Purdue University Graduate School

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Race, Space, and Narrative: Spatial Reading and Racial Literacy in Contemporary Multifocal American Novels

posted on 2023-07-18, 12:16 authored by Erika GotfredsonErika Gotfredson

This dissertation identifies four American novels published between 2016 and 2018—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017), and Tommy Orange’s There There (2018)—that deploy a multifocal narrative structure to facilitate readers’ ethical engagement with their content. Specifically, these novels’ narrative structures guide readers through spatial reading, or reading across numerous characters’ perspectives of a shared space instead of with the grain of chronological time. Contextualizing these novels within the nation’s shifting racial beliefs initiated by the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I argue that, in these novels, multifocalization and the spatial reading it activates dismantle the cognitive schemas and cultural discourses that sustain unjust racial ideologies. Spatial reading engages readers in acts of rereading and contextualization that diverge from the practices of generalization and erasure affiliated with myths of racial progress and the rhetoric of colorblindness, and it accordingly builds readers’ capacity to acknowledge racism as systemic, structural, and multifaceted. By emphasizing how each novel facilitates readers’ racial literacy, this project diverges from and complicates the widespread belief that the humanities contribute to antiracism by building readerly empathy, instead championing how the humanities impart upon readers the tools to analyze and critique systemic racism. 


Ross Lynn Research Scholar Fund


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Nancy Peterson

Additional Committee Member 2

Marlo D. David

Additional Committee Member 3

Paul Ryan Schneider

Additional Committee Member 4

Corinne Bancroft