SUI SIN FAR: THE PIONEER OF ASIAN AMERICAN TRICKSTERS
SRINAKHARINWIROT UNIVERSITY, THAILAND
FACULTY OF HUMANITIES
DEPARTMENT OF WESTERN LANGUAGES
Dr. Supaporn Yimwilai
Department of Western Languages
Faculty of Humanities
Sui Sin Far: the Pioneer of Asian American Tricksters
Like trickster, the purpose of this paper is to disrupt because it discusses trickster strategies Sui Sin Far, the pioneer of Asian American authors, employed in “The Smuggling of Tie Co” and in “An Autumn Fan.” By engaging in tricksterism, Sui Sin Far not only to get her writings published but also to counter the Anglo-American discourse on race and gender.
Sui Sin Far: the Pioneer of Asian American Tricksters
Asst. Prof. Dr. Supaporn Yimwilai , Faculty of Humanities, Srinakharinwirot University, 114 Soi Sukhumvit 23, Wattana District, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Like trickster, the purpose of this paper is to disrupt because it considers many the trickster strategies Sui Sin Far, the pioneer of Asian American authors, employed not only to get her writing published but also to counter the Anglo-American discourse on race and gender. In “The Smuggling of Tie Co,” Sui Sin Far created a woman who disguises as a man to resist the state of victimization of the Chinese female immigrants. In “An Autumn Fan,” Sui Sin Far employs a trickster aesthetic to reverse the concept of “Otherness” and to break away from racial and gender stereotypes.
The earliest American fiction about the Asians was written in the 1860s and 1870s and set in the California frontier; this fiction represents the conflict between the Chinese and white Californians. The sources of this conflict are complex. In addition to racial differences, the religious, cultural, and linguistic differences were much greater than those among Europeans of different backgrounds. In this way, the prevailing image of the Chinese immigrants at this time was that of a coolie,” or unskilled laborer. Coolies were considered physically small, dirty, and diseased. In manner, they were allegedly humble and passive, but also sneaky and treacherous. They supposedly looked alike and were depraved morally, given to theft, violence, gambling, and opium. The early American fiction about the Chinese immigrants was written with an awareness of these images.
For example, one of the earliest authors to write about Chinese characters was Bret Harte. His works often included Chinese characters. One of his poems, “The Heathen Chinee,” is a portrayal of a card game between Ah Sin and William Nye. The poem dramatizes how Nye is outwitted by Ah Sin. Although Ah Sin has a “childlike” smile, the readers learn that he is a wicked man. As Nye catches Ah Sin cheating, he shouts, “We are destroyed by cheap Chinese labor.” Similarly, Francis J. Dickie’s short story “The Creed of Ah Sing” presents the bad images of the Chinese immigrants. The narrator remarks, “All Chinks are great gamblers, and as a game keeper Ah Sing was a wonder” (498).
While the Anglo-American literature presents the negative images of the Chinese, employing a Chinese pen name and writing in defense of Chinese immigrants made it difficult for Sui Sin Far to sell her writings to a general American audience, especially on the West Coast. How could Sui Sin Far publish her writings? Like trickster, the purpose of this paper is to disrupt because it considers many the trickster strategies Sui Sin Far employed such as characters in the text and linguistic and stylistic principles. I argue that Sui Sin Far used many trickster strategies not only to get her writing published but also to counter the Anglo-American discourse on race and gender.Sui Sin Far’s two short stories, “The Smuggling of Tie Co” and “An Autumn Fan” are good examples to show her trickster strategies.
Tricksters: Survival Strategies
In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michael de Certeau offers a powerfully suggestive model to explain “the procedures of everyday creativity” by which the weak “continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them” (xiv; xix). He calls these popular procedures “tactics,” which take form of “victories of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’, clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, ‘hunter’s cunning,’ maneuvers, polymorphic situations . . .” (xix).
The best known literary scholar of the origins of the African American trickster is Henry Louis Gates. Gates explains that the African American signifying monkey represents a radical undermining of the language and power structures of white America. Gates’ analysis of the signifying monkey shows how the African American trickster becomes both figure and a linguistic means for one culture’s “guerrilla action” against its oppressing culture’s language and ideology (52).
As to the Native American Indian trickster, Andrew Wiget points out that the trickster “lives best in the ephemeral world of words.” According to Wignet, Native American Indian stories typically use word-formula to set the scene for what the audience knows will come. The Native American Indian trickster follows a basic pattern: trickster fixes himself on a particular goal, but to get it he will have to transform himself on a particular goal. He tries several times but fails, and though he may be punished or killed, he survives to try again and again.
