Not There Yet
- Laura Moss (Editor)
Is Canada Postcolonial? Unsettling Canadian Literature. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Penny van Toorn
Is Canada Postcolonial? is an anthology of 23 essays, most of which began as conference papers presented at the University of Manitoba in 2000. This seems a long time ago now, before the fall of the twin towers, before the war in Iraq, before the images of maimed children, beheaded hostages, and bombed Iraqi towns. In this context, and in the grip of a bad attack of academic impotentitis, I am wondering what is gained and lost by continuing to ask the question, “Is Canada postcolonial?” in a collection that includes no Indigenous contributors.
Despite the absence of First Nations and Métis voices, this is an important, thought-provoking collection, ably edited by Laura Moss. In such a strong collection, it's difficult to do justice to all. For me the papers that resonated most powerfully were those by Judith Leggatt, George Elliott Clarke, Manina Jones, Marie Vautier, Robert Budde, Diana Brydon, and Stephen Slemon. Africadian George Elliott Clarke's "What Was Canada?" comes aptly at the beginning of the volume. Invoking George Grant, Clarke triangulates Canada’s position within empires old and new.
Diana Brydon's long, searching essay, "Canada and Postcolonialism: Questions, Inventories, Futures" is, for me, the centrepiece of this collection. Articulating a view expressed implicitly in several other papers, Brydon argues that "postcolonial work in Canada will need to move beyond a politics of representation towards a politics of accountability before we can speak of Canada as a de-colonized space." She highlights the multiplicity of interlocking systems of oppression, and stresses that Western academics are accountable both for their actions and their inactions, bearing in mind that in some contexts, observing limits is just as important as building bridges. Acknowledging the disparate views of postcolonialism held both within and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous intellectual traditions, Brydon enters into dialogue with Mohawk Taiaiake Alfred. She expresses doubts about some of his ideas, but insists nonetheless that serious, respectfully critical cross-cultural engagement is necessary if "Indigenous and settler versions of the postcolonial might purposefully work together."
Whether focusing on recent writing, or on texts from the colonial period, the papers in Is Canada Postcolonial? are all present-centred and self-reflective. Robert Budde's "After Postcolonialism" is especially incisive in its questioning of the politics of academic labour in the postcolonial field. Budde argues that "The troubled crux of postcolonial thinking in Canada is not so much whether Canada is postcolonial or not, it is how the language of postcolonial thought is translated into justice activism, antiracist action, and the transformation of colonial-inscribed institutions." Budde's refreshingly forthright comments on the politics of academic life are relevant to all academics who might sometimes feel like mice running frantically in an exercise wheel, working up an intellectual sweat producing promotion-worthy publications, without exerting any influence at all outside the academic sphere.
Stephen Slemon's Afterword surveys a set of absences, the rejected easy answers and unproductive approaches to the question of whether Canada is post-colonial. Valuing the interrogative essay over the assertive, utilitarian monograph, he locates the strength of the collection in the fact the "essays refuse to speak in one monotonous voice," and understands "this lack of consensus and uniformity to be one of the real strengths of this collection" because it stimulates further dialogue, highlights the incompleteness of the project, and reaffirms the necessity for "persistent, unremitting critique." For Slemon, a good question is one that exceeds all possible answers. He is pleased that "the question that names this collection provokes many critical speech-acts." Is this an adequate end product? Many critical speech-acts? My worry here is that the intellectual traditions and practices that Slemon values most highly are not necessarily the ones most likely to lead to beneficial outcomes for colonised peoples, but are rather those that keep academics securely in work, expending their energies diligently in the mouse-wheel.
Revisiting Neil Besner's question "What useful work can we do as scholars and critics in the project of seeking real social change?" Slemon sees the institutionalisation and conceptual ossification of postcolonial studies as threatening the spirit of postcolonial critique, which he essentialises as interrogative. This essentialising of postcolonialism is problematic because, while it condemns a progressivist approach to the question of whether Canada is post-colonial, it seems also to forget that some changes may actually be beneficial to colonised peoples. If academic work is to be socially meaningful, questions must sometimes be answered and acted upon. On some issues there is broad consensus among Indigenous people regarding what changes are necessary. As Diana Brydon's discussion of Mohawk Taiaiake Alfred implies, Indigenous communities don't necessarily share Western academic ideals of "unremitting critique." Without underestimating the sometimes bitter conflicts of Indigenous opinion, it's necessary to remember that Indigenous and other minority groups have won some important political battles by speaking in ways that are radically different from the progressivist individualism that underlies conventional academic debate.
Judith Leggatt's paper offers a timely reminder that the majority of Native writers, students, and readers "find the term [postcolonial] and its theories neocolonial and repressive." Leggatt's essay is important because, in the absence of any First Nations or Metis essays in the collection, it carries Indigenous voices into the book. (Spivak says that's OK now.) Although Slemon and others reject the question "Are we there yet?", this absence of Native voices in a book called Is Canada Postcolonial? signifies nonetheless that Canada is definitely not there yet. Does the danger of asking "Are we there yet?" lie in its foreclosure of what "we" and "there" denote, or in its exposition of the tacit investment that all po-co scholars have in the nation's not being there yet?
- Plays to the Audience(s) by Mark Blagrave
Books reviewed: A Map of the Senses: Twenty Years of Manitoba Plays by Rory Runnells and NeXt Fest Anthology: Plays from the Syncrude Next Generation Art Festival 1996-2000 by Glenda Stirling
- The Living Word by Wayde Compton
Books reviewed: Testifyin': Contemporary African Canadian Drama Volume One by Djanet Sears
- Villages, nouvelles by Marie Vautier
Books reviewed: Villages imaginaires: Edouard Montpetit, Jacques Ferron et Jacques Poulin by Pamela V. Sing and The Quebec Anthology, 1830-1991 by Matt Cohen and Wayne Grady
- Ravissements et exils by Marie Carrière
Books reviewed: Le ravissement by Andrée A. Michaud and Mary l'Irlandaise by Maryse Rouy
- Writing Northern Ontario by Robert Gray
Books reviewed: The Sundog Season by John Geddes, Tag Alder Tales by Charlie Smith, and Outcrops: Northeastern Ontario Short Stories by Laurence Steven
MLA: Toorn, Penny van. Not There Yet. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 120 - 121)
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