- Smaro Kamboureli (Author)
Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rachel C. Lee (Author)
The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation. Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Guy Beauregard
In his wide-ranging study Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier, David Palumbo-Liu presents the term Asian/American with its prominently placed solidus as a way to read both the distinction installed between ’Asian’ and ’American’ and a dynamic, unsettled, and inclusive movement. The term nation/transnation may likewise help to name a particular critical impulse at work in contemporary literary studies as it attempts to work both within and between national and transnational frames of reference. This critical impulse characterizes recent critical studies by Rachel Lee and Smaro Kamboureli. Lee, working in an "Asian American" frame, gestures to the notion of transnation to discuss what she calls "the Americas of Asian American literature," while Kamboureli, working in a "Canadian" frame, gestures to the diasporic to analyze the role of ethnicity in Canadian literature. As such, neither Lee nor Kamboureli leaves behind the nation as a critical frame of reference; they instead attempt to work on the borders of national and transnational modes of inquiry.
Lee’s The Americas of Asian American Literature presents itself as a feminist intervention in what has come to be known, following the work of Sau-ling Wong, as the denationalization debates in Asian American cultural criticism. Lee acknowledges that a commitment to the political importance of gender and sexuality has been "clearly affirmed by much Asian American literary criticism thus far," but she argues that this commitment has "yet to filter into the ’new’ mainstream of Asian American critical reading practices, those that shift Asian America’s terrain to postnational, global frameworks." As a result, Lee writes: "My study thus intervenes into this contemporary critical milieu which still regards the feminist analysis of gender and sexuality as extraneous or diversionary to the real work of critiquing state power and the political economy." In response to this perceived elision (of which I’ll have more to say shortly), Lee closely analyzes four Asian American novels—Carlos Bulosans Amenta is in the Heart, Gish Jen’s Typical American, Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest—in order to insist on the gendered nature of the various "Americas" narrated in each work. Of these readings, Lee’s persuasive discussion of "fraternal devotions" in Bulosan’s novel stands out as an important intervention in masculinist readings of Bulosan’s representation of the history of Asian migration to the United States. Less impressive, to my mind, is Lee’s discussion of "global-local discourse" in Yamashita’s novel, which occupies a pivotal yet underargued position in Lee’s attempt to argue for multiple Asian Americas outside the borders of the United States.
As I suggested above, Lee’s primary argument depends upon a space-clearing gesture: namely, an insistence that gender has dropped out of the picture in the recent Asian American critical turn to postnational or global frames of reference. My sense, however, is that this gesture unnecessarily and somewhat contradictorily discounts the impact of high-profile recent work on the topic Lee claims is being neglected: Lisa Lowe’s work on the "global racialized feminization of women’s labor," Gayatri Spivak’s work on "women in the transnational world," and Aihwa Ong’s work on the biopolitical regulation of "the Chinese family" in diaspora have all insisted on the centrality of gender in Asian American and Asian transnational cultural studies. A fuller acknowledgement of the implications of this recent work which Lee cites but does not fully engage with may have enabled Lee to reposition her study as a contribution to feminist Asian American and Asian transnational cultural studies instead of presenting it (somewhat mis-leadingly, I feel) as an iconoclastic attempt to refashion a field gone astray.
Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies, by contrast, takes an elliptical path through the topic of ethnic writing in Canada. For instance, in the chapter entitled "Critical Correspondences," which functions as something of an Introduction to the book, Kamboureli discusses viewing Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire as "a heuristic strategy that facilitated my attempts to deal with multiculturalism in Canada." Similarly unpredictable are Kamboureli’s very long literary analyses of two canonical novels, in the first and last numbered chapters, F.P. Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, respectively. The more tightly argued "contextual" analysis in this case, readings of Canadian multiculturalism and ethnic anthologies is situated in the two chapters between these analyses. Scandalous Bodies thereby deliberately rearranges readerly expectations informed by notions of "text" and "context."
By proceeding elliptically and unpre-dictably, Kamboureli makes a serious intellectual point about ethnicity and diaspora: they cannot be viewed positivistically, nor can they be comfortably situated in a linear literary history. Yet in its desire to avoid static or pre-given definitions (a desire stated openly in the Preface), Scandalous Bodies at times conveys a certain conceptual fuzzi-ness about the tensions between ethnicity and diaspora. Kamboureli acknowledges "the semantic and political differences" between these two terms, but she deliberately sidesteps outlining and expanding on their significant differences in accounting for collective identifications within and across national imaginings. In this respect, Scandalous Bodies is likely to disappoint readers searching for an explicit critical investigation of the nation/transnation problematic, an investigation at least implicitly promised in the subtitle of the book.
While Scandalous Bodies does not explicitly address the convergences and tensions between ethnicity and diaspora, it carefully theorizes multiculturalism in what may be the most valuable contribution of this book to contemporary scholarship. Kamboureli updates and expands her previous work on the "technology of ethnicity" to critique what she calls the "sedative politics" of official multiculturalism in Canada. An acute analysis of media representations of multicultural "crises" such as the Writing Thru Race conference, a deconstructive reading of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, and a detailed discussion of Charles Taylor’s "The Politics of Recognition" all contribute to Kamboureli’s multifaceted approach to the topic. My only quarrel lies with the surprisingly banal conclusion to the chapter in which this evocative discussion of multiculturalism appears, a conclusion that urges its readers toward a mastery of discomfort, "a mastery that would involve shuttling between centre and margin while displacing both." While Kamboureli insists on the need to move beyond the historical categories that have given rise to the existing paradigm in the first place, it remains unclear to me how a critical exhortation to "shuttle" between "centre and margin" can necessarily transform social locations that are received and not chosen.
Happily, Scandalous Bodies’s subsequent discussion of ethnic anthologies in Canada is as evocative and compelling as its discussion of multiculturalism. Kamboureli elegantly ties these two topics together by setting out to investigate "how the representations of ethnicity in [the ethnic anthologies] at once support and contradict the group-identity mentality and the essentialist view of origins in the public response to diversity as well as in the official multiculturalism policy." Kamboureli moves across a wide range of literary and critical sources to deliver considered and trenchant readings of early ethnic anthologies, the elision of ethnicity in the "canon debates" in Canadian literary criticism in the early 1990s, and the "broad critical and pedagogical" impact of Other Solitudes. Taken together, these discussions of multiculturalism and ethnic anthologies in Canada deserve as wide a readership as possible, not only in Canadian literary studies but also in cultural studies projects concerned with the constitution and regulation of cultural difference in Canada.
- More Brilliantly Alive by Faye Hammill
Books reviewed: Carol Shields: The Art of a Writing Life by Neil K Besner
- The Writer and the Beast by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination by Janice Fiamengo
- Modes and Discourse by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing by Diana Crane and Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz
- Emerging Solitudes by Nasrin Rahimieh
Books reviewed: Voices in the Desert: An Anthology of Arabic-Canadian Women Writers by Elizabeth Drahab
- In Living Colour by George Elliott Clarke
Books reviewed: African Diaspora and Autobiographics: Skeins of Self and Skin by Chinosole and Black and Asian Plays by Cheryl Robson
MLA: Beauregard, Guy. Nation/Transnation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 144 - 147)
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