Cyclical Time, Slaughter, and Colonial Violence in Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex.

51k44V73W7L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I assigned Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005) as an incentive to begin work on the fourth chapter on my dissertation. In all honesty, I was using my students and our in-class discussions as a sounding board for my own ideas about this complicated novel. Unlike other readings this semester (besides Beloved, perhaps), Atomik Aztex is particularly difficult. It is formally and thematically challenging, implementing postmodern stylistics in conjunction with surrealism, Gonzo “journalism,” and the satirical, which can be baffling for readers.  Foster’s mixing of the “low-brow” and “high-art,” popular and consumer culture, Anglo-American and indigenous cultures also present a challenge for readers. My own interest in this book emerges from Foster’s “performance” of Chicanx in this novel and the possibilities that emerge from reading intra-ethnically and across racial and national boundaries.

As a “native” (I hate using this word) East L.A. writer, Foster is long familiar with Mexican-American and Chicanx culture, especially as it relates to this city. Our class began its discussion of Foster’s novel in the same way as with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by examining the novel’s epigraphs. I started our investigation of Atomik Aztex in this way to showcase the importance of framing devices in literature and, in this instance, to underline the literary networks and influences that enhance Foster’s novel. The “prologue” reads as follows:

This is a work of fiction. Readers looking for accurate information on Nahua and Mexica peoples or the Farmer John meat packing plant in the City of Vernon need to read nonfiction. (See Michael Coe and Miguel Leon-Portilla.) Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn. Also, in this book a number of dialects are used, including the extreme form of the South-Western pocho dialect, caló, ordinary inner-city slang and modified varieties of speech from the Vietnam era. This is no accident.

As some of the English majors in my class observed, Foster’s prologue/epigraph is very similar to Mark Twain’s “Notice” and “Explanatory” note in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which Foster’s note alludes:


Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.


In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.


As with our discussion of Oscar Wao, this note—funny, irreverent, and challenging—places “high art” (Twain) references alongside the “low” (histories and languages unknown to English-speaking Anglo readers). The combination of these elements (like Díaz’s combination of Derek Walcott and The Fantastic Four) create a world that challenges our understanding of hierarchical knowledge, the literary canon, and even questions of what we consider the “American” nation and “American” identity. These epigraphs initiate students in a discussion of history, and I ask them to consider whether the text presents a counter-narrative, a counter-history, to the historical archive about the U.S.-Mexico border and the conquest of indigenous populations in the Americas.

Similarly, the novel’s second epigraph, found on the same page, challenges readers to reconsider what they understand as “the real”:

Step out of history

to enter life

try that all of you

you’ll get it then.

––Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After,

translated by Rosette C. Lamont

I asked students to consider what is means to “step out of history”: how would we do this and what we would find? According to Delbo’s text, what we would find is “life,” something my students noted was more “real” than history itself; more than the historical archive is able to record.

In our introductory class on Atomik Aztex, students completed a “theme tree”—much like our other discussions—were I ask students to brainstorm themes, leitmotifs, symbols, imagery, etc. that recur throughout these initial pages of the text. I find that this activity helps structure our discussion of the opening pages and gives them ideas and things to look for as they continue reading, which you can see below.

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Because this novel is deeply invested in the history of Chicanx and Mexican-American culture, history, and literature, notions of the border, and Aztlán, I structured our discussion of the novel through the theory of Gloria Anzaldúa, especially that in Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), and the notion of “Greater Mexico” as defined by José Limón in his book, American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture (Beacon Press, 1998). These are fields that students are not typically exposed to, therefore I spent some of the time of this initial class summarizing these theories. In Borderlands, Anzaldúa famously states, “The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture” (25). Much as Anzaldúa presents a space of ambiguity and violence in the U.S.-Mexico border that challenges typical conceptions of nations and national identity, Limón’s “Greater Mexico” formulates a spectral Mexico that remains with “American” territories and cultures that yokes the U.S. and Mexico to each other. “Great Mexico” articulates an intimate and inextricable dual link between these two countries that cannot be unhinged. Atomik Aztex enacts these theories through its representations of violence––toward human and animal alike–-the foregrounding of indigeneity, and subaltern histories and cultures.

Problematically, Foster’s novel presents an alternate history in which the Aztecs are victorious against the Spanish, but instead of the restorative future envisioned by Anzaldúa and other Chicanx thinkers and activists, the victimized becomes the victimizers. Indeed, the Aztexs become a cyber-fascistic force that join forces with the Russians in order to fight against the Nazi’s, seemingly analogous to American imperialism that we see in our “reality.” Zenzontli, novel’s protagonist, is the “Keeper of the House of Darkness.” His name, from Nahuatl, means “mockingbird,” a designation I cannot help but tie to the sardonic, humorous tone not only of the prologue/epigraph, but of the entire text. I love brining in interesting details from the natural sciences into the classroom when relevant. As its scientific name reflects, the mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos (many-tongued mimic), is known for its mimicking ability. According to Wikipedia (something I definitely have to corroborate), the mockingbid is known for its intelligence: “A 2009 study showed that the bird was able to recognize individual humans, particularly noting those who had previously been intruders or threats.” I will address the other half of Atomik Aztex‘s protagonist in more detail in my dissertation’s last chapter. For now, I will only mention that Zenzón works at a meat-packing factory, attempting to unionize the workers in East L.A. (although the time period is not specified, I would guess that this is taking place during the mid-1990s).

Zenzontli’s name mirrors the text’s dizzying time travel, polyglottal text, heteroglossia,  and references to high art and low popular culture. For example, entering the field of battle, Zenzontli delivers an “inspiring” speech to rile-up his troops:

Everything I’m gonna tell you is True and it will all work in our fight against Nazism, corporate greed, golf shoes, environmental degradation, putrid aesthetiks or moral obfuskation. Aztek Secret Intelligence (ASÍ) has uncovered this numerology thru our revolutionary hallucinations, and I am revealing it here on the Home Shopping Channel only becuz we are in a life or death situation, we are stuck here in a tight spot between Point A & Point B, between a rock and an erased place. Rememberthe following numbers are not to be used for evil purposes, SMOKING CRACK, ROCK OR FREEBASING? Do you want to stop? Acupuncture & yoga relaxation techniques. Call now! 1-800-810-5551. SEXY YOUNG GIRLS EXPLORE THEIR SEXUALITY IN THEIR OWN HOME VIDEOS. Only $19.95 + $3.95 S&H. Media Vision Films 18375 Ventura Blvd. #173 Tarzana CA 91356 (818) 420-9843. (102)

Throughout Atomik Aztex ideas of capitalism, colonialism, and the violence of war and battle converge, demonstrating not only the absurdity of imperialism, conquest, and the desire for bloodshed, but also the intimate connection between war and capitalism. I’m still thinking through many of these sections in the novel, but I am interested in the ways the novel negotiates the brutality of combat, fascism, and imperial conquest with the humor and absurdity of mass marketing, infomercials, and blind consumerism. In effect, the novel makes an argument about the aesthetics of war and the necessity for beauty and utility when it comes to bloodshed: “All this death and destruction without any poetik or aesthetik point to it meant that…nothing would come it, it was all hurly burly, belter skelter, heebie jeebies, and chimichangas with a gnashing of teeth that could never amount to anything” (124).

