How might we begin imagining a utopia from our present moment of overwhelming challenges? The first essay in this issue of Canadian Literature, Pamela Bedore’s “The Aesthetics of Utopian Imaginings in Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light,” opens with this provocative question. In addition to the pandemic, Bedore lists climate change and deep inequality as concerns that have preoccupied the first decades of the twenty-first century. How then can we conceive of a future that is utopic for all, given that we are living in times that seem to hold “a contempt for joy that makes utopia seem not only impossible but perhaps also undesirable” (Bedore 1)? Imagining a utopia, one that is collectively desired, is a project that seems out of sync with the prevailing pandemic atmosphere of isolation, uncertainty, and division. Indeed, as many people have commented in casual conversation, these are times that feel like they have come out of the pages of dystopian or even speculative fiction. Not only do such fleeting insights respond to the bleakness of the past few years, but they also draw attention to the seemingly shifting relations between fact and fiction as our realities become more surreal and our memories fuzzier. In a panel discussion about the pandemic hosted by Spoken Web on December 10, 2020, Kevin Chong made a related observation when he noted the pandemic felt like it was fact-checking his novel. Published in 2018, Chong’s The Plague imagines Vancouver in terms that eerily anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic and, as Clint Burnham writes, the novel almost feels like “too perfect a fit” (129). Utopias, dystopias, fictionalized plagues, real pandemics—read together, they prompt us to examine the terms in which we write, imagine, and understand our world and its alternatives.
Central to this project of reflecting upon how we write in and about the contemporary moment are questions about genre and style. I want to draw attention to the formal dimensions of how the everyday is represented in order to examine the intertwining of our roles as literary and cultural critics and, moreover, to grasp how the ability to close read literature can be used to navigate the everyday. In emphasizing the movement between literary and cultural realms, I follow the work of literary critics who have argued that formal dimensions such as genre, by shaping “knowledge production and ethics,” work to “organize and direct—our actions and our understanding of the world” (Huang 2-3). Part of the work of imagining ourselves as part of the idealized or unlivable worlds of utopias or dystopias is to narrate our perceptions of the present or imaginings of the future along the lines of utopic or dystopian generic conventions. At the same time, as Betsy Huang reminds us in her study of genre and Asian American literature, we need not adhere rigidly to generic conventions:
Writing Asian American identities according to or against generic constructs is a self-reflexive and self-conscious performative act that engenders, through repetition, the possibilities of variation and transformation. To trouble the waters of a body of literature or an established critical ideology, then, is to problematize the knowledge it produces and stabilizes through its conventions about the world and the people it portrays. (7, emphasis original)
Experimenting with cultural representations and generic conventions can lead to new forms of knowledge and social and political expectations regarding what constitutes an ideal world as well as how we must respond to unlivable ones. In this way, the genres of utopia and dystopia can blur into that of speculative fiction. Christopher Patterson argues, “In its critiques of ‘the real,’ speculative fiction focuses not so much on ‘what it was’ but ‘how it remains so,’ and the feelings and procedures that emanate from one’s positionality in relation to the whole” (179). To bring genres such as utopia, dystopia, and speculative fiction together, then, is to undertake a project of interrogating past and present violences or, in other words, not just “‘what happened’ historically but ‘how it continues to happen’” (Patterson 179).
To return to Pamela Bedore’s essay, “The Aesthetics of Utopian Imaginings in Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light” uses Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series to draw our attention to matters of genre, and more specifically how Penny’s novels bring together the genres of utopian and detective fiction even though typically the former works to imagine a better future and the latter to understand a past wrong (3). Bedore argues that by setting murder cases within the utopian village of Three Pines, these novels creatively direct our attention towards the potential of utopian literature to create social change. She builds on the work of scholars who understand utopian literature to be a transgressive genre that critiques the present as it imagines more radical alternatives.
Erin Goheen Glanville’s contribution to this issue also centres on genre fiction. In “Discomforted Readers and the Cultural Politics of Genre in Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal,” Glanville performs a reading of Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal to examine the limits of Canada’s humanitarianism. Noting the different receptions of refugees from Syria, Southeast Asia, and East Africa since the 1960s, Glanville argues for the importance of examining how the refugee figure is imagined within Canada. The article observes that while the topic of Hill’s novel has permitted it to be taken up as part of conversations about humanitarianism, readers have been “discomforted” (3) when it comes to The Illegal’s formal dimensions—namely, how it brings together the genres of political thriller, speculative fiction, and satire—despite the fact that these genres reach large numbers of readers and offer an opportunity for “public pedagogy” (Glanville 3). Glanville reflects on Hill’s novel and suggests, “It may be that The Illegal produces resistance because its genre throws into question the terms of humanitarian reading practices that make refugee suffering a socially acceptable literary commodity” (5).