Recent theorists of the trickster build upon these past studies and advance the field particularly along two lines: the social impulse behind the “multicultural” context(s) of trickster, and the crucial role he plays in art. For example, Elizabeth Ammon in her introduction to Tricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective, argues that for many writers of color, tricksters and trickster strategies represented the most viable way of negotiating the Anglo-American male dominated American publishing industry. Inspired by Ammon, Jeanne Rosier Smith puts more emphasis on the multicultural role of trickster in Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. She argues that the narrative forms of writers of color share distinctive features: breaks, disruptions, loose ends, and multiple voices or perspectives.
From the above discussion, it can be concluded that tricksters can become “a survival strategy” through which oppressed groups or individuals may attain a certain degree of personal and political autonomy within the restrictions or the dangerous situations. It can be characterized as disguise, deceit, ambiguity, change, disruption, surprise, and adaptation. One of writers who employ this survival strategy is Sui Sin Far.
Trickster “Tie Co”
Sui Sin Far’s “The Smuggling of Tie Co” first appeared in Land of Sunshine in July 19101 and was later reprinted in Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Set in eastern Canada near the United States border, during the early years of Chinese exclusion, “The Smuggling of Tie Co” involves a Chinese’s girl’s unrequited love for a white American. Disguised as a man, Tie Co emigrates from China and works in a laundry in Canada. She secretly falls in love with Jack Fabian, and American smuggler. When she finds that Jack is unemployed because when some American lawyers devise a scheme in which Chinese young men purchase birth certificates from American-born “fathers,” thereby establishing their right to enter the country, his business drastically spoiled. Restless and desperate, Fabian complains about his troubles to Tie Co. Tie Co offers to be smuggled to New York even though he has already established himself as one of the partners in a local laundry business. Unfortunately, they are found by the police after crossing the border. In order to spare Jack from being caught with evidence, Tie Co jumps off a bridge and drowns herself. When the Tie Co’s body is brought out of the river, it turns out that “the body found with Tie Co’s face and dressed in Tie Co’s clothes [is] the body of a girl–a woman” (191). Released from jail in less than a week because there is no evidence against him, Fabian soon resumes his smuggling business, and now and then he finds himself “pondering long and earnestly over the mystery of Tie Co’s life–and death” (192).
1 A major Western magazine based in Southern California, Land of Sunshine was edited by Charles Lummis, whose goal was to present “the best Western literature” and make the West “match the East in the excellence of its literary product” (qtd. in White-Parks, Sui Sin Far. 85-86).
The story of trickster Tie Co is complicated because of multiple border crossings. First, disguise as a man, trickster Tie Co has come to Canada with other men. Next, she attempts to cross over from Canada to the United States. In this way, she crosses both geography and gender boundaries. Although there is no explanation for Tie Co’s behavior, I suggest that the disguise as a man is Tie Co’s trickster to overcome their state of victimization of the Chinese women
One of the most noticeable characteristics of the Chinese population residing in the United States before World War II was pronounced shortage of women. According to the United States censuses of population taken during the second half of the nineteenth century, the number of Chinese females fluctuated between 3.6 percent (in 1890) and 7.2 percent (in 1870) of the total Chinese population (Chan “Exclusion” 94). The percentage rose slowly during the twentieth century, but most of the increase was due to the birth of girls on American soil, not to immigration.
Various explanations have been given for why so few Chinese women immigrated to the United States. Some historians, such as Ronald Takaki, have claimed that because Chinese society was patriarchal. The acceptable roles for married women were bearing children and serving their husbands and parents-in-law. Given the central importance of filial piety in traditional Chinese culture, the moral duty of wives to remain in China to wait on their parents-in-law was greater than their obligation to accompany their husband abroad. Moreover, women were kept home in order to ensure their absent husband would not forget their families in China, would send remittances home, and would come back.
The second reason is that since the majority of the Chinese who came to the United States were sojourners, there was no reason to bring their wives with them. The main aim of sojourners is to earn money; it was cheaper to send savings home to sustain their families in China–where the cost of living was considerably lower–than to have them reside in the United States.
