KRISTINA GRAAFF, Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 274 pp.
Jan25

KRISTINA GRAAFF, Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 274 pp.

Kristina Graaff, Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 274 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 In the late 1990s, street literature novels emerged in urban areas in the United States and have since risen to popularity particularly among African Americans. So far, this kind of popular fiction has rarely been addressed by academia, and in the instances that street literature has attracted scholarly interest, the discussions largely center either on classificatory questions or on these novels’ potential as an educational tool for promoting literacy among adolescents from marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds.[1] Kristina Graaff’s Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration presents an attempt to comprehend this literary phenomenon outside of the already established critical discourse. Her interdisciplinary analysis acknowledges street literature as a genre in its own right and examines the interaction between its representational and material organization. It focuses on ‘the streets’ and ‘prisons’ as symbiotic spaces that figure prominently in the narratives as well as in the lives of the authors, publishers and readers. By investigating the narrative and social (re)configuration of these two spaces, the author convincingly argues that the genre essentially reflects and rewrites larger socioeconomic developments, e.g. the increasing dominance of neoliberalism and the so-called War on Drugs with its concomitant system of mass incarceration. Moreover, examining this genre as both a social practice and a literary phenomenon enables Graaff to show street literature’s inherent ambiguities if not, in some instances, its double standards, in that it criticizes the street-prison symbiosis narratively while the involved actors often rely on it economically.   In the first part of her study, Graaff introduces her conceptualization of ‘the streets’ and ‘prisons’ as the analytical framework undergirding her investigation. Her account of the current U.S. justice system is noteworthy in this context, as it places special emphasis on the processes that engendered the emergence of prisons as institutions of mass incarceration and continue to govern their maintenance. At the same time, the author critically examines the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans within the current U.S. justice system and criticizes the mainstream media and their coverage for amplifying racial prejudices about criminality by habitually portraying black men as violent perpetrators. Instead of accepting these populist explanations, Graaff proposes alternative explanatory models that better account for the growth of the (black) prison population: Besides the War on Drugs with “its variety of penal policies that […] are discriminatorily implemented in black low-income neighborhoods” (49) and “are more punitive toward petty crimes” (52), she also zooms in on public and private stakeholders’ economic interest in the preservation of...

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FLORIAN BAST, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices: Agency in Writings by Octavia Butler, (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 221 pp.
Jan25

FLORIAN BAST, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices: Agency in Writings by Octavia Butler, (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 221 pp.

Florian Bast, Of Bodies, Communities, and Voices: Agency in Writings by Octavia Butler, (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 221 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 In April 2014, the Guardian caused a stir by announcing that two previously unpublished stories—a novella entitled “A Necessary Being” and a short story, “Childminder”—had been found among notes and papers at a library in San Marino, CA.[1] The author of these texts was none other than Octavia Butler, the first black woman writer to gain fame in science fiction and the first to receive a MacArthur Fellowship for outstanding achievements in writing. The pieces were published in June 2014, immediately triggering a multitude of reviews in magazines, newspapers, and blogs within and outside of academia as well as an initial round of academic articles. The renewed attention around Octavia Butler thus highlights her continuing relevance within and influence on the cultural landscape of the United States, not only as a black woman writer who has considerably changed the ways in which we define the genres of science fiction and of African American literature, but as an iconic literary figure whose artistry touches audiences “as limitless as the identities of the characters in her writing” (Hampton 248).[2] Thus, Florian Bast’s monograph arrives at a particularly exciting time in Butler scholarship.   In his book, Bast analyzes selected works of Butler’s oeuvre through the lens of a central philosophical category, agency, arguing that Butler’s writing encompasses numerous texts that are centrally engaged with exploring the intricate ethical and theoretical complexities of agency—not only as individual texts but also in intertextual dialogue with each other. In so doing, Bast asserts further by echoing Barbara Christian’s “Race for Theory,”[3] Butler’s work both contributes to theoretical conceptions of agency by engaging with ongoing philosophical debates around it and exposes “the consequences that such general conceptualizations [of agency] have on those who face (multiple forms of) oppression” (18-19). Agency, as Bast points out, has been and continues to be paramount to African American (women’s) literary history, particularly with regards to constructions of the body, of community, and of voice (each of which is addressed in one of the three analytical chapters in this study) as well as to issues such as subjectivity, freedom, racism, and sexism, among many others (12). Yet this study’s focus on agency not only brings to the forefront the complex dynamics of oppression and marginalization in Butler’s texts, a notion that resonates particularly with a doubly-marginalized writer of black feminist science fiction. Even more importantly, Bast utilizes a highly productive analytical tool that does justice to and allows for the multifaceted—and often highly ambiguous—intersections between Butler’s heterogeneous works,...

