Contemporary writers represent race in new ways, Stanford literary scholar finds

In an examination of contemporary American literature, Ramón Saldívar, professor of English, shows how ethnic writers are creating a new racial aesthetic.

In 2009, a year after Barack Obama was elected president, Ramón Saldívar, professor of English and of comparative literature at Stanford, read something that caught his eye. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Colson Whitehead, an African American novelist, proclaimed that the United States had become a “postracial society.”

portrait of Ramon Saldivar

In a forthcoming book, literary scholar Ramón Saldívar explores how contemporary writers are combining representations of race and racial identity with the literary experimentation. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Whitehead used the term ironically in response to claims that since a black president had been elected, racism in America was something of the past.

His curiosity piqued, Saldívar set out to explore whether and how the issue of race in America had evolved in recent years. To do so, he examined the works of several young writers – African Americans, including Whitehead and Percival Everett, Touré Neblett and Darieck Scott, as well as Asian Americans like Sesshu Foster and Karen Tei Yamashita. Sherman Alexie represents Native Americans and Marta Acosta, Michele Serros, Yxta Maya Murray and Salvador Plascencia do the same for Latinos/Latinas. Perhaps the best known among the authors Saldívar studies is Junot Díaz, a Dominican American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).

Diverse as they are, for Saldívar these writers have much in common. All were born after the heyday of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And their works – including Whitehead’s John Henry Days (2001) and Zone One (2011), Everett’s Erasure (2001) and Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005) – reexamine race for the 21st century.

Saldívar found that these writers tinker with new ways of imagining and talking about race through fiction, signaled by Whitehead in his ironic proclamation of a “postracial society.” As Saldívar put it, they are “combining representations of race and racial identity with the wildest literary experimentations that one could imagine.”

Race, reimagined

“Whatever ‘postrace’ meant in 2009,” said Saldívar, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election “it is now painfully obvious that the election of the first African American president of the United States never meant and does not today mean the end of race or racism.”

From the first years of the Obama administration, he explained, “it seems clear that calls for postracialism involved a specific historical desire – a hope for new ways to think about and deal with race and racism, and a wish for new ways of representing race for the contemporary moment.”

Saldívar sees a direct connection between current racial tensions and the literature he studies.

“The authors I am studying see the deepening of economic inequality, especially in communities of color, the calls for racial profiling, the threats of expelling millions of undocumented workers and walling the southern borders of the U.S. plus overt racial appeals in the guise of resisting political correctness as incitements to race-based violence,” he said. “Their novels are ways of addressing these incitements to renewed racial hostility in interesting new ways.”

Consider Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), a novel set in the near future. It takes place in New York City, following a zombie epidemic that leaves most people dead. While most of the novel tiptoes around race, its later chapters address the issue directly. Only late in the novel do readers learn the protagonist’s race.

“It’s a deferral of the subject of race in the narrative,” Saldívar explained, “as if race in the near-future world doesn’t matter anymore. But the deferral turns out to be a joke – an ironic riposte to the question of what it would take for race to disappear as an issue in America. Whitehead’s sardonic answer, it seems, is that it would take the end of the world.”

Reality and fantasy

Saldívar’s attempt as a literary scholar to explain what race means in the 21st century is the foundation of his forthcoming book, The Racial Imaginary: Speculative Realism and Historical Fantasy in Contemporary Ethnic Fiction.

This new generation of writers does two radically contradictory things, he said. They rely on “realism,” or in Saldívar’s words, “a way of documenting things that have happened, or could happen.” Yet they also warp realism into science fiction and fantasy, bending genres into what he calls “speculative realism.”

“Speculative realism” blends documentary style with all manner of fiction, such as science fiction, gothic, horror, high fantasy and even pornography. “They are using two modes or more simultaneously, within one text, one episode or even one paragraph,” Saldívar said, “to productive and creative ends.”

The literature of speculative realism draws attention to race and identity in subtle, yet provocative ways. For Saldívar, “in the background what stands out is the continuing importance of race as an issue which has not disappeared, but if anything becomes more powerful the deeper into the 21st century you get.”

These examples show that fantasy does not distract us from reality; it makes us understand reality better.

“The issues we face are so deep and so recalcitrant that these authors make readers consider what would it take to represent the truth of racialisms in the 21st century,” Saldívar said. “An answer is that none of the old forms is by itself sufficient.” By mixing fantasy with reality, literature can address complexities that other forms of thinking cannot touch.

“I see our current political climate as one in which racism is still a major force in American society. In this context, postrace is not the illusion that we have achieved [i.e., the end of racism]. It represents instead a desire for new ways of calibrating racial identity, and of creating the possibility of having one’s own personal stake in contemporary history, with the end of the era of Obama,” Saldívar said.