There is so much to say about this novel, which I don’t have the time to say here. But I’m really looking forward to continuing my research for the dissertation. I’ll leave this post by noting how the publisher at City Lights very nicely put me in contact with Foster, who agreed to answer some of my questions and some that our class brainstormed together. As I said in my email to him, it is such a privilege to be able to speak directly to an author which we are reading in class. Then again, I reminded our class that while the views of a writer about his/her own work is valuable and gives us an insight into the writing process and their intent, we should also be able to disagree, talk back to, and expand upon their understanding of the work. Below, you can see our email exchange (edited for the purposes of this blog):

November 21, 2017

Maia Gil’Adí: My students were really intrigued by the pictures that run throughout the novel: they wanted to know a little more about them, the photographer, and how you chose them. They were wondering if there was a meaning behind their ordering in the book and how to read them in relation to the text? 

Sesshu Foster: The photographs are by Ignacio Bravo, who emigrated to California at about age 20 or 21 around 1930, maybe, and later worked as an assistant to photographer Edward Weston in Carmel. That’s where he learned photography, and he practiced photography for the next quarter of a century, setting up a portrait studio in San Francisco, where he also photographed phases of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as Paiute and Shoshone children at the Woodsford Indian School (now abandoned) outside Markleeville, in 1937 and 1938, and also worked, like other photographers, for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. He stopped photographing professionally during World War 2, as photographic chemicals and materials were rationed and difficult to obtain. These photographs Ignacio Bravo took during travels in Mexico during the 1940s and 50s. There is no special order to them, except that the photographs are actual pictures of indigenous cultures in transition, cultures in a nation that is majority indigenous population, and represent a record of people and places that are of course gone, a look at a vanished world, in a way. Like most of his photographs, they were never before printed, published or displayed. Ignacio Bravo was my father-in-law; he died at age 96 in 2006. His photos of Paiute and Shoshone kids at Woodsford were later published by his ex-wife, Leonore Bravo, in Rabbit Skin Blanket.

MG: My students were also intrigued/confused about the conversation that takes place between Zenzontli and Nita at the end of the novel (pp. 187-191). Some of my students called their dialogue a series of malapropisms, but wanted to know more from you about their meaning, or if there was one? 

SF: The dialogue between Nita and Zenzo on pages 187 – 191 does indeed include malapropisms, all meant to befuddle and confuse the interloper, Weasel, trying to eavesdrop in on their conversation and listen for useable, saleable union information.

MG: My class also wanted to know what your major influences as a writer are. Throughout our conversation, various references came up such as Mark Twain, the TV show Rick and Morty, Blade Runner, and James Joyce. 

SF: There’s no direct influences for the novel, though several have noted William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Philip K. Dick. due to editing requests by City Lights editors, who wished for a simpler storyline in the book, the bifurcating or bicameral structure ended up resembling a bit too much Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but that was not my original intention. I was originally thinking of a mutated structure more cracked and effusive, along the lines of Naked Lunch as well as Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Blade Runner was based on a writer whose books I read in high school, Philip K Dick. Recently I reread Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel Blade Runner was based on (which I’d read 40 plus years earlier and didn’t remember) only to find that the movie really is better than the novel, as not much happens in the novel, whereas the movie is given several layers of interest, including the Japonification of L.A., the white men lost in ethnic l.a. visual motifs, the retro-futurist look of the movie, the specificity of place transposed into the future via Bradbury bldg & union station, etc. the book had none of these layers, only a flimsy search and shoot out.

I gave Foster a brief description of my dissertation and how I saw my argument being represented in his novel.

MG: I’m wondering about your reference to the “signifying monkey” at the end of the novel: is this pointing to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book The Signifying Monkey? I’m also wondering if the monkey (both signifying and scientifik) that ends the novel is related to the Zenzontli’s name.

SF: Monkeys in the conclusion do not refer to anything related to HL Gates, but rather to aztec lore, which related monkeys to several beliefs and practices, including (but not limited to) music and “play,” that is trickery, games and amusement, and the inhabitants of a previous earth—destroyed by the gods because of its faults, flaws and errors––were turned into monkeys. i.e., or,

MG: From the research that I’ve done, Zenzontli means “mockingbird” in Nahuatl––the mockingbird being an animal able to mimic and confuse others. What is the role of confusion, cyclical time, and misdirection a driving force for your writing?

SF: These correspond to the historical roles of random chance and changing circumstance in our own lives.

As I continue my research and writing about this novel, I am amazed at the small about of scholarship on Atomik Aztex. For me, this is exciting, as my chapter on this novel attempts to remedy this silence. However, there are some wonderful articles about this novel, such as:

John Alba Cutler, “Borders and Borderland Literature,” The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 157-173.

Stephen Hong Sohn, “Minor Character, Minority Orientalism, and the Borderlands of asian American,” Cultural Critique, vol. 82 (Fall 2012), pp. 151-185.

Kristy Ulibarri, “Consuming Aztecs, Producing Workers: Economies of Indigeneity and Ambivalence in the Chicana/o and Latina/o Imagination,” Latino Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, pp. 214-233

Fuá! Fukú & Fat: Teaching _The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao_

51gCmBdtOXL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA couple years ago I taught Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One (2011), in my “Black American Literature” course. At the time, I was writing about the novel for my dissertation’s second chapter. Students did not respond well. The novel was unlike the texts that came before them (Baraka, Baldwin, Ellison, Larsen), and I think that the novel’s zombie plot and covert racial themes threw students for a loop in a course that was focused on discussing the multivalent representations of “blackness” in twentieth-century African American literature. I taught Zone One again a semester later in my “Introduction to American Literature, 1865 to the Present.” Again, students were not fans. The course concluded with Zone One, after reading “classic” texts such as The AwakeningPudd’nhead Wilson, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell, and more contemporary works by John Cheever, Sherman Alexie, and Danielle Evans. The novel’s unusually narrative voice, slow plot, and muted violence (for a zombie novel, there are very few zombies) makes the text a difficult read and my undergraduate students at the time were not responsive. In part I blame movies such as Zombieland and Warm Bodies for my student’s expectations of a zombie novel. But, of course, I must also blame myself. I attempted to give students a brief history of the zombie and its presence in American culture in order to think-through how this particular monster functions in lower Manhattan, an area replete with the specters of colonialism and ties to the Caribbean, particularly sugar production.

