In Return

Looking backwards is an activity that many of us are doing these days as we observe the public health orders around social distancing, travel, and other restrictions and wonder what the future will look like and when it will arrive. The articles in this issue by Andrea Beverley, Thomas Hodd, Margaret Steffler, Melanie Dennis Unrau, and Vikki Visvis, as well as the forum on Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies curated by Paul Barrett and the narrative inquiry contributed by Botao Wu, share this preoccupation as they turn our attention to earlier moments in order to re-examine literary texts, objects, and historical eras, to invoke and rethink earlier critical methodologies, and to revisit individual and collective memories. This common investment in the past is a noteworthy coincidence and one that transforms this general issue into an unplanned but shared project of returns. I take these common interests, as articulated within this issue and also as they circulate more broadly within our readerly and critical communities, as a provocation to think about what drives such acts of return. I am interested in thinking through our desires to return to earlier moments and understanding what it is that each of us imagines we are doing to the past as well as for the present. Are we in need of fuller, more accurate depictions of history? Different aesthetic representations of the past? What are the principles that guide our interpretation of whether something is a better representation or more useful critique than those that preceded it? And how do the histories of fields, institutions, and places shape how we enact these returns now?

To guide my thoughts, I turn to Laura Kang’s Compositional Subjects (2002), which examines how Asian American women are produced as objects of knowledge for the humanities and social sciences. While this may seem like a counterintuitive place to begin an editorial on the topic of returns in Canadian literature, Compositional Subjects can be read as being in dialogue with Scandalous Bodies, the subject of this issue’s forum on the book’s legacy twenty years after it appeared in 2000. Published within a couple of years of each other, both texts critically reflect upon practices of knowledge production by examining how objects are made legible and also how critics are located within these circuits. Kang’s and Kamboureli’s projects differ in terms of their specific goals, as Scandalous Bodies uses diaspora and ethnicity to unsettle the settler nativism of Canadian literature whereas Compositional Subjects uses Asian American women to critique disciplines, but they share a common interest in representation and disciplinarity.

Compositional Subjects analyzes the figuration of Asian American women by laying out a set of questions about how we see objects, and these are lines of inquiry that can be extended to Canadian literature as a field. Kang focuses on four common representations of Asian American women, not with the intention of replacing misrepresentations with more truthful representations, but rather to shed light on the historical conditions, methodologies, and ideologies that produce particular compositions (Kang 3). At the same time, the writing of difference and the representation of Asian American women are also analyzed as problems of disciplinarity, and Kang recognizes disciplines themselves as being “particular, partial, and ever-shifting formations” (4). Central to this critique is an understanding of how disciplinary constraints shape how objects are apprehended and in turn how disciplines reproduce themselves through their norms:

The animating struggle within a discipline is not so much about fidelity/infidelity to an external object of study but around internalized rules and norms of a “methodological field” that binds but also fractures its practicing agents, or “disciples.” Disciplines are made, sustained, and transformed by these disciples as much as these practices also discipline these knowing subjects. (4, emphasis original)

Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s argument that diversity is typically seen as the voice of the minor, and that disciplines claim the voice of the major, Kang argues that the way Asian American women are reduced to “belated and still minor objects of study within established disciplines works to preserve those disciplines’ authority as a progressivist accumulation of knowledge of all subjects within liberalism’s promise of universal representation” (4-5).

I find the questions that Kang raises about disciplinary formations and the discipline’s relations to its internal logics and external objects profoundly generative in relation to Canadian literature. Compositional Subjects outlines how Asian American women are constructed by disciplines such as literary studies, film studies, and the social sciences, and its approach can be used as the beginnings of a method for considering how the kinds of minor subjects Kang discusses come into view for Canadian literature. In a similar vein, we might ask how literary studies as a discipline constrains and also enables the legibility of minor subjects as seen by different Canadian literary critics, represented within various classrooms and on syllabi, and read by specific juries in particular years. How and when are the disciplinary norms broached in order to make room for other considerations of the social worlds of these minor subjects? In addition to reflecting upon how Canadian literature constructs its objects of study, how can we also understand the ways in which Canadian literature sees its relations to the discipline of literary studies? As a field with multiple and complex relations to colonialism and imperialism, both in relation to Indigenous and racialized communities as well as to British and American cultural and political imperialisms, how have literary disciplinings worked to produce a sense of legitimacy for Canadian literature? In other words, what are the historical and ongoing negotiations between the terms “Canadian” and “literature”?

