Nation and Identity
- Winfried Siemerling (Editor) and Katrin Schwenk (Editor)
Cultural Difference and the Literary Text: Pluralism and the Limits of Authenticity in North American Literatures. University of Iowa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Smadar Lavie (Editor) and Ted Swedenburg (Editor)
Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tracy Prince
Taking on organic concepts of identity that often crop up in academic discussions of multicultural studies, representation, and authenticity, Cultural Differences and the Literary Text grapples with the ideas explored by Werner Sollors in a 1986 essay titled "A Critique of Pure Pluralism." Sollors argues against a group-by group categorizing of American literature (what he calls a cultural pluralism or a mosaic procedure) such as in courses divided by race or by gender. Pointing out the arbitrariness of grouping people together who have nothing more in common than the colour of their skin or their gender, he asks, "Should the very same categories on which previous exclusivism was based really be used as organizing concepts?" He argues, instead, for an "openly transethnic procedure" which takes into account connections among cultures and groups. The contributors are purported to be addressing this issue as it is revealed in North American literature and literary studies, with a final response from Sollors. The editors conclude that the general consensus is
the group by group approach may indeed be temporal... . Not being able to determine when [this] approach and with it the privileging of race, ethnic, and gender categories will fall into totalitarianism makes the concept sound dangerous, and it may seem theoretically sounder to dismiss the . . . approach as potentially essentialist. But as sexism and racism persist, so does the call for partiality and commitment, and the group by group approach appears to be a concept that, handled with care, will probably stay around for quite another while.
With a largely European group of critics, Cultural Difference and the Literary Text contains few of the buzzwords routinely thrown around in the American academy, but this strength is also its weakness. That critics from Europe, and some from Canada and America, are commenting on North American pluralism is useful as a step away from the typically America-centred discussions of North America. However, I would recommend that the reader note the biographical information for the location of the critics to engage more fully with the positions they occupy.
Most interesting is Wolfgang Holbruck’s article addressing the arbitrary national borders placed on the study of First Nations cultures in America and Canada, while also warning against constructions of a pan Indian metanarrative. Linda Hutcheon’s discussion of the sometimes heated debates surrounding the anthology Other Solitudes she co-edited with Marion Richmond (1990) is a good introduction to multicultural debates in the Canadian context, but many artists, critics, and writers of colour in Canada may take issue with her assertion that what Jameson calls the "spirited defense of difference" (perhaps simply "liberal tolerance") is a problem existing mostly in the United States and not in Canada. Monica Kaup assesses Gloria Anzaldua’s important book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestizo, about life on the Mexican/American border, and Ernst Rudin explores the term mestizo in Spain and Latin America. Gerald Vizenor analyzes "authenticity" and the continued need for First Nations voices to be heard in the midst of the literatures of dominance. Gert Buelens explores Jewish American issues and analyzes Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, and African American authors are discussed in essays by Siemerling, Lindberg, and Lowe. These essays are a good starting point for evaluating issues that arise when designing courses around pluralism and authenticity. This is a superb read for those interested in seeing how postcolonial theories can be applied to a variety of global issues.
Between postcolonial theory and postmodern theory there exists an uneasy alliance. While critics like Stuart Hall play with such concepts as Derrida’s différance, other postcolonial critics, the editors of Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity included, question those elements of postmodernism that "privilege identity as constructed, hybrid, fragmented, conjectural, and ... reject any notion of identity as essence, fixed, rooted." It is exactly these arbitrary and provisional geographies that this collection of essays explores. These critics discuss various efforts to resist what the editors call "the Eurocenter" that "controls the marginal and subaltern through the global political economy." The book evaluates what occurs "when the center penetrates the margins, when the margins relocate into the center and force it to implode, and even when the margins stay put... resisting the center’s violent attempts to assimilate or destroy."
The editors are to be lauded for working toward a more truly international collection, rather than focusing mostly on American ethnic issues, with contributors writing about such subjects as North Africa, rap, and Franco Maghrebi identities; tourism in Bali; folk songs in the villages of Kangra in northwestern India; US/Mexican border issues; and some of the contentions surrounding Palestinians and Israelis.
Four of the ten essays do focus on issues pertaining only to America (Greg Sarris’s excellent analysis of American Indian resistance and identity, Dorinne Kondo’s evaluation of Asian American theater, Kristin Koptiuch’s legal study of US Diaspora Asians and the use of a "cultural defense" in court cases, and Nahum Chandler’s essay on W.E. B. DuBois). Yet the editors do not address the very current and hotly debated issue of whether studies of people of colour in America should be lumped in with postcolonial studies. (Many critics have been asking how well a "postcolonial" label fits, considering how far the US is from its status as a British colony and its current position as a colonizer.) Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani, however, raise these concerns in their essay, "Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ’Postcoloniality,’ and the Politics of Location," where they propose the use of the term "post civil rights" for discussing US issues. Nevertheless, in the tricky theoretical terrain of postcolonial and diasporic studies, these essays, with equal parts theory and application, are a helpful and welcome contribution.
- Exploring Canadians by Erika Behrisch
Books reviewed: The Journeys of Charles Sangster: A Biographical and Critical Investigation by Frank M. Tierney and Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels by Rosemary Neering
- Diasporic Possessions by Christopher Lee
Books reviewed: Pulse by Lydia Kwa
- Satisfaction Guaranteed by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Eating Their Words: Cannibalism and the Boundaries of Cultural Identity by Kristen Guest and Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco
- 21th Century Fantasy by K.V. Johansen
Books reviewed: Beyond Window-Dressing?: Canadian Children's Fantasy at the Millennium by K.V. Johansen
- Lieux et paysages by Jean-Sébastien Ménard
Books reviewed: Lieux propices: L'enonciation des lieux / Le lieu de l'enonciation dans les contextes francophones interculturels by Simon Harel and Adelaide Russo and Paysages de désir: J.R. Léveillé : réflexions critiques by Rosmarin Heidenreich
MLA: Prince, Tracy. Nation and Identity. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 173 - 175)
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