Talking the Talk: Linguistic Passing in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-09-06 02:41Z by Steven

Talking the Talk: Linguistic Passing in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2017
pages 156-176

Melissa Dennihy, Assistant Professor of English
Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, Bayside, New York

Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel Caucasia, set in 1970s New England, follows the breakup of the mixed-race Lee family: African American father Deck, white mother Sandy, and biracial daughters Cole and Birdie. When Deck and Sandy separate following the latter’s involvement in a risky political plot, darker-skinned sister Cole moves with Deck to Brazil, while protagonist Birdie goes undercover with Sandy, passing as white to help her mother dodge the FBI. Birdie’s passing has led critics to categorize Caucasia as a contemporary passing novel, situated within a long tradition of US passing literature established by works such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929).1 However, white is not the only passing identity assumed by Caucasia’s protagonist, and the multiple forms of passing Birdie and other characters undertake throughout the novel suggest that racial identity—how one constructs one’s race and how one’s race is constructed by others—continuously shifts by context. Passing is not portrayed as a permanent crossing of the color line in this text but as an ongoing series of acts involving regular adjustments in one’s performance of racial identity. Characters pass not just for white but for multiple racial and ethnic identities, including different versions of Blackness and whiteness.

In this sense, Senna’s novel challenges views of passing as an act in which one gives up who one “really” is to “become” white. Instead, Caucasia portrays passing as a tool used when one has a specific goal or outcome in mind: passing for white is not a permanent adoption of whiteness but a performance of it, used to access privileges, opportunities, or advantages. This is an important point since, long after we have acknowledged that race is not biological but socially constructed, some recent scholarship continues to portray passing as a masking of one’s “true” self or race. Valerie Rohy writes, for example, that “the term passing designates a performance in which one presents oneself as what one is not” (219).2 The phrase “what one is not” suggests an originary self, whereas I use the term passing not to imply an authentic self hidden under a false identity but to suggest that racial identity is multifaceted and varied, involving continual reconstructions of the self in different contexts. To read Caucasia’s Birdie as a black girl who fakes it while passing as white overlooks the fact that Birdie must learn to pass for black as well as white; neither racial performance comes naturally to her. Learning to perform both whiteness and Blackness helps Birdie recognize the possibility of passing for both—and other—racial/ethnic identities: passing is not a singular transition from black to white but a series of multidirectional, continual crossings into and out of different racial identities as circumstances allow or require.

However, what is most notable about Senna’s passing story is not its multiple acts of passing in different directions but that they do not always depend solely or even primarily on physical appearance. Set in a post-civil rights United States no longer structured by the color line of the Jim Crow era, Senna’s novel presents racial identity as constructed through more than just the physical realm: the text’s protagonist learns to claim both Blackness and whiteness by modifying not only her appearance but also her use of language. The linguistic is a critical factor in facilitating successful passing in Caucasia, calling attention away from physical attributes in determining who can claim a certain racial identity. The novel’s portrayal of what I call linguistic passing—situationally altering one’s way of speaking, in addition to or instead of altering appearance, to pass as a member of or gain insider status within a particular racial group—broadens traditional understandings of passing by shifting emphasis from the physical and visual to the linguistic and audible. If one can talk the talk convincingly enough, Caucasia suggests, one can gain access to groups or opportunities one might otherwise be excluded from or…

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Feeling Cosmopolitan: Strategic Empathy in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C.

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-12-16 01:42Z by Steven

Feeling Cosmopolitan: Strategic Empathy in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C.

MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States)
Published online: 2016-12-10
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlw046

Alexa Weik von Mossner, Assistant Professor
University of Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria

