Narrating a Movement
- Xiaoping Li (Author)
Voices Rising: Asian Canadian Cultural Activism. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christopher Lee
Voices Rising is the most comprehensive study of Asian Canadian cultural activism published to date. Rigorously documented and theorized, Xiaoping Li’s research focuses on cultural production that has consciously claimed the term “Asian Canadian” in order to intervene in the racialized terrain of Canadian culture by building alternative communities dedicated to working for social change.
Li’s study is divided into two parts. The first quarter of the book consists of six short chapters that introduce key theoretical issues such as the meaning of cultural politics, the historical roots of Asian Canadian cultural activism, the meaning of “Asian Canadian” as an identity, diversity among Asian Canadians, the role of memory and issues of gender. The rest of the book consists of transcribed interviews with key Asian Canadian artists and cultural workers. Conducted between 1997 and 2004, the interviews cover a range of artistic genres including literature, film, theatre, dance and music, and are organized into three chronological sections. The first, entitled “Emergence” features cultural workers who pioneered Asian Canadian arts during the 1970s and 1980s. All experienced tremendous racism in their childhoods and some were directly affected by the internment and dispersal of Japanese Canadians during and after WWII. This section focuses on early articulations of Asian Canadian identity especially in relation to the Asian American movement flourishing south of the border. Together, these interviews constitute a rich oral history archive of an understudied but critical moment in Canadian cultural history.
The second section, “Crossing the Threshold,” focuses on artists whose work emerged during the 1990s at a time when identity politics and minority struggles were being articulated throughout the Western world. Influenced by earlier social movements, these cultural workers also achieved a measure of institutional legitimacy during this period by establishing venues such as Asian Heritage Month, now a major component in the annual cultural life of many Canadian cities. The third section profiles several emerging artists and is entitled “Moving Ahead.” These interviews explore the meaning of cultural politics at a time when older models of identity politics seem to be exhausted. Most of the interviewees have rather ambivalent attitudes towards the benefits of multiculturalism even as they inhabit the gap between official state-sponsored discourses of diversity and grassroots attempts to appropriate discursive spaces for social critique. In addition, there is a marked awareness of allied movements such as transnational feminism. A brief epilogue returns to the theme of Canada-US relations by considering the late emergence of Asian Canadian Studies as an academic discipline in comparison to Asian American Studies.
While Voices Rising reiterates some of the pressing theoretical problems of Asian Canadian Studies it does not always fully explore their critical implications.This study is heavily invested in a developmental narrative that culminates in the formation of a politically vibrant Asian Canadian identity through intensely personal journeys. Through the recovery of often-forgotten histories of anti-Asian racism, these quests for identity often lead to the institutionalization of Asian Canadian cultural communities that soon come under pressure due to their internal diversity. This narrative depends on tropes such as birth, emergence and forward movement, and privileges the actualization of identities as moments of empowerment. As powerful and celebratory as this narrative is, it tends to elide more uneven aspects of identity formation by depending on a linear temporality that always holds out the promise of a future state of liberation. In doing so, it does not engage the intense critical reflection on the part of Asian Canadian critics on the dangers of identity politics and overly simplistic models of empowerment. In the chapter on Asian Canadian feminism, for example, the author’s desire to construct a parallel narrative of womens’s liberation ends up sounding prematurely celebratory and oddly unnuanced.
The other issue I want to bring up is the frequent comparisons between Asian Canadian and Asian American movements. While cross-border influences have been historically critical in the development of both, these interactions tend to be cast only as a matter of lateness and catching up on the part of Canadians. Although it is not surprising that many of the interviewees describe their own activist histories in such terms, Voices Rising does not generally subject these claims to critical elaboration. One consequence of this is the obscuring of other activist alliances within Canada that cross racial boundaries, a history that often predates the emergence of “Asian Canadian identity” (the study makes a brief reference to relations with First Nations, for example, but does not elaborate). In this sense, I find the epilogue’s treatment of Asian American Studies and Asian Canadian Studies suggestive but ultimately unsatisfying because it simplifies the intellectual history of Asian American Studies while offering an incomplete survey of the critical debates within Asian Canadian Studies on its relationship with other academic formations.
These observations do not, however, detract from the importance and accomplishment of Voices Rising. Indeed, I wish that Li had written two books instead of one; as she admits in the introduction, she was not able to include all of her interviews due to space limitations and one can only hope that they will be edited and published in the future. At the same time, the compactness of her critical chapters makes this book ideal for classes on Asian Canadian history and culture and it is as a pedagogical text that Voices Rising will undoubtedly make a marked impact on the unfolding of Asian Canadian Studies.
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- Two Tales of a City by Sean Rossiter
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- Those Voices Speaking Now by Neil Querengesser
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MLA: Lee, Christopher. Narrating a Movement. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 159 - 160)
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