What is metafiction, and how can it serve as a tool for confronting power dynamics? Can incorporating unconventional genres in curriculum teach students critical thinking skills?
In episode 36 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Leah Milne discuss how metafictional narratives by authors of color can provide a pedagogy of discomfort, how comics and graphic novels can spur the “good trouble” of social justice activism, and how she uses the classroom to teach radical empathy.
This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.
Guest: Leah Milne
Leah is an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches literature and composition courses. Her research primarily focuses on issues related to ethnic identity, multiculturalism, and authorship in contemporary ethnic American literature.
She’s currently writing Necessary Fictions: Authorship and Transethnic Identities in Contemporary American Narratives, a book examining belonging, identity, and acts of authorship in post 1989 ethnic American novels that utilize metafiction, or fiction that calls attention to itself as well as its own formal conventions.
She earned a PhD in American literature from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and an MA in English from Old Dominion University.
We chatted about
- How authors are using metafiction to explore ethnic identity and citizenship (02:25)
- Authors and activists who have inspired Leah’s work (05:10)
- The power of comics to represent complex power dynamics and incite social justice activism (07:45)
- Teaching as a form of activism (10:50)
- Imagining otherwise (14:05)
What draws creatives to the metafiction genre
Metafiction, in pulling readers out of the text, forces us to face ourselves….We’re attached to an ironic sensibility nowadays, and so metafiction becomes a way that we get the audience, and we’re all in on the joke.
Authors using metafiction to discuss themes of politics and power
The specific type of metafiction that I’ve been researching is novels that feature writers as characters in the book. I think that this trope is especially powerful when we talk about issues like colonization. You see the authors in these books being challenged with how to write their own stories in the face of constant erasure by history, by governments, by political systems and structures.
The unique medium of comics
Comics are something that on the surface seem really welcoming and easily digestible, so they have this special magic in making concepts like nonviolent protest, for example, really clear to their readers.
Teaching students to think critically
I always ask [my students] to critique words that we take for granted, like ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ and to understand that those things don’t mean the same thing for everyone. If we become more adept at this analysis, we can yield a better way of seeing the world.
Combing academia with art and activism in the classroom
Good literature—like all good art—forces you to open your mind and to grow. I often use texts in my classes that do not automatically scream ‘academia’ or ‘high culture,’ because it can be really surprising to see how that overlaps with art and activism.
I want to live in a world that believes in the power of practicing real and radical empathy. I want to live in a world where it matters what we do once we have a story and a perspective, once we see what it looks like with experiences that are not necessarily our own.
More from Leah Milne
Projects and people discussed
- Junot Díaz
- Gun Dealer’s Daughter, a novel by Gina Apostol
- “Good trouble,” a phrase coined by John Lewis
- March, a graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis
- Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a comic
- Revolution in Tahrir Square
- Captain America Truth, a comic series
- Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi
- Persepolis, film adaptation of the graphic novel
- Archie Comics
- Lemonade, a visual album by Beyoncé
- Fresh Off the Boat, television series
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
About Signal Boosting
This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:22]:
Welcome to Signal Boosting a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we are highlighting an emerging scholar who’s building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. This Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms as well as inspire you to perhaps create your own.
Cathy Hannabach ]00:55]:
In the second episode of our Signal Boosting miniseries, I interviewed Leah Milne, who’s an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis where she teaches literature and composition courses. Her research focuses on ethnic identity, multiculturalism, and authorship in contemporary ethnic American literature. Leah’s writing has appeared in publications such as College Literature, South Atlantic Review, CLA Journal, and the forthcoming edited collection, Growing Up Asian-American in Young Adult Fiction. She’s currently writing a book examining belonging, identity, and acts of authorship in post-1989 ethnic American novels that utilize metafiction, or fiction that calls attention to itself as well as its own formal conventions.
Cathy Hannabach [01:40]:
In our interview, Leah and I talk about how metafictional narratives by authors of color can provide a pedagogy of discomfort, how comics and graphic novels can spur the good trouble of social justice activism, and how she uses the classroom to teach radical empathy.
Thanks so much for being with us today.
Leah Milne [01:59]:
Cathy Hannabach [02:00]:
So you’re writing a really interesting sounding new book about metafiction in ethnic American novels. I’d love to hear a little bit about what that book covers.
