More Than Passing Thoughts
Reviewed by Penny Van Toorn
The concept of passage serves as a useful focal point from which to examine the papers published in this anthology. Charlotte Sturgess’ arrangement of the papers and solid introduction, “Australia and Canada: The Tropes of National Culture, the Culture in Literary Tropes,” provides a coherent conceptual framework that connects cultural politics and narrative strategies. Sturgess also contributes an engaging paper entitled “‘Transliterations’: The Poetics of Cultural Transfer in Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand.”
The collection begins with Françoise Le Jeune’s analysis of the writings of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail in terms of the concept of “passage” developed by French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep. Sheila Collingwood-Whittick shifts the focus to Australia and Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976), an Australian historical novel based on records of the life of Eliza Frazer, a sea-captain’s wife who survived the 1836 wreck of the Stirling Castle off southern Queensland, and lived with an Aboriginal band in a state of “savagery” before returning to “civilized” society. As Collingwood-Whittick suggests, A Fringe of Leaves was part of the white noise that attempted to drown out the emerging voices of female and Aboriginal Australians in the 1960s and 1970s. In a different vein, Lisa Hayden’s “In the Passage of Fame” examines the different ways in which Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood depicted and managed literary celebrity, and argues that “the media does not simply impose an uncontested formation of celebrity onto Shields and Atwood.”
The highlight of this collection is the section on Indigneous writing. In “Two-Spirits and Tricksters: Cross-Cultural Transpositions in Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen,” Susan Billingham reads Highway’s novel as “a myth-making transfiguration of (partially) autobiographical experiences shared by the author and his brother René in a Roman Catholic residential school.” From the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s, Indigenous children’s experiences of physical and sexual assault were by no means uncommon in North America and Australia. Focusing on the former, Billingham analyses four modes of transposition in Highway’s novel: transposition of genres, transposition between the oral and the written, transposition between languages, and transposition of language and music (the last especially relevant to Highway, a classical pianist). Faced with what may seem to be the intertwined complexities of Kiss of the Fur Queen, Billingham’s analytical approach generates a clear, informed engagement with Highway’s seriously humorous tour de force.
Ian Henderson’s, “Readers’ Rites: Surpassing Style,” addresses performances of fictional and factual selfhood. In 1965, Colin Johnson’s Wild Cat Falling was hailed as the first novel written by an Australian Aboriginal author. Three decades later, Johnson was publicly outed by his sister, who revealed that he was not Aboriginal but of African American descent. As Henderson’s paper indicates, however, Mudrooroo’s writings, like his life, drew attention to crucial questions about “Aboriginality” and how it is manifest (or not) in written texts. What properties of language and narrative, if any, distinguish Aboriginal writing from non-Aboriginal writing? Why is passing often undetectable? As well as examining the text that, for thirty years, was deemed the first Aboriginal-authored novel, Henderson discusses passing in Ivan Senn’s award-winning feature film, Beneath Clouds (2001).
The highlight of this collection was Taina Tuhkunen’s scholarly, deftly theorised discussion of “The Poetics of Passage in Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water,” which foregrounds the novel’s invocation of the “moveable and edgy mindscape of present day ‘Indianness.’” Tuhkunen describes King’s evocation of a postmodern Indian world where intertextual connections destabilise authentic abiding realities. Tuhkunen engages with King’s multicultural allusions, placing particular emphasis on his Hollywood cinematic references or “filmic intertexts.” She argues that elements of filmic representation become part of the novel’s texture, in so doing, “revealing the ability of moving pictures to shift about, not only on screen but beyond the limits of the intended space of projection.” Tuhkunen reads Truth and Bright Water in terms of King’s textual categories: the “tribal,” “polemical,” “interfusional,” and “associational.” As well as teasing out King’s literary and cinematic allusions, Tuhkunen reads his writing in relation to modernist European painting. If Magritte’s painted image of a pipe is called “This is not a pipe,” King’s depictions of “authentic Indians” might well be entitled “This is not an Indian.”
Charlotte Sturgess, in “‘Transliterations’: The Poetics of Cultural Transfer in Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand,” examines a novel in which interwoven stories resemble those of the Arabian Nights. Detours keep the story and the story-teller alive. The Fox’s tales of nomadic adventures use “a poetics of the nomad,” that entails “the desire for an identity made of transitions.”
David Coad’s “Becoming Julia: Passing as a Male-to-Female Transsexual in Australia,” offers a partly critical account of Ruth Cullen’s film Becoming Julia. Here, autobiography functions outside of the realm of the literary, as one of the legal requirements that must be met by those who seek sex reassignment surgery. The film has two parts, “Paul” and “Julia.” Coad opposes this division because the idea that a person can become someone else “between two frames of celluloid” is misleading.
While Julia’s transformation was intended and carefully planned, the metamorphosis of Robert Rose from football star to quadriplegic was entirely unexpected. Christine Nicholls discusses the repercussions of a horrendous car accident that occurred in 1974. Family memory is also a focus of Jill Golden’s “Truth-Telling: A Passage to Survival in Doris Brett’s Eating the Underworld: A Memoir in Three Voices.”
In “Kroetsch’s Pedagogy of the Precarious: A Reading of Gone Indian (1973) and The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001),” Claire Omhovère traces connections between Kroetsch’s early and late work. Moving from the dry cold of the Canadian prairies to the humid warmth of Brisbane, Deirdre Gilfedder investigates the “Indivisible Boundaries in David Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone Street.”
The diversity of these essays does not leave a sense of scrappiness or incoherence. This lively, varied collection helps internationalize Canadian and Australian literary and cultural studies.
- Accountable Readings by Penny Van Toorn
Books reviewed: How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada by Helen Hoy
- Curious Knowledge by Rachel Poliquin
Books reviewed: The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and their Collectors by Basil Harley, Peter Marren, and Michael A. Salmon, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry by Barbara M. Benedict, and The Oxford Companion to the Body by Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett
- When the World Was New by George Blondin
Books reviewed: Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed by George Blondin and Tales from Moccasin Avenue: An Anthology of Native Stories by Morgan Stafford O'Neal
- Canaries in the Coalmine by David Leahy
Books reviewed: Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature by Herb Wyile
- Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing by Karina Vernon
Books reviewed: Writing from the Borderlands: A Study of Chicano, Afro-Caribbean and Native Literatures in North America by Carmen Cáliz-Montoro, Race and Racism: Canada's Challenge by Leo Driedger and Shiva S. Halli, Dreaming Black Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History by Janet Gabler-Hover, and Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince
MLA: Van Toorn, Penny. More Than Passing Thoughts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #196 (Spring 2008), Diasporic Women's Writing. (pg. 183 - 185)
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