Diamonds within diamonds within diamonds: ethnic literature and the fractal aesthetic

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Author: Nina Mikkelsen
Date: Summer 2002
From: MELUS(Vol. 27, Issue 2)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,229 words

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Two questions of central importance to the study of ethnic literature define this particular kind of literature and how it might be read. Both questions exist as inseparable concerns: unless readers have knowledge about what makes literature ethnic, they can easily misunderstand or underrate an ethnic author's work.

In the effort of black critics and authors to establish a black literary criticism, there is much to tell us about defining and reading ethnic children's literature. Henry Louis Gates has said, "`Blackness' is not a material object or an event but a metaphor; it does not have an `essence' as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity. Even the slave narratives offer the text as a world, as a system of signs" (254). For Gates, a "Black Aesthetic" is "measured not by `content,' but by a complex structure of meanings" (254). Quoting Raymond Williams, Gates speaks of a "relation of structure" that "`can show us the organizing principles by which a particular view of the world, and from that the coherence of the social group which maintains it, really operates in consciousness'" (254).

Writers for Adults and Children: A Network of Relations

Toni Morrison has unfolded a great deal about how she creates ethnic literature and why critics need to understand the metaphor of "blackness" she is creating. In 1983, she said:

Critics of my work have often left something to be desired, in my mind, because they don't always evolve out of the culture, the world, the given quality out of which they write. Other kinds of structures are imposed on my works, and therefore they are either praised or dismissed on the basis of something that I have no interest in whatever, which is writing a novel according to some structure that comes out of a different culture. I am trying very hard to use the characteristics of the art form that I know best, and to succeed or fail on those criteria rather than on some other criteria. (McKay 407)

Morrison wants critics to know what she meant when she said words like "community" or "ancestor" because, as she explains, "my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the black cosmology" (407). What makes her books "black," she says, is a "deliberate sound" (409) that she is trying to catch, an oral quality that reveals the way black people talk and the "uses to which stories are put in the black community. The stories are constantly being retold, constantly being imagined within a framework" (409).

In 1990, Morrison again called for "the development of a theory of literature that truly accommodates Afro-American literature: one that is based on its culture, its history, and the artistic strategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits" (377). As more critics have studied Morrison's work in terms of her own intentions, a substantial body of criticism has emerged, which focuses on her narrative strategies, an area that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A92589727