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The Ethnic Fantastic: Ambiguous Encounters with the Supernatural in Contemporary American Minority Literatures

Jan Stievermann, University of Heidelberg

In my paper I want to present some of the findings from my current book project tentatively entitled “The Ethnic Fantastic: Ambiguous Encounters with the Supernatural in Contemporary Minority Fiction.” In this project I examine a growing body of novels by contemporary minority writers (e.g. African American, Native American, Latino, Asian) from the US in which characters of various ethnic origins are confronted with disturbing intrusions of mysterious phenomena into their largely secularized and assimilated lives. [My four paradigmatic texts are: Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997), Loida Maritza Pérez’s Geographies of Home (1999), and Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum (2005).] In contrast to other forms of supernatural fiction (e.g. horror fiction), the numinous experiences in these novels are usually benign in nature and always connected to “primitive” beliefs or magical practices that are represented as belonging to particular ethnic religious traditions from which the protagonists have been estranged. Because of their estrangement and their self-avowed modernity the protagonists’ responses to these evasive experiences of the sacred ultimately remain irresolute as they waver between faith and skepticism. Because of irresolvable ambiguities in the narrative representation of these experiences, readers will likewise hesitate whether to privilege a natural or a supernatural interpretation.

My study has two main aspects, of which I would present a summary account: First, it offers a narratological differentiation of this group of fictions, which (with reference to Todorov’s classical study) I call “the ethnic fantastic,” from neighboring modes and genres. Here I’m especially concerned with demonstrating the distinction between the ethnic fantastic and magical realism, a catch-all category in contemporary criticism, under which also many of the works from my corpus have been erroneously subsumed. Secondly, and, more importantly, I’m working to understand the effect that the ethnic fantastic has on its various groups of readers, and how this effect differs from that of neighboring genres and modes such as magical realism. What kind of cultural work can this type of novel potentially perform for its minority target-audience, specifically with regard to negotiating the meaning of ethnic identity as a conflicted state of in-betweenness? And how do such ambiguous literary encounters with the supernatural speak to the needs of mainstream readers? With regard to the latter question I will argue that the ethnic fantastic especially caters to the growing number of educated, middle-class Americans who are moving away from organized religion and instead follow a highly individualized “spirituality of seeking” (Robert Wuthnow).

John F. Kennedy Institute