Theses Doctoral

The Predicament of Illegality: Undocumented Aliens in Contemporary American Immigration Fiction

Llobrera, Kairos

This dissertation examines representations of undocumented aliens and explores the issue of illegality in contemporary American immigration fiction. It takes as a fundamental premise that in immigration, status matters. The importance of immigration status in the "real world" is evident not only in ongoing national debates but also in the daily experiences of immigrants, whose inclusion in or exclusion from America's social, economic and political spheres is largely dependent on their status as documented or undocumented persons. This dissertation proposes that status likewise matters in literary representations of immigration. As this project demonstrates, immigration narratives often rely on conventional structures, themes and tropes that privilege the legal immigrant subject. Indeed, the legality of protagonists is often taken for granted in many novels about immigration. Thus, by foregrounding fundamental questions concerning legal status in the study of immigration literature, this dissertation aims to show the ways in which status informs, influences and directly shapes immigration novels. While this project broadly proposes the concept of status as an analytical lens, I approach this literary inquiry primarily by critically examining the "illegal alien" as the subject of immigration novels. Focusing on three novels that feature an undocumented immigrant protagonist - Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, Gish Jen's Typical American, and Mario Bencastro's Odyssey to the North - this dissertation argues that, like its real-world counterpart who poses social, political and legal problems for the nation state, the figure of the illegal alien poses problems for the genre of immigration fiction, challenging its narrative conventions and calling into question the ideology of American exceptionalism that underpins it. By exploring the relationship between law and literature, this dissertation seeks to bring insight into the ways in which stories about immigration participate in the broader political discourse on U.S. immigration. On the one hand, it demonstrates how conventional immigration narratives perform cultural labor for the dominant legal regime by reaffirming normative modes of inclusion into the nation. On the other, it shows how literature, by wrestling with the question of illegality, can serve as means to critique the exclusionary practices of American law and society.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Negron-Muntaner, Frances
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 30, 2013