I cannot emphasize this enough, I *love* Zone One––it is formally innovative, funny, and completely upends conceptions of the monster and of blackness in literature. Honestly, I was, and probably still am, slightly obsessed with this book. This is all to say that it is difficult to teach (and write about) texts one deeply admires.

Although I do not feel the same about Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), I am also invested in this novel. The first chapter of my dissertation focuses on Oscar Wao and some of Díaz’s short stories, specifically “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” from his second short story collection, This is How You Lose Her (2012). So, I was also nervous about teaching this text in “American Horror Stories,” not wanting to repeat the failures of Zone One two years before. Boy was I wrong. Again and again the students in this course surprise me and raise my expectations for future groups of students. Teaching Oscar Wao was a pleasure, as so much in this course has been. As always, students came to the text with insight and meaningful questions that pushed our discussions in important ways.

It’s hard to believe, but a decade has passed since the publication of Oscar Wao. I’ve been thinking about this article from Remezcla about the ways Díaz’s work has transformed the literary marketplace and the Latinx literary scene in particular. In many ways, Díaz’s work since Drown has put other Latinx writers on the literary map and helped English-speaking readers reimagine Latin American, the Caribbean, and the type of fiction that emanates from these spaces (i.e.: reconfigured Latinx literature as being more than Magical Realism).

There has been a great deal of scholarship on Díaz’s work since the publication of Drown, but most scholarly attention has certainly focused on Oscar Wao. As I’ve said in conference papers and in my book-in-progress, Díaz is our Latinx writer du jour, much as Sandra Cisneros, Cristina García, or Oscar Hijuelos were before him. However, unlike the Latinx writers of the 1980s and 1990s, Díaz has assumed celebrity status, drawing crowds to his readings, appearing in podscasts (On Being, New York Public Library, This American Life, and NPR’s Alt Latino, to name a few) and dominating the pages of The New Yorker (seventeen authored pieces since 1996), one of the literary trend-setters of the U.S. Most recently, Duke University Press published Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination (2016), an edited collection particularly useful for the Díaz scholar, and which originated from a conference centered on his work. Besides containing scholarship by important Latinx academics, this collection also has an interview with Díaz I gave to the class in order to frame our discussion of the novel––”The Search for Decolonial Love: A Conversation between Junot Díaz and Paula M. L. Moya.” In it, Díaz states:

In Oscar Wao we have a family that has fled, half-destroyed, from one of the rape incubators of the New World, and they are trying to find love. But not just any love. How can there be “just any love” given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean — that Trujillo uses in the novel? The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence. I am speaking about decolonial love.

Indeed, much of the conversation about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in ENGL 3810 focused on its representations of the Caribbean, the haunting of the past and personal trauma (fukú), and the possibility of overcoming this history, or what Yunior calls a “zafa”: a counter-spell that could foment a regenerative future for him and the Dominican people and its diaspora. As one of my students pointed out in our two-week discussion, the de León family saga (and through his narration, Yunior’s personal history) acts as a case study for discussions of Dominican and Caribbean experiences of trauma.

Surprisingly, none of my students had read Díaz’s work before, perhaps a symptom of the status Latinx literature holds within larger conversations of “American” literary and cultural studies and the “American” literary canon. It was wonderful seeing students’ reactions to reading this novel for the first time, and I was particularly impressed with their tackling of Spanish words, phrases, and slang, and their in-depth appreciation of the extensive footnotes that run throughout the text.

Our introductory class period was mostly spent close reading the epigraphs of the novel, the first from Marvel’s Fantastic Four:

“Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus?”

Fantastic Four

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

(Vol. I, No. 49, April 1966)

The second is an excerpt from Derek Walcott’s poem, “Schooner Flight”:

Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!

From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road

to when I was a dog on these streets;

if loving these island must be my load,

out of corruption my soul takes wings,

But they had started to poison my soul

with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl,

coolie, nigger, Syrian, and French Creole,

so I leave it for them and their carnival—

I taking a sea-bath, I gone down the road.

I have known these islands from Monos to Nassau,

a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes

that they nickname Shabine, the patois for

any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw

when these slums of empire was paradise.

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

Derek Walcott

This led us to a discussion of Galactus, his role in the comic book, and how these epigraph might be related to the novel’s title. A cosmic entity who consumes planets in order to sustain life force, Galactus elicits notions of immense force and power. Yet students smartly observed how the novel’s title introduces Oscar as “brief” yet “wondrous,” a word that connotes extra-ordinaryness and otherworldly-ness that perhaps could combat Galactus’ presence. The epigraph from The Fantastic Four also introduces readers to ongoing conversations surrounding the study of popular culture and its relation to notions of “high art.” I pointed students to the careful attention to detail the text lends to this reference, citing not only the comic book’s authors, but also volume number, issue number, and precise date of release (month, day, and year). I asked students to consider this archival minutia––geekery if I’ve ever seen any––in relation to how Walcott’s poem excerpt is referenced, i.e.: without the same citational details of the previous epigraph. In effect, the discrepancies here point readers to understand science fiction, popular culture, and fantasy references to be of more importance in the novel (for more, you can hear Díaz speak about this in the New York Public Library podcast). Although I agree with Díaz that an important secondary or tertiary narrative can be found within these references, the “high” literary details such as the Noble Laureate’s poetry, allusions to Joseph Conrad, and references to canonical authors are significant for this text and our understanding of Yunior as a burgeoning creative writer. As our discussion of Oscar Wao proceeded, I attempted to place the novel within other literary movements, most importantly postmodern pastiche and the post-9/11 novel.

Notions of uncertainty and cataclysmic terror open the novel, and we spent much of this first class period discussing the importance of fukú americanus as a foundational structure for our reading practices and understanding of the novel’s characters, diasporic history, and potentials for redemption. I asked students to consider the following questions as they continued their reading of the book, keeping fukú as an essential keyword in the plot: How does fukú structure the novel? How does this term introduce us to Antillean history and the potentials for Dominicans in the DR and its diaspora? How does this term teach us to the read everything that follows?

