- John Stackhouse (Author)
Out of Poverty and into Something More Comfortable. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Roxanne L. Rimstead (Author)
Remnants of Nation: On Poverty Narratives by Women. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laurie Aikman
In the documentary film Spectre of Hope, Brazilian economist and photographer SebastiÃ¢o Salgado and British art critic John Berger discuss Salgado’s recent book Migrations, a photographic witness to the human suffering and poverty engendered by globalization. Salgado is honest about the ethical dilemmas faced by privileged intellectuals who care deeply about the lives and struggles of those who have been impoverished or dispossessed by war and global economics. He admits that he does not know if it is right for him to photograph such suffering, but that he wishes someone would tell him what is right.
Two recent books by Canadian authors from very different disciplines join Salgado in exploring this dilemma. Out of Poverty and Remnants of Nation turn their critical lenses on poverty in the global and Canadian contexts respectively, urging their readers to consider the contexts of poverty with new eyes. Both texts will have a wide appeal to readers beyond their particular audiences in the fields of economics and literature.
Out of Poverty is partly a work of economic journalism, and partly a narrative of intellectual and ideological conversion. Written by the Globe and Mails first overseas development writer, John Stackhouse, and accompanied by eloquent black-and-white photographs taken by his wife, Cindy Andrew, the book stands as a testimony to Stackhouse’s willingness to be transformed by his encounters with the poor. Although he begins his career fully supporting and believing in the development policies of Western organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, the author documents his growing realization that successful "human development is not about creating wealth," nor is it "about outside interventions," but rather it is "a process, even a struggle, that [is] internal to a place and deeply democratic in nature." By telling the stories of some of those struggles, Stackhouse paints a portrait of the diversity, dignity, and resourcefulness of the world’s poor.
Stackhouse’s prose is engaging and highly readable. The book has the emotional power of a novel and the intellectual appeal of an essay. Out of Poverty is structured as a series of narratives grouped together according to their continent or country of origin: Africa, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia. Between his discussions of events occurring in these different regions, Stackhouse returns again and again to his experiences in the tiny and deeply impoverished village of Biharipur, India. A microcosm of the issues, challenges, and minor and major triumphs of human development at the most basic political level, Biharipur is also a village where Stackhouse develops the deepest and most respectful relationships with those who are living in poverty. Stackhouse’s book furthermore offers a trenchant exposure and criticism of the ways in which the media create an image of developing nations for the consumption of the wealthier countries of the West. He writes with an insider’s perspective.
Out of Poverty does locate poverty in developing nations, rather than in Canada itself. The oversight arises from Stackhouse’s position as development writer for the Globe and Mail, as well as his desire to challenge "the arrogant hopes of interventionism [. . .] that we, the West, have the will, weapons, nerve and right to police the world." However, the tendency of Canadians to locate poverty out in the developing world rather than within their own country and communities is criticized in Remnants of Nation. Rimstead’s book contains not only a theoretical delineation of poverty narratives and a justification of their study within Canadian literature, but also a series of textual analyses that demonstrate ways of reading poverty: "I propose a new category of analysis called ’poverty narratives’ and oppositional reading practices which ask broad theoretical and social questions such as what it might mean politically, ethically, and epistemologically to critique poverty in literature more rigorously." Remnants of Nation is a work of both literary scholarship and cultural criticism, in which these reading strategies are as central to her project as is her attentive-ness to the nationally devalued narratives of poverty themselves.
In a series of interconnected articles written over the course of five years, Rimstead engages in the first comprehensive analysis of the ways in which social myths of poverty are both constructed and challenged within Canadian literature. For Rimstead, a professor of literature at the Université de Sherbrooke, reading such myths oppositionally is an ethical imperative. The social groundedness of Remnants of Nation makes it a valuable resource for all those who struggle to combine the study of literature with social, political, and ethical accountability.
Rimstead’s book enacts "oppositional reading strategies" that "oppose the invisibility and silencing of the poor by peering more closely . . . into the images of poverty and asking what they may mean in a struggle over meaning and power." The "images of poverty" to which Rimstead refers are not only narratives about the poor in canonical Canadian literature, but also nar ratives by the poor, including autobiographies, oral histories, letters, and other forms that are often dismissed as non-literary genres. Rimstead defends the importance of examining such marginalized texts alongside the productions of canonical Canadian authors such as Susanna Moodie, Nellie McClung, Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro.
Rimstead addresses the usefulness of poverty narratives as literary category, the feminization of poverty, and the neglect of poverty and class in Canadian literary criticism. She discusses poor houses in Canadian literature, the internalization of negative self-images by poor subjects, and the deliberate distancing strategies that women may use in writing about their poor childhoods. The book is densely written, tightly argued, and richly rewarding. It deserves to have a powerful impact on the field of Canadian literature.
Rimstead insists that "cultural critics should allow the possibility that poor subjects have special knowledge and can and do speak as cultural subjects in ways that academic criticism has somehow been overlooking or devaluing," and her book is as much a model of the act of listening as it is a brilliant work of comparative literary theory and practice. Remnants of Nation, like Out of Poverty, is a fundamentally hopeful book, ending with a discussion of how "resistant poverty narratives" can offer "visions of a more inclusive nation where the public good is defined not by deficit reduction but by sharing and investing in all members of the collective."
- Diasporic Trajectories by Lily Cho
Books reviewed: Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown by Nyan Shah, Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco by Anthony W. Lee, and Consuming Hong Kong by Tai-lok Lui and Gordon Matthews
- I Dont Hate It! by Michael Zeitlin
Books reviewed: Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada by Bruce McCall and Power in the Blood: Land, Memory, and a Southern Family by John Bentley Mays
- Life-writing Practices by Joy Henley
Books reviewed: Beyond the Home Front: Women's Autobiographical Writing of the Two World Wars by Yvonne M. Klein, Great Dames by Elspeth Cameron and Janice Dickin, and Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche : A Biographical Essay by Daniel L. Bratton
- The Afterlife of Trauma by Marlene Briggs
Books reviewed: Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representations by Michael Rothberg, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War by Fred Turner, and The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony by Leigh Gilmore
- "Notes to Self" by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Marian Engel's Notebooks: "Ah, mon cahier, écoute" by Christl Verduyn and Hobnobbing with a Countess and Other Okanagan Adventures: The Diaries of Alice Barrett Parke, 1891-1900 by Jo Fraser Jones
MLA: Aikman, Laurie. Challenging Poverty. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 199 - 201)
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