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Alien Form: Genre and the Production of Ethnic American Literatures

Organized by Tina Chen, Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies, and Toni Jensen, Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing), the 2014 CALS Spring Symposium showcased the work of Penn State’s Ethnic American literature faculty. “Alien Form: Genre and the Production of Ethnic American Literatures” centered on the production and marketing of Ethnic American literature as well as the cross-pollination between literary fiction and genre fiction. “Alien Form” asked how genre and literature’s formal properties can be deployed to counter the strong desire to read Ethnic American literary production in terms of “identity,” “culture,” and “the authentic.”

By choosing to focus on texts that depend upon, acknowledge, interrogate, and sometimes even disregard generic categorization, the symposium’s two main goals were to cultivate conversation between writers and critics and to explore some of the unique strategies of reading, interpretation, and pedagogy required by Ethnic American literature. 
-- Tina Chen

Bringing together literary critics and creative writers from Penn State and beyond, “Alien Form” questioned the aesthetic possibilities and limits of Ethnic American literature as itself a generic category from both sides. The invited speakers included award-winning writers Karen Tei Yamashita, Stephen Graham Jones, Sheree Renée Thomas, Nelly Rosario, and Ken Liu. (For a biographical information sheet, click here.)

The first panel, “The Making of Ethnic Stories: Generic Instability and the Literary Marketplace” opened with Karen Tei Yamashita’s interactive performance art piece about racialization in a cyborg futurity. The rest of the panel was similarly exciting: Ben Schreier critiqued the institutional framework by asking whether and why Jewish American literature lacks “ethnic authenticity”; Nelly Rosario shared her fascination with how second languages reconfigure our understandings of native languages and read an excerpt from her novel-in-progress; Judith Sierra-Rivera asked the audience to consider how magical realism has become the single dominant aesthetic for Latino literature; Aldon Nielsen questioned whether cultural studies is able to speak poetry without subordinating it to the position of historical evidence; and Toni Jensen directed audience members to “the possibility of bothness,” a means of resisting the categorical divisions that structure how we read and write.

Stephen Graham Jones’s reading from a new short story about rabbit-eating werewolves set the tone perfectly for the afternoon panel, “Zombies, Aliens, Cyborgs, and Others: Genre Fiction's Ethnic Afterlives.” Focusing on the idea of “genre slumming” surrounding Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Amanda Page asked whether ethnic authors can define the meta-narratives their works take on in the literary marketplace; Sheree Renée Thomas discussed issues of inclusion/exclusion she faced while compiling the Dark Matter anthologies; Linda Selzer questioned literary criticism’s “mania for categorization” and suggested that the resulting separation between literary and paraliterary works does a disservice to both traditions; and Ken Liu discussed the relationship between his writing and science fiction, arguing that the genre itself has a strong “defense mechanism” that ethnic writers must carefully negotiate. The last presenter, Tina Chen, argued for the aesthetic opportunities of genre fiction by contending that literature itself is a form of “alien abduction,” an encounter with the unknown from which we are always returned, but changed.

Tina Chen reflects, "The symposium was the culmination of a series of earlier conversations—in undergraduate classrooms, in graduate seminars, between faculty, and at discussions with the public—which made evident the importance of bringing together critics and writers to tackle some of the challenges unique to the creation and teaching of contemporary Ethnic American literatures.  While werewolves and cyborgs allowed us a fun opportunity to discuss questions of cultural competency, minority representation, the balancing of political voice with aesthetic practice, and authenticity as reading and interpretive practice, we look forward to sustaining additional conversation about these issues as we continue to work on making Ethnic American literary production more visible at PSU."

Photos from "Alien Form":

Back row: Amanda Page, Linda Selzer, Nelly Rosario, Toni Jensen, Karen Tei Yamashita, Aldon Nielsen, Tina Chen. Front row: Sheree Renée Thomas, Ken Liu, Stephen Graham Jones. Not pictured: Ben Schreier and Judith Sierra-Rivera.

Sheree Renée Thomas discusses the challenges of editing the Dark Matter anthologies.

Stephen Graham Jones reads from a new short story about werewolves.

Tina Chen introduces the morning panel on genre and literary production.