Leah Milne [02:09]:
Yeah, so the book is called Necessary Fictions, not because of the genre of metafiction necessarily, but because of what that fiction actually does. So metafiction is basically a form of fiction that draws attention to itself as a story. I like to say that reading metafiction is kind of the opposite of reading escapist literature because metafiction constantly reminds you that you are reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show. It’s interesting because metafiction has been around for a long time, but it feels like recently it’s just sort of been everywhere. So you see TV shows where actors talk directly to the audience or cartoons that sort of poke fun at themselves and at the genre. But my interest in metafiction actually stems from my research in ethnic American literature. So a lot of traditional metafiction is about the playfulness of picking on some kind of narrative convention or genre or something like that. But, while the authors that I was reading seem to be doing that, they also seem to be doing something else. And so I wanted to figure out what that something else was. And it seemed like a lot of the work that they were doing with it had to do with issues of ethnic identity and citizenship and what it means to be an American, which is just such really important and necessary work.
Cathy Hannabach [03:28]:
This does seem to be a really common trend these days. I can think of like just off the top of my head a whole bunch of TV shows that mess with this fourth wall.
Leah Milne [03:35]:
Cathy Hannabach [03:36]:
What is unique or what is different among the different genres have you found in terms of why different types of authors or different types of creatives are using this same technique?
Leah Milne [03:48]:
Yeah, I wondered about that because I feel like even in the process of just me teaching my students, they’ve become, I guess, sort of immune to it as a genre. When I call it out, they seem to think, “Oh yeah, well everything does that nowadays.” And so I wonder if it’s just sort of related to the fact that we’re attached to kind of an ironic sensibility nowadays and so metafiction becomes a way that we sort of wink at the audience and we kind of all are in on the joke I guess.
Cathy Hannabach [04:15]:
It also seems like one of the things, and I know you write about this, is that that technique of metafiction lets authors or creators connect individual stories to broader cultural or political themes. What are some of the case studies or maybe examples that you talk about from your book where they do that, they connect their individual lives to these broader trends?
Leah Milne [04:34]:
Yeah, I think actually what I’m trying to say in my book is that metafiction is the best genre in which to do this. Other forms of fiction can sometimes be really comforting, so they allow us to forget who we are or to forget our responsibilities. And for some of us, that’s really the only reason that we read. And so metafiction, I think, in pulling the readers out of the text, it actually forces us to face ourselves. So we’re asked about our responsibilities to the character or to the story or to kind of the broader concepts that the text brings out. I recently saw Juno Díaz speaking at the Central Library, and he was talking about this. It’s a theme in his work actually about the connection between dictators and writers and how both of them sort of become the only voice in the room. And I think metafiction is unique and sort of drawing attention to those power dynamics. And so it’s a genre that allows us to talk about issues such as multiculturalism or America’s history of colonization.
Cathy Hannabach [05:38]:
Can you give us a little bit of background I guess or examples of what texts you’re looking at?
Leah Milne [05:43]:
Yeah, so I do look at Juno Díaz. I also look at Gina Apostol. She wrote this book called The Gun Dealer’s Daughter, and it actually won a PEN Open Book award in 2013. But for some reason nobody seemed to have heard of it. So part of my mission has been to sort of just share her work with everyone. She has this protagonist in this book, The Gun Dealer’s Daughter, whose name is Sol. And Sol is obsessed with Philippine-American history, which I think is great because the United States has a definite element of amnesia when it comes to our complicated connections with the Philippines. So in the novel, Sol writes about this history in a pretty obsessive way. And we as readers see her grappling with what it means to confront this part of her identity through her writing.
Leah Milne [06:29]:
The specific type of metafiction that I’ve been researching are novels that feature writers as characters in the book. And I think that this trope is especially powerful when we talk about issues like colonization. You see the authors in this book being challenged with how to write their own stories in the face of constant erasure by history, by governments, by political systems and structures.
Cathy Hannabach [06:51]:
One of the genres that you mentioned that I hope we can talk a little bit more about is comics. It’s certainly a genre that’s seen a revival these days with huge blockbuster movies as well as more small-scale kind of cult attention to a larger diversity of representation in comics. And you’ve written about comics as a kind of unique genre as able to provide what you call the good trouble of social justice activism, which is such just a fantastic phrase. What does that mean? What is the good trouble of social justice activism? And why does comics allow for that?
