CanLit and Canadian Literature: A Long-Distance View

In addressing the discussion of whether there is or can be a Canadian literary studies apart from the problematic nature of CanLit, I find myself primarily responding from my personal and professional position: a Canadian who teaches Canadian literature (among other things) in the UK. The fact that I work not in an English department but rather in a Department of American and Canadian Studies, at a British university, and the fact that my job title is Associate Professor in North American Cultural Studies, inevitably inflect my response to the question with which we’re grappling. My job title is appropriate for what I do insofar as I work not just on literature but also on film. It’s also appropriate because I do tend to take a cultural studies approach in my research and my teaching. And it’s appropriate because, actually, very few students come to our programme already interested in Canadian culture, which means I often have to smuggle it in in cross-border courses that have some US content, too. (In fact, at present, most of my department’s undergraduate students are primarily interested in US foreign policy, so literature more generally, regardless of which side of the border it comes from, has come to be considered rather niche.) But the real reason behind my job title is that my department had to pretend they weren’t hiring a Canadianist, even when they specifically wanted one (before I was hired, there was only one other Canadianist in our department of American and Canadian Studies, my colleague Susan Billingham, who was outnumbered by Americanists by a ratio of 17:1). And the reason my department had to pretend they weren’t hiring a Canadianist is because the Vice Chancellor (i.e., president) of the university at the time had declared, “There’s no money in Canada.”

As a former head of department liked to point out, in fact, the Canadian government was long the biggest funder of our department through Canadian Studies grants provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), grants that “had supported the development of interdisciplinary Canadian studies in fifty countries around the world for almost forty years” (Haynes et al. xii). Despite the fact that, as Jeremy Haynes, Melissa Tanti, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York point out, such grants were economically and politically driven, available only in countries with whom Canada was “interest[ed] in establishing trade or political alliances” (xiv), these grants were axed by Stephen Harper’s government in 2012.2 But while in my interdisciplinary department in the UK we two Canadianists have no obligations whatsoever to reproducing a Canadian literary canon (who’s going to make us? certainly not each other), for many years, for UK-based Canadianists, funding by Global Affairs Canada (formerly DFAIT) prompted such questions as, “Are Canadianists in the United Kingdom simply lackeys serving the interests of the Canadian federal government? Or is CanLit part of a neo-colonial project?” (Fuller and Billingham 114). In such a position, then, in an absolutely fundamental way, there was no escaping “the problematic nature of CanLit” for us, because the Canadian state was helping to pay our salaries.

So I find myself in a contradictory position, as I’m sure many Canadian literature scholars and teachers do: the field I teach, as Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker note in their introduction to Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, “has always been tied to a colonial project of nationhood” (19). The substance of what I teach—in terms of the writers I select for my students to read—works to critique and undermine that project. As Laura Moss writes in her Refuse piece, “On Not Refusing CanLit,” while “[e]xclusion and elitism have always been part of CanLit, [so] has resistance” (147). But my students, unlike the students of my Canadian-based colleagues, know absolutely nothing about Canada. The vast majority of them have never been here, although some will eventually come here on their equivalent of a Junior Year Abroad. Like Sarah Neville in her recent review of Refuse with Brecken Hancock, I teach Canadian literature to “people who have zero nationalistic response to it.” Unlike Neville, however, I myself am a Canadianist. Moreover, I have literally been in the position of advertising Canada, when I was director of our Study Abroad programme. Teaching Canadian literature and culture at all in my institution is, in some sense, to promote Canada. So even if I teach from a position of critique of the settler-colonial project that is Canada, and even if Global Affairs Canada no longer funds my doing so, I don’t think I can escape—again, on some very fundamental level—this sense of promotion. In a higher education system in which tenure was abolished by the Thatcher government, I’m uneasy about the fact that, in some ways, my job depends on this promotion, however contradictory, of the Canadian nation-state. In other words, if students stop studying Canada, I stop having a job.

Canadian literature is not just one thing. The editors of Refuse write that “‘Canadian Literature’ means literature written and published in Canada” (17-18). I would add that it is also literature written and/or published by Canadians outside Canada. The problematic nature of CanLit is clear in the litany of dumpster fires of the past few years, examined so brilliantly by the editors of and contributors to Refuse. Can there be a Canadian literary studies separate from CanLit? I don’t think there can. Should there be? While I don’t think Canadian literary studies is the same thing as CanLit, equally, I don’t think we can separate them. I don’t think there is a Canadian literary studies without a CanLit industry. To research and teach Canadian literary studies while ignoring the formation that is CanLit is not something I can imagine. Even if we teach resistant texts, we are always already addressing that which they are resisting. And although I agree with Moss that resistance has always been part of Canadian literature, I would also argue that the long history of that resistance alongside the long history of exclusion and elitism functions hegemonically: that is, Canadian literature can absorb that resistance and continue to function to exclude, even if it does so in what appears to be a “kinder, gentler” way that perpetuates CanLit’s reputation as “an environment where diverse writing, and writers, can flourish” (McGregor, Rak, and Wunker 11).

