Ethnicity and Gender Debates

Cross-Readings of American Literature and Culture in the New Millennium

by Tatiani G. Rapatzikou (Volume editor) Ludmila Martanovschi (Volume editor)
©2020 Conference proceedings 298 Pages


The contributions in this collection underline the vibrancy as well as complexity that characterizes the study of American literature and culture in the twenty-first century with regard to the exploration and understanding of ethnicity and gender. The book aims at contributing to the research already taking place within American Studies, while opening up the texts discussed to further literary and cultural evaluations and interpretations. America is viewed here not in isolation but as part of a fluctuating as well as geographically and culturally expansive reality as testified by the Asian, European, and American background of the volume contributors.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One Race Matters: Past and Present Challenges
  • “The Taint of Blood”: Miscegenation and the Medical Discourse in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892)
  • Half a Century of Health Care in the U.S.: Ongoing Racial Inequalities in Medicaid
  • A Cinesemiotic Investigation of Race in Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup, 1853) and 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
  • ‘That Which Is Unspeakable by the White Enemy Is Speakable by Us’: Examining Racial Tensions and the Failures of Law Enforcement in Joyce Carol Oates’s The Sacrifice
  • Why Are Young Adult Readers So Momentous? Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a Case Study
  • Part Two Immigration Revisited
  • Robert Rodriguez’s Hyperreal Aesthetic of Violence: A Transnational Approach to the U.S.-Mexican Border in Machete
  • The “Outlandish Stranger”: Immigrant Identities, Photo-Textual Narratives and Ethnicity in Crisis in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project1
  • Taiwanese Diaspora and Taiwanese American Identity: Julie Wu’s Third Son as a Cornerstone of Taiwanese American Literature
  • “Fish Skull? No Way!” Food and Chinese American Masculinity in Gish Jen’s Typical American
  • Culture, Power and Society: A New Historicist Reading of I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Part Three Gender Focus: New Perspectives
  • Ladders for Ladies: American Women Muralists Working in the Midwest
  • Expanding the Transnational Mapping of the Modern Girl to Eastern Europe
  • Fighting for Gender Equality in the 21st Century and Passing the Torch to the Younger Generation
  • “Elvis Is My Daddy, Marilyn’s My Mother:” Lana Del Rey’s Camp Melodrama and the Mythopoeia of Hollywood Sadcore
  • List of Figures
  • List of Table
  • Notes on Editors and Contributors

Tatiani G. Rapatzikou and Ludmila Martanovschi


The two main strands around which this volume revolves as suggested by its title—Ethnicity and Gender Debates: Cross-Readings of American Literature and Culture in the New Millennium—are considered poignant and ever timely in the understanding of American history, politics, literary and cultural production. The current debates in relation to the U.S.-Mexican border, the #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo activist movements as well as the conversations of the U.S. with Europe and Asia on topics of (inter)national security, trade, and finances highlight the complex dynamics that shape public opinion and fuel cultural debates in the twenty-first century. Certainly, what this helps one appreciate in conjunction with the essays included in the volume at hand is that human voice and experience, especially when these come from a range of gender, racial, and ethnic positions within American society, will always rest at the center of any cultural exploration that allows for various connections as well as juxtapositions to emerge as regards our understanding of American literary and cultural writing. Through the commentary on diverse texts that have been produced since late nineteenth century, the perspectives and opinions of scholars coming from Asia, Europe, and the U.S. are brought together here in an attempt to bring to the fore concerns that have shaped and continue to shape American reality and identity even nowadays, while at the same time reveal the transcultural and global value and impact that culture- or history-specific events will always have on how American society is perceived within and outside its borders.

Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean in their exploration of American culture towards the end of the twentieth century argue that “in seeking to understand American culture, [one] need[s]; to take into account both internal variation and division as well as international and cross cultural comparison”.1 What this observation opens up to in relation to this volume is the multi-vocal and multi-perspectival context within which cultural differences, contested voices, and narratives are examined, which opens the texts under examination in this volume to various readings, cultural approaches, and interpretations. This responds to Paul Giles’ study where he writes that “American literature has always related ←13 | 14→in various ways to a wider world, not only because it is necessarily part of this worldly domain, but also because the very idea of national identity depends upon a bounding and demarcation of space, a separation of ‘American’ as a descriptor from more expansive and inchoate worldly coordinates”.2 In this respect, the current volume does place American literature in the world since both the texts themselves as well as the commentators of these texts come from different territories either from within or outside American national borders, which highlights both the pluralistic and competing dynamics of the essays collected here. In particular, both the international and cross-cultural positioning of the scholars who have been invited to contribute to this volume in addition to the peripheral position and various degrees of exclusion experienced by the immigrant, ethnic, racial, and gender voices presented in the primary sources under examination in the current project, further highlight the plurality of voices and viewpoints brought together here. This echoes Rocío G. Davis’s views when she argues that “transnational American studies […] involves disentangling disciplinary subject matter from the limits of a border-oriented frame as well as engaging in a methodological practice that acknowledges the global nature of American cultural production […] [which] challenges the dominance of the border as an epistemological category—or reveals the boundaries to be imaginary, fluid, or unstable”.3 This is exactly the case in the current volume that presents the U.S. as an expansive multicultural and multinational terrain of socio-cultural action of intersecting perspectives, critical evaluations, and synthesizing standpoints. However, the placement of this volume within a new millennium context, as the title of the collection denotes, creates certain expectations as to the kind of attitudes, perspectives, and readings each one of the essays included here proposes. This draws our attention to Martin Halliwell and Catherine Morley’s views on their exploration of twenty first century America where they note that “in the post-millennial global environment of economic, cultural and ideological exchange, the self-sufficiency and definition of the nation state has been radically altered”.4 This observation sheds light on the current tendency developing between American literature and culture scholars to attempt to read various literary texts not as retrospective examinations but as current expositions ←14 | 15→of the oscillations, inflexibilities, and tensions of the socio-cultural and political mechanisms at work within and outside the borders of the U.S.

In their edited volume, Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine argue that “the intricately intertwined geographies, movements and cross-filiations among peoples, regions, diasporas, and nations of the American hemisphere […] contextualize what can sometimes appear to be the artificially hardened borders and boundaries of the U.S. nation, or for that matter, any nation of the American hemisphere”.5 This makes clear that any proposition to approach American literature and culture in the new millennium presupposes diversified readings that look at the U.S. always in a dialogic relation with its own racial and ethnic communities as well as in conjunction with the rest of the world. This tendency has been evident in the American Studies Association Presidential Addresses that have been delivered over the years. For example, Janice Radway, in her speech presented in 1998 “challenges the idea that culture can be adequately conceived as a unitary, uniform thing, as the simple function of a fixed, isolated, and easily mapped territory”6; Shelley Fisher Fishkin in her 2004 address talks about the need to “pay increasing attention to the historical roots of multidirectional flows of people, ideas, and goods and the social, political, linguistic, cultural, and economic crossroads generated in the process. […] outside the geographical and political boundaries of the United States as inside them”7; Karen Halttunen in her speech presented in 2005 invites everyone to move beyond “a deeply conservative, essentialist understanding of place as a static location for a rooted sense of identity that is inescapably threatened by movement and flux”8; and Philip J. Deloria in his address delivered in 2009 attempts to “challenge American studies scholars to see four recent thematic interests—in race and ethnicity studies, in the national and global turns, in community scholarship, and in civic ←15 | 16→engagement—through the integrative sensibility of intersections and crossroads”.9 The different tendencies that each one of these speeches communicates serve as the context within which the present volume develops in its effort to offer researchers, students, and the general reader a synthesizing, criss-crossing, and multilayered insight into American literature and culture. Its broad thematic scope, variety of approaches, and readings provided as is the case of its reference to medical discourse, health care, semiotics, transnationalism, immigration, photo-textual analysis, new historicism, Hollywood film strategies, food tropes, female artistic practice, mass media, social media and activism, popular culture and music, attempts to interweave various cultural, gender, racial, and ethnic voices, points of view, and concerns as these emerge from the various cultural and ethnic communities represented in it.