Like the texts we read before this one, our discussion centered on the notion of haunting and the possibility of escaping the horrors of history. As with Beloved, our conversation about Oscar Wao addressed the human body, Oscar’s obesity and Belicia’s hypersexual representations. I posited that throughout the novel the female body is presented as a world-destroying presence, a harbinger of (male) apocalypse. For example, the novel describes the Gangster’s desire for Belicia as follows:

I mean, what straing middle-aged brother has not attempted to regenerate himself throughthe alchemy of young pussy. And if what she often said to her daughter was true, Beli had some of the finest pussy around. The sexy isthmus of her waist alone could have launched a thousand yolas, and while the upper-class boys might have had their issues with her, the Gangster was a man of the world, had fucked more prietas than you could count. He didn’t care about that shit. What he wanted was to suck Beli’s enormous breasts, to fuck her pussy until it was mango-juice swamp, to spoil her senseless so that Cuba and his failure there disappeared. (123-124)

In its depiction of Belicia, the novel not only sexually objectifies the Afro-Caribbean female body but also transforms her into the earthy arena on which past historical events such as the Cuban Revolution are explored. The novel considers the hemispheric turbulence caused by Cuban Revolution through its individual effects and its repercussions on the female body, staging sexual intercourse as an extension of dictatorial violence. The Gangster’s future after the Revolution appears “cloudy” (123), and the act of “fuck[ing]” Belicia enables the transformation of her vagina into a stereotypically natural (and tropical) space of danger, stagnation, and death that erases entire political movements. There is much more to say about this passage, but this is just a brief close reading I performed for my students to demonstrate how to “mine the text for meaning” (a phrase I use to talk about analyzing texts).

In effect, there is so much to say about this novel. However, I want to conclude this post about teaching Oscar Wao by commenting on our discussion on the novel’s silences and those things left unsaid (something that returned us again to Morrison’s work). Throughout our conversation we also talked about Yunior’s reliability as a narrator, the novel’s multilinguality and code-switching (i.e.: who is this novel written for?), the sexual politics and misogyny that runs throughout the text, and the footnotes as presenting a counter-narrative to the Oscar and Yunior’s story.

There are many silences in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as can be seen in the various references to “página en blanco” (blank page/s) (78, 90, 119). As with the unknowable words of the mysterious Mongoose that rescues Beli from the cane fields––“_____ _____ _____” (301)—and the words Yunior cannot say to Lola (represented textually identical to the Mongoose’s)—“and I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us. _____ _____ _____” (327)—the de León family history and the nation’s past is unrecoverable. Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather is rumored to have written a book about the horrors of Trujillo and the cataclysmic past of the Dominican Republic. However, this book, like Oscar’s final letter is never read/found. Throughout our discussion on the novel’s silences, I presented an argument to my students about the possibilities of representing the horrors of Caribbean history and its haunting in the present, and whether the novel can indeed act as a “zafa.” Like Oscar’s excessive physical description and Belicia’s hyper-sexuality, I argued to my students that the novel demonstrates the impossibility of depicting the horrors of history through narrative language. The text reverts to multiple beginnings and endings, excessive descriptions of violence (physical and emotional), multiple references to popular culture and “high art,” and those things left unsaid in order to attempt to depict the haunting of Caribbean violence, without completely being able to do so.

Like Yunior, I am finding it difficult to end my writing about this story. I leave you with this reading by Díaz from the novel. He is a wonderful public speaker and reader of his own work, and I showed my students this clip to demonstrate the power of his narrative voice:

There is so much scholarship on Díaz and Oscar Wao. The following are so of my favorite articles and chapters about this work:

Hanna, Monica. “‘Reassembling the Fragments’: Battling Historiographies, Caribbean Discourse, and Nerd Genres in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Callaloo 32, no. 2 (2010): 498–520.

Machado Sáez, Elena. “Dictating Diaspora: Gendering Postcolonial Violence in Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat.” Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction, University of Virginia Press, 2015, pp. 154–96.

Miller, T.S. “Preternatural Narration and the Lens of Genre Fiction in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Science Fiction Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): 92–114.

Saldívar, José David. “Conjectures on ‘Americanity’ and Junot Díaz’s ‘Fuku Americanus’ in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The Global South 5, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 120–36.

Vargas, Jennifer Harford. “Dictating a Zafa: The Power of Narrative Form in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 39, no. 3 (2014): 8–30.

Further Díaz reading:

Watching Spider-Man in Santo Domingo,” The New Yorker, November 20, 2017.

Under President Trump, Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon,” The New Yorker, November 21, 2016

MFA vs. POC,” The New Yorker, April 30, 2014

Loving Ray Bradbury,” The New Yorker, June 6, 2012

Addendum: During our “Monster Blog” presentations one student, Noor, brought up the character of Olga, whom Oscar dates early in the novel and marks him as a “normal” Dominican male. She convincingly argued that Olga’s ugliness and Puerto Rican-ness mark her as not only Other, but as monstrous as well. I added to this observation that, indeed, Olga is a sensory monster: visually “ugly,” non-Dominican, and also importantly “smelled on some days of ass” (13).

“It was not a story to pass on”: Teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved

1031607I started this blog post earlier in the semester as my students and I were ending our discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). It has been difficult keeping on-track with blogging during this course; finishing my dissertation and being on the job market (more than anything, really) has taken-up most of my time. As I fly home for Thanksgiving, it is difficult to believe that the semester is almost over. Today we discussed the first half of Jonathan “Swifty” Lang’s graphic novel, Feeding Ground, which I will address in a blog post soon (I hope!).

I have to give my students so much credit. They have been exemplary, bringing so much intelligence, flexibility, and curiosity to the table in all our examinations of the texts we have discussed this semester. The “Monster Blog” is something I envisioned before the course started, and I am thinking through ways to apply it more clearly and regularly to our every-day conversations. I wished to have blogged alongside my students, commenting on their posts every week.