Leah Milne [07:26]:
Yeah, I wish that was mine actually. It is from John Lewis, who’s a congressman in Georgia. And good trouble is actually a pretty good summary of just what’s for him become a lifetime of activism, so marches, sit-ins, rallies. He’s pretty much always made it a goal of his to get in the way as he puts it. And so my interest in comics as a medium is in part because of Lewis. He himself was actually inspired by a comic book from 1958 entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Comics are something that on the surface they seem really welcoming and easily digestible. So they have this special magic in making concepts like nonviolent protest, for example, really clear to their readers.
Leah Milne [08:13]:
Comics have these elements that make a compelling story seem real. And at the same time they also simplify the truth of that reality down to a form that often can incite activism. So that same comic book that inspired John Lewis, it played a role in the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011. And it also inspired his own trilogy, which is called March. So in my research I started to track other comic books that had a similar impact or have addressed similar important social issues like the Captain America Truth series, which address eugenics and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I think it was made into a movie, which I haven’t seen, but the book itself actually played a role in revolution, very similar to the way that Montgomery Story played a role.
Leah Milne [09:03]:
What excites me about comics is pretty much the same thing that drew me to metafiction. Both leave a lot to the imagination and yet they tell stories in such a way that has the kind of element of productive confrontation to them.
Cathy Hannabach [09:17]:
Did you grow up reading comics? I’m just curious how you personally got interested in this.
Leah Milne [09:21]:
It’s kind of embarrassing because the comics that I read, they were Archie comics.
Cathy Hannabach [09:26]:
That’s not embarrassing.
Leah Milne [09:29]:
I’m here talking about like social justice activism, but really, Archie has sort of become that lately. But growing up it was just kind of fluff, which is pretty much the way I think a lot of people see comics. My students get really excited when I say we’re going to read comics in a class because they think that it’s just going to be easy work. But it turns out there’s a definite way of reading comics that takes some extra effort and in a lot of ways… It’s interesting because if you look at, for example, John Lewis and March, there are moments where the panels seem to be lower because they’re through the perspective of a child’s eyes. And there are panels where you have no idea what’s going on because it sort of reflects the chaos of that time period. And those kinds of things are things that you can’t really see if you’re just a watching a TV show or if you’re reading a book even.
Cathy Hannabach [10:17]:
So you’ve kind of alluded to it and I want to address a little bit more explicitly, but it seems like your work in the classroom, in this book, in your scholarship more broadly is really interested in this nexus of social justice activism or social change, obviously academic work as well as art. You’ve mentioned fiction, you’ve mentioned comics, these kind of artistic genres. So I’m curious how you see your work bringing those three realms together and what that means for you.
Leah Milne [10:46]:
Yeah, it may seem like a cop out because for me, I feel like my activism is through my teaching. And I guess it’s not a cop out because I’ve just been lucky enough to sort of fall into this as sort of my calling in life. I feel like my students can learn a lot about how to be good readers and good writers, but at the same time that they’re doing so they can learn what it means to be good citizens. And critical thinking, which is that’s basically all I teach in my courses, it’s becoming so important. It was always important, but it seems like even nowadays it’s becoming even more important. And so if I can still use those practices of getting them to understand what critical thinking is while also talking about language and sharing some great works of literature, then it just becomes a bonus.
Leah Milne [11:34]:
So good literature, pretty much like all good art, it forces you to open your mind and to grow. And so I’ll often use texts in my classes that do not automatically scream academia or high culture because it can be really surprising to see how that overlaps with art and activism. So this summer, for example, I’m teaching a class on inter-textuality and Beyonce’s Lemonade, which is her visual album that just came out. And I’ve had students laugh, they’ve just laughed at me when I said that, “Hey, I’m doing this course.” Because to them it just doesn’t automatically translate into something that we can talk about in an academic way. But once I start describing how the album can spark real conversations about feminism or blackness or motherhood, I can see them stop to really think about it. The same thing goes when we talk about TV shows like Fresh Off the Boat, which is the first show in the US to feature an Asian-American family as protagonist in over 20 years, which is just mind boggling to me. But we can think of it as simply a sitcom, which is actually a nice sort of quietly revolutionary way to think about it as just being this normal TV show. But we can also have really rich critical conversations about it.
