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Preface

The germ of this book came from a conference I attended on Asian American women writers at Tufts University in 1990. The keynote speaker, Maxine Hong Kingston, read from her new book, Tripmaster Monkey , and Amy Ling delivered a paper on the positive, adaptive trickster strategies of the Eaton sisters, also known as Onoto Watanna and Sui Sin Far. Having just read Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine , I was struck by the recurrence of so many trickster figures. I thought of Leslie Silko's Storyteller Erdrich's Tracks , and Toni Morrison's Tar Baby . Was it coincidence that many of America's most successful and important contemporary women writers were writing tricksters? Why are tricksters—from the Signifying Monkey to Nanabozho to Br'er Rabbit to Coyote to the Monkey King—such a ubiquitous phenomenon?

The trickster's pervasiveness parallels the growth of ethnic literatures in America. The past thirty years have witnessed a tremendous literary and cultural revolution: Native American, African American, Chinese American, and Chicano and Chicana


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literatures (to name a few) are prospering; multiculturalism has exploded traditional canons; and the borders and boundaries of "American" literature continually fluctuate and blur. Tricksters shake things up, splinter the monologic, shatter the hierarchies. At this new crisis (or carnival) of American literature, tricksters proliferate, disrupting tradition and mediating change.

Tricksters defy homogenization. They cannot be reduced to a lowest common cultural denominator; they only make sense embedded in a cultural context. Perhaps this is why most studies of the trickster, such as John W. Roberts's From Trickster to Badman , Robert Pelton's Trickster in West Africa , and Paul Radin's classic The Trickster focus exclusively on a particular trickster tradition. Similarly, most studies of ethnic literatures recognize and define a specific, shared cultural and literary tradition. Yet despite each ethnic tradition's distinctness and each trickster's cultural particularity, the works of Kingston, Erdrich, and Morrison make abundantly clear that our world does not divide into neat academic categories. Contemporary trickster novels depict a chaotic, multilingual, many-layered world of colliding and overlapping cultures: Kingston's tricksters are railway workers and Berkeley beatniks; Erdrich's tricksters go to Jesuit schools, play bingo, and eat Slim Jims; and Morrison's tricksters boodeg liquor, drink Evian, and model for Elle . Though each author draws on a specific tradition, their tricksters revel in the hazardous complexity of life in modern America.

Relatively little literary scholarship to date has looked across cultures toward lines of contact and intersection; few works discuss specifically the links among ethnic writers. We need models of successful cross-cultural negotiation, which allow for points of exchange and intersection across racial, cultural, and ethnic di-


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vides, without obliterating or oversimplifying differences. This book is a contribution toward that effort, bringing together major African American, Asian American, and Native American writers under the rubric of the trickster.

All sorts of interesting parallels appear when we consider trickster works cross-culturally: the dynamic function of myth in contemporary ethnic literature, the importance of oral traditions to cultural and individual survival, the multivocal challenge to a unified perspective, and the unusual demands made on the reader. Each of these elements shapes the trickster novel and challenges readers' ways of viewing the world.

The writers considered here celebrate myth and folklore as a vital, dynamic, culturally renewing force. Tricksters, who combine tradition and change, make ideal agents for a politically engaged, visionary art. Central to the nonwestern storytelling traditions on which Kingston, Erdrich, and Morrison draw, the androgynous trickster is infinitely changeable, ancient, and yet perpetually new.

Interpreter, storyteller, and transformer, the trickster is a master of borders and exchange, injecting multiple perspectives to challenge all that is stultifying, stratified, bland, or prescriptive. Tricksters embody the complexity, diversity, and paradoxes of literary studies today, which demand the recognition of competing voices. In multicultural debates, trickster is a lively, diverse, unpredictable, vital actor, enlivening postmodern discourse and everyday lives. It is no accident that many contemporary writers and critics call upon the trickster in their expression of contemporary life and thought. Trickster is a profoundly cross-cultural and therefore truly American phenomenon.


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