Composing Identity

Reviewed by Robert Zacharias

Pairing the two books under review here is, in many ways, a study in contrasts, but they overlap as investigations into a series of questions that arise from their shared concern with the relationship between identity, history, and representation. What are the cultural and political possibilities of identity, and how are these possibilities circumscribed by the historical and disciplinary contexts in which they are expressed? How does whiteness complicate discussions of cultural difference in Canada? And How does cultural identity relate to other scales of identity, including national and individual identity?

In The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration, Jennifer Bowering Delisle argues for an understanding of Newfoundland writing within the critical framework of diaspora. Well aware that the conventions of diaspora studies would seem to set Newfoundland’s “out-migration” into the rest of Canada firmly outside its purview-diaspora is nearly always understood as a transnational phenomenon, and, in Canadian literary studies, it has largely been tied to past trauma and the lived experience of racialized minorities in the present-Delisle emphasizes her primary interest in the expression of a “diasporic consciousness.” Drawing first on the region’s political and economic history, she goes on to find ample evidence for a “complex post-Confederation nationalism” across a range of Newfoundland writing. By positioning her consideration of Newfoundland literature as an examination of Canadian diaspora studies, Delisle anticipates concerns about her use of diaspora in ways that are cogent and-if perhaps not always completely convincing-consistently important in their wide-ranging implications for the larger field.

In addition to an introduction and conclusion, The Newfoundland Diaspora is broken into five sections. The first section is dedicated entirely to “Newfoundland and the Concept of Diaspora,” while the following four sections each include two chapters pairing particular aspects of diaspora with different authors, including questions of affect with Donna Morrissey and Carl Leggo, questions of cultural “authenticity” with E. J. Pratt and Wayne Johnston, questions of nationalism with David French and Johnston, and questions of ethnicity with Helen Buss/Margaret Clarke and David Macfarlane. The project’s ambitious range of key terms-she also explores nostalgia and regionalism-is admirable, but it also means that some of its engagements are too brief to move beyond simply demonstrating how individual texts confirm the established concerns of their respective fields. While the value of several chapters remains most firmly in their implications for further study, then, Delisle draws compelling insights from the overlap between Newfoundland and diaspora, including notions of “experiential nostalgia” (in which the romancing of the past is tempered by the lived experiences of migration), “ghost histories” (alternative pasts that haunt the present with what “might have been”), and the “holdin’ ground” (the ongoing tie between land and the second generation migrants). Other sections of the study that are particularly valuable include a reconsideration of the position of E.J. Pratt in Canadian literary history and a productive interrogation of the role of “whiteness” in Canadian diaspora studies. Clearly written and mercifully light on footnotes, The Newfoundland Diaspora makes a valuable contribution to Canadian literary studies, and, in particular, to diaspora studies and the growing field of Atlantic Canadian literary studies.

In stark contrast to Delisle’s wide-ranging study of collective identity, Hans Werner’s The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War is a book-length examination of a single life. Much has been made in Mennonite studies about the mass migration of some 20,000 Mennonites from Russia to Canada during the 1920s, but comparatively little has been said about those Mennonites who, like Werner’s father, attempted to join the migration but were turned back by Soviet officials. Werner draws on his own interviews, along with extensive archival and other primary research, to reconstruct his father’s dramatic life story, from his early years in Siberia following the Russian Revolution, through his time as a soldier with the Soviet and German armies during the Second World War, and into his efforts at settling into Canada as a post-war immigrant. Tracing his father’s evolution through his series of assumed names-born Hans, he became Ivan in Stalinist Russia, Johann in Hitler’s Germany, and John in Canada-Werner suggests his father constructed a “building block version of himself” by sharing only those memories most appropriate for a pacifist Mennonite community in Cold War Canada. Broken into an introduction and thirteen chapters organized in three sections (“Siberia”, “War”, and “Becoming Normal”), the study includes a number of helpful maps and photographs, as well as family trees and a lengthy glossary.

Despite its evocative subtitle, The Constructed Mennonite is best read as a detailed reconstruction of a fascinating individual life, for this is much more a critically informed biography than it is a theoretical consideration of the relationship between History, Memory, and the Second World War. The brief addendums to each chapter provide Werner with space to reflect on and contextualize his material, but not enough to engage extensively with the secondary theoretical materials that are invoked. More valuable is the way that Werner has structured the narrative so that the account provided by his father’s stories is supplemented-and, in several key instances, contradicted-by additional histories that arrive via the author’s research. His mother’s account, for example, offers a brief but valuable counter to the father’s stories, and serves to emphasize the highly gendered nature of the larger narrative. Given his father’s military and romantic adventures, Werner’s cyclical and engaging book is likely to upend some of the assumptions that commonly surround Mennonite identity in Canada.

Despite their differences in focus and style, The Newfoundland Diaspora and The Constructed Mennonite place a shared pressure on the disciplinary boundaries that often circumscribe contemporary scholarship on identity. Although the answers they offer differ, the larger discussion about representation and identity in Canada is richer because of their shared examination into complex questions of narrative, migration, and belonging.

This review “Composing Identity” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 149-51.

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