Culture Unsettled

  • Wendy Roy (Editor) and Susan Gingell (Editor)
    Listening Up, Writing Down, and Looking Beyond: Interfaces of the Oral, Written, and Visual. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • Sonali Thakkar (Editor), Anna Stanley (Editor), Lisa Helps (Editor) and May Chazan (Editor)
    Home and Native Land: Unsettling Multiculturalism in Canada. Between the Lines
Reviewed by Heather Macfarlane

It is a pleasure to be intellectually unsettled, and both Home and Native Land and Listening Up, Writing Down, and Looking Beyond manage to destabilize dominant narratives that stand in the way of change. While the goal of breaking down to open up is the same in both texts, this is where the similarities end: the former revisions multiculturalism, while the latter seeks to break down hierarchies of artistic production. Chazan, Helps, Stanley, and Thakkar assert in their Introduction that “the meaning of multiculturalism is not, and never has been, fully settled.” What is settled seems to be the central position of multiculturalism in the national imagination. While the majority of the contributors to this collection agree that the idea of multiculturalism promotes equalization and decolonization, most conclude that its policies are destructive, since they assume a colonial centre, and mask the very real questions of racism, gender inequity, and poverty that are bound up in the term. The aim of the essays in this collection is to put racism and poverty back into discussions of multiculturalism, and the editors take this task seriously. The unsettling begins, in fact, with the painting by Winnipeg-based artist Anders Swanson that decorates the cover. It depicts three figures in a field, and the ground beneath them is filled with the bones of hundreds of human bodies, along with old parts of machinery, roads, and boats. Since burial represents the ultimate claim to land, the painting, as the editors contend, “resonates with [the] title, asking, ironically: whose home and native land?

The editors and contributors point to the recent “crisis in multiculturalism” as an opportunity for change. With 9/11, concerns over cultural allegiances and questions of security have been pushed to the fore, and the assumption of seamless assimilation into the multicultural ideal has been put into question. Sociology professor Rinaldo Walcott, in the first essay, points to the anxiety of “white aggressors,” who, afraid of their ever-decreasing power, desperately attempt to legitimize their perception of the world as the only perception. Multicultural policy, constructed along these lines, serves only to preserve colonial structures, and Dene scholar Glen Coulthard reinforces this when he states that the recognition put forth in Charles Taylor’s “politics of recognition” serves to reinforce colonial-Indigenous binaries. One of the most succinctly and effectively argued essays in the collection is written by professor of politics Grace-Edward Galabuzi, who also concludes that multiculturalism preserves hegemony and serves only to segregate cultural groups. This idea of segregation is alluded to in several other contributions, and is discussed explicitly in an essay that stands apart for its specific treatment of the arts. In her discussion of Indian classical dance, law professor and dancer Natasha Bakht argues that multicultural policy too often demands a kind of cultural authenticity, which leaves no room for artistic experimentation. This, of course, carries broader implications, and points to the dangers of segregation and static cultural identities.

In perhaps the most controversial essay in the collection, Nandita Sharma, professor of ethnic studies and sociology at the University of Hawai’i, emphatically states that in debates concerning the role of Indigenous peoples and multiculturalism, immigrants should not be equated with the colonizers, since many have themselves been subjected to colonial rule. This argument, while it does call attention to the specific concerns of refugees, is also problematic, since everyone settled on Native land inherits responsibility for being there. Environmental studies scholar Brian Egan, in a similarly provocative essay, underlines the very fundamental difference that exists between immigrants and Native peoples, and that is the question of land ownership, which brings us back to the original question that frames the collection—“whose Home and Native Land?”