When I began this blog posts about Morrison’s important (this word seems lacking––how do you describe a novel of this significance in American letters?) novel, Beloved, I was thinking about our discussion through the analysis of Saidiya Hartman’s essay, “Venus in Two Acts.” As in all her work, Hartman considers the role of archivists, historians, and literary scholars mining the African American tradition, asking:

How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen to for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments of the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?…Can beauty provide an antidote to dishonor, and love a way to ‘exhume buried cries’ and reanimate the dead. (3)

It is crucial that Hartman turns to the science fiction of Octavia Butler in order to grapple with the silences of the historical archive and the impossibility of writing about the violence and loss created by slavery. When the protagonist of Butler’s Kindred, Dana, travels to the past of the 1820s and encounters her enslaved ancestor, she also finds herself unable to rescue her family from the violence of slavery, but comes to accept that it is this system which has made her own existence in the twentieth century possible:

The task of writing the impossible…has as its prerequisites the embrace of likely failure and the readiness to accept the ongoing, unfinished and provisional character of this effort, particularly when the arrangements of power occlude the very object that we desire to rescue. Like Dana, we too emerge from the encounter with a sense of incompleteness and with the recognition that some part of the self is missing as a consequence of this engagement. (14)

I find Hartman’s analysis in “Venus in Two Acts” (in all her work, really), particularly useful for thinking about Morrison’s project in Beloved. The novel’s complex structure obsessively circles around the trauma of infanticide without arriving at the event itself until late in the novel (the same is true of other moments of individual trauma, such as Halle’s butter-covered face and Sixo’s murder). As we discussed throughout our reading of Beloved, the text’s content is mirrored in its formal qualities: as the narrative’s plot unearths questions of memory, confronting the violence of the past, familial love, and forgiveness, it emulates the uncertainties each character feels through repetition, interrupted character plot lines, and narrative fragmentation.

At the beginning of our discussion of Beloved, I asked students to consider the role of pain and memory in the novel, concluding here that the novel’s form demonstrates the overwhelming and recurring effects of trauma and horror that is paradoxically always present but always unrecoverable. For example, in one of the novel’s emblematic scenes, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved speak to, against, and past each other as the text moves quickly through each character’s point-of-view (POV). Importantly, it is in these “conversations” that each character defines themselves and their relationship through their affiliation to the ghost and to death. As Beloved begins to formulate a tenuous understanding of herself as an “I” (a construction that should remind us of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House), stating, “I am,” “I am not,” “I do not,” “I cannot” (251), she simultaneously defines herself through her ownership of Sethe: “I am Beloved and she is mine.” The ghost of the past attempts throughout the novel to assert itself, first in 124 as a red light or handprints on a cake, then as a lost young woman, and finally as a succubus-type entity that insatiately feeds on story and food alike. Beloved’s desire to be in the present and posses Sethe is, moreover, a need to be of her as well, asking throughout her stream-of-consciousness, “Will we smile at me?” (254). These questions demonstrate the collapse of the individual in the face of horror, where victim and victimized (in this case Sethe is the perpetrator of violence) become one and the same. Furthermore, Beloved’s speech patterns also demonstrate the breakdown of past, present, and future and the enduring effects of violence and the trauma of slavery. “There is no place where I stop” (251), Beloved states. “All of it is now   it is always now” (251)––in effect, the representation of this idea in language breaks-down on the page itself, necessitating extra space (extra breath? extra pauses?) to illustrate it.

As my students’ analysis of this novel demonstrated, Beloved performs the impossibility of expressing the pain of slavery and its aftermath in language, much as Hartman’s analysis of Venus contends with the silences of the archive and the certainty that writing about the archive and its omissions is always a failed, yet necessary, task. Throughout this semester I have continually been impressed with my students’ ability to tackle difficult material, and their approach to Beloved exemplifies their focused attention to what we have been calling throughout the semester “the grammar of horror.”

During the two weeks we dedicated to this novel (definitely not enough time!), many students noted how as Beloved asserts herself as a physical presence in 124, becoming engorged as if pregnant, Sethe seems to shrink (294), demonstrating the chokehold the past has on possibilities in the present and regenerative future. At the conclusion of our discussion of Beloved, our class explored how Beloved is not only Sethe’s (and her family’s) individual trauma, but representative of communal suffering. Beloved is, as Paul D describes her, an “ocean-deep place” (311)––Middle Passage and baby ghost, “a hot thing” (250) and “crawling-already? baby girl” (122)––and her haunting extends beyond her physical presence in 124 and her effect on Sethe, Denver, and Paul, but portrays communal horrors as well. Indeed, the novel’s ending returns us to its opening dedication. The repetition of “This is not a story to pass on” throughout the last pages of the text remind us of the “Sixty Million and more” to which the novel is dedicated. As we concluded our conversation about Beloved, our class discussed the different interpretations readers could make depending on where they place their emphasis: Is it “This is not a story to pass on” or “This is not a story to pass on“? In the first instance, the phrase denotes an imperative for a story not to be transmitted to future generations, a story not to be repeated, while the second emphasis instructs readers that Beloved’s story is one that should not be ignored, passed over. However, as Morrison’s dedication clearly illustrates, the importance lies in the “and more”––unrecoverable stories like the ones Hartman presents in “Venus in Two Acts.” Impossible to obtain these narratives, we must contend with the violence and mourning Beloved’s body represents.


“joyful loneliness”: The Haunting of Hill House

51vi+Zx7NdL“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Eleanor keeps repeating throughout Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which Stephen King rightly called “as a nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read” (286), and along with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (which we have also read in this course), one of the “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years” (270).

It is always strange to me that Jackson’s horror novels are not more widely read. Students in my courses usually recall reading Jackson’s highly canonized short story, “The Lottery,” in high school––rightly considered a masterpiece of American letters––but have not heard of her other novels and memoirs such as The Sundial (1958), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), and Life Among the Savages (1953).

Jackson is a writer’s writer, revered by authors such as Victor LaValle, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Lethem, yet her influence in the American literary canon highlights her absence within it. Interestingly, Netflix is adapting Hill House into a 2018 series, which they are calling a “modern interpretation” of Jackson’s 1959 classic. Hopefully, they will do this novel justice and will reintroduce audiences to her work.

Much like “The Lottery,” Hill House seduces readers into a horrific scene of communal torture that reflect the time’s zeitgeist. In order to demonstrate how the novel accomplishes this, we spent some time close reading the opening of the novel as class. Throughout this semester I am reminding students that all texts teach us how to read them and, as such, we should pay attention to what I am calling in this course the “grammar of horror.” Hill House opens (and closes) as follows:

No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

What does it mean for a narrator to introduce us to a novel’s plot through negation (“no living organism”)? A mechanism of disorientation, “no living” is highlighted further down the paragraph by its description of Hill House as “not sane”—a pronouncement that, unlike calling the house “insane,” underscores its strangeness and danger by calling attention to its opposite. Moreover, the house’s “not saneness” stands in deep opposition to Jackson’s impeccable use of adverbs—“neatly,” “sensibly,” “steadily”—that call into question the paradox of a house that appears to be in-order yet holds “darkness within.” The use of semicolons here (three in this short paragraph), also creates a breathless and claustrophobic sense in its reading, while also holding the sentences tightly together through the semicolon. In fact, students called attention to the use of the semicolon by other authors such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, remarking how their work also implements the semicolon as a continuation of ideas that bleed into each other. Lastly, the comma in “walked there, walked alone,” while not grammatically necessary creates a last breath in the paragraph that forewarns readers of what they will encounter if indeed they are brave enough to open the doors to Hill House. Indeed, the comma highlights the isolation of “whatever walks there” while also demanding we recognized the presence of the haunting. (On of my students beautifully continued our investigation of the grammar of haunting in his own blog post, “The Grammar of Monstrosity,” examining how syntax and grammar enact the text’s slow unraveling even while the characters attempt to condense the house into a manageable whole).

