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Seminar: Was Twain White? The Transnational Frame of Blackness in the Work of Mark Twain
Date: 26 January 2011 

SMLC seminar series (American Studies)

Was Twain White? The Transnational Frame of Blackness in the Work of Mark Twain

By Selina Lai

Date: 26 January 2011 (Wednesday)
Time: 4:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Place: KKL812, K.K.Leung Building
In the midst of writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain remarked that “my tank has run dry…the story could not go on.” Little did he imagine that the novel and its twin sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) would become one of his most-remembered and studied texts today. At his death in 1910, he had published an overwhelming body of works and hundreds of thousands of Twain's words are still being found every week. The American iconoclast continues to make the headlines and it attests to Twain’s strikingly contemporary and influential views on culture, politics, and particularly race.

My work explores the local racial subtleties represented by the character Huck Finn by reconsidering Twain as fundamentally influenced by his travels throughout the world. I argue that Huck’s journey across State borders in a raft and his decision to help a runaway slave attain freedom both reflect the author’s own global experience. The type of intellectually curious traveling in which Twain engaged enabled him to understand and perceive race within a transnational perspective that complicated the black/white context of a post-Civil War United States.

On a deeper level, the global context of Twain’s works, associations, and audiences would have an important, if subtle, influence on what was already taking place when Twain died in early twentieth century America—namely, an outpouring of literary and cultural production by African Americans who had traveled and lived abroad. The mobility and cultural exchange among African Americans crossing the borders of the US, France, and African countries would motivate writers such as Langston Hughes to redefine their racial identity. Comparing the transatlantic travel writings of Twain and Hughes, I look at how the writers depict “whiteness,” “blackness,” and race in relation to the local as well as the global.

About the presenter:
Selina Lai is currently doing her Ph.D. in the American Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong, where she also taught various undergraduate courses on American literature and cultures. She was recently awarded the Fulbright research grant to conduct part of her doctoral work in the US this fall. She holds degrees from the University of Heidelberg, Germany (M.A., American Studies) and Hong Kong University (B.A., English and Comparative Literature). She has published in encyclopedias such as Magill's Survey of American Literature (ed. Tracy Irons-Georges) and Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars (ed. Roger Chapman), and journals such as International Review of American Studies, International Fiction Review, Columbia Journal of American Studies.


All are welcome.
For enquiries, please contact Ms. Cice Chan ( / 2219 4403)

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