Multiethnic Literature: Global Neo-Victorians
Syllabus Production Details
Developer: Kimberly Cox Contact
Peer Reviewer: Jacob Romanow
Syllabus Cluster Developers: Kimberly Cox Contact | Riya Das Contact
Syllabus Guides: Pearl Chaozon Bauer Contact | Adrian S. Wisnicki Contact
Webpage Developer: Ava K. Bindas
Cluster Title: Beyond “Victorian” Literature
Publication Date: 2023
Download the peer-reviewed syllabus: PDF | Word
I teach at Chadron State College, a rural open-enrollment institution with a student population that’s majority white-identified (80% according to the Fall 2021 IPEDS Enrollment Survey) and primarily from areas of Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. I wanted to challenge my students’ expectations in our upper-division “Multiethnic Literature” course. As a result, in developing the syllabus, I used global steampunk and neo-Victorian literature as a framework for investigating what meanings and expectations get attached to texts when they’re termed “multiethnic.” I ended the class with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) so we could explore how the novel constructs whiteness as a feature of British national identity, encouraging my students to think about the racial designation “white” as an identity category that’s not divorced from ethnicity (cf. Tyrese L. Coleman’s discussion of how the construction of whiteness in Jane Eyre alienated her as a Black reader).
As Riya Das illustrates in this cluster, white-centric Victorian novels are mainstays in Victorian literature courses. Along these lines, my essay and syllabus reject traditional approaches to teaching such novels by positioning Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre at the end rather than the beginning of the course and by privileging steampunk and neo-Victorian stories that prepare students to explore the construction of whiteness. My goal was thus to challenge students to consider what it means to read a literary text through the lens of ethnicity, while considering the role an author’s ethnicity might have in the assumptions with which a reader initially approaches a text.
In one of her essays, Olivia Loksing Moy poses the question, “How do we recognize and honor work by contemporary writers of color who still choose to engage with Victorian literature, without eliding race and ethnic background?” (410). Moy’s question made me think back to another posed by Antonija Primorac and Monika Pietrzak-Franger: “Can Japanese manga versions of Sherlock Holmes be considered neo-Victorian in the context of the two cultural traditions?” (8). Taken collectively, these questions examine the value of both retaining and engaging with the term “Victorian,” which has an exclusionary history.
The questions also highlight contemporary issues associated with race, ethnicity, and cultural representation – and their connection to this exclusionary history – when the term “Victorian” is used in a neo-Victorian framework. Throughout the course (and this essay), I use the term “neo-Victorian” to designate texts of any length that reimagine Victorian-era narratives or are set in the nineteenth century though written during a subsequent or contemporary period. I use the term “steampunk” to indicate stories set in alternate nineteenth-century timelines that rely on steam power. While steampunk stories are a subset of neo-Victorian ones, not all neo-Victorian stories are thus steampunk.
Assigning contemporary, global neo-Victorian stories by authors of color affords a new pathway into addressing the legacies of racism and ethnocentrism in traditional Victorian literature. Since I’m a Victorianist by training but teach at an institution without a Victorian-specific class, using such texts in this “Multiethnic Literature” class provided an opportunity to present my students with debates about race and ethnicity currently prominent in the field of Victorian and neo-Victorian studies.
While not all of my students are familiar with the designation “Victorian,” most have completed the British literature surveys and so have a basic understanding of periodization. We also took time in class to read about and discuss the term “Victorian” and the various implications it carries with it. I thus designed this syllabus to complicate the term “Victorian” as a designator of nationality, region, time period, ethnicity, and race. In particular, I was interested in foregrounding the question, “What is implied or excluded – particularly about race, ethnicity, nationality, and geography – when talking about ‘Victorian’ or ‘neo-Victorian’ literature?”
I began planning the course by placing Patricia Park’s Re Jane (2015), a Korean-American retelling of Jane Eyre, at the center of the course and building out from there. Park’s novel focuses on the character of Jane Re – the U.S. version of the name as it appears in the title – as she tries to figure out who she is in a world where her interracial heritage leaves her feeling excluded from various communities. She has trouble fitting in with her Uncle Sang and his family who are Korean immigrants to the U.S. She struggles fitting into the American academic community represented by Beth Mason, the Bertha analogue. And she similarly struggles to find solace with characters such as Ed (the Edward Rochester analogue), Nina (her Italian-American friend), Changhoon (the St. John Rivers analogue), and her Korean family in Seoul.
