CanLit in the Americas

  • Winfried Siemerling (Editor) and Sarah Phillips Casteel (Editor)
    Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
  • Winfried Siemerling
    The New North American Studies: Culture, Writing and the Politics of Re/Cognition. Routledge (purchase at
Reviewed by Debra Dudek

As a Canadian academic working in Australia, I continue to be taken aback each time someone asks me if I am from America or each time someone elides the United States of America with the shortened term “America.” I have had these moments of confrontation probably at least once every month since I moved to Australia nine years ago. Before moving here, I was not aware that America functioned as a synecdoche for the United States, to borrow from Donald Pease, whom Winfried Siemerling quotes in the introduction to his monograph. Rather, Canadians shortened that nation’s title to “the States.” I begin with this anecdote because both books under review here also open with a discussion about the politics of naming and specifically about how the term “America” excludes other literatures from North and South America. As the titles suggest, both books engage with the position of Canadian literature within larger comparative studies in the Americas; Siemerling’s monograph deals specifically with North America and the edited collection includes South America as well.

In The New North American Studies, Siemerling provides a historical and theoretical framework for North American studies based upon W. E. B. Du Bois’ trope of “double consciousness” as a way of destabilizing a politics of recognition. As Siemerling summarizes, “In exploring the heuristic value of Du Bois’ evasion of equation for the reading of unavoidable contradictions in later North American narratives, I seek to recover in particular Du Boisian double consciousness not only in its necessary but also in its trailblazing and innovative dimensions. Both problematic and enabling, predicament and chance in situations of cognitive instability and asymmetrical power, double consciousness produces multiple accents and contra-dictions; in a kind of parallel processing, it shifts from exclusively replicating recognition and the return of the dominant to re-cognitions and cultural and cognitive simultaneity. . . . I read Du Bois’ counter-discursive dialogic re/cognition of one of modernity’s pre-eminent Old World accounts of recognition as paradigmatic trope of New World cultural emergence, and a continuing challenge to North American thinking about multiculturalisms and postcolonial difference.” I quote this passage at length because part of the task of engaging with this book is also partaking in the performance of the prose. My alliteration is not accidental either; many of Siemerling’s sentences stretch and bend, turning in on and extending outward from a cacophony of consonants.

Siemerling builds upon this introduction to his argument in five subsequent chapters: “Comparative North American Literary History, Alterity, and a Hermeneutics of Non-transcendence”; “W. E. B. Du Bois, Hegel, and the Staging of Alterity”; “Double Consciousness, African American Tradition, and the Vernacular: Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker”; “Native Writing, Orality, and Anti-imperial Translation: Thomas King and Gerald Vizenor”; and “Genealogies of Difference.” Siemerling maintains the idea of double consciousness as a touchstone in each of the chapters, which move from literary history to theoretical definitions to close readings of particular texts. The chapters range in length from eight pages (chapter 3 on the staging of alterity) to fifty-seven pages (chapter 5 on Native writing), so while Siemerling situates his literary analysis within a larger argument about double consciousness as an appropriate model for analysing Black and Indigenous writing in Canada and the United States, the bulk of the book focuses on the works of four writers, which provides the book with its greatest strength. In the two chapters on the African American tradition and Native writing, Siemerling provides a range of examples of how the concept of double consciousness functions in literature to highlight the productive ways that doubleness, multiplicity, and contradictions foreground complex cultural and racial interactions.

In the lengthiest chapter—and the only chapter not to have been published in an earlier version elsewhere—Siemerling provides a comprehensive yet focused analysis on the body of Thomas King’s works and an extended reading of Gerald Vizenor’s “crossblood poetics” in The Heirs of Columbus. The twenty-eight page essay “Thomas King, Coyote, and Columbus: ’two different dimensions of time or consciousness’” covers King’s doctoral dissertation Inventing the Indian: White Images, Native Oral Language, and Contemporary Native Writers; his iconic essay “Godzilla vs. Post-colonial”; his two novels Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water; and his short story “A Coyote Columbus Story.” The essay’s most sustained analysis circulates around a discussion of how dual and multiple time function in Green Grass, Running Water through trickster time; through Eli’s return as revenant; and through the story of Babo, which is a “parodic inversion of Melville’s ’Benito Cereno,’ with its tales of slavery, insurrection, and symmetrical destruction.”

In the conclusion to The New North American Studies, Siemerling summarizes his intent for the book, which includes his hope for the type of scholarship that it will inspire: “By contrasting contexts in which cultural emergence and difference are articulated and differing strains of multicultural genealogies develop, comparative explorations (such as this one) can make different codings of cultural difference conspicuous, and foster alternative conjugations of the inevitably necessary if projective confirmations and conformities of recognition with the equally urgent cognitive chances of re-cognition.” This book highlights the breadth and depth of Siemerling’s knowledge about the formation and culmination of race politics in Canada and the United States and about how these politics are represented in literature by select Black and Indigenous writers. Overall, the book invites contemplation about the relevance of North American studies and provides a model for reading via a poetics of double consciousness.

