Book Reviews

Ellen McCracken, New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity

Ellen McCracken, New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999). Pp.256. 19.95 USD paper. ISBN 0-8165-1941-2.

Focusing on select works of several "Latina" women's writers (especially the novels and the short stories) emerging in the 1980's and 1990's, in her study Ellen McCracken emphasizes the ethic diversity within Latina women's writers through her analysis of cultural practises by authors of different Hispanic background (language; customs; political attitudes; religous beliefs; sexual preferences; buying habits; national, ethnic and racial backgrounds etc.) as they manifest themselves in their literary texts.

Drawing on recent cultural (Birmingham school, Laclau, E. Butler-Evans, E. Said), Marxist (T. Eagleton, R. Williams), feminist (Herrera-Sobek, J. Butler) and other theories and in keeping with F. Jameson's idea of the commercial character of literature and culture (literature and art as a "commodity"), she applies these theories not only to show the cultural diversity of Latina narratives, but also to show how foregrounding the cultural and ethnic difference as well as multiculturalism in these writers' texts becomes "... desirable and profitable postmodern ethnic commodity...because sameness is not as marketable in current conditions as is difference" (pp.4-5).

McCracken analyzes the works of "Latina" writers who grew up in the USA and wrote their works in English, primarily Chicana (Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Mary Helen Ponce, Denise Chavez), Puerto Rican (Judith Ortiz Cofer, Aurora Levins Morales), Mexican (Demetria Martinez), Cuban American (Cristina Garcia) and Dominican American (Julia Alvarez).

Arranged into six chapters her work addresses the issues of "feminine space" which she understands in terms of dichotomy "containment" and "resistance" (chapter 1); "high" and "popular culture" (chapter 2 in which she analyzes the authors' decentring master texts such as the Bible and romance novels as well as everyday secular and religious practises as the expression of revision of historical memory); individualism and collectivity (chapter 3 in which she gives the analysis of these issues as well as the role of private and public "egoes" in construction of both ethnic and feminine identity); orthodox and non-orthodox religious culture (chapter 4 in which McCracken focuses her attention on orthodox, popular, and syncretic religious images as the expression of social justice and a new moral vision as the reflection of alternative models of cultural behaviour); culture-subculture (chapter 5 which deals with alternative sub-cultural expression, especially the youth culture, sexual and lesbian textual transgressions which break the sexual taboos and undermine both the dominant and male culture from both within and outside); an narrative harmony and dissonance in connection with several authors' depiction and handling of the issues of gender, ethnicity, politics, and aesthetics (chapter 6).

Although McCracken's innovative interdisciplinary study shows quite clearly her feminist stance and a certain sociological and ideological bias, in contrast to many orthodox feminists, she tends to relativize the idealization of women and ethnic groups depicted in several literary works by ethnic authors. She also relativizes some critics' simplistic (multi)cultural approach to literary texts. What must also be praised is McCracken's treatment of the aspects of some literary works and the role of aesthetic issues in construction of meaning which many contemporary critics using "fashionable" theories seem to neglect. Although within the episodic structure of her study, paraphrazing the plots of literary works seems to be redundant, for students and scholars unfamiliar with recent trends in US. Latina narratives this strategy is very helpful.

From this point of view, McCracken's inclusion of pictures of several "Latina" cultural religious artifacts (milagritos, retablos, statues, holy cards) must be appreciated as an important factor helping to illustrate their meaning and function in literary texts. In addition, McCracken's study analyzes several aspects of different cultural practises within the "Latina narratives" (language, religion and cultural practises) which form a relevant part of construction of meaning in these literary texts and without which the entire meaning would for the non-Latina perceiver be incomplete.

Better understanding of several aspects of Latina popular religious culture is achieved by the author's inclusion of photographs representing it. This analysis thus shows McCracken's academic competence to deal not only with U.S.A. Latina cultures and its diversity, but also shows her understanding of their foreign roots. From this point of view, her detailed analysis of Sandra Cisneros's short story Little Miracles, Kept Promises deserves especial mention (pp. 128-149) as one of the most impressive studies.

In conclusion it must said that despite several critical comments I have made, this interdisciplinary study represents a very good example of connection of "cultural", "ideological" and partly "aesthetic" theories and an approach which avoids simplistic treatment and even idealization of the "fashionable" contemporary issues such as race, gender, and class. Not only the topical subject of this book, but also its interdisciplinary treatment represents a very stimulating academic study which calls for appreciation by students and scholars both familiar and unfamiliar with the subject.

Jaroslav Kusnir
Proforskej University, Slovakià