beloved communities : Solidarity and difference in fiction by Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, and Joy Kogawa

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: Since the civil rights era, the concept of community has become increasingly politicizedin the US and Canada. Inextricably entangled in the new social movements andmulticulturalism of the 1980s and 1990s, community tends to be either much malignedor exaggeratedly extolled in the literary, cultural, and political discourses in which itfigures so prominently. The novels examined in this study, however, probe both thelimitations and the possibilities of community as a site for psycho-political empowerment.Bringing a variety of theoretical critiques of community to bear on Michael Ondaatje'sThe English Patient, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Paradise, and Joy Kogawa's Obasan andItsuka, the study analyzes the criteria for inclusion and exclusion at work in the types ofcommunity imagined in these texts, paying particular but not exclusive attention to theprinciple of race.Though imagining community in terms of race, place, nation, or gender risksreinforcing essentialist views of identity and repressing intra-group difference, the novelscounter that risk, at least in part, by returning to historically specific moments of collectivetrauma and oppression. Each novel's focus on collective social experience, it is argued,works in various degrees of opposition to the individualism at the heart of humanistthought. At the same time, however, the depictions of systemic violence and historicaloppression, as well as those of resistant solidarity, inevitably appeal to "universal"conceptions of human value, justice, and, in the case of Kogawa and Morrison, publicnegotiation of difference. The readings of the texts scrutinize the instances andimplications of tensions between essentialist and constructivist foundations for variousforms of community. From these readings emerges a view of community as a conceptuallycomplex and unstable terrain.

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