Diaspora and Indigeneity

  • Christine Kim (Editor), Melina Baum Singer (Editor) and Sophie McCall (Editor)
    Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Reviewed by Paul Lai

Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer have assembled a collection of essays that turn a critical eye on the dominant discourses in Canadian cultural politics, focusing on keywords like post-colonial, nation, Indigeneity, and diaspora to examine the importance of language in defining the concepts and arguments available to critics. The editors write, “The title of our collection, Cultural Grammars, is an attempt to make discernible the language rules governing our critical choices and the conceptual frameworks we mobilize, consciously or not. Cultural imperatives in language evidence assumptions about differences and identity, of self and other, and inevitably produce unstated hierarchies.” The strongest essays in the collection thus trace the intellectual history of these keywords and identify important incommensurabilities or differences of definition in their use. These essays map the fields of debate about nation, Indigeneity, and diaspora to clarify the stakes of discussion rather than simply to choose a singular definition for these complex concepts. Their contribution to critical discourse is therefore not to advocate one interpretation of a term, though some of the essays certainly make such preferences clear, but to reassemble the language that critics use in the project of decolonizing the nation.

In this vein, one of the essays comes in the form of a multi-author, roundtable discussion on “Canadian Indian Literary Nationalism?,” presenting a range of statements about the origins, stakes, and uses of Indigenous literary nationalism by critics Kristina Fagan, Daniel Heath Justice, Keavy Martin, Sam McKegney, Deanna Reder, and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair. The format of the piece models the kind of open-ended, multivocal analysis of the language of Indigeneity that the volume offers for various keywords in Canadian cultural studies. In an essay on A. M. Klein’s poetics in Hath Not a Jew and The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, Melina Baum Singer similarly queries the uses of the term diaspora, tracing a genealogy of its critical development and offering a corrective to certain aporias around the racialization of Jewishness and “coercive whiteness.” Christine Kim provides a different perspective on diasporic identities through an analysis of misplaced attachments in Kyo Maclear’s novel The Letter Opener.

A secondary focus of the volume, and one that has the potential for far greater reconceptualization of various subfields of cultural studies, is the editors’ identification of a critical tension in contemporary discussions of Canadian literature as a national project—the interplay between diaspora and Indigeneity. On the one hand, literary critics studying multiculturalism and visible minorities have turned towards the concepts of diaspora, mobility, and transnationalism in reframing the nation. On the other hand, critics studying First Nations have developed Indigenous sovereignty perspectives to question claims to the region in the settler colonial logic of the Canadian nation. While both approaches seek to dismantle hegemonic visions of Canada, the assumptions and arguments mounted by the two are at times at odds. More than simply exploring how Indigenous studies might pay attention to diasporic interventions or vice versa, how diasporic studies might address Indigenous interventions, the editors suggest that the very terms of discussion employed in the two approaches need to be queried, reconceptualized, and considered together to understand the full extent of Canada’s settler colonialism.

In the volume’s introduction, the editors write, “[A]s many of the chapters of this volume demonstrate, there are more ways in which debates about Indigeneity and diaspora in Canada connect with each other. The deployment of common terms or concerns in different ways produces valuable tensions and debates that we believe might be generative for ongoing and future work.” Sophie McCall’s essay offers one of the more dedicated explorations of how the approaches and investments of Indigenous studies and diaspora studies collide in attempting to make sense of complex dislocations in the work of Gregory Scofield, a queer Métis/Jewish poet. Renate Eigenbrod’s essay identifies how Richard Wagamese’s work pays particular attention to weaving together various histories of displacement such as black diasporas and Indigenous dispossession.

Some of the other essays are less directly concerned with the central keywords of the volume or the intersection of Indigeneity and diaspora, but they offer provocative, immanent critiques of topics related to the volume’s focus. Belén Martín-Lucas’ essay considers the cultural capital of the “Oriental woman” in the publishing industry’s global market, especially the movement of Canadian literature abroad. Christopher Lee turns a critical eye on the 2007 Anniversaries of Change events to reconsider activist and community investments in the act of commemoration, arguing for a shift in relation to time and history. Instead of foregrounding narratives about learning from the mistakes of the past or even simply challenging hegemonic versions of Canada’s past, activists and critics should acknowledge the present’s debt to the past while always envisioning transformations for a more just future. Jody Mason, also considering the importance of temporality, offers an intergenerational reading of Afro-Caribbean writers Austin Clarke and Cecil Foster in their representations of mobility and labour.

As a whole, this collection’s charge to think deeply about terms of critique challenges critics not only to question the assumptions and stakes of various projects, but also to look outside the shibboleths of cultural studies subfields in order to avoid blindspots and to envision alternative futures free of corporatized modernity. While the volume as a whole is thus decidedly comparatist, the individual essays are less evenly rigorous in this approach, and indeed, the range of topics in the volume might make it a challenge for many readers whose interests may be more singular. If the volume is to succeed, however, it will have to instigate a greater appreciation of cross-disciplinary work (where disciplines are subfields often defined by singular ethnic identity) that is more than simply an invocation of intersectionality.

This review “Diaspora and Indigeneity” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 175-77.

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