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STELLA BOLAKI and SABINE BROECK, eds, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2015), Xii + 250 pp.
Jan25

STELLA BOLAKI and SABINE BROECK, eds, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2015), Xii + 250 pp.

Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck, eds, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2015), Xii + 250 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies is a collection of essays edited by Stella Bolaki and Sabrine Broeck in a transnational effort to show how the African American poet Audre Lorde’s (1934-1992) influential work has lived on. It is a volume that is based on a number of collaboratively organized conferences, workshops, and panels between 2012 and 2015, above all in England and Canada. The book is prefaced by Sara Ahmed’s very personal words, describing the meaning Audre Lorde has had in her own life as a woman “of color” (x) growing up in a white neighborhood in Australia. Ahmed’s “Foreword” makes evident that Lorde’s poetry, essays, and autobiography are political and have paved the way for radically voicing concerns about racism and sexism. It also reveals that the national is always already transnational since “the very ground of nations is shaped by histories of empire and colonialism” (xi). In times of a proliferation of the label “transnational,” Ahmed embraces a very down-to-earth definition that evokes the feminist idea of “the personal is the political”: “[…] the transnational is an actual lived space populated by real bodies. It is not a glossy word in a brochure but one that requires work. We have to work to learn from others who do not share our language. We have to travel out of our comfort zones, to open our ears” (xi). And this is precisely what the volume asks its readers to do. The editors of the collection describe their aim as exploring “the depth and range of Lorde’s literary, intellectual, and activist commitments by situating her life and work within transatlantic and transnational perspectives” (1). As early as in the introduction, readers begin to understand some of the dimensions of Lorde’s interest in connecting with black women across national borders, how the 1980s and the few years in the early 1990s brought her to Europe—above all to Germany, Switzerland, and England—and how concerned and even shocked she was to see racism and sexism on the rise again. People had connected tremendous hope with the destruction of the wall in Germany, but the racist attacks spreading across East Germany at the time motivated her and Gloria Joseph, her partner, to write a letter of protest to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and to ask: “Is this the new German version of ‘ethnic cleansing?’” (11). Such details of Lorde’s European activities have largely remained hidden, at least to those who are not actively involved in the preservation of Lorde’s legacy. They...

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STEFANIE MUELLER, The Presence of the Past in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 270 pp.
Jan25

STEFANIE MUELLER, The Presence of the Past in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 270 pp.

Stefanie Mueller, The Presence of the Past in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 270 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007), Saidiya Hartman offers an insightful rumination on the ongoing structural and personal effects of slavery in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. As she notes: “I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it” (133).[1] While Hartman has pushed generic boundaries for her considerations of racialized inequality, creating part autobiographical travelogue, part historiographical essay, part transnational sociological study, Toni Morrison has repeatedly and famously formalized her explorations of the legacies of slavery by turning to the genre of the novel. In order to analyze ways in which the Nobel laureate narrativizes the ongoing meaning of the apparatus of enslavement, Stefanie Mueller employs a sociological framework, approaching the following three novels: Paradise (1998), Love (2003), and A Mercy (2008).   The title of the monograph reviewed here takes its cue from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice (1990)—in which he locates “the active presence of the whole past” in the concept of habitus (qtd. in Mueller 34). It is this concept that facilitates Mueller’s examination of the relationship between past and present, which she combines with another, long-established sociological interest in analyzing how individuals are implicated in larger social structures. In her introductory chapter titled “Thinking Relationally,” which lays the theoretical groundwork of the monograph, Mueller surveys the sociological concepts relevant to her readings of Morrison’s novels. The most central one is Bourdieu’s habitus—“the interiorization of the exterior” (30), or “embodied history” (44n35)—located at the” interface between field and practice, which it generates and which does indeed change the field” (31n22). According to Bourdieu, individuals internalize exterior/social and prior/historical structures (of inequality) and reproduce them in their minds and actions. Habitus is thus both “opus operatum” and “modus operandi” (qtd. in Mueller 33), i.e. effect of structural relations of a field as well as generative cause of practices.   The first of four chapters offering close readings of Morrison’s novels opens with a narratological analysis of different strategies of focalization in Paradise, employed to signal the fragile dynamics of collectivization among the female characters who, as those familiar with the text will recall, assemble in an isolated place Morrison calls the Convent, set apart from an all-black town named Ruby. Mueller conceptualizes the dynamics at play between Ruby and the Convent and the functions of the line drawn between these two places with recourse to Norbert Elias and John L. Scotson’s model as...