Hill House continues with the grammar of haunting consistently throughout. As Eleanor slowly learns to verbalize an individual identity—outside her role as daughter, sister, and caretaker—she also becomes enmeshed with the house. After one of the house’s manifestation of haunting, for example, Eleanor wakes content, “looking at herself in the mirror” (100) and a sense of euphoria stating, “I am here. I am here” (104). Yet, Eleanor’s sense of herself as an “I” is troubled and troubling. Thrilled by the possibility of freedom outside of her mother and sister’s homes and the fledgling relationships with Theo (and secondarily, Luke) Hill House seems to promise, Eleanor is undercut (undercuts herself?) by the house’s desire to consume her (“Help Eleanor Come Home”) and her wish to remain in the house, perhaps to “walk alone.”

Our class concluded our examination of Hill House by asking, if “journeys end in lovers meeting,” who is the lover Eleanor came to meet? As the haunting manifests itself more and more, Eleanor appears to be looking for her mother, calling “Mother” “Mother?” throughout the house and partakes, much like the governess in Turn of the Screw, in haunting herself (169). Indeed, Eleanor begins calling the house a “we” (170) and demonstrates her inability to perform as an individual “I.” We discussed the possibility that Eleanor’s lover was the house itself, or in a strange incestuous desire to return to the mother (a Freudian reading if I’ve ever seen one!), the house (domestic, maternal) is emblematic this desire, failed and pathological as it might be. I would content, however, that the lover Eleanor was searching for was actually herself. Her repeated return to notions of individual personality traits (“I have a red sweater”), fantasies of escape, and homecoming (“I am home,” 171) reveal Eleanor’s desire to become herself and, after years of serving others (her mother), claims ownership of her body and future. I would also argue that her suicide (“I am really doing it,” 181) is, in effect, a manifestation of the ultimate act of individuality and desire for the self.

Jackson’s novel has been adapted various times into feature films, most successfully as The Haunting (1963):


and unsuccessfully in 1999 with actors such as Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luke Wilson:



Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House.

King, Stephen. Dense Macabre. Gallery Books, 2010.

LaValle, Victor. “Prepare to Become the Last of the Human Race.” Slate, March 2014.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Monstrous Acts and Little Murders.” Salon, January 1997

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Shirley Jackson in Love & Death.” The New York Review of Books, October 2016.

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw

This week, student’s wrote their first set of monster blog posts, which you can find here. I cannot say enough good things about these posts and how impressed I am with the work students are producing this semester. Many of these posts made wonderful connections between “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and The Turn of the Screw in relation to notions of mental health and insanity, disease and physical decay, and how landscapes and settings affect and effect monsters and hauntings. I was also greatly pleased to see students veer outside the classroom and connect our readings to other cultural productions such as the children’s cartoon film, Monster House, and the newly released Steven King adaptation, ItAs the semester continues, I look forward to reading the smart discussions that take place in these spaces.

On Thursday, September 7 and Tuesday, September 12 our class discussed Henry James’ serialized novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898). As always, we began by brainstorming the major themes, motifs, and symbols:


As is evident from our whiteboard, students were greatly invested in the many paradoxes and mysteries presented in this text: light/dark; life/death (and the amorphous crossing from death into life as ghosts); good/evil; purity and innocence/corruption; seeing/seclusion. These are, of course, related to the house in which these events take place.

We began our discussion addressing the governess’s arrival at Bly in relation to the placid description of the house and the desire this instills in the governess of future freedom, control over her life (“I was at the helm”), and feverish conviction that she must protect the innocence and beauty of the children. Indeed, it is the governess’ desire to outrun her background and (perhaps) sexual repression that foments the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in the text. As the ghosts (and their backstories) fully form themselves for the governess, the narrative unravels, and it is the governess who because the haunting.

While most students agreed that the governess was mentally unstable and the ghosts were probably figments of her imagination, I demonstrated to students how the haunting (even if fictitious) has real effects in the text. “It was I who was the intruder” (57), says the governess as we slowly come to realize that she has become the haunting, frightening Flora into physical illness. Her intense desire to save Miles’s innocence––”help me to save you!” (63)––is, in fact, a desire to save her own. However, the freedom and control that initiated the governess’s ghost story is capsized by its conclusion, seen most clearly in the use of water imagery that becomes more and more chaotic. The placid uses of blues and boats at the outset of the novella, become claustrophobic, “engulfing” and “delug[ing]” the text (66)––the governess is no longer in control of the helm, but “clutching” (76) it and sees Miles as from the “bottom of the sea” (83). In effect, the governess’s transformation transforms the children as well, and the beautiful angelic appearance she desperately wanted to safeguard becomes a “small mask of disaffection” (70).

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention our class’s discussion about the mediation of information and role of writing in The Turn of the Screw. One student noted the difficulty of truly knowing “the truth” in this text as presented by the frame narrative. Mediated first through Douglas and then through the narrator, the tale of the governess, Flora, Miles, and the ghosts is mediated through various levels of narration and writing (telling, retelling, copying, recopying)–various obstacles–that make it impossible to arrive at the object (the event) itself. This makes the narrative’s ending that much more perplexing: Mile’s “confession” of “Well––I said things” to people he “liked” forces readers to project meaning into his silence. Because the text is so concerned with taboo, particularly about sex and homosexuality, Miles’s mysterious words forces us to supply an answer and imagine what he said; we are the sinful ones here and must take responsibility for seeing the lurid. Similarly, it is difficult to know how Miles died. Did he die of fright or did the governess smother him to death in her sensuous embrace?