All these cross-readings highlight the multiple shifts and processes American literary and cultural production constantly undergoes, which makes the questions Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon ask at the end of the twentieth century within the context of cultural politics still relevant:

Whose culture shall be the official one and whole shall be subordinated? What cultures shall be regarded as worthy of display and which shall be hidden? Whose history shall be remembered and whose forgotten? What images of social life shall be projected and which shall be marginalized? What voices shall be heard and which shall be silenced? Who is representing whom and on what basis?10

These questions certainly sensitize us towards the ideological undertones existing or the implicit and explicit references made in any literary and cultural text especially when this comes from groups or communities that have been treated as subordinate or peripheral. This helps one realize that in the context of cultural politics any statement, opinion or position that is infiltrated through a literary or cultural text is never innocent but always caught up in a process of reconstructing, silencing, reinventing or even imposing a view, perspective, or belief that constantly formulates and shapes public discourse and socio-cultural identity. These observations directly correspond to John Carlos Rowe’s concerns that relate to the cultural politics that emerge within American studies in the twenty-first century when he states that “[t];he meaning of cultural politics is not to be sought in a particular method but in the intersection of these activities in ←16 | 17→progressive politics committed to the demystification of such separate domains as politics, economics, education, and activism”.11 Τhis is exactly what the present collection of essays will attempt to shed light on in its effort to contribute to the dialogue and research already taking place within American Studies, while opening up the texts to be discussed to further literary and cultural evaluations and interpretations. As a result, America is viewed not in isolation but as part of a fluctuating as well as geographically and culturally expansive reality as testified by the Asian, European, and American background of the volume contributors.

The three parts that the edited collection comprises of concentrate on a separate category such as race, ethnicity, and gender, while the essays belonging to each one of these parts approach the subject-matter from various angles so that multiple and diverse opinions and views to emerge. Part One, entitled “Race Matters: Past and Present Challenges”, addresses concerns pertaining to the fields of African American and American Indian Studies, bringing fresh perspectives to older texts such as rediscovered nineteenth century novels as well as to newer cultural products representing the dynamic domain of twenty-first century fiction and film. A unique angle to understanding current American debates on race is provided by the analysis dedicated to the racial inequalities of Medicaid, which is also included here. All the five chapters illustrate the authors’ awareness about the complexity of the concepts employed by the primary and secondary texts they engage with and constitute important interventions into the ongoing exchange concerning contemporary discourse and policies on race. Carmen Birkle opens the section with an enlightening chapter that revisits a seminal text in the history of nineteenth-century African American women’s literature, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892). The article effectively investigates the plight of African American medical professionals, who were still facing racial prejudice after the Civil War, while focusing on the medical practices of looking and the intricacies of African Americans’ passing (for white), as represented by Harper in her novel. Lea Stephan’s essay, focusing on health care and race, tackles the U.S. Medicaid program nowadays in an attempt to emphasize the existence of racial inequality in health care legislation. This essay brings in a significant amount of data in support of its thesis and provides insights into debates taking place in American politics currently in relation to the health of the nation. Rounding up the section’s concern with racial ←17 | 18→challenges, Ileana Jitaru proposes the application of a semiotic analysis to a nineteenth century slave narrative, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and its 2013 film adaptation by acclaimed director Steve McQueen. Relying on theoreticians such as Roland Barthes and Christian Metz, Jitaru reveals aspects of the two texts that are bound to interest specialists both in Film and African American Studies. In her turn, the contributor Raluca Andreescu sets out to examine a recent novel by Joyce Carol Oates with the title The Sacrifice (2015). Andreescu confronts the text’s delicate themes of brutal law enforcement, sexual abuse, racial profiling, family dysfunctionality, and adolescent angst in an effort to shed light on a 1980s controversial case. Aitor Ibarrola-Armendariz focuses on the exploration of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), a young adult novel. Although aware of the misunderstandings the text has triggered on account of its inclusion of profane language and explicit violence, the essay contributor embarks on the difficult task of defending, on the one hand, Alexie’s originality, despite employing some of the staple features of the genre, and, on the other hand, the American Indian writer’s effectiveness in speaking to teenagers both Native and otherwise with sharp wit and sarcastic humor about a number of socially sensitive issues.