I’m also mindful of the contradiction of writing about and teaching resistant work under the umbrella of Canadian literature when that work actively refuses Canada itself. What does it mean that I write about the attempts to impose Canadian-state citizenship on Indigenous peoples in an act of settler-colonial violence but teach Indigenous texts on Canadian courses (in which I teach my students about the imposition of Canadian-state citizenship on Indigenous peoples in an act of settler-colonial violence)? Oji-Cree writer and scholar Joshua Whitehead, in his contribution to Refuse, asserts, “I am not CanLit, I am Indigenous Lit. . . . Indigenous Lit will survive without CanLit, we have already, but I am not sure if CanLit can do the same” (197). As Métis scholar Chelsea Vowel says in her Secret Feminist Agenda interview with Hannah McGregor, Indigenous literature gets treated like “the sesame seeds . . . on the bun” of CanLit—there for a bit of flavour and texture, essentially. To what extent do we end up complicit in this sesame seeds analogy when we fold Indigenous texts into Canadian literary scholarship and/or teaching? Yet can we imagine Canadian literary scholarship and/or teaching without Indigenous works, as Whitehead prompts us to consider?

Perhaps it’s easy for me not to break up with Canadian literature, because I’m in a long-distance relationship with it. At the moment, I only teach one course with the word “Canadian” in the title. My current research examines Canadian film adaptation in a comparative project that also considers the literature and cinema of Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, India, the UK, and the US. But I have responsibilities as a scholar and teacher of culture produced in the land claimed by Canada, especially as a scholar and teacher who was herself produced on stolen Indigenous land. When I stand in front of my classroom, I inevitably stand there as a representative of Canada. Like many Canadian literature colleagues, I try to use this position to interrogate Canada’s settler-colonial mythologies, to displace the voices of power, to centre works by BIPOC writers and artists. Doing this work is a structural challenge in a country where so few of the writers I want to teach are published. What Danielle Fuller and my colleague Susan Billingham wrote in 2000 continues to be true: “The material constraints imposed by the political economy of the (Canadian) publishing industry impact directly on the classroom in predictable ways” (120). Margaret Atwood is, unsurprisingly, the author I could teach most easily in material terms, the only Canadian author my students are likely to have heard of, thanks to the presence of The Handmaid’s Tale on the UK’s English Literature A-level syllabus and the Hulu TV adaptation’s success. If students in the UK are interested in Canadian literature, it is likely because of their interest in Atwood; at this point the students’ and my own interests are at odds with each other as I want to avoid centring texts and figures who are already occupying the centre.

But it’s one thing to claim you don’t have to adhere to a canon, another to negotiate your long-distance relationship so that you can actually produce teaching material. With Brexit’s impact on the value of the pound, bringing in Canadian texts from Canada is an increasingly expensive prospect for UK students whose tuition fees tripled under David Cameron’s Conservative government. These material considerations matter to my students, and they affect what I teach. I hold these considerations along with the aspirations of the Canadian literature I want to present to my non-Canadian students. Ultimately, if I’m going to be, however problematically and reluctantly, a “representative” of Canada in the classroom, what—or whose—Canada, whose Canadian literature, or whose literature from the lands claimed by Canada I present to that classroom: those choices matter, even if we can’t divorce Canadian literature from CanLit—maybe especially because we can’t divorce them.

1    Thank you to my colleagues Susan Billingham and Catherine Rottenberg for their suggestions.
2    See Eva Darias-Beautell for a discussion of the decline of PhD students in Canadian Studies outside Canada since the funding cuts instituted by the Harper government (7). As Haynes, Tanti, Coleman, and York observe, however, there were no Canadian Studies associations eligible for DFAIT funding in “Africa, the Caribbean, or the Middle East aside from Israel” (xiv) even prior to the cuts.

Works Cited
Darias-Beautell, Eva. “Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings.” Canadian Literature, no. 238, 2019, pp. 6-11.
Fuller, Danielle, and Susan Billingham. “CanLit(e): Fit for Export?” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 71, 2000, pp. 114-27.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.