Neo-liberalism lurks behind many of the literary and cultural critiques of our present moment, and the writers discussed in this issue remind us in different ways, across different genres, that language and literature are necessary to reimagining and reinventing human relations. As I write this editorial at the beginning of 2022, one form that hope takes at this moment is that the pandemic could become endemic, moving us from a condition of crisis to one of chronic existence. Rather than imagining an end to COVID-19 as we did in 2020, we are beginning to hope for a way of living with the virus. While terms like “endemic” and “chronic” are new additions to the vocabulary of dominant, or perhaps more accurately able-bodied, Canada, they are familiar to critical disability studies scholars. The question of what these turns mean for dominant understandings of livability and normalcy are taken up by Eric Cazdyn when he pinpoints the relation “between bearability and the status quo” (5). Writing in pre-pandemic times, he observes that as a society, we are now in what he calls
a new chronic mode, a mode of time that cares little for terminality or acuteness, but more for an undying present that remains forever sick, without the danger of sudden death. The maintenance of the status quo becomes, if not quite our ultimate goal, what we will settle for, and even fight for. If the system cannot be reformed (the cancer eradicated, the ocean cleaned, the corruption expunged), then the new chronic mode insists on maintaining the system and perpetually managing its constitutive crises, rather than confronting even a hint of the terminal, the system’s (the body’s, the planet’s, capitalism’s) own death. (5)
The management of crises is, of course, not a new phenomenon and here Cazdyn echoes feminist and BIPOC scholars who have made similar critiques of state and capitalist power. He puts forward an important critique of the chronic mode as a new cultural logic when he observes that it “effectively colonizes the future by naturalizing and eternalizing the brutal logic of the present . . . To remove the possibility of death and settle for the new chronic is to choose the known limits of the present over the unknown freedom of the future” (6).
Other critics have put forth different understandings of what it might mean to live with chronic illness and how it offers new insights into temporalities. Emilia Nielsen, for instance, turns to the poetry of chronic illness in order to explore the condition of living with uncertainty (given that illness can always reoccur), but also “to explore feminist, queer, and crip experience in giving voice to the intensity of living with mind, body, and/or bodymind unpredictability” (51). By reading disability in political-relational terms, Neilson contests the falsely binaristic positioning of disability “in relation to notions of normalcy, able-bodiedness, and able-mindedness” (62) and demands that we note the relations that produce disability as a problem. In advocating that the status quo be transformed, Neilson calls to mind the words written by Audre Lorde as she struggled with breast cancer. Writing in her journal about the pain of her cancer and her frustrations with medical staff who berated her for not wearing a prosthetic breast post-mastectomy, Lorde sought to reclaim her body from cancer and cultural norms. While living in various states of illness, she used her words and energy to challenge the status quo:
I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change, nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning relative to others. (Lorde 10)
In their refusal to let it “remain so,” the work of these feminist thinkers and critical disabilities scholars acts as sources of inspiration as we critique the status quo and rethink what everyday utopias might look like.
Evangeline Holtz-Schramek’s essay also critiques the confluence of “what it was” and “how it remains so” through a reading of Cecily Nicholson’s From the Poplars that examines Indigenous and Black peoples in terms of a “shared nexus of grief ” (3). Identifying Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” as an intertext for From the Poplars, Holtz-Schramek argues for a reading of Nicholson’s poem as a “political ballad [that] signals new and radical futures for Black and Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island” (5). “‘Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees’: Cecily Nicholson’s From the Poplars” also notes that From the Poplars appropriates legal documents and colonial records in order to write a poetic critique of property and settler colonialism. The essay draws attention to the state injustices inflicted upon Indigenous and Black peoples, as well as to the erasure of these injustices from public record, in order to remind us of the multiple forms of violence that took place on Poplar Island.
That poetry can counter the violence of erasure is a topic taken up in Toyah Webb’s essay on Erín Moure’s The Unmemntioable, a work of poetry that explores intergenerational traumas of the Holocaust. Webb reworks the concept of “blood memory” by noting that in The Unmemntioable it is ashes, specifically the ashes of the poet’s mother, that connect the poet to her ancestral heritage. The essay interrogates the limits of representation by querying the absence of some subjects from dominant historical narratives and also by questioning the ability of language to adequately represent trauma. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s Cinders for its notion of language as “both endless and un-burnable” (8), Webb notes that language is thus the ideal vehicle for cultural memory. And while this writing or “ash-memory” remains, Webb reminds us that the power of these words becomes precarious when the authors are gone and no one is left to verify these testimonies (9). The essay investigates the relations between poetry and cultural memory, and asks how the poet is able to testify
The effects of trauma upon language have already been evidenced within The Unmemntioable: after a traumatic event, the language that remains to testify is broken and the symbolic order ruptured. It is a paradox, yet the book exists. How then does Moure’s book access this “remaining,” burning language? Where does it sign its own ashes? (9)
The final essay in this issue is Carl Watts’ analysis of Catriona Wright’s poetry collection Table Manners. Focusing on the consumption of food and alcohol in these poems, “‘a dungeon every night and every day’: The Zany Neoliberal Subject, Alcohol, and Poetic Agency in Catriona Wright’s Table Manners” examines how work and non-work fail to remain separate in the neoliberal subject. Watts uses Sianne Ngai’s concept of zaniness to consider “the frenetic activity of the labouring neoliberal subject who is forced to adapt to ever-changing tasks and demands” within the context of Wright’s poems (107). The essay also contributes to a critique of the status quo by arguing that Table Manners writes about how “the totality of work-life is overwhelmingly oppressive and yet also in a process of being normalized” (107).
Burnham, Clint. “The Plague of Orientalism: Reading Kevin Chong in the Pandemic.” Canadian Literature, no. 245, 2021, pp. 128-49.
Cazdyn, Eric. The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Duke UP, 2012.
Huang, Betsy. Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. 1980. Penguin Random House, 2020.
Neilsen, Emilia. “Chronic Poetics and the Poetry of Chronic Illness (in a Global Pandemic).” Canadian Literature, no. 245, 2021, pp. 47-63.
Patterson, Christopher. Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific. Rutgers UP, 2018.
Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.