Recovery and Revaluation
- Paula Madden (Author)
African Nova Scotian-Mi'kmaw Relations. Fernwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Maria Caridad Casas (Author)
Multimodality in Canadian Black Feminist Writing: Orality and the Body in the Work of Harris, Philip, Allen, and Brand. Rodopi (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Veronica Austen
Paula C. Madden’s African Nova Scotian-Mi’kmaw Relations and Maria Caridad Casas’ Multimodality in Canadian Black Feminist Writing are respectively projects of recovery and revaluation. As such, these projects seek to explore cultural situations and literary forms that traditionally have been undervalued in discussions of race within Canadian studies. While Madden’s text seeks to correct a paucity of discussion regarding the Mi’kmaw community’s exclusion from Nova Scotia’s human rights discourses of the 1960s, Casas’ argument asserts the socio-political significance of the representation of Caribbean Creoles in the poetry of Black Caribbean-Canadian women. With both texts negotiating the erasures and/or devaluing of particular voices within Canada’s idealization of its multicultural make-up, they both contribute to an important and ever-expanding discussion of minoritized groups in Canada.
In her text, Madden’s main purpose is to challenge discourses that seek to indigenize blackness in Canada. Responding, in particular, to George Elliott Clarke’s argument in Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature, Madden acknowledges Clarke’s discourse of indigenization as a means of establishing the right of Black Nova Scotians to claim “Canadian” as a category of identification. Madden also acknowledges Clarke’s aim to thereby more firmly root the Black community within Canadian national spaces, a fraught territory which has traditionally erected borders of exclusion. Nevertheless, while Madden concedes the good intentions of Clarke’s project, she must also assert that such indigenization of blackness furthers a colonialist agenda by perpetuating the continued “exclusion” and “erasure” of First Nations communities, particularly the Mi’kmaw of Nova Scotia. As Madden outlines, the outcry regarding such treatment of the Black Nova Scotian community as the annexation and destruction of Africville may be quite rightful, but such protest is predicated upon a continued denial of the theft of Mi’kmaw land; the land being disputed by White and Black Nova Scotian communities was, as Madden affirms, never either community’s to claim in the first place.
In forming this argument, Madden’s project assumes a cultural studies approach that first provides a brief historical sketch of the conditions faced by both communities. Focusing on such topics as the communities’ occupation of particular areas of land, their housing conditions, and their employment and educational opportunities, Madden offers a comparison of the two communities that showcases their similar experiences of exclusion and prejudice. Asserting that advocacy for humans rights tended to be viewed as an issue between Black and White Nova Scotians, excluding other cultural communities, Madden’s discussion proceeds to trace the discourses surrounding the human rights movement in Nova Scotia. Culminating in a look at Dalhousie’s Transitional Year Program and the Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Initiative, Madden’s sketch of the relations between these minoritized communities is one that pictures forced and not always welcomed collaborations between these cultural groups. As Madden asserts, the trajectory of human rights legislation in Nova Scotia has often proven counterproductive with the various governmental initiatives employing “a divide-and-conquer strategy.”
Importantly, though Madden seeks to recover the lost voices of the Mi’kmaw community, her discussion in duration and depth tends to privilege the Black communities’ experiences of racism. This tendency in Madden’s work, no doubt, speaks to the historical erasure of Mi’kmaw voices from public discourses. In a project that offers wonderful archival research, uncovering interesting anecdotes and evidence from newspapers, minutes from meetings, transcripts of political speeches, and even promotional material for particular events, it is likely not surprising that the archive offered little representation of the Mi’kmaw experience. Madden seeks to correct some of this silence while also further rounding out her look at the Black Nova Scotian community by offering evidence based on interviews with three members from each community. While this approach is necessary and valuable, a clearer introduction to those interviewed that could establish the respondents as individuals rather than setting them up as anonymous, representative “informants” would ease this section’s potential ethnographic overtone and more clearly establish the context for the information provided.
Maria Caridad Casas’ project similarly seeks to garner appreciation for once-devalued voices, but in her case, the focus is literally upon voices and voicings. Exploring the significance of Creole expression in poetry by women within Canada’s Caribbean diaspora, Casas’ text significantly contributes to a recent heightening of interest in orality within various subsets of Canadian literature. Using the poetry of Lillian Allen, M. Nourbese Philip, Dionne Brand, and Claire Harris as sample texts, Casas argues that a writer’s use of a continuum of Creole through Standard English is a choice with socio-political intentions and implications. According to Casas’ argument, such a choice serves multiple purposes. For example, a use of Creole challenges the hegemony of Standard English by deconstructing the dominance of standardization and asserting that what gets valued as the standard language is in fact also merely a dialect, changeable and evolving. Furthermore, this choice, by reinforcing the physicality of the production of speech, serves to (re)embody written texts and thereby promote their participation in the “discourses of race, gender, [and] sexuality.”
Situating itself at the intersection between the fields of linguistics, semiotics, and literary studies, this text seeks to elucidate and interrogate what have been groundbreaking explorations of language and meaning-making, namely such works as Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Her exploration of such foundational concepts as signs, code-switching, and projection is accomplished through close readings of some of Allen’s, Philip’s, Brand’s, and Harris’s most notable texts, respectively including Riddim and Hardtimes, She Tries her Tongue, her Silence Softly Breaks, No Language is Neutral, and She. As such, this text is structured first to contextualize the poets and their works by describing key moments of advocacy for racial equality in Canada and outlining the writer’s social and literary contributions. The middle chapters then take up various ideas of linguistics and semiotics, establishing, for instance, code-switching as a means of asserting the artificiality of dialect boundaries and hierarchies. Finally, the text concludes with a discussion of “embodied signs of identity,” arguing that the embodiment of written text can serve to assert feminist values.
Since much of the originality of Casas’ approach is in her application of linguistic and semiotic principles to her chosen literary texts, her project demonstrates that such an approach can be used to consider the significance of non-Standard languages in various other groupings of Canadian texts. Such an interdisciplinary approach could in fact benefit from heightened attention to the literary studies side of the approach. In particular, a teasing out of why poetry is Casas’ site of inquiry could be quite valuable. What makes poetry a particularly important site for discussions of Creole languages and their representation in writing? As Casas acknowledges, in colonial/post-colonial environments, the use of Creole languages has traditionally been devalued—a sign of incorrectness and lack of ability. However, as Casas also notes in a brief reference to Gertrude Stein’s work, demands for correctness are often dismantled by aspirations for innovation. Consequently, poetry, as a medium particularly concerned with the materiality of language, must offer something special to discussions of the representation of orality in writing. Perhaps J. Edward Chamberlain’s Come Back to me my Language: Poetry and the West Indies or even a consideration of Charles Olson’s vision for the importance of Projective Verse could help tease out the special role poetry can play in discussions of Creole expression and its transformation of written text into embodied performance.
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MLA: Austen, Veronica. Recovery and Revaluation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #208 (Spring 2011), Prison Writing. (pg. 174 - 176)
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