- Roy Miki (Editor) and Smaro Kamboureli (Editor)
Trans.Can.Lit: Resituating the Study of Canadian Literature. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marta Dvorak (Author) and W. H. New (Editor)
Tropes and Territories: Short Fiction, Postcolonial Readings, Canadian Writings in Context. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Debra Dudek
Two recent essay collections provide exciting and challenging contributions to debates about the responsibilities of academics working in the humanities generally and within the field of Canadian literature in particular. Both collections are the published result of conferences that took place in 2005: Trans.Can.Lit emerges out of the “TransCanada: Literature, Institutions, Citizenship” conference that took place in Vancouver; and Tropes and Territories is based on the conference of the same name that ran at the University of Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). I bring attention to these details in order to situate these collections of essays at a particular time (one conference was in April the other in June) but at different places. That both collections engage with Canadian literature primarily (although Tropes and Territories substitutes “writings” for “literature” in its subtitle) foregrounds the notion that conversations about this arguably nationally inflected body of texts occur beyond the borders of the Canadian nation-state.
This assertion may seem obvious, but as Smaro Kamboureli writes in her “Preface” to Trans.Can.Lit, “This elsewhereness inscribed in CanLit intimates that Canada is an unimaginable community, that is, a community constituted in excess of the knowledge of itself, always transitioning.” This transition is identified in the collection as the result of a number of features including pressures on academics in the humanities to work on collaborative and interdisciplinary projects, to produce outcomes that have an immediate and obvious impact, to apply for grants constructed along a science model, and, as Kamboureli summarizes, to adopt “the rhetoric of knowledge production, corporatization, and global citizenship.” Furthermore, while Trans.Can.Lit does not engage overtly with how postcolonial studies and its dissenters and offshoots—including Indigenous, diasporic, and critical race studies—inform the study of CanLit, a quick look at the contents pages reveals an impressive list of some of the foremost Canadian critics working in these fields including Diana Brydon, Rinaldo Walcott, Lee Maracle, Stephen Slemon, Lily Cho, Ashok Mathur, Julia Emberley, Len Findlay, and the two editors, Smaro Kamboureli and Roy Miki.
Relationships between ethics and literary studies surface in this collection as do reworked notions of citizenship. Kamboureli, Brydon, Cho, and Lianne Moyes reference Donna Palmateer Pennee’s essay on “literary citizenship.” Cho proposes “diasporic citizenship” as a productive dissonance for “thinking through the differential histories of dislocation in Canadian literature.” Moyes suggests that a “prosthetics of citizenship,” in which a “foreign” part enables “a subject (or a nation, text, or border) to function,” is at work in Erin Mouré’s O Cidadán. And Len Findlay’s essay, which concludes the collection, offers three versions of citizenship: bourgeois, artisanal, and Aboriginal. Findlay suggests that a “collaboration of artisans and Aboriginals” may “challenge the aspirations and actualities of the bourgeois state” and advocates for such “new forms of solidarity.”
“Literature” and “Institutions” are the other two terms that sit beside “Citizenship” in the subtitle of the TransCanada conference and together these three terms link and organize each of the essays. Tellingly, only one of the essays—Lianne Moyes’ paper on Mouré’s O Cidadán—engages in a close reading of a particular text. In each of the other twelve essays, the contributors analyze the study of literature—either broadly as literature or specifically as CanLit—and argue for a variety of transformations to this study and/or within larger institutional frameworks in which such study occurs. Lee Maracle states, “From a Salish perspective, study ought to move us beyond relentless reproduction of our cultural bias and remove the filters blinding our ability to see beyond this bias.” Movement or transformation takes specific form for Stephen Slemon, who argues that academics must become postcolonial administrators, and for Richard Cavell, who argues for academics to become public intellectuals. Julia Emberley also points to public culture as “probably the most important site of contestation.”
One of the strengths of organizing this collection around the intersection of literature, institutions, and citizenship is that the essays become a multivoiced call for revolution to critics and teachers working in a field under attack. Many of the essays point to a need to identify contradictions within the study of CanLit. This resistance to being neat and tidy and civil leads to various strategies including Brydon’s motion to “unravel” consolidations, Walcott’s “call to be unruly,” and Daniel Coleman’s shift “out of sedative politics” and into “wry civility.” Trans.Can.Lit reminded me, as an academic who teaches and researches CanLit in Australia, not only of the specificities of debates occurring within Canada but also of how many of the concerns in Canada transfer with frightening ease to an Australian context. The “trans” in CanLit moves beyond the porous borders of Canada, reminding academics working in literary studies about the power of what we do and of the responsibility attached to this power.