Debates about the gains and losses of acknowledging a hemispheric turn in the study of Canadian literature extend into Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations, edited by Winfried Siemerling and Sarah Phillips Casteel. As Siemerling and Casteel state in the introduction, “With this volume, we seek to make an intervention into comparative American studies by suggesting several possible access routes into a hemispheric contextualization of Canadian literature.” The collection is divided into four sections: “Defending the Nation?”; “Indigenous Remappings of America”; “Postslavery Routes”; and “Quebec Connections.” The three essays in the first section question the usefulness of situating the study of Canadian literature within a broader comparative hemispheric paradigm, and the following three sections contain essays that could be considered case studies of the type of literary criticism that arises out of such a paradigm. Of the thirteen essays collected in this volume, four are revised reprints, some were commissioned, and others were invited from critics who participated in the 2003 meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association and the 2005 Second World Congress of the International American Studies Association. The essays move seamlessly within and between the sections, with writers often referring to each other’s chapters.

Perhaps the strongest and most overt example of this interaction is between Herb Wyile’s essay “Hemispheric Studies or Scholarly NAFTA? The Case for Canadian Literary Studies” and Catherine Khordoc’s “Looking Beyond the Elephant: The Mexican Connection in Francine Noël’s La Conjuration des bâtards.” In his essay—from the opening section of the collection—Wyile voices his concern “that hemispheric studies will take the form of a comparative regime in which the literature of the United States dominates—that in a literary version of ’the US and its Americas,’ Canada, along with all the other ’Americas,’ will be lost in the shuffle.” In order to outline his position, Wyile draws upon Pierre Trudeau’s image of the relationship between Canada and America as being akin to a mouse sleeping next to an elephant, and he ruminates that in such a case “it’s hard to see what’s on the other side of the elephant.” In the final essay in the volume, Khordoc takes up Wyile’s image of the elephant in order to argue that Noël’s novel “serves to remind us that the elephant that lies beyond Quebec’s and Canada’s southern border does not encompass all of the Americas. By looking beyond this elephant, it is in fact possible for Québécois literature to assert itself because it can develop significant connections with other American cultures, thus freeing itself from the conventional colonial paradigm of the centre and the periphery.”

As I was reading The New North American Studies and Canada and Its Americas, one question kept niggling at me: what can the framework of North American studies or hemispheric studies provide that broader comparative literary studies cannot? I am not sure that my question was answered by the end of Siemerling’s monograph, but Khordoc’s analysis of Noël’s novel came closest to articulating a satisfying response and to alleviating my concerns (which I have to say are in line with Wyile’s). Khordoc’s analysis of magic realism and historical metafiction in Noël’s novel combines the best features of literary criticism and connects such features to hemispheric studies. Khordoc argues, “Noël’s innovation [in using these two narrative features] is that the cultural space represented is very broad, encompassing all of North America, in which different cultures and languages indeed cohabit on one continent, but by retelling certain episodes of their histories, she contests the paradigm of a national history, revealing a certain common heritage among the countries sharing a continent.” It seems to me that this type of analysis keeps an eye on the “continuing concern for local specificities that might be occluded or effaced by extranational, transcultural perspectives,” to use Wyile’s words.

I do not mean to suggest that the other essays do not situate their analysis within a hemispheric context. They do. In her essay on how the works of three diasporic authors evoke the figure of Chief Sitting Bull, Sarah Phillips Casteel shows how these texts suggest “the continuing reliance of contemporary writers on the figure of the indigene to construct a sense of New World belonging and indicate[] that we are addressing a hemispheric, rather than narrowly national, problematic.” Also dealing with diasporic narratives that challenge “dominant narratives of nation,” Maureen Moynagh analyzes the representation of slavery in African Canadian fiction and drama because they “offer a series of vantage points from which to consider the nation in relation to a transnational trope.” Essays from the final section on “Quebec Connections” cover topics including the diversity of Western societies as expressed through public language in cities; a comparison between Québécois and US Chicano/a writing; and an analysis of Rojo, Amarillo y verde by Bolivian Canadian author Alejandro Saravia.

By reading this collection, I learned about a new text, a new author, a new way of thinking about a familiar text, and/or a new model for analyzing literature in a transcultural context, and for those reasons I recommend this volume for anyone interested in Canadian literary studies. In the introduction to Canada and Its Americas, Siemerling and Casteel state, “Our hope, then, is that this collection may prompt further investigations into other possible routes and pathways that would open up hemispheric readings of Canadian literature and thereby help to render Canadian cultures and literatures more visible within the burgeoning field of hemispheric American studies.” That the field is indeed burgeoning remains to be seen, but if it is, then it is important that Canadian literature secures a place in the field without losing its ability to continue to bloom on its own.

This review “CanLit in the Americas” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 184-87.

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