Leah Milne [12:43]:
So I often talk in my teaching about the fact that words hold weight and that language is not just empty. So some of their favorite things to say, like good person for example, it’s a phrase that I hear them use all the time, and I often ask them to think about what that actually means. Because I think that for them it might mean the way that we interact with just the people that we like or that we’re around. So I always ask them to critique words, words that we take for granted like normal or ordinary. And to understand that those things don’t mean the same thing for everyone. And so if we become more adept at this kind of analysis, we can yield a better way of seeing the world.
Cathy Hannabach [13:21]:
That’s certainly something that many teachers aspire to in their classrooms, and producing these really smart students who can then go out and create maybe their own TV shows or whatever it is that they end up doing in the world.
Leah Milne [13:34]:
Cathy Hannabach [13:35]:
So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people on this podcast. And obviously the title of this podcast is Imagine Otherwise. And my favorite thing to talk with people about is that world that you’re imagining when you step in front of a classroom, when you write your scholarship, when you create whatever it is that you create in the universe. So I’ll ask you, it’s a big question I know, it can be a scary question, but I think it’s an awesome question. What’s that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Leah Milne [14:06]:
I talk a lot about empathy in my research and my teaching. Because I want to live in a world that believes in the power of practicing real and radical empathy. I think that getting back to this idea of language, we have sort of fuzzy feel-good ideas about what empathy means. So we think all it means is that we just walk a mile in somebody’s shoes and everything will be fine. So we read a book about what it means to, I don’t know, to travel in outer space, and then all of a sudden we understand that and we can move on in our lives. But I think that real empathy must go beyond this. So I want to live in a world where it matters what we do once we have a story and a perspective, once we see what it looks like with experiences that aren’t necessarily our own. So I always say that empathy is not something that we’re born knowing how to do, or at least we’re not born knowing how to do it well. So it takes work and it takes practice for us to truly perform what that word suggests. And so I think if we are very mindful of what that really means and what we might have to even give up in the process of being truly empathetic, that’s the kind of world that I hope we work toward.
Cathy Hannabach [15:16]:
It seems like one thing that metafiction does really well is not just introduce empathy, like all fiction or all memoir type projects to a certain degree do that, you’re literally put in the perspective of someone else, but by calling attention to the form and the constraints of the form, having characters tell us as readers or as viewers, “This is what I think, but this is also how you, sitting there, reader or viewer, are constraining how I can think.” There’s a political tinge to that empathy, right?
Leah Milne [15:50]:
Absolutely. And it’s true with comics too, because to a certain extent, neither genre is allowing us to kind of fill in the blank with whatever comfortable thing we want to fill it in with. It’s forcing us to kind of see the world in a specific way, and then calling us out if we want to be comfortable. I often teach through what I call a pedagogy of discomfort, I think a lot of people do this, where if you’re too comfortable then you’re not really learning. And I find that metafiction in the way it sort of confronts the reader, it constantly pulls you out of that comfort zone. It’s not really beach reading, though I tend to read it on the beach, but it’s not really beach reading per se because it’s constantly sort of asking you to interrogate who you are. And I think a lot of empathy is connected to this idea of really understanding who you are, where you’re coming from, and then what do you need to do to move forward.
Cathy Hannabach [16:44]:
And it seems like your work is doing a fantastic job of helping people imagine otherwise through that mode.
Leah Milne [16:50]:
I hope so. I’m trying.
Cathy Hannabach [16:53]:
Thanks so much for being with us. This is a really fantastic conversation.
Leah Milne [16:57]:
Thank you. It’s been fun.
Cathy Hannabach [17:02]:
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Signal Boosting. You can view the show notes for this episode created by Priyanka Kaura, on the Ideas on Fire website at ideasonfire.net, as well as find links to the people, projects, and resources we discussed. The Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian-American studies as a dynamic interdisciplinary field; Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive interdisciplinary academics; and the Smithsonian Asian-Pacific-American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian-Pacific-American history, art, and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.