I then developed the course so that before transitioning to Re Jane at midterm, we started the class with an exploration of literary criticism and theory that introduced and investigated key terms and concepts associated with antiracist and postcolonial theory such as “privilege,” “racism,” “intersectionality,” “contact zones,” and “Orientalism” (see, respectively, McIntosh 1989; Yamato 1990; Crenshaw 2016; Pratt 1991; Said 1978). We started with these terms to create a shared lexicon to which the students and I could refer when analyzing race and ethnicity in the course texts. Additionally, given national concerns across the U.S. about “Critical Race Theory” at the time I was teaching this course, I felt it was important for students to be exposed to prominent theorists who established the field of critical race studies and to have a collective understanding of what is at stake when having conversations about race and ethnicity, particularly in a literary context.
We also read theory by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Peggy McIntosh, and Gloria Yamato to initiate discussion about prominent concerns associated with studying race and ethnicity in culture at large. Next, we shifted our attention to scholars such as Mary Louise Pratt and Edward Said who write about national, racial, and ethnic identities specifically in relation to literature. Not only did these readings expand my students’ vocabularies further, but they provided an occasion to have students work in groups to identify various examples of “Orientalism” and “contact zones” that they had come across in literature (and film) outside of our course. We finished our theoretical inquiry with readings by Mark Llewellyn, Antonija Primorac and Monika Pietrzak-Franger, and Elizabeth Ho in order to situate how our course terms and concepts came to bear on the fields of Victorian and neo-Victorian studies specifically.
The remainder of the first half of the course focused on a range of literary works, starting with a selection of global steampunk short stories (especially ones featuring queer female-identifying characters). This move drew on what Das, in her syllabus, terms “the pedagogical politics of representation” and sought to ensure wide coverage beyond British borders. In taking this approach, we read: short steampunk stories by Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American authors; steampunk stories set in Egypt and written by non-Egyptian authors from various countries; stories termed “Steamfunk” by the relevant anthology and set in alternate nineteenth-century American timelines that brought Black perspectives to bear on traditional steampunk narratives; and steampunk stories by Spanish authors that had been translated into English.
Each set of stories foregrounds a different type of question: How does the narrative setting impact racial and ethnic representation? How does an author’s nationality influence narrative setting depiction? How does conceptual terminology revise readers’ relationships to “steampunk” literature? And how does translation affect storytelling practices, especially in regard to race and ethnicity? As we moved through each group of short stories, these questions remained – backgrounded-but-present – in discussions of each of the others.
Between our theoretical backdrop and these steampunk stories set in locations around the globe, the early readings dislocated students from the traditional western contexts common in many “Multiethnic Literature” courses. For instance, steampunk stories such as Alessa Hinlo’s “The Last Aswang,” which I included in the first segment of the course and which is set in the Philippines, required my students to reorient themselves in a way that decentered white British and U.S. perspectives, geographies, and national histories.
At midterm, we read Park’s Re Jane alongside Moy’s article about it, an article which uses the phrase “critical race theory” a host of times across at least four pages – a fact I had forgotten and that was complicated since a bill to ban “Critical Race Theory” was before the Nebraska State Legislature at the time (Moy 409, 410, 413, 418). Moy’s article gave us the opportunity to discuss the difference between the individual words and resulting phrase in contrast to the political category that came to be discussed as “Critical Race Theory” or “CRT.” One of the first things my students noticed was that the phrase “critical race theory” wasn’t capitalized in Moy’s article. We used that observation to then discuss the definition of each word and what we thought they collectively meant.
The conversation was a positive one that culminated in one student commenting, “So, in a way, we’ve been reading critical race theory all semester, even in our own research.” What I found was that, by following such steampunk texts with Park’s Re Jane, my course complicated whiteness as a universal category through the main character’s own struggles with being half white American on her father’s side and half a Korean person of color on her mother’s. The course did so by exploring how educational background, family history, and economics impacted perceived ethnic heritage.
Similarly, following Re Jane with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) in the final part of the course laid a foundation for interrogating the construction of whiteness as a category of race, ethnicity, and nationality in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the novel with which we ended the course. When we read Wide Sargasso Sea, the second-to-last novel, we discussed at length the term “Creole” as it is used in the novel, particularly to distinguish characters like Antoinette/Bertha, who was born to a white British family in colonial Jamaica, from those deemed white and born in mainland Britain.
By the time we concluded the course with Jane Eyre, such earlier conversations primed students to ask questions about anxieties over skin, family heritage, and physical markers of feminine beauty in Brontë’s canonical novel. For instance, one student asked about why John Reed would chastise his mother for her dark skin (see ch. 2). Another student wondered about beauty standards, especially following the emphasis on Rosamond Oliver’s, St. John Rivers’s love interest's, pale skin as a designator. In other words, our collective analysis was able to move beyond the traditional focus on Bertha Mason’s racialization. This progression of texts helped us “to illuminate how race and racial difference do in fact subtend our [Victorianists’] most cherished objects of study, our most familiar historical and theoretical frameworks,” as Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong argue.
