How to Read African American Literature offers a series of provocations to unsettle the predominant assumptions readers make when encountering post-Civil Rights black fiction. Foregrounding the large body of literature and criticism that grapples with legacies of the slave past, Aida Levy-Hussen’s argument develops on two levels: as a textual analysis of black historical fiction, and as a critical examination of the reading practices that characterize the scholarship of our time.
Drawing on psychoanalysis, memory studies, and feminist and queer theory, Levy-Hussen examines how works by Toni Morrison, David Bradley, Octavia Butler, Charles Johnson, and others represent and mediate social injury and collective grief. In the criticism that surrounds these novels, she identifies two major interpretive approaches: “therapeutic reading” (premised on the assurance that literary confrontations with historical trauma will enable psychic healing in the present), and “prohibitive reading” (anchored in the belief that fictions of returning to the past are dangerous and to be avoided). Levy-Hussen argues that these norms have become overly restrictive, standing in the way of a more supple method of interpretation that recognizes and attends to the indirect, unexpected, inconsistent, and opaque workings of historical fantasy and desire. Moving beyond the question of whether literature must heal or abandon historical wounds, Levy-Hussen proposes new ways to read African American literature now.
“How to Read African American Literature is a distinctive, richly-argued book about the political implications of contemporary readings of slavery in African American historical fiction. Graceful and sophisticated, it utilizes critical paradigms ranging from psychoanalysis to queer theory, and provides cutting-edge theories on the reading and writing of African American literary history. A bold and innovative book, How To Read African American Literature makes a case for a hermeneutics by which we can make sense of how contemporary narratives of slavery are being consumed today.”-Gene Jarrett,author of Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature
“Throughout How to Read African American Literature, [Levy-Hussen] performs critical maneuvers that support more expansive interpretations, including reversals or counters in which she occupies the other position to resist fixity and to acknowledge foremost the role of desire in relation to the past…[Levy-Hussen’s] critical enterprise liberates African American literature from perpetuating impositions and entrenched paths by raising questions and modeling strategies that will lead the field forward in promising new directions.”-MELUS: The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
“Beautifully-written and insightful, How to Read African American Literature reinvigorates black feminist critique and queer literary studies. Aida Levy-Hussen’s vision of the field of African Americanist literary criticism and its problems is startlingly lucid, precise, and attentive to the nuances of its various texts both fictive and scholarly. A model of critical writing, and of how to read.” -Darieck Scott,author of Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary