Several years ago, when poet William Oandasan was working toward his master of fine arts degree from Vermont College, a professor gave him this advice: Cut the references to your American Indian heritage and your poetry will improve.
The tip was incomprehensible to Oandasan, who was raised in the Yuki tribe of Northern California. Setting aside the fact that "my background will always color what I write," he explained that "if you draw the ethnic clothing off language, leaving only what's understood by everyone, you add nothing to people's knowledge of their neighbors. That's the opportunity of literature."
He disregarded the advice, and in 1985 his master's thesis, "Round Valley Songs," won the American Books Award from the prestigious Before Columbus Foundation, a multicultural literary arts organization.
Oandasan, along with 80 other ethnic writers and scholars, recently converged on UC Irvine to expand the power of ethnic literature and promote cross-cultural understanding. Their strategy: to claim a place within the American literary mainstream by getting their work into high school and college curricula.
Co-sponsored by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and UCI's Program in Comparative Culture, the first national MELUS conference brought together black poets and Hispanic novelists, Asian-American critics and writers of Creole and Slovenian extraction--in short, a mingling of literary voices and traditions as diverse as America itself.
Almost all are also teachers. From every region of the country, they traveled at their own expense to present their work to one another and to come away with new ideas and new texts for their literature classes.
Teachers of African-American literature quizzed Asian-American specialists on what Asian books to teach. They swapped titles and syllabuses and tips on presenting oral and bilingual texts to their students. They argued and debated into coffee breaks and over dinner, through an evening of ethnic films, into an afternoon of poetry readings. And they parted reluctantly last weekend, carrying home one another's books, critical essays and addresses--along with a new feeling of community.
It was the lack of such a community--or any forum at all for the serious consideration of ethnic literature--that led English professor Katharine Newman to found MELUS in 1973. Several years earlier, she had begun working multiethnic literature into her classes at West Chester College in Pennsylvania. She did that, she explained in her keynote speech at UCI, "as much in vexation as in vision when I saw that my own students didn't know about their ethnic heritage."
But even more frustrating to Newman was ethnic literature's being ignored by the Modern Language Assn., the most prestigious national group of college and university scholars. In 1972, Newman said, the group held only a single session on black-American literature before its annual convention began.
In response, with 35 kindred spirits and a grand ambition, Newman founded her organization. "We pledged to change the American literary canon--what teachers teach--to include anything written by an American, no matter what the language," she said.
Since then, MELUS has picked up nearly 400 new members, started a scholarly journal, a newsletter (which Newman, now retired from teaching, edits and UCI prints and distributes) and a biographical directory, which helps members identify and contact one another. "Today," said Newman proudly, "no one would dare put out an American anthology without including ethnic writers," a fact she partly attributes to the activism of MELUS members.
But while the conference itself demonstrated the strong community of scholars that has developed around MELUS, it also pointed out many persistent obstacles to the fulfillment of Newman's pledge. Participants repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with current ethnic representation in literary anthologies, a serious handicap to teaching. Latino poet and UC Berkeley English and ethnic studies professor Gary Soto called anthologies "a cold market. The editors decide, 'We need so many blacks, so many Asians, so many Chicanos.' But they don't do any homework. What they include is often marginal in quality and experience. It misrepresents American history and people."
Though MELUS is actively involved in producing an "alternative" anthology, "Restructuring American Literature," edited by Paul Lauter, its publication is still a year away. Meanwhile, books whose ethnic character might limit their audiences are sometimes hard to publish commercially, with the result that they are often printed by small presses or at their writers' expense.