Geography and its Boundary-Conditions

  • Don Chapman
    The Lost Canadians: A Struggle for Citizenship Rights, Equality, and Identity. Pugwash Publishing (purchase at
  • Ghadeer Malek (Editor) and Ghaida Moussa (Editor)
    Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space & Resistance. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
Reviewed by Ranbir K. Banwait

In Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance, editors Ghadeer Malek and Ghaida Moussa compile a compelling and thought-provoking collection of essays, fiction, poetry, and photographs that historicize the lives of Arab women around the world. Calling for historical, geographical, cultural and socio-political specificity, Min Fami is nuanced in its treatment of Arab feminisms and the complexity of women’s lived experiences. In contrast to Min Fami’s transnational focus on political struggle and agency, Don Chapman’s The Lost Canadians: A Struggle for Citizenship Rights, Equality, and Identity localizes the abnegation of rights in the Canadian context. The Lost Canadians is a rant against political and bureaucratic inefficiency, as Chapman outlines the creation of an entire group of stateless people through the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act. What follows is a detailed account of Chapman’s struggle to change the terrain of citizenship in Canada.

One of Min Fami‘s major tasks is to trouble a singular understanding of feminism; feminism becomes a transnational phenomenon in the text, taking shape differently in different political moments and spaces. As Jihan Rabah asserts, “The forces behind peoples’ acts are located in the spaces or the countries they have occupied. Therefore, the reality of my oppression may be entangled in transnational forces and spaces as much as in specific geographical locations or other social, political, and economic factors.” For Rabah, Arab feminisms can never be understood in the singular; rather they are plural in praxis and practice, emerging out of geographical specificity and every woman’s unique experiences. Malek and Moussa’s choice to include a diverse selection of works mirrors this emphasis on the plural, as form and language create unruly spaces of creative and creative response to this multiplicity. One poignant example of this desire to create space in language is Rauda Marcos’ poem “Departing a City.” Writing evocatively of how the violence she experiences becomes her body’s knowledge, she asserts, “The city of my presence I am leaving you / I am displaced in my land . . . / Illegal in every place / Even my identity does not exist / Without ‘status’ or poems.” Subjectivity emerges through poems here—if not through the legal trail associated with having “status” in a country. This focus on how geography is interlaced with identity in all its forms—be it legal, social or political—is a preoccupation taken up in the rest of the text.

Space is far from being a stable configuration in Min Fami, since its writers and artists tackle spatial dynamics as layered and shifting forms of power. Consequently, Min Fami thinks through imaginative geographies and the boundaries of borders, to reflect on the ways in which gendering folds into space. One example of this focus is Jacinthe A. Assad’s fascinating article, in which she argues that women as artists must employ emergent spaces of representation in order to exercise agency in Egypt. While Assad tackles the notion of representation as space, Nayrouz Abu Hatoum considers the bordering effects of Israeli rule for Palestinians in her work. Hatoum’s brilliant personal essay explores the visual and imaginative disruption that accompanies the fracturing of space, and yet she writes how, “even though the state does not contain me, the land always will.” The bordering effects of occupation, Hatoum reflects, have a doubling effect on women who have been both “socially and symbolically confined to endless boundaries” as they cross through Israeli borders that are “bureaucratic, physical, racial, national, economic, based on citizenship, underground, areal or aerial.” In this sense, borders extend beyond the physical to reshape social relations and thus create new ways of imagining belonging.

While in Min Fami space and place become the boundary-conditions where belonging is lost, The Lost Canadians shows how the categories of gender, race and nationality can come together to adjudicate the legal doctrine of citizenship. Dwelling on another set of narratives about displacement and loss, Chapman explains how provisions in the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act left an estimated one million people without Canadian citizenship. Some of these cases include women who married non-Canadians, thus losing their citizenship because they were seen as extensions of their husbands’ legal identities. Some people became stateless when, as children, their parents became citizens of another country. Outlining his years of political activism on Parliament Hill, Chapman offers insight into some of these individual stories, ultimately arguing for a more inclusive notion of Canadian citizenship.

One thing that Lost Canadians has in common with Min Fami is that it, too, draws attention to national borders, and the ways in which such borders re-articulate social connections that typically cut across borders. For instance, in these stories, the Canadian-American border functions as a prominent signifier for many Lost Canadians, often undercutting individuals’ sense of belonging. One such example of a First Nations family illustrates how border politics violate the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples to sovereignty and mobility. As Heather Harnois writes in a letter to Chapman: “I am part of generations of Canadian aboriginals . . . Unfortunately, I was born in the USA. (Indians have the right to live or work in either country—Canada or USA by way of treaty.) . . . My mother moved me to Canada when I was a child to be near the rest of our family . . . . but after turning age 18 I was no longer allowed to be here.” As Harnois explains, the Indian Registration Act, together with the Citizenship Act, construct her lack of status in Canada.

Another letter, from Donovan McGlaughlin to Chapman, also sheds light on the colonial history of identity documents such as birth certificates. As McGlaughlin reveals, registering births meant that authorities would be able to remove Indigenous children from their families and send them to Residential schools: “My mother and father were victims of the Residential schools. In 1954 they knew the only way to keep me from being also rounded up and taken away . . . was not to register my birth . . . . I have never had a real job before because I have no SIN, no driver’s licence, no birth certificate . . . . what I need is the right to be a person.” McGlaughlin’s case draws attention to not only how legal identity is interwoven with the social, but also the systemic forms of bureaucratic violence faced by First Nations communities in Canada. Indeed, although Chapman outlines at length how, included in the Lost Canadians category are Second World War veterans, war brides and children, and people born on military bases abroad, the Harnois and McGlaughlin examples perhaps best highlight Canadian citizenship’s colonial legacy.

Thus, both Min Fami and The Lost Canadians explore how imaginative geographies—or spaces as places of belonging—can challenge border practices and the states that impose them. In highlighting the plurality of Arab feminisms, Malek and Moussa invest in a remarkable critical project. By contrast, one drawback of The Lost Canadians is the text’s persistent comparison of those who are born Canadians and those (immigrants) who become Canadian, a comparison that overlooks the dangers of citizenship as a two-tiered system.

This review “Geography and its Boundary-Conditions” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 144-46.

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