Who Would Have Thought It?: Space and Hybridity in Chicana Literature and Literary Humanitarianism and the Short Story: Understanding How Genre and Ethics Intersect in "The Gold Vanity Set"

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Erin Kathleen Houlihan (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: Postcolonial studies demand new ways of understanding identity and have developed concepts such as hybridity to address the needs of identities that resist stringent classifications. For Chicana literature, authors like Gloria AnzaldĂșa have emphasized the mestiza, or the hybridized identity, giving new meaning to what it means to live on the border. However, this hybridized border identity cannot exist without first acknowledging the theoretical and spatial aspects of the border. This essay argues that the hybridized border identity and the geographic border location are elements of identity that must exist simultaneously. A prime example of a text that positions the hybridized identity in relation to geographical contextualization is Who Would Have Thought It? by Mexican-American regionalist writer, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton. In Ruiz de Burton's text, various forms of hybridity develop as the lines between North/South/West, citizen/foreigner, white/black/Mexican, rich/poor, and public/private blur. It is through the various regional spaces of New England, New York, Washington D.C, and Mexico that these hybridities develop, illustrating how an emphasis upon geographical locations can clarify the hybridized identity within a physical location. Critical debate has arisen over the ethics of readers' approaches to texts about social injustices and human suffering. Scholars like Joseph Slaughter have asserted that an ethical approach to reading demands an exploration of the relationship between the reader and a text's suffering characters. Slaughter argues that to create the most effective empathy between reader and textual subject, readers should position themselves not as the sufferer but instead as "the humanitarian, the subject position of one who already recognizes the human dignity of the wounded and attempts to relieve the suffering." I extend Slaughter's idea one step further and assert that the reader should not only be conscious of his or her relationship to the sufferer, but also of his or her relationship to the text that tells the sufferer's story. In evaluating the latter relationship, an exploration of preconceived notions about form is critical. Specifically, interrogating assumptions about literary form can ultimately result in a more ethical interpretation of texts pertaining to human suffering and social injustices. In exploring assumptions about literary form, I rely upon a genre whose very definition is based on form, the short story, a genre bears the weight of structural ideals such as brevity, totality, character development, and limited temporality. When one breaks down these assumptions, a greater reflective space, fewer representational characters, and a resistance to textual "mastery" can develop, stimulating a more ethical connection between the reader and the short story's characters. I locate my exploration of short story reading in a work by Mexican-American writer, Maria Cristina Mena, entitled "The Gold Vanity Set." On the surface, this particular story follows the many conventions of the short story form; however, these conventions also work against themselves, creating a stereotypical portrayal of indigenous Mexicans that simultaneously voices concerns about the oppression of this group. The ambiguous portrayal of this subaltern group makes "The Gold Vanity Set" a valuable story to consider when exploring ethical reading, for awareness of assumptions about form helps readers make sense of Mena's textual ambiguity. My goal is not to propose a moral code for reading, but instead to explore the various ways that one might achieve a more ethical relationship to the text through the deconstruction of literary assumptions that can impede the realization of human rights and social justice for subaltern groups.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2007
Space, Hybridity, Mexican-American Writers , Short Story, Ethics

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