“By modern research the unity of the human race has been proved,” asserts Charles W. Chesnutt in “The Future American” (122). As a black American who was light-skinned enough to pass for white, Chesnutt deeply believed in monogenesis and in the universality of the human experience. It is therefore unsurprising that the racial identities of his fictional characters are often fluid and that many of them display a distinctly cosmopolitan attitude, affirming a common and equal humanity. Matthew Wilson reminds us that while Chesnutt chose to live as an African American in a society that forced its members into clear-cut racial groups, in his writing he “strove for a universal subject position that he perceived as outside of race” (Whiteness xvii). A typical example is Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998), one of Chesnutt’s late and long unpublished novels, in which a fair-skinned black man learns that he is biologically white and finds himself faced with the question of whether he should embrace a white identity and abandon his mixed-race wife and children. It has been argued, for example by William Ramsey, that the political efficacy of the novel suffers precisely from Chesnutt’s universalist desire to “exalt humanity above race” (Chesnutt, “Race Problem” 199) because such desire “can restrict the constructive, necessary black social agency that Chesnutt himself agitated for” (Ramsey 39). Even more detrimental in the eyes of many critics is the utter lack of realism in Chesnutt’s celebration of a universal humanism that leads his idealized protagonist to forsake his newly acquired privileges in favor of his mixed-race family and a more authentic and honest life abroad.

However, Chesnutt’s reliance on romantic idealization and other sentimental narrative strategies is in fact crucial for the political charge of his novel, which he conceived in the early 1920s. As…

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Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stenographic Realism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-02-28 23:18Z by Steven

Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stenographic Realism

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2015
pages 48-68

Mark Sussman
Hunter College, City University of New York

Speaking before a meeting of the Ohio Stenographer’s Association on 28 August 1889, Charles W. Chesnutt declared: “The invention of phonography deserves to rank, and does rank, in the minds of those who know its uses, with the great inventions of the nineteenth century; along with the steam engine, the telegraph, the sewing machine, the telephone” (“Some” 74). Phonography, the name Isaac Pitman gave to his popular system of shorthand notation, had been an obsession for Chesnutt going back about a decade. While he supported himself and his family for a short time solely by writing fiction, his income largely came first as a free-lance legal stenographer and then as the owner of his own successful stenography practice. In the midst of teaching himself Pitman’s shorthand, Chesnutt wrote in his journal on 28 June 1880: “I must write a lecture on phonography—the principles of the art; its uses, and the method of learning it” (Journals 143), and so his speech marked the culmination of his desire to entwine the practice of shorthand with his other obsession, that of becoming a writer of fiction.

This essay takes as its point of departure the idea that Chesnutt’s two coinciding writerly practices—stenography and fiction—are more than merely coincidental. The connection of writing to stenography and stenography to writing, far from being limited to the singular professional development of Chesnutt (the first major black American novelist), reflects some of the shared anxieties and contradictions of the racial and literary imaginations of the nineteenth century. Stenography, as a writing system that claims to record and preserve the inflections of human speech, and literary realism, a form of writing that claims to register the vicissitudes of human experience, both participate in a form of mimesis that was, by the end of the nineteenth century, the primary site of critical discord surrounding American fiction.

However, that discord was not only literary. Rather, debates about the role of mimesis in literary production, while they found their mute brother in the technology of stenography, also shaded into debates about the nature of imitativeness and, more specifically, whether or not imitativeness was an epistemic quality rooted in race. For race scientists, anti-abolitionists, and, later, for post-Reconstruction critics of black education, the idea that “Africans” possessed an imitative nature posed an insurmountable obstacle to any real education. Further, the idea that a black person appearing to have acquired knowledge through education was, in truth, only “parroting” what they had heard suggested that while blacks could use knowledge, only whites could truly possess it. Chesnutt’s dual practices of writerly mimesis turn racialized models of imitation on their head. His novel The House behind the Cedars (1900) suggests that imitation, in the form of learned manners and etiquette, constitutes the only identifiable form of “racial” behavior, white or black. Far from a perceived special “African” quality, imitation demonstrates the literal insubstantiality of race itself. Dialect fiction, an ostensibly mimetic writing form that portrays human speech as the locus of racial authenticity, ironically materializes and substantializes what Chesnutt elsewhere strove to demonstrate was insubstantial. For Chesnutt, then, writing was the sole arena in which the paradoxes of race thinking could take shape; to write race was, in some sense, and perhaps only for Chesnutt, to literally bring race into being.