The Major Assignment
The major assignment of the semester asked students to choose one of the steampunk stories and write a critical introduction to it. I broke this assignment into four parts, requiring students to research various aspects of the stories while we read them. Each student was responsible for submitting the following: 1) “Preliminary Research,” an assignment that identified the text, topic, and four sources they planned to read as research; 2) “Read & Report,” an assignment that presented their review of the preliminary research in the form of an annotated bibliography; 3) “Continued Research,” an assignment that students used to identify potential gaps in their research and key topics about which they needed to read more; and, finally, 4) “Introduction & Additional Materials,” an assignment that asked students write a critical introduction to the story they had selected and that provided a list of additional relevant contextual materials. In developing this structure and ending with a roundtable in which everyone participated, I drew on bell hooks’s notion of “[e]xcitement” to create a collaborative, anti-hierarchical classroom wherein their “collective effort [was essential] in creating and sustaining [our] learning community” (8).
As my students researched, they developed a better sense of the varied histories of colonialism across the parts of the globe from which we had read steampunk stories, further decentering their traditional white, western perspectives. Final critical introductions included one student’s exploration of the prevalence of and reverence towards insects across several stories. This student’s fascinating critical introduction focused on the symbolism of dragonflies, which appeared in both the Thai steampunk story L. L. Hill’s “Ordained” and the steamfunk, American western story Malon Edwards’s “Mudholes and Mississippi Mules.” Another student’s critical introduction explored Spanish colonialism as a counter to British and U.S. colonialism in Alessa Hinlo’s “The Last Aswang” and Rafael Marín’s “Flesh Against Metal.” While the latter focuses on the Spanish-American war for Cuba, the former addresses Spain’s colonial practices in the Philippines. This student’s critical introduction focused on “The Last Aswang” and how masculine, Catholic Spanish colonialist practices were rooted in sexist views that failed to account for and validate differences in gender norms in the Philippines.
Thanks to our earlier discussion about critical race theory and specific steampunk short stories, my students felt confident discussing the distinctions they noticed in the way in which Re Jane depicted Italian Americans, Irish Americans, second-generation Korean Americans, Korean immigrants in America, and Koreans still living in South Korea. One student also raised a question about the moral value placed on American individualism in U.S. classrooms and noted that the importance of family and tradition that Jane experiences when she travels to Seoul is different but not necessarily better or worse than American individualism as a competing ideology. In this regard, my students thought that Changhoon shouldn’t be expected to reject his family and their values in order to become a “fully developed” adult. The class also concluded that individualism shouldn’t stand globally as the penultimate form of self-realization just because it is highly prized in the U.S.
The students’ transition to Wide Sargasso Sea was much more difficult than I had anticipated. My students overwhelmingly found it a challenging text with which to connect because of its shifts among narrative voices and its fragmented structure. I spent a full class period providing background on the text and its historical contexts in addition to having them read the Norton Critical Edition's introduction. We determined that students would focus on three key features of the text as they read: 1) the basic plot, 2) the setting descriptions, and 3) the question of how Antoinette’s race and ethnicity differ from that of her family, her servants, and her suitor. Setting these clear reading goals allowed my students to have an easier time isolating themes associated with property, abolition, religion, and gender, particularly in relation to how the text distinguishes what it means to be white and English versus white and Creole. As we read Wide Sargasso Sea, we also returned to the topic of property that emerged in our reading of Re Jane (Jane Re becomes a landlord by the novel’s close) and discussed British imperialism and abolition as depicted in the novel. I found that our readings throughout the semester prepared my students to think about how ethnicity and race feature in Jane Eyre and construct a sense of overall white British nationalism rather than just positioning specific characters as racial others.
Before ending with Jane Eyre, our conversations became more interesting when Re Jane’s author Patricia Park came to campus. Her visit included several events: a session in our class, a creative nonfiction workshop, and a reading followed by a Q&A. My students found her engaging and easy to talk to; some students who were quiet all semester shared things about themselves without prompting when she asked questions during our class. In response to my students’ questions, Park discussed how one of her inspirations for the trajectory of Jane’s journey derived from how female characters in Jane Austen’s novels (and in Brontë’s Jane Eyre) were denied the right to property ownership. Park also answered questions about Ed’s masculinity in regard to his and Jane’s first sexual encounter and addressed her, Park’s, need to have an ending that differed starkly from Brontë’s original. Our conversation with Park allowed my students to push beyond reading Jane Re as a “multiethnic” heroine and instead explore her as a contemporary response to an antiquated white heroine steeped in nineteenth-century British cultural expectations.