Finally, the restrictive immigration laws kept Chinese women out. As Suchen Chan argues, from the early 1870s onward, efforts by various levels of American government to restrict the immigration of Chinese women became the more significant factor. On March 3, 1875, Congress passed “An Act Supplementary to the Acts in Relation to Immigration”– commonly referred to as the Page Law–forbidding the entry of Chinese, Japanese, and “Mongolian” contract laborers, women for the purpose of prostitution, and felons. Although the aim of this law was to stop the immigration of prostitute, it affected other groups of Chinese women who sought admission into the country as well. It made Chinese women difficult to immigrate to the United States because they had to prove that they were respectable women. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, renewed until 1943, prohibited entry into the United States for all Chinese except diplomats, merchants, tourists, teachers, and students. This law ended the hope of Chinese wives to join their families in the United States. In 1924, Congress passed a special law whose effect was to prohibit all immigration of Chinese women, including wives of American-born Chinese. In this way, the number of Chinese women was very low.
Disguise as a man is Tie Co’s “a survival strategy” through which she resists the mechanism of power which attempted to dominate the Chinese women. This strategy is Tie Co’s “a camouflage and guerilla tactic” and thus links her to the tradition of tricksterism and to the subversive tactics described by de Certeau. Disguise as a man is Tie Co’s “a survival strategy” through which she resists the mechanism of power which attempted to dominate the Chinese women. Trickster Tie Co could make her way across the Pacific and could earn a successful living in a man’s world. Trickster Tie Co adapts to the situation and becomes a “master[s] of both physical and psychological disguise, in part to avoid [her] hunters.” As a Chinese female-to-male transvestite, she is able to resist the constrictive gender roles in Chinese patriarchy. She refuses to be kept at home and to do only housework. At the same time, she challenges the restrictive immigration laws in the United States barred to the Chinese immigrant women.
In addition, disguised as a man, trickster Tie Co is able to live on her own terms instead of playing the role of submissive Asian woman. Her trickster strategy allows her to develop a long term relationship with the man she loves. For example, she is able to sit and talk to him like a friend about his business and his troubles which is unusual for a Chinese woman to do. When they both journey across the border, they are not just the smuggler and the would-be-smuggled to each other but companions sharing their adventure. More importantly, dressing as a man, Tie Co is able to declare her love for the white man without his knowledge. During their journey across the border, Tie Co tells Fabian in a clear and sweet voice, “I like you . . . I like you so much that I want to go to New York, so you make fifty dollars” (189). In this way, through disguise as a man, trickster Tie Co resists both racial and gender boundaries.
Sui Sin Far was not alone in employing a disguise to address the inequalities of race and gender. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs creates a moment that Brent disguises as an African-American sailor: We were rowed ashore, and went boldly through the streets, to my grandmother’s. I wore my sailor’s clothes, and had blackened my face with charcoal. I passed several people whom I knew.The father of my children came so near that I brushed against his arm; but he has no idea who it was. (128)
Disguise as a man is the narrator trickster strategy that allows her to move about in a southern town. The narrator in a man’s clothes brushes unrecognized the man with whom she has experienced sexual intimacy; a familiar and hunted African-American slave, “blacken” with charcoal, passes as an unfamiliar sailor. Similar to Tie Co, disguise as a man is her survival strategy to be unrecognized by the hunters. Instead of escaping to the North, the narrator makes a circular escape into a voluntary captivity in order to stay near her children. Her male disguise allows the narrator to address the critical pressures faced by slave women and the values with which they respond. Unlike male slaves, the female slaves had difficulty to escape to the North because they tied to their children.
In “The Smuggling of Tie Co,” Sui Sin Far transforms the passive, submissive Asian woman into a transvestite trickster who resists the state of being oppressed. This story represents the Asian female experience as grounded in a history contrary to the images represented by the Anglo- American authors. By doing so, the story challenges the white male hegemony
Sui Sin Far’s Love Story
“An Autumn Fan” is Sui Sin Far’s first tale published in the New England Magazine. Many articles written by Anglo-American writers and published in the New English Magazine intended to demonstrate that Asian nations could not keep up with the Western technological developments because their culture and principles of government are antiquated. Several articles highlight the “outlandish customs” of Asia, while scrupulously avoiding any reference to current East-West relations, and reinforces the stereotypes of the Chinese as “impish”, “unclean”, “brutal”, “absurd”, and “queer” (all words used in the text). How, then, did Sui Sin Far counter the Anglo-American discourse presenting the negative images of Asia and Asians? And what made her stories such as “An Autumn Fan” appeal to editors of New England Magazine in 1910?
