- Smaro Kamboureli (Editor)
Making a Difference : Canadian Multicultural Literature. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherry Simon
Every observer will have his own version of how and when English-Canadian literature acquired its new public face. One of my moments is recent. It’s when Robertson Davies died and the Canadian writer on the CBC radio news commenting on his career was not Margaret Atwood but Rohinton Mistry. The reshuffling of genealogies suggested by this moment of passage was startling. The great old Anglo-Celtic patriarch was giving his place to a novelist whose prize-winning book was about an unconventional family in Bombay. Mistry won the Giller prize in 1995; the previous winner was M.G. Vassanji, for a superb novel about East Africa.
No wonder then that Smaro Kamboureli suggests in her introduction that there may be one word too many in the subtitle of this collection. Shouldn’t multicultural be superfluous, virtually synonymous with Canadian?. Yes, we nod, at the same time beginning to articulate the many objections which could be brought to bear upon a project such as this one. Considering the importance of so many of these multicultural writers within contemporary Canadian literature, why not simply propose an anthology of the best of contemporary writing—which would necessarily include them? Why foreground writers’ cultural origins rather than their writing projects?
While these objections can never be put to final rest, they can be indefinitely deferred by the coherence of the anthologist’s work, the insights gained by bringing texts together, and the vigour of the writing selected. This is very much the case for the collection put together by Smaro Kamboureli. The anthology includes work by many of Canada’s best-known writers, such as Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Joy Kogawa, Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Kristjana Gunnars, Mary di Michèle, Neil Bissoondath, Fred Wah, Lee Maracle, Thomas King, Aritha van Herk. These are not writers whose work has necessarily been associated with their cultural origins, but their texts speak of the displacements they have known. Their work, next to that of lesser-known writers, like Arnold Itwaru, Andrew Suknaski, Renato Trujillo, Cyril Dabydeen, Frank Paci, Jim Wong- Chu, Ven Begamudré, Yeshim Ternar, Ashok Mathur, Hiromi Goto, provides for a wide range of styles. And its sheer mass points to an impressive body of writings.
Over and above the selections themselves, what makes this volume really work are the excellent headnotes. For each of the seventy-one authors included in the anthology, Kamboureli has written a succinct, informative biographical sketch, including remarks on the way the authors view their work and especially the ways in which they position themselves in relation to the community to which they belong. These remarks make for a very satisfying pivot between the framing design of the anthology and the writing itself. In particular, they allow the writers to create all the distance they wish between their identities as writers and the communities they have found themselves representing. Or, on the contrary, to ground their work confidently in the collective identity they have assumed.
While there is nothing said in the title, or indeed in the introduction, about the content or themes of the chosen texts, there is a resolutely social focus to the works represented here. This is not only an anthology by writers making up an array of Canadian differences; it is also an anthology about the experience of such differences within Canadian life. Such a focus makes sense, and adds to the coherence of the collection, allowing as well for a fine display of the variety of genres and esthetics through which cultural diversity plays. Almost all of the writing is interesting. I would have quibbled over the inclusion of a few of the pieces, but not many.
There are nevertheless two aspects of the anthology that seem to me somewhat problematic. The first concerns the first eight authors included in the book. Out of a concern to show that multiculturalism is not a recent phenomenon, Kamboureli has eight ’precursors’. My argument here is that the cultural context in which these writers contributed to Canadian literature was fundamentally different from today’s. These were immigrant writers, writing for a scene which did not include the radical diversity which we see today. The Yiddish writing world, for example, was a rich one and it spawned a very diverse progeny. Including these few ’precursors’ (Frederick Philip Grove, Laura Salverson, Rachel Korn, A.M. Klein, George Faludy, Vera Lysenko, Irving Layton and Helen Weinzweig) does not really seem to make sense here. The anthology, arranged according to the birth dates of the authors, should more properly have begun with Skvorecky—the eldest of the writers of new generations.
The second objection has to do with Québec. While a number of the writers included here live or have lived in Montreal, there are no writers representing the specific realities of French-language Québec. As is usually the case, then, multiculturalism has occluded the existence of French Québec. Why not have included in translation the work of Nairn Kattan, Marco Micone, Abla Farhoud, Dany Laferrière, Mona Lattif-Ghattas, Monique Bosco, or others? If the work of Antonio d’Alfonso is meant to stand in for this entire group, as he has published in both English and French and has played an important role in publishing Italo- Québécois authors, this is regrettable, because the selections from his work are particularly weak.
Is it a given of the publishing world that an anthology of Canadian literature includes only those works produced in English? Though Kamboureli thought there was one word too many in the subtitle, one might argue that words pointing to the fact that, under the current Constitutional regime, Canadian literature is written in English and French (at least), might have been included. Is it that the really problematic word in Kamboureli’s title is not Multicultural but Canadian¦?
- Studying Canadian Studies by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader by Gail Faurschou, Sourayan Mookerjea, and Imre Szeman
- Imagining Justice by Kristina Fagan
Books reviewed: Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State by Alan C. Cairns and Justice in Paradise by Bruce Clark
- Animal Laughter by Clint Burnham
Books reviewed: The Prescription Errors by Charles Demers and Animals by Don LePan
- Cultural Bridge Mix by Ric Knowles
Books reviewed: That Woman by Daniel Danis and Linda Gaboriau, Banana Boots by David Fennario, Selkirk Avenue by Bruce McManus, and Paradise by the River by Vittorio Rossi
- Memory and Resistance by Adele Holoch
Books reviewed: Je me souviens: Memories of an expatriate Anglophone Montréalaise Québécoise exiled in Canada by Lorena Gale
MLA: Simon, Sherry. Disaplacements. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 141 - 143)
***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.