A cost of this strength of Trans.Can.Lit, however, may be the disappearance of texts themselves, which is a general concern articulated by Laura Moss in her essay that opens Tropes and Territories, and which may be read, as the editors state in their introduction, as a conversation with Diana Brydon, who is the only writer featured in both collections. It may also be read as a conversation or interaction with Stephen Slemon, whose position paper at the “TransCanada” conference is quoted at the beginning of Moss’ essay. In his conference paper and his essay in Trans.Can.Lit, Slemon suggests that critical reading or “literary critical practice” may work for “progressive social transformation.” While Moss aligns herself with Slemon’s “commitment to social transformation,” her essay expresses concern with how “social transformation [at the “TransCanada” conference] was consistently predicated on the political positioning expected of postcolonial authors” and not texts.
Moss extends this concern from the specificity of the “TransCananda” conference to a general discussion about the study of Canadian literature, and especially discussions by Canadian academics trained as postcolonialists, whose reading practices lean towards the biographical and/or sociological. Moss claims that this “fractal” reading practice, in which “the part is the whole,” leads to four misreadings: first, the text becomes documentary rather than fiction; second, formal experimentation moves away from poetics and toward a reflection of cultural movements outside the text; third, a character’s emotions become the emotions of a community; and fourth, an emphasis on sociology “leads to the loss of a sense of play, a sense of humour, a sense of art, and a sense of the ordinary.” I outline Moss’ essay in some detail here because it may be read as a hinge essay against which the other pieces in Tropes and Territories may be tested and read and because if one reads across these two collections—which I highly recommend—then Moss’ essay moves back into Trans.Can.Lit.
The essays in this collection are individually strong, while also providing an overall snapshot of a variety of textual practices, which are informed primarily by postcolonial criticism, but also as this criticism intersects with feminism, poststructuralism, and ecocriticism, for example. As the editors state in their comprehensive introduction, the essays in this collection cover various intersections between aesthetics and politics, and as a whole the book “insists on both the real world issues of postcolonial territories and on the force of the textual language that addresses, conveys, and critiques them.” While it is impossible to provide a comprehensive review of even half of the works in this hefty volume of twenty-three essays, I can say that they cover an impressive range of topics and methodologies and would be a valuable resource for anybody teaching and/or doing research on postcolonial literature and/or on the genre of the short story.
The essays themselves range from broad mappings to close readings, from claims about the author in the text to claims about the reader in the text. Essays that engage in broad mappings include Chelva Kanaganayakam’s piece on South Asian short fiction, Lydia Wevers’ comparative essay on Maori and Pakeha contemporary short fiction from Aotearoa New Zealand, Bruce Bennett’s paper on place in contemporary Australian stories, and Warren Cariou’s essay on oral memory in Métis short stories. The collection provides close readings of short fiction by writers including Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Thomas King, R.K. Narayan, Alistair MacLeod, Emily Carr, Mavis Gallant, Alecia McKenzie, Patricia Grace, Janet Frame, David Malouf, Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, and Witi Ihimaera.
In closing, I recommend a “transed” reading of these collections. When the despair about being overrun by the corporatization of the humanities seems too overwhelming and when strategies of unruliness are elusive, then cross into the readings of stories in Tropes and Territories. When the stories seem too far removed from the everyday practices of academic life, then traverse the strategies proposed in Trans.Can.Lit. Either way, the coast is clear.
- Dynamic Equivalences by Sylvie Vranckx
Books reviewed: “That’s Raven Talk”: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures by Mareike Neuhaus
- N'importe quoi by Lyne Girard
Books reviewed: Pour tourner la page by Marc Vaá¯s
- Gender, Race, and Adventure by Darlene Abreu-Ferreira
Books reviewed: Secrets in the Fire by Henning Mankell, Terra Incognita by Anne Metikosh, and Escapes! by Laura Scandiffio
- Two Books from Quebec by Peter R. Babiak
Books reviewed: A Good Death by Gil Courtemanche and Wayne Grady and Short Stuff: New English Stories from Quebec by Claude Lalumière
- On Brevity and Bathing by Claire Wilkshire
Books reviewed: Pull Gently, Tear Here by Alexandra Leggat and Dominant Impressions: Essays on the Canadian Short Story by Angela Arnold and Gerald Lynch
MLA: Dudek, Debra. CanLit Inter-nationally. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #199 (Winter 2008), Asian Canadian Studies. (pg. 223 - 226)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.