The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
Laurie Grobman. Multicultural Hybridity: Transforming American Literary Scholarship and Pedagogy. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2007. 207 pp. $37.95 (paper).
by Mark S. Graybill, Widener University
Early in 1991, Gregory Jay famously proclaimed it “time to stop teaching ‘American' literature” and “construct a multicultural and dialogical paradigm for the study of writing in the United States” (264). Nearly two decades later, questions about how best to do this persist, and as a result, so does use of the term “American” in article, book, and course titles. As Laurie Grobman observes, the “ongoing efforts to rethink and reconfigure American literary studies” that have emerged in the wake of Jay's call to action have influenced the critical conversation, but “have not effected lasting change” (122). Multicultural Hybridity represents her attempt to clear a path for such change, and with this book, she has produced a well-researched, level-headed, and most of all, useful, contribution to the field.
In the introduction, Grobman modestly suggests, “I would like to think that the ideas developed here are part of an effort to heal some of the discipline's divisions of ‘us versus them' as it attempts to construct a hybrid form without centers or margins” (xviii). Indeed, over the course of five chapters, she seeks to build bridges between numerous factions, including, most saliently, liberal and critical multiculturalists. The former, who are widespread throughout primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions nationwide, appeal to a “politics of equal treatment,” seeking to expose students to other cultures in order to foster “compassion and understanding” and to highlight that which unites human beings (9); the latter subscribe to a “politics of difference,” focusing on historical injustice and persistently unequal power relations, with the goal of direct social transformation. Liberal multiculturalism provides an accessible way for young people to learn about other cultures but, in addressing universal ideas, too often “ignores and distorts the many distinctive cultural elements in [a] text” (10), while critical multiculturalism attends to both the culturally specific meanings and political dimensions of a text, but too often at the expense of a common humanity.
To resolve this situation, Grobman turns to political scientist Iris Marion Young's relational conception of difference to mobilize that which is best in each approach. Though a proponent of the politics of difference, Young's position “that groups are ‘overlapping' and ‘constituted in relation to one another'” allows for a hybrid theory of multiculturalism in literary studies that recognizes “group identity and group interdependence” (19). Grobman's concept of hybridity is heavily influenced by postcolonial theorist Homi Babha's “notion of the ‘Third Space of enunciation' . . . which posits hybridity as an ambivalent and contradictory space in which the colonizer and colonized interrelate, deconstructing—and then reconstructing—subjectivities and cultural systems” (21), though she draws on a multitude of theorists, including Jay, Cyrus Patell, Mary Louise Pratt, Martha Nussbaum, and Mikhail Bakthin. A great strength of the book is its employment of ideas from across the academic spectrum. If Grobman's own voice occasionally gets buried in the mix, this is a worthwhile risk, since the study models the dialogic approach it espouses for other teachers and scholars.
Grobman's background in rhetorical theory and practice are evident throughout. She recognizes that the grounds she covers are heavily contested—not just between liberal and critical multiculturalists, but among modernists, postmodernists, formalists, and anti-formalists—and she carefully works both to acknowledge the many valid concerns held by these groups and the potential pitfalls of any single theory. For example, in discussing the politics of difference, Grobman notes in some detail “the clear advantages to forming . . . group-based allegiances within higher education” (15), a sincere and thoughtful concession, before going on to note that “[s]ince groups have many narratives, stories, and representations, and individuals have many cultural and group affiliations, a politics of difference risks replacing one master narrative with another and suppressing difference within racial, ethnic, and cultural groups” (16).
Similarly, chapter three explains why the related concepts of aesthetics and canonicity have proved problematic for many devoted to the multicultural study of literature, giving credit to those scholars who asked early on the difficult questions about these categories, but goes on to argue that reducing literary texts to political expressions can cause teachers—and more important, students—to lose sight of the powerful roles of genre, technique, and imagination. This will be a welcome insight to many teachers who take a more traditional approach to texts. It must be coupled, however, with Grobman's equally persuasive, counterbalancing point in chapter four, “Hybrid Politics and/of Multicultural Literature,” that “[r]eading texts as neither overtly political nor exclusively fictional gives us a certain freedom to imagine possibilities or to shift our worldview, . . . . Here, I believe, lies the power of a hybrid reading of literature: it allows us to takes these inquiries beyond the realm of the imaginative” (103). The idea that literature must be embraced and taught for both its aesthetic properties and social influence is powerful in its simplicity but daunting when the time comes for classroom implementation.
Keenly aware of this difficulty, Grobman discusses pedagogical approaches to and teaching resources for numerous texts, including Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Momaday's House Made of Dawn, Walker's The Color Purple, Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, Rivera's . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, and Ng's Bone. In the concluding chapter, “Refiguring American Literature,” which provides the most direct response to Jay's call, Grobman offers concrete advice on how to implement a hybrid model to teach U.S. literature (rather than the problematic “American”) in both general education courses and offerings in the English major, providing sample syllabi for many different types and levels of courses, all of which are informed by these crucial questions: “We know the many ways traditional genres have been revised by writers of color, but what has resonated from these revisions back to white writers, and how do we reread traditional texts differently once we see them crossed through with such revisions?” (131). In addition to fulsome lists of works, Grobman gives less space to out-of-class activities to support the teaching of those works, which may cause mild frustration for teachers in search of good ideas for implementing service learning in literature courses.
There are a few other areas about which one may gripe. Though Grobman implies that undergraduate students should develop a historical sensibility, one of her controlling metaphors, “border crossing,” encourages students to move back and forth between cultures and texts “regardless of chronology and direct influence” (146), which might strike some as too ahistorical. On the whole, though, Grobman leaves ample room for students to develop historical sensibility in other ways. Moreover, those teachers who have already used intertextuality to teach multicultural texts know that it has interesting “equalizing” effects for students—since no text can stand on its own, but exists only in relation to others—making engagement with author, work, genre, and so on less intimidating. Indeed, at times Grobman's notion of hybridity becomes nearly indistinguishable from intertextuality, even though she ultimately rejects the latter as the best way to theorize and teach multicultural texts, because it “was built upon a white male canon” (34). This is a questionable reason to delimit the theory, especially since she acknowledges that the biological “concept of hybridity is deeply embedded in a legacy of racism and hate” (20). If hybridity has been susceptible to positive transformation, then why not intertextuality?
Such questions, however, while interesting to ponder, do not ultimately mar Multicultural Hybridity. While I suspect that some specialists in ethnic and multicultural literary studies will regard the book as unnecessarily gentle, Grobman deserves credit for wading into some fairly treacherous waters thoughtfully and carefully. In the tradition of the Refiguring English Studies series of which it is a part, this study does exactly what Grobman herself claims any good language and literature teacher should do: it does its homework on some pretty thorny material without losing sight of the need for accessibility and application.
Jay, Gregory S. “The End of ‘American' Literature: Toward a Multicultural Practice.” College English 53 (March 1991): 264-81.
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