Sui Sin Far’s “An Autumn Fan” appears to be based on a romantic plot of female patience rewarded. A young Chinese man, Ming Hoan, comes from China to visit and to stay with Yen Chow in America. Ah Leen, Yen Chow’s daughter and Ming Hoan fall in love. Her father agrees to their marriage only on the condition that, after the wedding, the groom will return to his ancestral village to obtain his parents’ blessing. Several months after the groom’s departure, news arrives of his marriage to another woman favored by his parents. To the astonishment of all, even her family, the first wife accepts the news with a stoicism undisturbed even by birth of a son by the second wife. She resists the Chinese community’s pressure to divorce him and remarry. True to his word he does come back and they embrace without need for explanation or apology
In “An Autumn Fan,” the readers’ understanding of the story changes with the realization that the action takes place in a coastal town in California. “We are in American,” asserts the bridegroom. “America! … Land where a man knows no law save his own,” replies his father-in-law. The bride’s mother rejoices that her daughter will not have to “serve or obey” a mother-in law, for the bridegroom is planning to settle in America. After almost thirty years of Chinese exclusion, the given media representations of Asia as timeless and remote, to place Chinese characters firmly against California landscapes, “curving, sloping hills, covered with a tender green; here and there patches of glowing, darling color— California flowers” was a deliberate political move. The Chinese are not in a time and place apart. Sui Sin Far seems to be saying: they are here, they are here now, and they are here to stay.
To involve the readers, the narrator addresses them directly. In the first instance, she points out two of the wedding guests to the readers: “See, there is Ah Chuen, the wife of the herb doctor, and Sien Tau, the mother of the president of the Water Lily Society.” Several paragraphs later, Sui Sin Far involves the readers with the question, “What is that Lee Ah Chuen is saying?” Although this strategy is not used consistently, it does seem to be more deliberate than accidental. In addressing the readers directly, Sui Sin Far uses what Gerald Genette has called “metalepsis,” crossing diegetic levels to imply that figures inside and outside the fiction exist on the same plane. Sui Sin Far blurs the boundary between the real and the fictional. She uses this device to suggest that the characters are possibly as “real” as the narrator and the readers. Sui Sin Far draws on the readers’ memory and emotion through direct address to the readers. In doing so, Sui Sin Far can arouse the sympathetic feelings of her readers.
This strategy is also found in many writings of the nineteenth century such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s novel is full of direct address to the narratees, demanding sympathy for the slaves:
You who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love
and feel for all mankind,–by the sacred love you bear your child.—I
beseech you, pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one
legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom! By
the sick hour of your child; by those dying eyes, which you can never
forget; by those last cries, that wrung your heart when you could
neither help nor save. . —I beseech you, pity those mothers that are
constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! And say,
mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with,
passed over in silence? (623-624)
In this passage, the direct address strategy, similar to Sui Sin Far’s, is first to arouse the feeling of any readers who can identify with the narrates, then to ask the readers to project those feelings in the compassion for actual slaves. Whether the situation depicted is that of American slaves or immigrants in North America, this strategy helps develop the readers’ capacity of sympathy for the characters. Then it encourages the readers to apply to nonfictional, real life the feeling the fiction may have inspired.
Then Sui Sin Far employed the trickster aesthetic strategy. Because the shift of tense—present tense, present perfect tense, and past tense—it is difficult to locate the narrative point of view: we are limited to neither the vantage point of a participant-observer nor that of Ah Leen. What, if any, is the rationale for the drifting point of view? Much of the time we are forced to guess who is thinking, observing, or speaking: whether it is Ah Leen the “abandoned” bride, her American friend, or the narrator. If anything, this unfixed point of view suggests that the narrator, the American and Ah Leen all partake of the same consciousness, even as the latter two hold conflicting views on marriage and divorce. Their three voices are orchestrated with the host of others that contribute multiple points of view on this unusual case.
This strategy clearly links Sui Sin Far to the trickster aesthetic. In this way, the readers get to hear a Chinese merchant’s critique of American individualism, his wife’s indirect condemnation of the servitude endured by Chinese women in the home of their mother-in-law, a young Chinese man’s declaration of love, and many more voices of people who had been traditionally silenced. These multiple points of view allow for reciprocal criticism by people of different cultural backgrounds instead of privileging the one-way hierarchical gaze.
