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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity

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American Prose Writers

Even as the poets covered in Unit 15, Poetry of Liberation, were fostering a rebellion, contemporary prose writers began creating a new American tradition comprised of many strands, many voices, and many myths about the past. This program explores the search for identity by three American writers: Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, and Leslie Feinberg.

Instructor Overview

Like the revolutionaries who hundreds of years earlier fought for the American colonies’ freedom from English rule, the Unit 16 authors have challenged the status quo to demand recognition as independent subjects with unique identities. These authors continue the work started by earlier feminist writers, such as Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Kate Chopin, as well as by writers who celebrated self-determination, freedom, diversity, and democracy, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alice Walker. Alongside the sweeping social revolutions of the 1970s, including the Black Power movement and the women’s movement, Unit 16’s authors highlight individuals’ searches for identity–legal, social, cultural, sexual, and artistic. With often-innovative postmodern narrative styles, these writers have claimed places not only for themselves in the always-shifting canon of American literature, but also for the communities they represent in the popular imagination’s conception of America.

In the 1970s through the early 1990s, women writers enjoyed historically unprecedented prominence, as government arts funding and publishing houses, many independent and run by women, recovered “lost” women authors from previous eras and gave opportunities to young women writers. “The Search for Identity: American Prose Writers, 1970-Present,” the video for Unit 16, focuses on three women writers who use postmodern narrative styles to enlarge American society’s definition of womanhood. In The Woman WarriorMemoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston combines fiction and autobiography to articulate how a Chinese American adolescent negotiates her values: which of her parents’ and which of the dominant culture’s values will she adopt? As she grows from childhood to adulthood, she also experiences the double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois’s term, of being both American and Chinese. Similarly, in The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes the story of Esperanza, a nascent Chicana feminist growing up in Chicago. Cisneros’s novel–actually, a collection of short vignettes that cohere to tell the story–highlights the multilayered processes of identification necessary for many Americans. This idea of identity as a process is also at the center of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Combining fiction and autobiography, Feinberg writes of Jess Goldberg, a transgendered individual attempting to deal with her own confusion in the face of mainstream society’s often hostile reaction to her sexual variance.

By discussing these and the unit’s other seven authors in the context of social changes and movements from the 1970s on, Unit 16 strives to teach students how to discuss identity as fluid and multivalent rather than static and unified. The Unit 16 archive and the curriculum materials extend the video’s discussion of identity as a process, as they situate Kingston, Cisneros, and Feinberg in relation to other activist writers of their time, as well as to texts such as David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, whose characters tell the other side of the story–how some people in the mainstream can react to societal changes that they perceive as threatening to their ways of life.

This 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 (gay and lesbian identities). The core and extended contexts can help students to better appreciate the authors’ social milieus: (1) the performance art context discusses how artists expanded the definition of “art” to raise awareness of social issues; (2) the memorials context describes some of the postmodern memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that were built in the late twentieth century and remain powerful; (3) the collage context explores the work of Romare Bearden and other collage artists; (4) the gay and lesbian identities context explains how the gay rights movement is related to the ideas of Judith Butler and other theorists who pioneered new ways of thinking about identity; and (5) the city within the city context introduces the idea of economic imbalances in America’s urban spaces. By giving students the opportunity to read literature by authors who have been involved in these artistic and political movements, Unit 16 asks students to examine their own relationships to society by considering the roles of heritage, community, opportunity, and identity.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. identify and analyze postmodern elements in twentieth-century prose;
  2. explain how minority writers (women, ethnic and racial minorities, and sexual minorities) have used postmodern narrative techniques to define their identities;
  3. discuss the relationship between individual quests for identity and the related literature;
  4. analyze the connections between postmodern literature and the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements;
  5. analyze the connections between postmodern American literature and performance art, collage, memorials, the city within the city, and gay and lesbian identities.

Using the Video

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).

Suggested Author Pairings

Sandra Cisneros and Toni Cade Bambara
Ask students to compare the children’s ideas about womanhood in Cisneros’s short stories, especially “Barbie-Q,” to Sweet Pea’s adult perspective in Bambara’s “Medley.” While the stories do not have a one-to-one correspondence, they can help you shape a discussion about the development of two authors’ feminist thinking in America. The children seem to believe that women are defined by their clothing and that any man–even a nonexistent “idea” of a man, like the absent Ken doll–are worth fighting over. But Sweet Pea resists such ideas and scoffs at the men who attempt to fight over her. Sweet Pea probably would not identify herself as a feminist, but her instinct is to take care of herself and her child before the man in her life (though you might want to discuss her lingering worries about Larry’s ability to survive alone). These characters could help you define feminism for many students who are still wary of the label “feminist.” Ask students to identify and discuss Sweet Pea’s statements of independence and self-determination.

