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Facing Problems of Representation in Robert Olen Butler’s “Open Arms” and “Letters from My Father”

Sarah Wyman


Pages 91 - 113



Robert Olen Butler carries out a postmodern critique of representation in the short stories “Open Arms” and “Letters from My Father” from his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992). He depicts Vietnamese nationals and émigrés reacting against the limits of linguistic and graphic expression as they wrestle with instruments of communication. Signifying objects such as letters, photos, and film images participate in dramas of desire and loss, emphasizing rupture and distance rather than the meaningful contact they ostensibly promise. In turn, Butler’s two narrators reflect the author’s activity as they participate in acts of fictionalizing and interpreting other individuals. The characters analyze persons as objects, mediating their descriptions through the effects of narrative focalization and reflexive modes of storytelling. Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection demands careful attention as a work of American orientalist literature and demonstrates the way fiction writing has become politicized in the United States. These stories present an allegory of the late twentieth-century crisis of signification and open a space to explore the consequences of literary ethnographic colonization. Both the subaltern subject and Western imperialism haunt Butler’s fictions and, by extension, destabilize monolithic conceptualizations of the U.S. literary canon.

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