Diasporic Imaginaries

  • Pilar Cuder-Domínguez, Sonia Villegas-López (Editor) and Belén Martín-Lucas (Editor)
    Transnational Poetics: Asian Canadian Women’s Fiction of the 1990s. TSAR Publications
Reviewed by Donna McCormack

Transnational Poetics marks the 1990s as the decade when Asian Canadian women’s literature flourished both inside and outside of Canada. Intertwining literary analysis with a discussion of the politics of publishing, the authors elaborate on how Canada’s multicultural policies have enabled a proliferation of Asian Canadian fiction. Conversely, they also demonstrate how this somewhat positive outcome of multiculturalism is restrained by the expectations of publishers, the public, and academics that often remain attached to limited ideas of what constitutes Asianness in the Canadian literary context. Analyzing both a remarkable number of texts and a broad range of genres, Transnational Poetics offers an excellent introduction to Asian Canadian women’s fiction and to its predominant themes.

The text is divided into three accessible chapters, the first focusing on Indo-Canadian literature, the second on Chinese Canadian fiction, and the third on Japanese Canadian texts. This division allows the authors to explore the relevant historical, biographical, and cultural contexts. Although the second and third chapters cohere neatly around histories of migration to Canada from China and Japan respectively, the first chapter more awkwardly explores women authors whose texts broadly explore a historical tie to India. While all three chapters examine the complex histories that bring diasporic peoples together or that fail to unite communities, chapter 1 gives much more space to the ambiguous and multilayered meaning of the term “Indo.” In contrast, the categories of “Japanese” and “Chinese” are offered as much less complicated terms in their seemingly unambiguous connections to the countries of Japan and China respectively. There is, however, some analysis of how the term “ethnic” has both been positively promoted in a Canadian multicultural era and how it has enabled the reconsolidation of the invisible category of whiteness as synonymous with Canadianness. Yet the shift to the use of “race,” while potentially politically necessary, is inadequately explored. The reader is given little information about relevant debates and instead expected to endorse the authors’ position.

Indeed, one of the problems with this text is the lack of authorial voice throughout. Despite extensive quotation, there is little commentary on why these quotations have been selected or how they consolidate the proposed argument. Although the extracts from the literary texts are often lyrically beautiful, the authors rely too much on other people’s work as self-evident explanation. This lack of critical engagement is further exacerbated by a limited range of theoretical material. The over-reliance on Julia Kristeva’s work when dealing with issues of sexuality, gender, disability, and the body reveals a lack of engagement with contemporary debates in these extensive fields of study. Reading “his daughter Miyo’s disability [as] a punishment” for another generation’s ills in Kerri Sakamoto’s One Hundred Million Hearts and queer desire between women as a “sisterhood of the heart displac[ing] a sisterhood of the body” in Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child are just two examples where disability and queer sexuality are inadequately informed by contemporary theories and conversations. Transnational Poetics does not offer an interrogation of the deployment of disability in Asian Canadian women’s fiction. Further, it fails to engage with, on the one hand, the debates in queer theory regarding female friendships and sexuality, and, on the other hand, with the idea that queer sex may challenge familial discourses. Many of the selected fictional texts explicitly deal with disability and queer desires and embodiments, and therefore this gap in critical and theoretical material is both striking and disappointing.

While this text’s strengths may not be situated in its capacity to offer critical insights to existing debates on sexuality, gender, disability, and the body, its appeal is located in the focus on thematic trends in Asian Canadian women’s fiction and the politics of Canadian multiculturalism. The main points of discussion are mother/daughter relations, the (female) body politic, histories of migration and diasporas, and familial and sexual relations and violence. For students starting out in Canadian literature, diasporic studies, and/or feminist analyses, this text would be an excellent resource in enabling students to grapple with multiple and sometimes conflicting histories; women’s desires, social roles, and power; and the complexities of contemporary Canadian belonging. In brief interludes of aesthetic and formal inquiry, the authors also explore the form of the texts and the potential interrelation of style, language, and genre with politics. While there is little comment on why the short-story cycle is a prominent genre among Asian Canadian women writers (except to broadly claim that it constitutes “a significant irruption in a well-established Canadian tradition”), these short forays into poetics offer concise points for students to reflect on both in the selected fiction and in broader literary studies.

Transnational Poetics displays a willingness to engage with a large corpus of fiction and is exciting in the breadth of literature covered. It offers an excellent survey of Asian Canadian women’s literary texts and chapters 2 and 3 establish a very useful genealogy of East Asian Canadian fiction. The chapter on Indo-Canadian literature draws connections between multiple South Asian diasporic literary productions, thereby connecting Canada to histories of colonization and slavery in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. The text is original in its desire to bring together such varied genres, authors, and histories. However, a reader searching for a critically and theoretically informed analysis of queer desires and sexualities and/or disabled subjectivities in fictional texts that are evidently concerned with these issues will be disappointed. Indeed, a reader looking for original analyses of “poetics,” as suggested by the title, will find the brief discussions of form very dissatisfying. This is a very useful resource for introductory courses, but is not a text that will shake the parameters of existing critical thinking in the study of Asian Canadian women’s fiction.

This review “Diasporic Imaginaries” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 160-61.

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