The story “The Goophered Grapevine” exemplifies this phenomenon. One of Chesnutt’s stories written largely in dialect, this tale almost seems designed to look like one of Chesnutt’s stenographic transcriptions. It displays what Lisa Gitelman has described as “the underlying matter of representing orality” (52) in even those domains of literary culture without direct knowledge of shorthand writing. The story begins, as do all of the tales collected in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899), in the first person. The white Northerner John describes his and his wife Annie’s decision to move from northern Ohio to North Carolina, both for Annie’s health and in order for John to purchase a vineyard. The two encounter Julius McAdoo, a former slave, who warns them away from the vineyard, telling them that years ago some of the scuppernong vines were “goophered” (cursed or hexed…

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Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in “Quicksand” and “Passing”

Posted in Articles, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2016-02-26 21:10Z by Steven

Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 41, Number 1, Negotiating Trauma and Affect (Spring 2016)
Published 2016-01-25
pages 165-192
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv083

Rafael Walker, Assistant Professor of English
Baruch College, City University of New York

Winner of MLA’s 2016 Crompton-Noll Award for Best Essay in LGBTQ Studies.

This paper challenges the pervasive tendency to treat Larsen’s work as explorations of black women’s lives and examines the distinctly biracial perspective that her fiction attempts to elaborate. I argue that her novels employ narratives of frustrated desire in order to show the impossibility of the racially liminal subject in a society that thinks in black and white. In developing this argument, the essay explains the aesthetic and theoretical implications that ensue from taking this biracial perspective seriously. For instance, it shows how each novel mobilizes a distinct ontology of biracial identity—biraciality as synthesis in one case (Quicksand [1928]) and biraciality as oscillation in the other (Passing [1929]). In its discussion of the aesthetics of Larsen’s fiction, the essay demonstrates how this shift in racial perspective enables us to reassess her endings, which vexed critics in her day and continue to vex readers in ours (including the scholar arguably most responsible for Larsen’s current prominence, Deborah E. McDowell). Aware that aversion to the essentialist “tragic mulatta” trope has been one of the primary impediments to concentrating on biraciality in Larsen’s work, I offer ways of understanding Larsen’s focus on biraciality as more—rather than less—subversive of American racial ideology than previous studies suggest.

The fictions of Nella Larsen have long been understood as daring explorations of black women’s sexuality and subjectivity. Deborah E. McDowell is one of the earliest and most influential exponents of this idea, suggesting that Larsen portrays “black female sexuality in a literary era that often sensationalized it and pandered to the stereotype of the primitive exotic” (xvi). According to Hazel V. Carby, Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) is “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction” (“It” 471). Similarly, Cheryl A. Wall claims: “Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood” (89). The association between Larsen’s work and black women’s subjectivity was so entrenched by the time that Judith Butler wrote on Passing (1929) that she hesitates before applying psychoanalysis to the novel: “There are clearly risks in trying to think in psychoanalytic terms about Larsen’s story, which, after all, published in 1929, belongs to the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, and ought properly to be read in the context of that cultural and social world” (173). (It becomes clear from Butler’s subsequent remarks that the “context” she has in mind is primarily racial, particularly in her claim that “both stories revolve on the impossibility of sexual freedom for black women” [178].) More recent studies have maintained this view of Larsen’s fiction, bearing such titles as “Queering Helga Crane: Black Nativism in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2011) and “The New Negro Flâneuse in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2008).1

I mention but a few of the many examples of the critical tendency to take for granted that Larsen was chiefly concerned with black women, but they suffice to reveal what strikes me as an “elephant in the room” in Larsen studies: that all of her heroines are racially ambiguous, if not explicitly biracial. In numerous ways, Larsen takes pains to show that something about her major women characters significantly sets them apart from the less ambiguously black women around them, whether it be that they can pass for white or that they have a white parent.2 If Larsen had intended to explore the experiences, psychology, or sexuality of black women specifically, it seems odd that she should have chosen to do so, in both novels she wrote, through such ambiguously raced women. Why did she not concentrate instead on a woman like Felise Freeland, a spirited…

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Ghosts of Camptown

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2014-07-13 06:41Z by Steven

Ghosts of Camptown

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Volume 39, Issue 3 (Fall 2014)
pages 49-67
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu025