Gothic Beginnings: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

September 7, 2017

Our first unit, “The Haunted House,” begins with readings by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. While “The Fall of the House of Usher” has long been recognized as an established and influential ghost story in American letters, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is typically read as a “realist” story with anti-establishment and anti-capitalist critiques. However, in Tuesday’s discussion students were asked to consider the similarities between these stories, at the level of form (how it informs content and/or creates textual hauntings) and thematic similarities. Students astutely spoke to issues of isolation, physical and mental decay, creations of knowledge/possibilities of knowing, and structural enclosures as predominant themes in both narratives.

We began our conversation about Poe’s short story, and I contextualized his place in the literary canon by highlighting how his work overturns the concerns of the Romantic period by underscoring human fallibility and man’s expansive capacity for sin. Poe’s depiction of nature is also crucial in this short story: the mental and moral disintegration we see in Usher is analogous to the crumbling of the landscape itself. As such, nature and scenery are spaces of fear and terror.

I encouraged students to think about how the short story in fact has two beginnings: 1) the changed epigraph (“His heart is a floating lute/at the slightest touch it resonates”) and 2) the narrator’s description of his arrival at Usher’s house. We discussed how the opening scene’s use of specific words such as “dull,” “dark,” “soundless,” “dreary,” “melancholy,” “bleak,” “rank,” and “decayed” creates an ominous setting and tells us what to expect in the rest of the narrative. Moreover, students made the wonderful connection between the dark imagery (and the soundscape these words create) and the deep isolation “Usher” explores. We asked of the narrative: Who is speaking in the epigraph? Who’s heart is floating in the midst of this dark landscape? In conjunction with these questions, I asked students to consider what the house was doing in this story: What does a house usually represent (domesticity, familial relationships, comfort, homeliness) and how does “Usher” capsize these conventions? How does this story demonstrated larger anxieties (through the symbol of the house) about property/ownership, nationhood and citizenship, identity in relation to wealth and property, and stagnation?

I was greatly impressed with how students responded to these questions by pointing out how the story demonstrates deep anxieties about Usher’s inability to reproduce. As the last of his name, the story focuses on his ties to the land and the house. Many students expounded on the story’s publication date (1839) and the U.S.’s nascent stages, which perhaps reveal anxieties about the country’s future. The narrative describes the house’s oppressive atmosphere(45) in conjunction with Usher’s excessive and strange disease (48), demonstrating anxieties about the inability of family lineages being continued in the landed gentry. Importantly, these notions are intimately tied to aesthetics: Usher and the narrator spend their time painting, listening to and creating music, and reading, highlighting the central role Art play in this text, and the ways in which form reveal content. This is a notion we will continue to explore in this class, as we move from short stories to serialized novella’s to novels, graphic novels, and film.

After our exploring “Usher” we discussed “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which we continued on Tuesday, September 7, and which I will summarize here:

I begun this discussion by asking the class to consider the implications of the story’s subtitle “A Story of Wall Street” in relation to Bartleby’s pronouncement “I prefer not to” and his fixture in the office (behind the screen). Although Bartleby’s polite statement seems passive, it is actually a demonstration of individuality and freewill. Indeed, as our class concluded, this American ideal (enterprise, individuality, freewill) are taken to the extreme in Melville’s novella and show the monstrosity and infection that occurs because of it: As Bartleby becomes an office fixture, almost like a piece of furniture, never leaving the office in his “dead-wall reveries” (18), the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut start repeating “prefer” (“queer word, I never use it myself”; 11), showcasing how Bartleby’s demonstration of individual desires enable others to start exploring their own.

As our discussion underscored, “Bartleby” exhibits the anxieties surrounding breakdowns of communication and the loneliness of capitalism. As the story highlights, the narrator longs for the connection his profession does not provide (Wall Street is described as an incredibly lonely place)–”I burned to be rebelled against again” (14)–and wishes to show his potential for empathy and kindness through his treatment of Bartleby.

However, the novella does not allow the narrator (or readers) to know or aid Bartleby, and this machine-like entity (a haunt?) becomes a mechanism for impeding work–an anti-capitalist and anti-relationship device. In effect, readers learn about Bartleby’s work at the “Dead Letter Office,” which one student importantly pointed out was the enactment of aborted communication in the text.

Our next text, The Turn of the Screw, will also explore these issues: isolation, communication and its breakdown, seeing and knowing. Stay tuned!


Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”

September 5, 2017

Unfortunately, I was unable to blog immediately after our class on Thursday, which focused about on Thursday  Last week students read Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” as a theoretical framework for the entire course. I was thrilled to see students not only enjoyed the essay, but actively engaged with its major tenets.

Throughout our discussion, I reminded students of the major questions the essay was addressing: What does the monster do? What function does the monster serve? What effect does it create? and Why have we created monsters?

We also addressed the etymology of the word “monster” and its reverberating effect on our daily use of language: “Monster,” as Cohen explains is a “warning,” as can be seen in words like “demonstrate.” Students were asked to keep these questions and the origin of the word in mind as they read through the semester: If the monster is a warning, if the monster is pointing-out something to us, what is he pointing to, what is he warning us of?

In our discussion of Cohen’s essay, I rewrote the main theses for clearer understandings:

  1. The Monster is a Cultural Mirror: This thesis stipulates that monsters are a reflection of their culture and mirror to contemporary zeitgeists. The monster, therefore, is not just what it is (i.e.: a wolf-man), but it is also what it signifies, what is projects, represents, reflects. For example, Godzilla is more than the reptilian monster that terrorizes Tokyo, but also a reflection of the Japanese post-nuclear experience and fear of physical transformations (deformations, mutations) because of nuclear fallout.

2. The Monster is a Temporal Mirror: This thesis is the most enticing to me, and the one students found the most intriguing and the one we focused on the most. Asserting that monster are elusive and shifty creatures, this thesis upholds that our creations are difficult to pin down and, therefore, must be examined within specific time periods. That is, the monster is always a reflection of its time; it always escapes the a static final embodiment. In other words, vampires (an example Cohen uses) are not static beings that always signify the same thing, but project different anxieties that reflect, for example, a culture’s shifting view of sexuality. Bram Stoker’s original nineteenth-century novel, Dracula, could be read as an indirect way to address deviant forms of sexuality. I showed students various images of vampires throughout popular culture in order to reflect this point:


The 1922 silent film represents vampires as a way of seeing homosexuality as plague-like: a form of self-loathing in the face of fascism.


Anne Rice’s vampires such as in Interview with the Vampire could be read as a celebration of different modes of sexuality.



Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Dracula can be read as a medium for discussing (through subtext and indirection) the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A similar phenomenon can be seen by tracing different manifestation of Batman through the decades. For example, take the Batman from the 1966 television show and compare it to the depiction of the same superhero in the 1980s and 2010s. The campy and countercultural Batman of the 1960s (perhaps an escape from the gritty reality of the Vietnam War) is transformed in the 1990s to a reflection of post-Cold War anxieties and a focus on corporate America and its gritty/darker pitfalls. Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises reflects a humorless, bleak Batman and a film obsessed with the dangers of terrorism and the destruction of the nation:

3. The Monster as Challenger of Categories: The monster resists any easy categorization by mixing and mingling different categories that challenges the neat distinctions we make as a culture; challenging us to stretch and rethink our rigid understanding of categories (i.e.: the werewolf is an aberrant amalgamation of wolf and man, being both and neither). By refusing easy categorization, the monster demands us to question the labels and frames that we’ve used to make sense of the world. As such, the monster brings crisis to binaries: “the monster’s very existence if a rebuke to boundary and enclosure” (7).

4. The Monster as Justification/Excuse: Because of the freedom the monster presents, its ability to surpass boundaries and call question to fixed definitions, the monster manifest transgressions in cultural, racial, political, and sexual categories. We apply the label “monster” on those who we wish to exclude, those who wish to harm: To “monster” someone is to drape a veil of simplicity (X = evil) on that which we refuse to confront in all its complexity. Cohen touches upon the history of Native American genocide in the U.S. as an excuse for Western expansion, but this point can be extend to other populations as well (Jewish people in Europe, other indigenous populations in the American hemisphere).

5. The Monster as Border Patrol: The monster also serves as a warning against exploration and transgression. The monster “polices the borders of the possible” (13). As such, the monster culturally prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, sexual) and acts as a border patrol to keep a society intact, stable, static, etc. Therefore, the monster is created as a bogeyman by conservative forces that wish to prevent change–the monster is a vehicle for normalization. For example, what is the moral of Jurassic Park or Frankenstein but “this is what happens when you play god with science!”?

The monster also acts as a lock on specific doors: do not go play in the woods alone because you know what happened to little Red Riding Hood; if you have sex a man wearing a hockey mask will kill you (or any variation of anti-sex morality of 1980s horror films); do not let women own property or they will become witches, etc.

6. The Monster as a Gateway Drug: The monster is, finally, an escapist fantasy. As a form of repulsion and desire/attraction, the monster acts cultural catharsis: a safe way to release some of our pent up rage and dissatisfaction without rocking the boat in any serious way. The monster is a cultural  safety valve; our repressions are channeled by culture into the monster (we “purge” ourselves) so we can go back to work on Monday morning as a nice, docile, compliant members of society. The monster can also be a form of “sublimation.” Instead of acting on our dark desires, we  we watch a football game, for example, and release our energies vicariously. The monster, therefore, becomes a form of drug, an “opium of the masses” that makes us “feel better” (i.e.: Carnival, Halloween, the monster as happy hour).

Finally, I showed the class a video from the opening episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which depicts ex-sherif Rick Grimes killing a child-zombie after awakening in the postapocalypse.

We discussed the following questions: Why do we like zombies? Why has film, literature, and television seen growing interest in the zombie? Do we find the killing of a child (zombie) satisfying, and if so, why? What “release” does the zombie provide? Onto who’s body are we projected when watching this scene?

The Walking Dead clip led to a fascinating discussion about Kristeva’s notion of “abjection” and our recognition and repulsion of figures of the corpse. We spoke about the ways the zombie exposes those things that should be neatly enclosed (jowls, intestines, brains, etc.) and how this produces a senses of fearful recognition and repugnance. Finally, we spoke about how the zombie enables viewers/readers to experience the joy of the forbidden, such as killing a child.

Introductions – Day 1

August 29, 2017

Our first meeting of ENGL 3810: American Horror Stories was used for introductory purposes. Students were asked to tell each other a little about themselves: their major and year, reasons for taking the course, and the best book they read this summer or the best TV show and/or film they watched. I was thrilled not only to see so many English majors in the class, but also hearing the variety of texts they read during their summer break. Students spoke of novels from a diverse tradition, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Milan Kundera’s The Joke, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; contemporary TV and film such as Game of ThronesDunkirk, and Planet of the Apes. It was wonderful to hear “genre” fiction and film spoken about in glowing terms–a shift in the academy that considers science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. to be aesthetic projects with important contributions to the “Arts.”

More importantly, students spoke of their love of ghost stories and horror fiction and film. After introductions we spent some time brainstorming “What is a monster?” and students used fantastic language in order to describe their preconceptions of monsters, ghosts, and hauntings: “depraved”; “morality”; “the grotesque”; “fear of death”; “mysterious.” As we read through the syllabus, I described how each text spoke to and/or expanded the notions of monstrosity and haunting we had brainstormed earlier. Indeed, our course this semester asks students to expand these notions and be able to find the monstrous in unexpected places.


In preparation for our readings on Thursday (Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Theory (Seven Theses)”) I spoke to the class about the importance of keeping the etymology of “monster” in mind as a basis for all our readings. From the Latin “monstrum”––a portent or unnatural event––monsters signify a warning, they point to contemporary anxieties and say “look at that!” As they read throughout the semester, I asked students to consider, What is the monster warning us about? Why is he warning us? What does he point to and why?

Finally, we reviewed in detail the “Monster Blogs” students will be curating this semester, and I’m excited to see what they come up with!

About ENGL 3810: American Horror Stories

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Welcome! Classes at the George Washington University (GWU) start tomorrow, August 28, 2017, and I am getting ready to introduce the students of ENGL 3810 to the rich world of horror, speculative fiction, and hauntings in American literature. Choosing texts for this course was as exciting and inspiring as it was frustrating. There is such a fabulous array of texts that showcase monsters, hauntings, and horror since the turn of the century, and it was a difficult experience cutting texts from the final selection. Fortunately, my reflections in this blog will speak to those texts that could not be included in the syllabus this semester.

English 3810: American Horror Stories is a course I created for GWU, through which I was awarded a CCAS Graduate Teaching Fellowship for Fall 2017. As an undergraduate seminar, this course examines the significance of monsters and hauntings in American culture from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. Our course will be organized around in-class discussions, close reading analysis, and, more importantly, a “Monster Blog” students will create and curate throughout the semester. And since students will be required to make their analysis of this semester’s texts public (via blogs), I will also be posting bi-weekly about our class activities, reflections on that day’s texts, and further reading recommendations. I will also provide links for my student’s blogs, readings, and assignments throughout the semester.For more detailed information about the course, please see the syllabus. I hope you’ll read along with us!