Thomas Pynchon, Maxine Hong Kingston, and David Mamet
While the texts by these writers are quite dissimilar in many ways, you could teach students how to make connections by focusing on the importance of conversation in each of them. Begin by reading Pynchon’s “Entropy,” and discuss Saul’s ideas about “communication theory” (including “noise” and “leakage”). Then, ask your students to use Saul’s theory to analyze the conversation between Nanci Lee and Wittman Ah Sing in Tripmaster Monkey and virtually any snatch of dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross. Your students may want to discuss why they agree or disagree with the theory. This would also be a good opportunity to address genre questions: they can compare how dialogue functions in prose as opposed to drama, and compare actual “snatches” of conversation from the texts. How do different characters speak? Are they recognizable by their speech patterns: the words they choose, the examples they use, the length of their sentences?

Judith Ortiz Cofer, Diane Glancy, and Alice Walker
With “The Witch’s Husband,” “Polar Breath,” and “Everyday Use,” you can discuss how similar characters function in different texts. Ask your students to compare Cofer’s Abuela, Glancy’s old woman, and Walker’s mother. How are they similar and different? You could discuss their feminist sensibilities, including their relative awareness, or lack thereof, about feminism. Ask the question: does a woman have to call herself a feminist to be one? What does it mean to be a feminist? These stories also offer a good opportunity to discuss how the characters address aging and marriage. Why do the older women seem more confident about themselves? Think about how Abuela and Walker’s mother deal with their young female relatives. In addition, for genre discussions, it would be useful to address the importance of storytelling in each culture. How do these authors (particularly Cofer and Glancy) mimic the oral tradition in their written stories? How do their uses of oral tradition differ?

Sandra Cisneros and Maxine Hong Kingston
Use “Mericans” and Tripmaster Monkey to discuss how these texts address urban life for minorities. Compare Cisneros’s and Kingston’s depictions of whites as seen by the Chicano children and Wittman Ah Sing. What tensions are apparent within the “city within a city” in each text? You might discuss the child’s rejection of the “awful grandmother” and Wittman’s derogatory comments about “F.O.B.” Chinese immigrants. Also, closely consider the authors’ descriptions of physical places. Ask students if they can picture these communities based only on the writers’ word-paintings. Ask students to use phrases from the texts to describe the smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and textures of these communities.


Chicano/a A once derogatory term that has been reclaimed by Mexican Americans. Implies a more radical definition of Mexican Americans’ subjectivity than the term “Hispanic.”

feminism Feminism is an extremely broad and diverse term that focuses on the examination of sex and gender. It captures an expansive history of, and debate about, personal identity, political action, philosophical inquiry, and literature and literary studies. Feminism itself can be characterized as a movement, a mindset, or a way of being; feminists have examined topics ranging from the unequal treatment of women in almost every aspect of daily life, to the restrictions of patriarchal culture and its oppression of women, to the intersecting forces of race, gender, sex, and class as they impact the possibilities of knowledge, representation, lived experience, cultural and historical interpretation, and the constitution of reality itself. Contemporary feminism can be traced through an extended history of women’s activism, particularly the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. Critics have assailed what they argue is a single-minded, righteous, or anti-male intention within feminism, as the movement itself continues to expand and develop with both clarity and contradiction.

gender variant An individual who does not fit into the categories “male” or “female.” The person’s genital sexuality may not match his/her gender identity. Can include transsexual and transgendered individuals.

historical roots The values, myths, and culture that often form the foundation of an individual’s identity.

identity An individual’s consciousness of his/her own being. Can include personality traits as well as an allegiance to social categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

identity politics Movements that focus on securing rights for people from various identity groups, such as women, ethnic and racial minorities, and sexual minorities.

oral tradition Passing cultural wisdom and values from one person or one generation to another through oral storytelling. Unlike written communication, the oral tradition necessarily involves person-to-person contact and is thus by definition community based and performative. The oral tradition was an early stage in virtually every language system and is still prominent in Native American and Chicano cultures, among others.

postmodernism A philosophical and socio-historical movement that challenges the progress-oriented master narrative of Enlightenment and positivist traditions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, linguists and philosophers questioned the possibility that language can truly reflect reality, or that there can be any essential, categorical, or transcendental truth claims made about the world. From the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust, to the assertion of gender and other personal traits as being malleable and socially constructed, postmodernism has sought to explain the many uncertainties, ironies, contradictions, and multiple points of view that animate the world. Postmodern art and literature is often self-consciously reflexive, questioning the nature of the text and the authority and existence of the author; it uses techniques like pastiche, metanarrative, nonlinear constructions, absurdity, and irony. Postmodernism is at once a literary style, a critical and theoretical movement, and a description of the socio-cultural world of globalized consumer capitalism.

postmodern narrative A story that may not have a linear structure and that incorporates postmodern ideas about form and reality.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Blumenfeld, Warren J., and Diane Raymond. Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life. Boston: Beacon, 1988.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.

Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1993.

Goldberg, Roselee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Movements in Art since 1945. 5th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000. New York: Whitney Museum of Art in association with W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Further Resources
Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Before Stonewall and After Stonewall. Films produced by John Scagliotti.

hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

——. Excitable Speech. New York: Routledge, 1997.

——. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991.

LeGates, Richard T., and Frederic Stout, eds. The City Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Leitch, Vincent B., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001.

Riggs, Marlon. Tongues Untied. Film/documentary. PBS: 1989.

Trujillo, Carla, ed. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Zukin, Sharon. The Culture of Cities. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6