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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

16. The Search For Identity

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Feinberg

Who's Interviewed:
Mary Pat Brady, professor of English (Cornell University); Patricia Chu, associate professor of English (George Washington University); Sandra Cisneros, award-winning author and poet; Leslie Feinberg, transgender activist and award-winning author; Greg Sarris, professor of English (Loyola Marymount University)

Points Covered:
• Explains how women writers in the 1970s through the 1990s blurred genres (fiction and nonfiction, novels and short stories) to tell their stories.

• Connects feminist and identity movements in the 1970s and 1980s to parallel developments in literature, and explains that as women gained more political and social power, their writing also garnered more respect.

• Shows how these later writers recovered largely forgotten women writers from the past (e.g., Zora Neale Hurston) to establish a women's literary tradition.

• Addresses the challenges for ethnically diverse writers of describing their communities truthfully and questioning dominant beliefs while still identifying with these communities.

• Shows how these writers used their communities' storytelling techniques, primarily the oral tradition, in their own fiction.

• Analyzes how these writers tried to separate myths about womanhood from lived realities.

• Shows how Kingston, Cisneros, and Feinberg drew inspiration from their own lives to write fiction that would bring attention to the needs of their communities. Also expresses their desires to "give something back" to their communities, or to return one day to help those who could not leave.

• Defines postmodern narrative, transgendered identity, and feminism.

• Preview the video: Inspired by the civil rights movement, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s challenged established conceptions of what it meant to be American. Partly because such works as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique sold many more copies than publishers had anticipated, literary critics and readers began to take the work of women writers more seriously in the 1960s and 1970s. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior inspired other women writers grappling with issues of feminine, American, and ethnic identity. Like Kingston, Sandra Cisneros and Leslie Feinberg portrayed in their works characters the reading public had never before encountered. These representations challenged mainstream society's definitions of women and of American identity. Like other "postmodern" writers of the period, Kingston, Cisneros, and Feinberg experimented with form and blurred genres. A mixture of fiction and autobiography characterizes their best-known works.

• What to think about while watching: What is identity? What does it mean to have a dynamic rather than a rigid identity? What does it mean to say that identity is a process? How might this idea conflict with preexisting ideas about identity? What is postmodern narrative? What writing styles did these authors use and why? What does it mean to "translate" one culture's stories into the language of another culture? How did female writers challenge the meaning of being American? What does it mean to be a woman in America? How can books help women readers to realize the options available to them? How did minority women writers complicate mainstream views of their communities while also questioning these communities' dominant beliefs? What risks did these writers take in telling their stories?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 16 includes texts by Feinberg, Cisneros, Kingston, and five additional women writers (Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Diane Glancy, and Alice Walker) as well as Thomas Pynchon and David Mamet. It expands the video's emphasis on shifting identities to address how diverse people--men, women, Native Americans, African Americans, children, artists, and others--use postmodern techniques to express their reactions to a changing society and to contribute to its development. Many of the texts and the accompanying questions ask students to examine their own relationships to society by considering the roles of heritage, community, opportunity, and identity. The unit asks students to consider "identity" in racial, sexual, gendered, financial, and educational terms. It also invites students to analyze the literature in light of artistic movements (collage, performance art), cultural trends (memorials, the city within the city), and identity theory (queer politics).

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