This trickster strategy also links Sui Sin Far to Bakhtin’s idea of “carnivalesque.” Carnivalesque, as the word suggests, is connected to the energies of the carnival. In literature, it can be recognized in scenes dominated by the heterogeneity of the crowd, disproportion, excess, chaos, physical needs and pleasures, impurity, and the images as “multiple, bulging, over- or under-sized, . . . mobile and hybrid” (9). While usually associated with the low, the carnivalesque actually “mediates” between the center and the margin or high and low. In “An Autumn Fan,” Sui Sin Far’s trickster strategy involves challenging what Bakhtin has termed monologic visions of social reality with the dialogic of multiple viewpoints, voices that represent those society attempts to make “powerless.” Like Smith’s idea, Sui Sin Far employs multiple perspectives and refuses to mediate with one clear authorial stance. Thus, this trickster strategy exposes monologic illusions about society as well as reversing the order of “Other-ness” from the usual views in Anglo-American literature
Another trickster strategy Sui Sin Far employs is disrupting the readers’ perceived expectations. In “An Autumn Fan,” Sui Sin Far teases the reader by presenting situations and characters that appear to fit stereotypes, then she disrupts the readers’ expectation. Consequently, just as a South Africa mother may compose revolutionary songs in the guise of love ballads, the radical themes slip by unnoticed. A number of elements in the story reinforce popular stereotypes of Chinese: the Chinese women’s passivity, the male Chinese’s bigamy, and Chinese traditionalism. Also the images evoked in the narrative—the crushed geranium expressive of the heroine’s crushed love, “the moon hanging in the sky above like a pale yellow pearl,” the bamboo rocking chair and tea drinking ritual—are all recognizable exotic signs reminiscent of oriental decors. Superficially, the story seems to follow the same line as the Anglo-American narrative which presents the images of Chinese. However, the narrative has many peculiarities that call for a closer examination.
In the midst of the protracted family crisis, we meet the “American girl” who remains present through most of the story but is peripheral to the action. She functions as a stand-in for the readers. Her level of consciousness and cultural distance from the Chinese determine the amount of exposition to be supplied by the narrator. From what other characters tell her, the readers learn about the ins and outs of Chinese wedding ceremonies and rules of kinship. But more importantly, the readers are expected to initially share the American girl’s outrage at Ming Hoan’s “unfaithfulness,” as well as her opinion that Ah Leen should obtain a divorce, since “that is the only course open for a deserted wife who wishes to retain her selfrespect.” When proven wrong, the American discreetly removes herself in the final paragraph, in order to use her new understanding of love to repair her own broken love relation. Here, Sui Sin Far disrupts the readers’ expectation again: the Chinese man comes back as he promised.
Another common belief the story calls into question is that Chinese are cold, practical, and calculating in all matters including marriage—a stereotype perpetuated in stories of fathers selling daughters into marriage of convenience or slavery. One good example of this kind of story is Ah Moy: The Story of Chinese Girl (1908) written by Lu Wheat. This novel details the life of a girl in China, born in 1880, who at age twenty is sold into slavery and taken to San Francisco. The book emphasizes on the hardships caused by the role of females in traditional Chinese society. Wheat cites the social system as the cause of the suffering of the Chinese women, including the selling of the daughter among the poor, the binding of daughters’ feet among the wealthier, and the general preference of parents for sons over daughters. For example, Ah Moy’s mother tells Ah Moy, “Women must obey the man of their family, whether they wish to do so or not” (78).
However, in “Autumn Fan,” Sui Sin Far disrupts the perceived expectations. Contrary to popular stereotypes, Chinese culture is no less prone to change than American culture. The conservative Chinese father who “vowed that he would not disgrace his house by giving his daughter to a youth whose parents had bothered him to another” goes back on his word in acknowledgement of the young couple’s love. The same “inflexible” patriarch eventually revises his opinion on divorce:
Yen Chow puffs his pipe and muses: Assuredly a great slight has
been put upon his family. A divorce would show proper pride. It
was not the Chinese way, but was not the old order passing and the
new order taking its place? Aye, even in China, the old country that
had seemed as if it would ever remain old.
Contrary to the stereotype of Chinese father in Ah Moy, Yen Chow stands for adaptability, change, and guarded interest in the new. As simple and artless as “An Autumn Fan” first appears, upon closer examination we begin to see Sui Sin Far’s tactic to address and disrupt a variety of Anglo-American discourse that ordered reader expectations in her time. In the process, Sui Sin Far shocked the perceptions of the readers.
By engaging in tricksterism, by “both exercis[ing] and exorcis[ing] the negation of the Cultural Other” (Spinks 178), Sui Sin Far was able to avoid her hunters and to achieve voice and visibility in the turn-of-the-century literary marketplace. More importantly, she was able to challenge the dominant discourse which attempted to dominate Asian people. Drawing on the ‘spirit of the trickster-creator,” to use Paula Gunn Allen’s words, Sui Sin Far reminds us of the trickster’s power to laugh at old worlds and invent new ones.
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