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MICHELE ELAM, ed., The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), 246 pp.
Jan25

MICHELE ELAM, ed., The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), 246 pp.

Michele Elam, ed., The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), 246 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 In the last twenty years, the major influence of theoretical frameworks such as the “Black Atlantic”[1] and the “Black Diaspora”[2] has led to the transformation of African American Studies to a more internationally oriented academic field. While this transcultural perspective has provided new insights into the works of numerous African American writers and intellectuals, the case of James Baldwin proves particularly fruitful for this angle of research: Baldwin has not only spent years of his life in countries such as France, Turkey, and Switzerland, but he has also collaborated with (and been influenced by) numerous international artists and intellectuals, and he is one of relatively few African American writers whose work has received a broad international reception. If one adds to this fact the ongoing relevance of ‘Baldwinian’ answers to questions connected to race, gender, identity, and migration, there is hardly any ground to doubt Michele Elam’s introductory argument that Baldwin’s “prescient questioning of the boundaries of race, sex, love, leadership, and country assume new urgency” in what she calls “the ‘post-race’ transnational twenty-first century” (3).   Connected by this argument, The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin presents thirteen essays by distinguished scholars of (African) American Studies, which all aim to provide new “perspectives on Baldwin’s aesthetic practice and politics across genre, across gender, across the globe, and across the color line” (12). The volume is complemented by an introductory essay by editor Michele Elam, a ‘coda’ by D. Quentin Miller, and some additional scholarly sources (among them, a chronology of Baldwin’s life, a guide to further reading, and a list of Baldwin’s works). While the supplemental material is clearly informative for anyone with little knowledge about Baldwin, Elam’s introduction appeals to scholars who are already familiar with Baldwin’s best known novels, plays, and essays, and who have an additional interest in the lesser examined domains of his work and in the complex, often contradictory images that others have (and had) of Baldwin. Stating that Baldwin’s slipping between the categories and periodizations of literary history has frequently led to a simplification of his oeuvre, Elam highlights several underappreciated aspects of his work that are investigated further throughout the volume and create coherence between the individual contributions: Baldwin’s role as “one of the first black public intellectuals of the postwar period” (5); his complex understanding of how art can relate to social reality and activate its audience through its “ethical potency” (8); his groundbreaking conception of race and identity as socially and historically constructed; and his rich view of the...

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WERNER SOLLORS, African American Writing: A Literary Approach (Philadelphia, PA: Temple U P, 2016), 296 pp.
Jan25

WERNER SOLLORS, African American Writing: A Literary Approach (Philadelphia, PA: Temple U P, 2016), 296 pp.

Werner Sollors, African American Writing: A Literary Approach (Philadelphia, PA: Temple U P, 2016), 296 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.3 African American Writing, Werner Sollors’s latest book, commands attention for a variety of reasons: as a compilation of previously published essays, it brings to light within the covers of one single book the astounding scope, learning, and depth of Sollors’s scholarship in the field at hand. AAW begins with an essay on eighteenth-century slave narrator Olaudah Equiano and ends two centuries later with a discussion of African American writing in the age of an Obama presidency. Some of the essays originally appeared as introductions to critical editions, such as the Norton critical edition of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Du Bois’s Autobiography by Oxford University Press; others were contributions to publications with rather limited circulation, as in the case of Sollors’s riveting account of African American intellectuals and Europe between the two World Wars, which was first published as part of a special issue of an academic series by the University of Tours (GRAAT) and dedicated to the late Michel Fabre. One essay, on LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman, was taken from Sollors’s first book Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (1978), a pathbreaking study of Baraka’s metamorphosis from Beat to black poet based on Sollors’s dissertation at the Freie Universität Berlin; not only does this early monograph on Baraka stand out as a major achievement in the criticism of African American literature as ‘American’ literature, it also paved the way for the exceptional career of a German scholar of African American studies at two Ivy League universities, Columbia and Harvard.   Taken together, the twelve essays assembled here cover a large, impressive body of African American texts, both well and lesser known: from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Charles Chesnutt’s plantation stories, to modernist novels such as Jean Toomer’s Cane, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Richard Wright’s Native Son; from programmatic essays (by Wright and Hurston) and a discussion of the influence of anthropology and sociology on African American writing, to Du Bois’s ambiguous account of his visit to Germany in 1936 and, finally, a survey of contemporary black literary responses to the notion of interracial kinship and a post-racial society (both concepts have been widely discussed after Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first black president). The essays also display Sollors’s unique approach to African American writing, i.e., his attempt to understand the text under scrutiny as part of a larger transnational American modernist tradition without eclipsing its ethnic cultural specificity. This tendency is particularly apparent in a chapter on Jean Toomer’s Cane, in...

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