Canadian Literature at 60: Inhabiting Discomfort

In preparation for this panel, Laura Moss and Nicholas Bradley sent the panellists copies of the collected interventions in Canadian Literature no. 204 (2010) that were published to mark the journal’s 50th anniversary. Like some of you here today, I remember being in that room a decade ago as we gathered at UBC to celebrate that anniversary, and to collectively discuss the future of the field at the time. What a great privilege it was for me to be part of that conversation then. And what a huge privilege it is to be here with you now on the occasion of Canadian Literature’s 60th anniversary.

Reading over the interventions in issue 204, I couldn’t help thinking about what has changed, what hasn’t, and more than anything about the new voices in the field, and those that we have lost. I think about the questions that Laura and Nicholas ask us in preparation for this panel, ten years after 204. “Is there, or can there be, a Canadian literary studies apart from the problematic nature of CanLit?” They also ask, “where can or should the field go in the near future?”

Thinking about these questions brings me first to the most immediate loss. Gregory Younging passed away on May 3, 2019. He died two days before he was to give a plenary address, alongside Julie Rak and Keavy Martin, at one of the signature annual events in Canadian literary scholarship, the Canadian Literature Symposium, organized this year by Jody Mason and Jennifer Blair under the title “Institutional Work.” My remarks today are informed by the papers and discussions we had coming out of that symposium, and especially the healing circle the symposium organized to mourn Gregory Younging in place of his plenary address.

I offer a resounding yes to the first question. Yes, there can and is and will be a Canadian literary studies apart from what has been the discourse of the dumpster fire, which Dale Tracy so admirably unpacked at the Canadian Literature Symposium.

One question then: how do we separate out the problematic? I understand the question more precisely, and along the lines that Carrie Dawson so presciently identified ten years ago by tracing an unlikely line between Northrop Frye, Sara Ahmed, and Dionne Brand, as the affective register of Canadian literary criticism, the depth of the feelings that we have for our critical work, as what hurts (111).

When I read over the interventions from ten years ago, they largely identify problems as external to our work. There were issues but we, as a critical and literary community, would confront them together.

Now, the problems, or what hurts, are the divisions within our field, how
we have broken apart, often rightfully so, and how we haven’t decided how, or if, we should come back together. The first writer mentioned in Laura’s editorial introduction to the interventions in issue 204 is Steven Galloway (103). Then, we took it for granted that Canadian literary writers and critics wanted, more or less, the same things (and here I am quoting Laura’s introduction): “strong public support for arts and culture in Canada” and for the “critics of the future [to] have enough distance and generosity to read the literature and the theoretical debates of the turn of the twenty-first century with respect” (108).

Whatever side of the discursive dumpster fire you’re on, I think we still want those things. But I’m not sure we are all together now.

Every time I think we are closing in on closure on the painful eruptions in our field over the last few years, something happens—a new petition, a Twitter thread, a paper given where I’m not sure I totally believe what I am hearing—and I realize that we are really far from it.

Instead, now, I think that we have to inhabit those divisions. We can’t prematurely close off the discomfort of the current moment. I think we are in a period of real discomfort and we have to stay there.

We have to be uncomfortable with seeing afresh what decades of sexism have done to our field. Here, I think about what it would mean to read a canonical story such as Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” in the wake of #MeToo. That is, not as a way to engage with issues of aging and dementia, or of literary adaptation, which is what most of the critical work has done so far, but as a chronicle of a serial sexual predator—of an English professor who fails to honour the privilege of being a member of a professoriate and who abuses the power he has over his students and refuses throughout the entire story to recognize what he has done. We have not yet engaged in such an analysis of this iconic story. And there are many more such stories that demand rethinking and renewed analytical attention. I do not know how we engage in this necessary critical work without calling out the analyses that have come before, the essays that focus on many other important aspects of this story, and of others, without discrediting the work of the critics who may not have examined the protagonist of Munro’s story as the predator that he is. That is the work that is to come for Canadian literature as a field and for this journal.

We inhabit again a moment of historical reckoning. We have been here before. And we have to find a way to do it without losing the work that has already been done. I think this will be an uncomfortable time.

In particular, we have to be uncomfortable with what I now see as a generational divide that is especially painful because it is between generations of feminists. Some of the most difficult dumpster fire divisions are those that have erupted between people who should be allies.

We have to be deeply uncomfortable with the fact that the field has been founded on legacies of settler colonialism that continue to permeate every facet of our work, that we haven’t mourned the role of the field in the colonial project (and not just in terms of obvious places such as Duncan Campbell Scott, but also in the less obvious ones such as the unfinished work of hearing Lee Maracle’s call, made almost fifteen years ago at the first TransCanada conference, for understanding how diasporic subjects can, however unwittingly, serve as settlers [56]). We have to be uncomfortable with the fact that Gregory Younging passed away before his Elements of Indigenous Style became required reading on every Canadian literary comprehensive field exam.

We are in an uncomfortable place and I think we should plan to be here for a while yet. It is a sign of how far we’ve come that we can be so uncomfortable now. Happy birthday to Canadian Literature. I want to be uncomfortable with all of you, fellow travellers in this field and this journal, for a long while yet.

Works Cited
Dawson, Carrie. “How Does Our Garden Grow?” 50th Anniversary Interventions, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 204, 2010, pp. 110-13.
Maracle, Lee. “Oratory on Oratory.” Trans.Can.Lit: Resituating the Study of Canadian Literature, edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Roy Miki, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007,
pp. 55-70.
Moss, Laura. “Introduction: Generous and Grounded Connections.” 50th Anniversary Interventions, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 204, 2010, pp. 103-08.
Tracy, Dale. “Doing the Work with Metonymy: Three Insights from Canadian Theatre.” Institutional Work: Mediating CanLit, Canadian Literature Symposium, 3-5 May 2019, University of Ottawa. Conference Presentation.
Younging, Gregory. Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education, 2018.

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