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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Ethnic at Large

  • Igor Maver (Author)
    Ethnic Literature and Culture in the USA, Canada, and Australia. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Janice Kulyk Keefer (Author), Danielle Schaub (Author), and Richard E. Sherwin (Author)
    Precarious Present/Promising Future?: Ethnicity and Identities in Canadian Literature. Magnes (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Tseen-Ling Khoo

Studies focusing on cultural politics and national identity with regard to pluralism or multiculturalism have characterised much of 1990s literary criticism. The two books under review follow this trend and are quite ambitious in terms of scope. With the published format of compiled essays/papers, however, these questions remain broadly but unevenly discussed. This is not to say that the resulting publications are not worthy of study or further examination, but that more specifically conceived and focused projects would have proven more constructive for researchers in the areas concerned.

Ethnic Literature and Culture in the USA, Canada, and Australia is a collection of papers from a symposium held by the Slovene Association for American Studies in 1994. The resulting book is divided into three sections: "European Emigrant Experience in the Multi-Ethnic USA," "Canadian Multiculturalism and Literature," and "Ethnic Australia." Naturally, the bulk of the publication is aimed toward delineating Slovene migrant perspectives, and most of these are sited in the USA. A new addition to the normal ’collection of papers’ format is the conclud- ing chapter, which is a summary of the publication in Slovene.

Maver’s introduction roams over the disparate sections, focusing on the commonalities of global "orientation towards multiculturality and multi-ethnicity." A point which could have borne more discussion is the separation/complicity of ’migrant-ness’ and ’ethnicity’ as the essays in the book hop between these terms and moments of’arrival.’ A clear sign of the book trying to do too much is the slimness of the sections on Canada and Australia, and the offerings within each of these. Maver’s comments about the form of multiculturalism found in Australia is adequate but, of necessity, quite generalised. He leaves us with the fact that the Penguin New Literary History of Australia did not include separate sections on ’migrant’ or ’multicultural’ writers but "adopted the method of ’pervasion’ [the ethnic presence at all levels of society]." While I agree partially with this strategy, the word immediately conjured up two terms often associated with multicultural literary criticism in Australia and elsewhere: evasion and perversion. Evasion evokes the ongoing denial (or dismissal) of’literariness’ in ’multicultural’ material through concentration on sociological and historical aspects. Perversion might refer to the stereotypical response to migrant writing as ’bad’ or distorted forms of proper English literature. While Maver’s project does succeed in some ways with bringing forward the neglected areas of study about ethnic writers, he rests upon the idealised notion of migrants as "precious ... mediators and cultural ambassadors." Such an inscription of cultural ’value’ and authenticity to ethnic writers and their literature elides, to a certain degree, the fraught and ongoing discus- sions about treating multicultural literature as voices of’Native informants.’

Many of the articles are historically inclined, with a good range of literary genres addressed. For example, within the USA section, Helga Glusic examines the poetry of Milena Soukal and Janez Stanonik working through the "Bibliographies of Slovene Emigrant Press prior to 1945," and material about juvenile literature and travelogues. In such a specific book (and conference), Adi Wimmer’s piece about the trauma of Austrian Jewish exile sits somewhat oddly, for all its emotive force.

Wimmer’s piece details the harsh treatment of Austrian Jews during World War II and the contemporary refusal by the nation and its people to acknowledge the harm done or feel they need to offer recompense. He points to the 1986 Waldheim scandal as a clear example of the "grossly deficient ’culture of memory’ in Austria"—a process of denying an unsavoury past that Rey Chow, in "Women of the Holocene," has aptly labelled "Waldheimer’s Disease." Wimmer goes on to argue that the suspen- sion between two nations/cultures, which many critics have configured as an ’enabling’ subject position for creative work, can also function as an "obstacle" to it. Most of the reasons for this, he contin- ues, can be found in the enforced nature of exile compared with the (arguably ’voluntary’) process of immigration.

In the Canadian section of the collection, Janice Kulyk Keefer offers a critically engaged, necessarily generalised, assessment of Canadian multiculturalism which partially addresses the issues surrounding racialisation and the category of’whiteness.’ She also attempts to salvage Josef Skvorecky’s role as a valuable commentator on multicultural literature in Canada, contending that he contributes crucial critical friction to discussions about ethnic or multicultural work. The twist on the argument for including Skvorecky (because his right-wing attitudes pose a useful challenge to the left-wing sentiments expressed by some scholars in multicultural criticism) is refreshing but Keefer’s reasons for doing so remain slightly unclear. Skvorecky’s comments, quoted by Keefer, are hardly original thoughts in the field of multicultural literature, particularly the ’politics versus aesthetics’ arguments. I was left wanting to know more about the specific ways in which Keefer envisaged Skvorecky’s polemical statements furthering multicultural literary criticism in Canada.

Maver’s Ethnic Literature and Culture collection should prove very useful for those who are involved in research regarding the Slovene experience or ’diaspora,’ particularly as many of the essays provide detailed historical grounding for their subject matter.

Precarious Present/ Promising Future?: Ethnicity and Identities in Canadian Literature is a more focused collection, one by "feminist scholars from Canada and Israel" discussing identity and ethnicity in the Canadian national context.

Contributions included comparative studies like Bina Toledo Freiwald’s "The Subject and the Nation: Canadian and Israeli Women’s Autobiographical Writing," to resistance in black Canadian feminist work (Susan Rudy), and French Canadian avant-garde feminist perspectives (Dina Haruvi).

On the topic of "Ethnic Writing in Canada," E. D. Blodgett writes about Joy Kogawa’s canonical novel, Obasan, and its use of language as exemplifying "the ethnic situation in English Canadian writing." He traces the creation and maintenance of identity for Naomi through language strategies in the novel, introducing the metaphor of borders and bordering (for identity) in the latter part of the article. Blodgett lays out the direction for ethnic literature in a somewhat didactic way, encouraging ethnic writers to walk the middle path. He states that "[e]thnic writing is perforce a writing of mediation" and that it is not "sufficient" to indulge either in "pure polemic [or] solipsism." The questions that I would pose in response are: Who is judging what is "sufficient"? Should critics manoeuvre (as Blodgett has done) between close readings of one text and statements regarding the (singular) future of ethnic literature in Canada? The feminist perspective promised by the volume seems to be absent from this particular piece. This is particularly disappointing as, among numerous other examples, Naomi’s reluctant role as ’mediator’ in the family compared to Stephen’s self-preserving escape from it would be fruitful to examine from a gendered perspective.

Jeanne Perreault’s essay, ’"We All Need That Bridge’: Feminism/Antiracism in Some Canadian Women’s Writing," provides examples of how Canadian women writers in English are undertaking the task of melding the politics of feminist solidarity with heightened awareness, and engagement with, the processes of racialisation. The meeting of feminism and anti-racism has historically caused many splits and theoretical divergences among critics, often with commentators falling back on binary notions of prioritisation of discriminations. Perreault manages to avoid this dilemma. Among other authors and texts, she discusses a special edition of Fireweed on Jewish women, Lee Maracle’s work including her poetry and novels, and pieces by Jeannette Armstrong. The strength of this section rests on the comparison between the strategies with which the women choose to overcome and erode racist attitudes and structures. Precarious Present certainly deserves attention for the number of challenging articles and the ambitious breadth of critical terrain which it traverses. It is especially challenging for suggesting ways of bringing together feminism, race issues, and ethnic identity.

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MLA: Khoo, Tseen-Ling. Ethnic at Large. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 159 - 162)

***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.

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