Grace Kyungwon Hong, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

This essay engages the deployment of form in Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996), focusing in particular on its strategy of embedding fantastical stories within its narrative structure and on the ways in which the mystical or magical tone of these stories pervades the narrative, establishing a frame seemingly incongruous with the memoir’s setting within a military camptown in South Korea. If a classically realist tone and linear narrative arc are the formal expressions of nationalist culture, the autobiographical novel’s departure from these formal strategies, I argue, is necessary to convey the complex juridical status of the camptown. Through a curious excess of state sovereignty, because they are simultaneously under both US and South Korean sovereignty, the camptown and its residents are subject to abandonment by both nation-states, producing a heightened vulnerability to death. Accordingly, such complex relationships to sovereignty demand a narrative form organized around a complex and divided subject unlike the possessive individual at the center of traditional autobiographies, a divided subject formed around an ethics in which no one is blameless and everyone is complicit.

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Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. [Cannon]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2014-07-11 06:58Z by Steven

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. [Cannon]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Volume 39, Issue 3 (Fall 2014)
pages 207-209
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu028

Sarita Cannon, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
San Francisco State University

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 248 pages. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

Ralina L. Joseph’s timely book about representations of multiracial black women in popular culture makes a significant contribution to the growing field of critical mixed-race studies. Drawing on research in various fields, Joseph closely reads four texts produced between 1998 and 2008: Showtime’s television series The L Word (2004-09), Danzy Senna’s coming-of-age novel Caucasia (1998), Alison Swan’s independent film Mixing Nia (1998), and the reality competition show America’s Next Top Model (2003-present). Joseph examines representations of black mixed-race subjectivity in these texts through two tropes: the new millennium mulatta and the exceptional multiracial. These two very different archetypes of multiracial identity are nonetheless linked by a common desire to transcend blackness, a proposition that Joseph argues is deeply troubling in twenty-first-century America, where, although many proclaim that affirmative action is no longer necessary, structural inequalities between blacks and whites remain entrenched.

One of Joseph’s central claims in Transcending Blackness is that popular representations of black mixed-race women fall into one of two categories. The new millennium mulatta is, in many ways, a revision of the tragic mulatta figure, made popular in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Imitation of Life (1959). According to Joseph, the new…

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Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. [Orihuela]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-06-09 02:25Z by Steven

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. [Orihuela]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Published Online: 2014-06-05
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu027

Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, Assistant Professor of English
University of Maryland

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. 224 pages. $65.00 cloth; $24.50 paper; $65.00 electronic.

Colleen C. O’Brien’s Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century examines American rebel-romances written in the era of reform (1835-70) that engage with concepts as broad and contentious as race, gender, and rights in nineteenth-century America. In part, this project is indebted to the close relationship O’Brien sees between romanticism, with its ideals of freedom and emancipation, and rebellion, the necessary political outcome of a quest for freedom. Such rebellion is transfigured into the romances O’Brien studies, since a number of novels she examines center on transcendent affective relationships with liberatory outcomes. New world romances, she suggests, envision the expansion of rights and freedom to a range of different populations and respond to the changing geopolitical climate ushered in by colonial expansion. O’Brien thus directs her attention to cross-racial romances as existing in dialogic relation to the “myths of revolutionary origin in the United States and Haiti and the definitions of freedom each created” (xi).

For O’Brien, these myths of revolutionary origin or rebellion allude to the revolutionary fights for freedom in the American and Haitian contexts, as well as to the rejection of patriarchal authority. However, as demonstrated in her first chapter, American rebellion is also used to justify the white supremacist backlash that resulted from increasing demands for rights across the Americas. Rebellion thus addresses possibility as much as anxiety about national expansion and possible incorporation. O’Brien examines amalgamation—taken to mean both literary and geographical expansion—as well as the literary representations of cross-racial love and “the amalgamation of abolition and suffrage interests through the expansion of citizenship rights.”…

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Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Passing, Religion, United States on 2014-05-23 17:15Z by Steven

Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker

MELUS
Volume 30, Number 1, Indeterminate Identities (Spring, 2005)
pages 19-48
DOI: 10.1093/melus/30.1.19