The discursive nature of the collection is one of its greatest strengths, and the differing points of view of the various contributors offer a valuable interdisciplinary examination of the multiple discussions surrounding ideologies and policies of multiculturalism. What the variety of disciplines does demand, however, is access to a vast and diverse terminology and set of frameworks central to each domain. Terminology, therefore, sometimes makes arguments less accessible to individuals outside the field in question. Then again, the collection is not aimed at specialists of literature—it falls under the categories Critical Race Studies/Politics/Sociology. The contributors are scholars in law, sociology, history, environmental studies, First Nations studies, political science and geography. George Elliott Clarke is the only writer of fiction and professor of literature. That said, it is of course essential that scholars of Canadian literature possess an understanding of debates surrounding multiculturalism.

For those who do begin to despair over the questioning of multicultural ideals, Margaret Walton-Roberts’ essay is an important inclusion. While reminding the reader of the alternative multiculturalism offers to the divisiveness of regional concerns, she presents immigration as “a process that engenders a number of opportunities for citizenship participation via rights that are transnationally, as opposed to nationally, constructed.” This, in itself, is counter-hegemonic. In much the same vein, George Elliott Clarke’s contribution consists of a manifesto demanding “a multicultural, multi-faith, multiracial Canada,” and this manifesto is a reminder of the power of activism to promote change.

The same energy and optimism conveyed in Clarke’s manifesto characterizes Susan Gingell and Wendy Roy’s Listening Up, Writing Down, and Looking Beyond, a collection of epic proportions which, interestingly enough, opens with an essay by Clarke on performance poets d’bi young and Oni Joseph. The approach of the editors is appropriately unconventional—something you might not expect from the dark, conservative packaging of the book. The editors do precisely what they intend, however, which is to break down the barriers between the written, the oral and the visual, and destabilize the hierarchies between genres. While capitalizing on the academic infatuation with the “trans” and the “multi,” Gingell and Roy display a staggering breadth of knowledge of their field— something that could only be achieved by established and experienced scholars. This collection, in fact, refreshingly recalls the playful poetic experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, something reinforced by the introductory reference to poet bpNichol, and a contribution by Paul Dutton, a contemporary of bpNichol and one of the four horsemen. Continually playing with language, the editors invite readers to move “toward a more fully embodied knowing, a knowing that issues from attending to the complete sensorium and thus pleasures the knower with a knowing that doesn’t forget to have fun.”

The collection has its roots in the June 2008 conference “The Oral, the Written and Other Verbal Media: Interfaces and Audiences,” and the accompanying eVOCative! festival that took place in Saskatoon. In spite of sometimes excessive boundary-breaking terminology, the scope and breadth of the text is its greatest strength. The editors, by including both analytical and creative works in the collection, and by placing analyses of such diverse things as dub poetry, medieval English, Serbian guslars, and Cree “story bundles” side by side, succeed in opening doors and shifting perceptions. This strength, however, is also its weakness—at times I craved a more sustained analysis. In other words, the wide range of essays does not allow for a concentrated focus on any one topic, just as the celebration of the multifarious credentials of some of the contributors, while intended to break down generic divisions, sometimes makes them seem over-extended. Some of the terminology the editors put forward in an effort to break down barriers, while reinforcing the conversant nature of the text, also creates a level of semantic difficulty which the reader must decode in context.

These are very small details, however, and I’m not sure that the editors could have addressed them without sacrificing the “opening up” that the collection so successfully accomplishes. The participatory, democratic nature of the text comes through in the conversational elements, and in spite of their expertise, the editors approach their material with a humility that conforms to their goals. They invite feedback in the RSVP to their introduction, and include reference to a website in lieu of a written chapter. Other highlights for me include the encyclopedic nature of the introduction, Helen Gregory’s “Insights from Slam,” Paul Dutton’s essay on “The Speech-Music Continuum,” and Wendy Roy’s examination of the “Spoken Story.” How might a text of this scope be of use to teachers and scholars of literature? It really does shift the parameters of artistic production and reception, which opens up possibilities for teaching in particular. The collection “unsettles” generic limitations, and promotes a return to the sensual that is too often absent from the analysis of literary production and reception.

This review “Culture Unsettled” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 135-37.

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