Re: Composing Biotexts
- Fred Wah (Author)
Diamond Grill. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joanne Saul (Author)
Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Guy Beauregard
The term biotext, introduced by George Bowering in the late 1980s, has taken on a critical life of its own. As Sally Chivers recently observed, the popularity of the term has leapt forward since it appeared prominently in the Acknowledgements of the first edition of Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill (1996), where Wah referred to the biotext as “an innately cumulative performance.” The two books under review—Joanne Saul’s scholarly study of “the biotext in Canadian literature” and a tenth anniversary edition of Fred Wah’s celebrated Diamond Grill—revisit this term from readerly and writerly perspectives. If, as Wah noted, the biotext is “innately cumulative,” what is at stake in revisiting this term now?
Joanne Saul’s Writing the Roaming Subject attempts to answer this question by providing a systematic introduction to the biotext and its potential significance in the field of Canadian literary studies. Saul explains that she uses the term because of the way it “captures the tension . . . between the ‘bio’ (with an emphasis on the ‘life’: including the family, relationships, and genealogy) and the ‘text’ (the site where these fragments are articulated in writing).” The Introduction and first chapter map out the genealogy of the term, its relation to the project of theorizing life writing in Canada, and its critical potential to “bring to the surface the power relations that constitute any notion of belonging.” Particularly valuable here is the way Saul links the biotexts she investigates with “the challenge to genre” that had been put forward by the Canadian long poem. In this respect, Saul builds upon and extends the argument she put forward in a 2001 essay published in Biography where she situated the biotext in the context of debates concerning “the contestatory long poem of the 1970s.” Saul contends that the biotext, like the long poem, “demands a reader who does not just consume some prefigured meaning (or the subject) from the text, but is also an active participant in constructing the text’s meaning.”
The main argument put forward in Writing the Roaming Subject is that the term biotext can function “as a way of theorizing the writing of displacement in Canada”—a line of argument about which I have more to say below—and “as a tool for thinking through” four texts: Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Daphne Marlatt’s Ghost Works, Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk, and Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill. Because the principal outline of this argument had already appeared in print in Saul’s 2001 essay, readers may find the individual chapters dedicated to reading these four texts to be the book’s most valuable critical contribution. And of these individual chapters, Saul’s acute discussion of Kiyooka’s Mothertalk and the convoluted and controversial process surrounding its publication deserve particular critical attention. Saul’s original contribution here is to track the various stages in the production and publication of Mothertalk, returning to Roy Kiyooka’s manuscripts, which, as Saul observes, “clearly demonstrate a different kind of project in process” than the posthumously published version edited by Daphne Marlatt. Readers of Canadian Literature who recall Susanna Egan’s and Gabriele Helms’ critical essay on this topic published in the pages of this journal in 1999 will note that Saul, while investigating the same set of manuscripts as Egan and Helms, arrives at a markedly different conclusion: that “the manuscripts of Mothertalk provide an important example of a biotext that develops the concerns Kiyooka explores in his long poems.” While Saul states unequivocally that the published version of Mothertalk “does not capture the process of cultural recovery at work in Kiyooka’s manuscripts,” she nevertheless elegantly observes that “[t]he layering of voices and the various fragments of the [published] text allow for glimpses into the possibility of another text—a biotext—lurking in the margins.”
Writing the Roaming Subject suggests that the “complex poetics of displacement” in the texts by Ondaatje, Marlatt, Kiyooka, and Wah “disrupt settled categories both of the whole self and of the whole nation.” Yet while the individual readings it puts forward convincingly support this position—and persuasively underline that “[t]he biotext has the ability to open up the space of writing as a space of creative potential”—readers may nevertheless wonder how this generalized notion of “displacement” can account for the varied colonial and postcolonial histories represented in these texts (cutting across colonial Ceylon, British Malaya, China, Japan, and Canada). In this respect, readers may sense that the notion of “roaming” foregrounded in the title of the book and used by Saul to sew together her book’s critical project sits uneasily alongside the various histories of restriction, forced movement, and incarceration starkly represented in these texts. So while Saul suggests that “[r]eading the ‘roaming subject’ in Canadian literature challenges us to rethink conventional boundaries of cultural and political identity,” readers may also productively use this opportunity to stop and rethink the ethical stakes involved in reading these colonial and postcolonial histories—in Canada and elsewhere—as they become visible through figures that do not “roam.”
In light of these concerns, NeWest Press’s decision to reissue Fred Wah’s magnificent Diamond Grill in a new tenth anniversary edition should be warmly welcomed. The new edition—which follows three print runs of the first edition, and which appears in the press’s Landmark Edition series dedicated to reissuing literary texts by western Canadian authors—faithfully reproduces the 132 short sections that appeared in the first edition, retaining the same pagination, and adds a generous Afterword by Wah (who revisits with teacherly warmth Diamond Grill’s compositional genealogy) and a list of additional references (which includes references to key scholarly articles and an interview focusing on Wah’s text). While it is difficult to imagine readers who would be unhappy with the continued circulation of Diamond Grill and the addition of these helpful new materials, it seems unfortunate that the reissued text reproduces the typos that appeared in the first edition and—in the Afterword and the list of additional references—adds additional typos too. Given Diamond Grill’s astonishing compositional precision, the reprinted manuscript deserved greater care at the copyediting and production stage.
Revisiting Diamond Grill ten years after its initial publication nevertheless remains a rich readerly experience. One textual detail that remains imprinted on my mind as I revisit Wah’s text is a scene representing the discovery, thirty years after the figure of Fred Wah Sr. passed away, of a box of IOUs stored in a cedar chest: a box containing an unpaid IOU in the amount of two hundred dollars signed by “Tom Greenbuck” in 1953. What could the discovery of this textual marker of an unpaid debt signify in the aftermath of the history of the Chinese head tax and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants to Canada? And what could this textual marker of an unpaid debt signify following the Canadian federal government’s apology and its announcement on June 22, 2006 of a non-negotiated redress settlement for living head tax payers or their living spouses—an announcement that was made just before the publication of this new edition of Wah’s text? In light of these developments, the work performed by Diamond Grill remains cumulative and sharply resonant and unsettled: a teaching text that forcefully conjoins the bio and the text and the ethical stakes involved in their recomposition.
- Exit/Enter bpNichol by Kathryn Grafton
Books reviewed: Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol by Roy Miki and bpNichol Comics by Carl Peters
- Ontario Traditionalism by Douglas Barbour
Books reviewed: Killing Things by John Degen, The Address Book by Steven Heighton, and Night Street Repairs by A. F. Moritz
- Flights of Verse by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem by Angela Robbeson and Frank M. Tierney and Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
- Transatlantic Backyard by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: The Backyards of Heaven by John Ennis and Stephanie McKenzie
- BC Before the Logo by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: Downriver Drift by Tim Bowling and The Paperboy's Winter by Tim Bowling
MLA: Beauregard, Guy. Re: Composing Biotexts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 175 - 177)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.