Contemporary American literature extends well beyond the white, male-dominated field of yesteryear.
“Some of the foremost English departments in China still adhere to the conventional American literary canon, which consists mostly of works by white male writers.”
At a recent conference on American literature and the changing world, held in Beijing at the Renmin University of China (RUC), three UCLA professors took to the podium to remind scholars from Iran, Korea, Oman, China, and elsewhere, that the producers of literature in America span myriad ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds.
“Some of the foremost English departments in China still adhere to the conventional American literary canon, which consists mostly of works by white male writers,” says UCLA Professor King-Kok Cheung, who assisted Professor Keli Diao, chair of the RUC English department, in organizing the conference.
Cheung, who teaches English and Asian-American studies, discussed Chinese heritage in American literature. Professor Ali Behdad, chair of UCLA’s Department of English, spoke about xenophobia and xenophilia in the United States, and her colleague, Professor Richard Yarborough, who teaches English and African-American studies, discussed the topic of black power and African-American literature in the 1960s.
“Ali, Richard, and I all question narrow conceptions of American literary history,” says Cheung. “In addition, being an Iranian-American male, an African-American male, and a Chinese-American female, respectively, we are also visible signs of American diversity in a changing world.”
Another U.S.-based speaker was Trinity College Professor Paul Lauter, who serves as the general editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, the first comprehensive anthology designed to reflect the full range of literary voices in the United States.
The event, held June 30 – July 1, was jointly sponsored by UCLA. More than 100 participants from 87 universities, including those in the United States, attended the opening ceremony. Among them was Professor Cindy Fan, UCLA’s interim vice provost for international studies and professor of geography and Asian-American studies.
Professors Diao and Behdad expressed the hope that this landmark event will be but the first of many fruitful exchanges between Chinese and U.S. literary scholars.