In many ways connected to the above, Part Two of the volume titled “Immigration Revisited” is dedicated to studies of migration within North America as well as from Europe and Asia into the United States. In this section both the roots and the routes of both the authors discussed and the characters in their stories are diverse and divergent, but what unifies all the chapters in this section has to do with the thematic threads that run through it such as the revelation of the limits of American inclusiveness, the discriminatory overtones of the encounter with the host culture, and the often traumatic aspects of the dis/re-location process. Opening the section, Noelia Gregorio-Fernández explores Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (2010) that tackles immigration directly and unequivocally by positioning the conflict in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. Moving beyond former Chicano and Hollywood film representations, Rodriquez stirs renewed interest in a cinematic text that focuses on the struggle of the indigenous communities to resist external impositions by fighting to preserve their long-held cultural ties with the region. This essay leads to Angeliki Tseti’s commentary on Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008) that reflects on the diachronic intersection between immigration and ethnic identity within an American context. Tseti capitalizes on the sophistication of this photo-textual narrative, its sensitive approach to traumatic expatriation, and its immigrant doubles of Brik, an Eastern European writer recently relocated to the United States, and the subject of his project, Lazarus Auerbach, a Jewish young man who was shot in Chicago in 1908. A different ←18 | 19→diasporic experience, but not less traumatic, is presented in Pi-hua Ni’s essay focusing on Julie Wu’s The Third Son, the “cornerstone” of Taiwanese American literature. Ni shows how Wu, through the subversion of mainstream Taiwanese history and the monolithic account that previously existed in connection to the first generation Taiwanese American immigration, configures her protagonist’s life story alongside violent twentieth century’s violent events. This 2013 novel is seen as empowering a minority group and as carving a special place for discussing Taiwanese identity within the field of Asian American Studies. In the following essay, Jiachen Zhang sheds light on Chinese American gender identity as captured in Gish Jen’s Typical American (1991) by concentrating on the role the male character’s food consumption plays in the formation of the immigrant masculine self. Less concerned with gender but with socio-cultural empowerment, Iuliana Vizan comments on I Hotel (2010) by Karen Tei Yamashita by paying special attention to key events of the civil rights movement in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The novel, through its multiple voices and perspectives, resorts to multiple genres, as is the case of fiction, philosophy, and graphic art in order to comment on immigration and ethnicity that are examined here in tandem with discrimination, resistance, and political engagement.