While this course posed a variety of challenges, it proved a rewarding experience for both me and my students. Given that Chadron State College’s course catalog has no period-specific courses in literature and that our course offerings still necessitate a course called “Multiethnic Literature” because of the value some of my colleagues continue to place on white canonical texts, I learned the importance of letting my own research interests guide my approach to course design. My students responded positively to being invited into the ongoing critical conversation about race and representation in Victorian and neo-Victorian literature. Additionally, I learned that genre fiction can be a useful tool for gaining student purchase in course topics without reducing the critical conversation. Students indicated throughout the course and in subsequent encounters after the course ended how useful they found our class lexicon and how helpful they found it to think about whiteness as a racial category of distinction, especially in their subsequent American literature survey courses.
As a result, one aspect of the course I found particularly effective was getting students to see whiteness as a racial category rather than an absence of race or ethnicity or a “universal” category. Our class also encouraged students to identify the dangers of stereotypical depictions of other cultures in literary texts and to consider the politics of sidelining race and ethnicity in canonical texts, which are predominantly written by white authors and feature white characters. That said, if I teach the course again, I might not retain Wide Sargasso Sea on the reading list. Given my students’ difficulty in connecting with that text, I might consider swapping it for a film, graphic novel, or manga rendition of the novel.
For anyone considering using this course as a model for their own, I share three pieces of advice based on my teaching of the course. First, it is important to establish class ground rules for discussion when tackling difficult topics and equally important to invite students into the process of developing those ground rules. Second, establishing a class lexicon based in critical theory early on helps ensure everyone has the same baseline and framework for discussing race and ethnicity in relation to literature. Finally, having a clear plan, but not shying away from hard conversations, such as our discussions of critical race theory, can prove productive throughout the semester.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Deborah Lutz, 4th ed., W.W. Norton, 2016.
Chadron State College Institutional Research. “Chadron State College Enrollment Information” (PDF). 26 Jan. 2022.
Chatterjee, Ronjaunee, et al. “Undisciplining Victorian Studies.”Los Angeles Review of Books, July 10, 2020.
Coleman, Tyrese L. “Reading Jane Eyre While Black: The Privilege of Escapism Is Not Allowed for Me.” Literary Hub, 28 Aug. 2017.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, vol. 49, 1989, pp. 10–12.
Moy, Olivia Loksing. “Reading in the Aftermath: An Asian American Jane Eyre.” Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 3, 2020, pp. 406–20.
Park, Patricia. Re Jane. Penguin, 2015.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, 1991, pp. 33–40.
Primorac, Antonija, and Monika Pietrzak-Franger. “Introduction: What Is Global Neo-Victorianism?”(PDF). Neo-Victorian Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–16.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Edited by Judith Raiskin, 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 1999.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage, 1978.
Yamato, Gloria. “Something About the Subject Makes It Hard to Name.” Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras, Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, Aunt Lute Book, 1990, pp. 20–24.
Beyond “Victorian” Literature Series
Not all faculty members with backgrounds in Victorian Studies have the opportunity to teach courses focused solely on either Victorian or nineteenth-century literature and writers. These syllabi offer models for pairing canonical Victorian texts with lesser-known, noncanonical, transnational, and contemporary texts or adaptations to extend conversations in courses that move beyond “Victorian” literature. By putting together traditional Victorian texts with Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary ones, these syllabi complicate the term “Victorian” as a designator of nationality, region, time period, and race. What is implied or excluded when talking about “Victorian” or “neo-Victorian” literature? The syllabi in this cluster offer illustrations of how antiracist and anticolonial methodologies can form the foundation of undergraduate classes not designated as either Victorian or nineteenth-century literature in college/university course catalogs – specifically, intermediate “British Literature II” and advanced “Multiethnic Literature” courses. Finally, they demonstrate how student-led research projects that ask students to delve into texts and writers beyond the British isles invite students into conversations about what literature gets taught and how course titles structure – and often limit – those decisions.
Kimberly Cox (she/her) is Associate Professor of English at Chadron State College where she teaches courses in British literature, gender and sexuality, multiethnic literature, the novel, and composition. She received her Ph.D. in Victorian literature and her graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from Stony Brook University. She served as co-managing editor of Victorian Literature and Culture from 2016–18. Her work on hands, haptics, and sexuality has appeared in Victorian Network, Victorians: Journal of Culture and Literature, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, the journal for which she coedited the special issue “‘Teaching to Trangress’ in the Emergency Remote Classroom.” Her collaborative work on pedagogy is forthcoming in Victorian Literature and Culture. Her book, Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901, was published by Routledge in 2021.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Meseguer, Enrique. Steampunk City. 11 Dec. 2017, pixabay. Free to use under the Content License. No attribution required.
Page/Syllabus Citation (MLA)
Kimberly Cox, dev. “Multiethnic Literature: Global Neo-Victorians.” Jacob Romanow, peer rev.; Kimberly Cox and Riya Das, syllabus cluster devs.; Pearl Chaozon Bauer and Adrian S. Wisnicki, syllabus guides. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/syllabi/multiethnic_literature.html.