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Associate Professor of the Practice of English
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Imitation of Life, one of the classic narratives of racial passing, originated as a 1933 novel by Jewish writer Fannie Hurst, but it is perhaps best known as the 1959 melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk inducing finale of the Sirk film, the prodigal black daughter, who has crossed the color line and passed for white, returns home for her mother’s funeral, collapsing in tears on the coffin as she blames herself for her mother’s death. Despite the progress of racial politics between the publication of Hurst’s novel and the release of Sirk’s film, whiteness continues to be positioned as the privileged identity, a positioning that the 1959 adaptation successfully critiques. In the film, the light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane Johnson, reviles her blackness as an object of self-hatred from a young age. Given a black doll by her white playmate, Susie, Sarah Jane throws the gift to the floor, crying, “I don’t want the black one.” The camera seizes upon the image of the rejected doll, foreshadowing the inevitable events to come: Sarah Jane’s forsaking of her dark-skinned mother in order to reinvent herself as a white woman. With her story’s heartbreaking ending, Sarah Jane becomes yet another tragic mulatta, joining the ranks of mixed race women in American literature and culture who typically meet bitter fates for their transgressions of the color line.

Almost forty years later, however, the narrative of passing does, finally, experience a significant shift. In contrast to most literary and cultural representations of passing, Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel,…

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The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930 [Joseph Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-01-28 07:42Z by Steven

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930 [Joseph Review]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Published online: 2014-01-26
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt079

Ralina L. Joseph, Associate Professor of Communication
University of Washington

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930. Jolie A. Sheffer. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2013. 248 pages. $72.00 cloth; $24.95 paper; $24.95 electronic.

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century multiracial characters in US popular culture almost always have been dismissed by critics as tragic. They are the torn victims of race crossing whose inevitably dismal fates result from their race-infringing parents and are exacerbated by their own romantic adventures across racial lines. Mixed-race characters bear epithets such as the tragic mulatto, the half-caste, and the half-breed; their downfall is unchangeable presumably because of the incompatible white and minority bloods that flow within their veins. Stories about multiracial characters function in US culture as barometers of race relations. Tragic mixed-race tales illuminate the white nation’s pathological fear of the deepest and most permanent form of integration: miscegenation.

Jolie A. Sheffer warns that this is not the full story. In The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930, Sheffer imagines mixed-race subjects in turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature and their women of color (often mixed-race) authors as not just the embodiment of tragedy but the active agents of resistance and change. Sheffer writes that while stories of miscegenation and incest, which she terms racial romances, serve the function of “reveal[ing] a history of exploitation of racialized…

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Detecting Winnifred Eaton

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-01-19 04:33Z by Steven

Detecting Winnifred Eaton

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Published online: 2014-01-16
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt078

Jinny Huh, Assistant Professor of English
University of Vermont

In her recent introduction to Winnifred Eaton’s Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model (1916), Karen E. H. Skinazi explores the relationship between racial ambiguity—that of both the anonymous author and the heroines in Marion and its predecessor, Me: A Book of Remembrance (1915)—and the audience’s ability to detect racial coding. “Me’s success,” Skinazi states, “has been predicated on a mystery that allowed each reader the chance to become a literary Sherlock Holmes, cracking the codes of its vault of shocking secrets” (xvii). Later, Skinazi writes that a New York Times reviewer, playing detective, solves Eaton’s racial passing utilizing the science of detection à la Edgar Allan Poe (xxi-xxii). Skinazi’s allusions to the art of detection, although brief, are astute, leading to this essay’s rereading of Eaton’s legacy through the lens of detection and the anxieties produced by its failures, especially the threat of racial passing. It is no coincidence that Eaton published her fiction at a time when both classic detective fiction and African American passing tales were at the peak of their popularity.

Few critics have examined Eaton’s role in the detective genre. This essay responds to this oversight by arguing that Eaton’s reliance on a trope of racial and ethnic passing, both in her choice of pseudonym and in her Japanese romances, cannot be fully appreciated without situating her within the context of the panic about detecting passing that swept America during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The unique lens of detective fiction allows us further to conceptualize Eaton’s role as a founding figure of Asian American fiction. This essay also highlights Eaton’s familiarity with rules of genre, particularly detective fiction and African American passing narratives, and her participation in the construction of racial epistemologies that were then being codified by…

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