides students with an understanding that moves away from exoticised views of Latin America. Having been ‘outsiders’ during the year abroad, Dr Pitman believes that students should now be able to empathise to some extent with the experience of a minority within an Anglophone culture.

Dr Pitman asked her incoming students what they thought was the point of Chicano studies and why they had chosen to take this module. Students believed the course would be interesting, contemporary and would address issues of marginalisation, as well as providing the opportunity to study film. Some students took the course because they were unfamiliar with the term ‘Chicano’ and did not know what it meant. These views tallied on the whole with Dr Pitman’s expectations. Students who had spent their year abroad in Latin America, particularly Mexico, wanted to gain more knowledge and understanding of the Chicano experience and be able to situate this in a broader context. When asked why Chicano studies are important, students’ responses noted the size of the Hispanic population in the US, the need to understand the minority point of view, and to gain insight into the fusion of two cultures and culture clash. All of these areas can be understood as valuable ‘transferable content’.

Graduating students, having completed the module, opined that a Chicano studies course enabled them to break down stereotypes, understand different cultures and their problems, and understand racial tensions on a global level. Dr Pitman concluded that Chicano studies, as a study of identity formation, and in particular by viewing Chicano identity from the inside and addressing representations of identity by different Chicanos, contributes to the razing of ‘ghettos of the mind’ – the essentialisation of cultures and pat discourses of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Luis Perez’s paper focused on the novel ‘Tres tigres tristes’ by Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Dr Perez examined how the various discursive and performative structures of the novel can be used to facilitate students’ understanding of the socio-historic forces shaping the current view of Latin America. Dr Perez argues that novels can be used to map abstract notions of subjectivity and power. Citing Lyotard’s incredulity towards meta-narratives, Perez highlighted how Latin American writers of the ‘boom’ in particular offer skewed narratives that privilege myth over history. Tres tigres tristes presents multiple, superimposed histories that do not function as reconstructions of the past; rather, they undermine the notion of a single truth and posit the reader (or student in this context) as the constructor of knowledge. Dr Perez cited passages from the text to illustrate Cabrera Infante’s use of multiple voices, the spectacle of the text, and the pithy English translations of long, wordy paragraphs in Spanish, to capture the sense of trying to depict a memory of ‘what once was and no longer is’.

The extensive discussions of students reactions and feedback were very helpful

- Seminar attendee

Sara Wood’s paper discussed an undergraduate research skills module at the University of Birmingham, wherein groups of students are required to research a particular topic. The module is designed to foster independent learning, and to encourage students to take ownership of their education; as such, students are encouraged to find their own topic to study. Dr Wood noted that the groups tend to be interested in finding new topics, to explore areas they have not studied previously. Consequently, it was found that students frequently gravitated towards borderlands topics. An interdisciplinary approach, and the use of diverse sources, is encouraged throughout, and students’ anxieties about the complexity of texts (not to mention the number that need to be studied), are alleviated by the usual of visual representations. Dr Wood highlighted students are encouraged to engage in debate in order to consolidate their knowledge.

Claire Lindsay provided some closing and summary remarks to the day. She stressed the centrality of language to any discussion of borderlands, and that working on these themes usually entails working at the margins of disciplines. Bilingual aesthetics and linguistic hybridity are key characteristics of borderlands culture. She flagged up the metaphorisation of the border as a scar or a wound, and how traumatic vocabulary is frequently used in the depiction of borders: borderlands are often ‘grating’ spaces. Literature of the borderlands frequently attempts to negotiate reconciliation between the global and the local; the universal and the particular. Dr Lindsay reiterated the difficulties of locating the borderlands, particularly in a homogenizing age that makes us all transnational subjects.