Caroline Rody


On her book The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction

Cover Interview of March 13, 2011

The wide angle

I was trained as an ethnic Americanist and wrote my first book on African American and Caribbean women’s fictions about history—mostly novels about slavery.  You might think of that project as a kind that followed a “vertical” imaginative axis: the axis of one specific literary tradition (or in this case, two related traditions).

But as I researched that book, I was surprised to keep bumping up against a “horizontal” axis, in which writers imagined their historical heroines having significant encounters with women of other groups.

My best example is always Toni Morrison’s powerful Beloved, in which a pregnant, escaping slave woman who goes into labor in a Kentucky wood unexpectedly finds a midwife in a stray “whitegirl” also running north, away from servitude in a violent home.  The fact that Morrison draws these two women as parallel as possible, given the imagined historical moment, that she plants secret, interethnic cooperation right there in the very womb of her own ethnic history—the last place one would expect to find it, and that the baby birthed by these two in the wilderness is named after the white midwife, alerted me to a deepening interethnic imbrication in American literature.

As I found such encounters multiplying across the historical fictions I read, my first book grew a counterplot of hybridity to complement its preoccupation with ancestry.  And I found my next subject in the interethnic imagination of contemporary literature.  I now want to extend to a general view of contemporary fiction the surprising twist that developed in my first book’s conception.

A good deal of ethnic literary critique still proceeds in distinct ethnic and racial areas.  I have no interest in unseating the ethnic critical paradigm that traces distinct historical traditions, seeing every people’s literature as a crucial generator of stories to live by and a strategic identity marker for the marginalized.  But I want to supplement this approach by offering the interethnic, a model that attends to the dialogism that arises where peoples and cultures meet.

Indeed, since I first began to track the phenomenon in the early 1990s, the hybridity of culture has become a more and more popular critical theme, in part through the influence of postcolonial, critical race, and globalization theories.  But while cross-cultural and comparative studies have multiplied, the core of this book’s argument still needs to be articulated.

It is now broadly agreed that artists and writers, the ethnic groups and cultures from which they stem, and the cultural forms they produce, have always been intertwined.  The Interethnic Imagination announces the emergence in our moment of a literature that presumes, that is founded on multiethnic interconnection, and it is this reality that I want to make apparent to readers and scholars.