Anticipated by several essays already discussed, Part Three, with the title “Gender Focus: New Perspectives”, groups essays in which the feminist agenda and the construction of femininity take center stage. Thus, this part is made up of contributions that support the continuing relevance of analyzing gender with various contexts, be they Midwestern murals at the turn of the twentieth century or pop music icons of today. As an art historian, Marianne B. Woods endeavors to change the perception that American women artists limited themselves to drawing flowers and children. By emphasizing the commitment to their art and their willingness to defy preconceptions, this essay presents women muralists such as Mary Cassatt and Mary McMonnies whose late nineteenth large-scale work had an impact on younger women artists in the Midwest. This contributor’s work is followed by Barbara Nelson’s essay which turns our attention to a different cultural context, that of Eastern Europe. It discusses a little known autobiography signed by Zizi Lambrino, wife of King Carol II of Romania, on the basis of the research already conducted in the U.S. within the context of the project entitled The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (2008) interested in examining the New Woman as a transnational phenomenon of the early twentieth century. Inviting the reader on a journey of monarchial intrigue and mass media manipulation, the essay represents an important effort to approach an era much revered and much misconstrued in Romanian history and to use developments at the heart of American Studies, ←19 | 20→such as the analysis of consumption and modernity, to advance new perspectives on Eastern European Studies. Taking this section a step further, gender equality is the central focus of Elisabeth Boulot’s essay as she examines the function of the social media in mobilizing the youngest generation. Looking at the feminist agenda both diachronically and synchronically, this analysis insists on the Obama administration’s vision and commitment to defending women’s rights and engendering social reform as well as on more recent shifts at the level of the U.S. government today. Continuing the engagement with gender, but focusing on American pop culture, Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis reads Lana Del Rey’s body of work as a cultural product rooted in the traditions of camp and melodrama. The article astutely shows how this pop musician combines sadcore, a subgenre of alternative rock, with early twentieth century Hollywood imagery in order to explore iconic American themes such as the young rebel or the president’s fall. Rather than succumb to the artist’s charm, the essay contributor points to certain incongruities that transpire in Del Rey’s self-promotion, thus adding an interesting intervention in the field of American Studies.

The diversity that the fourteen essays that are included in the volume display, as regards the themes that they tackle from various moments spanning from late nineteenth century to the present day, underline the vibrancy as well as complexity that characterizes the study of American literature and culture. Τhe perspectives that they introduce signal the ongoing reformulations that take place when it comes to the understanding of notions such as race, ethnicity, and gender that the three parts of the volume shed light on. What becomes evident is the lack of permanence that characterizes the examination of these three notions which highlights both their ability in introducing different variables to what is already known and difficulty in fully capturing all the subtle nuances that may emerge from the stories and experiences that they bring forth. Possibly this is exactly where the value of this edited endeavor lies in its potential to generate multiple combinations between the perspectives introduced, which proves their animating, questioning, and opposing energy as is the case with America’s continuously debated and reconfigured position in the world.


Campbell, Neil/Kean, Alasdair: American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture. Routledge: London and New York, 1997.

Carlos Rowe, John: Cultural Politics of the New American Studies. Open Humanities Press: Ann Arbor 2012, retrieved 15.01.2019, from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ohp;idno=10945585.0001.001.

←20 | 21→

Davis, Rocío G. (ed.): The Transnationalism of American Culture Literature, Film, and Music Routledge: New York and London, 2013.

Deloria, Philip J.: “Broadway and Main: Cross Roads, and Paths to an American Studies Future”. American Quarterly Vol. 61, No. 1 (Mar., 2009), pp. 1-25, retrieved 3.02.2019, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/27734972.

Fisher Fishkin, Shelley: “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies”. American Quarterly Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp. 17-57, retrieved 3.04.2019, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40068248.

Giles, Paul: American World Literature: An Introduction. Wiley: Hoboken and Chichester 2019.

Halliwell, Martin/Morley, Catherine (eds.): American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2008.

Halttunen, Karen: “Groundwork: American Studies in Place”. American Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar., 2006), pp. 1-15, retrieved 3.04.2019, from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/195708/pdf.

Jordan, Glenn/Weedon, Chris: Cultural Politics. Blackwell: Oxford, 1995.

Levander, Caroline F./Levine, Robert S. (eds.): Hemispheric American Studies. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick and London, 2008.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
film music semiotics social media masculinity immigration transnationalism ethnic identity African American Native American Japanese American Chinese American Chicano Taiwanese American
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 298 pp., 17 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Tatiani G. Rapatzikou (Volume editor) Ludmila Martanovschi (Volume editor)

Tatiani G. Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in twentieth century American Literature and Culture at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Her areas of research include Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry, Technological Uncanny, Digital Literature, Postmodern and Experimental writing practice. Ludmila Martanovschi is Associate Professor in American Studies at Ovidius University, Constanţa, Romania. Her areas of research include Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States and American Drama.


Title: Ethnicity and Gender Debates
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300 pages