Within the terrain of literary criticism, texts are often read in terms of their aesthetic and political value. Formalist matters and social representation are concerns raised when scholars debate questions such as which texts deserve to be read more widely, how some texts and writers are made minor while others are reinforced as major, and as we critique the structures that uphold these relations of power. For the purposes of this editorial, the debates about the aesthetic and political dimensions of texts interest me because of the ways in which they shed light on the imagined purpose of the field of Canadian literary studies and how the field has responded to questions of relevance and audience, answers that have shifted over time as have our explanations for what literary studies can do, most recently with the ongoing crisis of the humanities.

While the formal and social dimensions of texts are often assumed to be separate, Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan make a compelling case for thinking of them differently. In their new book, The Teaching Archive (2021), they recontextualize eminent scholars of the past by supplementing their scholarly publications with their teaching materials, such as syllabi, handouts, and lecture notes. By expanding the record of literary studies beyond monographs and articles, Buurma and Heffernan interrupt conventional narratives of the discipline, including the belief that it has historically been shaped by a “contrapuntal method war” that “depict[s] formalist and historicist methods as dramatically opposed” (9). In their chapter on J. Saunders Redding, a noted scholar of African American literature, Buurma and Heffernan show how the aesthetic and social dimensions of texts are not distinct principles but rather constrain each other in practice. They address Redding’s belief that notions of pure literature and romantic authorship had serious consequences for Black writing, as “these ideals functioned to segregate disciplinary knowledge, rendering African American writing unliterary and African American lives and letters unhistorical” (107). Through his teaching and writing, Redding grappled with this problem of disciplinary knowledge, and specifically with how “realism often reflected not the world but the social values of a specific class of readers and granting institutions” (114). For example, in his project No Day of Triumph (1942), Redding depicted Black lives throughout the US South outside of the conventions of documentary realism (Buurma and Heffernan 116) and, in so doing, produced “a new vision of American life unbounded by the narrative conventions that valorize racial or familial belonging” (116).

It is worth noting that Kang makes a related point in her analysis of how Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) has been canonized in literary circles as an example of ethnic women’s autobiography: “Tellingly, the book’s generic classification and disciplinary belonging have been more easily assumed when it is read as exhibiting a social or cultural difference from some privileged, primary axis of identity” (33, emphasis original). By this Kang means that Kingston’s text is frequently read as an autobiography whose value is derived from being a socially representative account of Chinese American life and therefore “read as other than literature by literary critics and scholars” (64, emphasis original). Kang distinguishes herself from other scholars that read these debates as racist or culturally ignorant mistakes and instead focuses on how “the autobiographical fixation of the book has been crucial to this canonization by affirming the socially inclusionary capacities of literary studies” (63). The critiques raised by Kang as well as Buurma and Heffernan about how aesthetic values have been used to reinforce the dominance of certain subjects and genres are useful to hold onto as we reflect upon the shifting internal rules that cohere Canadian literature as a discipline and its relations to the worlds that intersect with college and university classrooms and literary institutions, but also extend beyond them. Here it is worth bearing in mind Buurma and Heffernan’s point that “[w]hat we stand to gain by recovering the syllabuses that Redding carried north, then, is a model for integrating reading lists that rejects the analogy between inclusion on a syllabus and inclusion in American political life” (113). I take up the questions raised by Kang, Buurma, and Heffernan not because they are new ones, but rather because they remind us of the recursiveness of these debates and that we still need to negotiate them within the context of this discipline.

A similar impulse can be seen in Scandalous Bodies. Kamboureli reminds us in her interview with Myra Bloom in this issue (as she cites from the book’s preface) that her approach is “not the kind that views a text as a sovereign world, but one that opens the text in order to reveal the method of its making, the ways in which it is the product of an ongoing dialogue between different realities” (xv). The forum on Scandalous Bodies in this issue returns our attention to the text and more broadly to the methodologies we use to approach Canadian literature. In his introduction to the forum, Barrett asks how a return to Scandalous Bodies’ critique of Canadian literature resonates twenty years later and how it may guide our thinking today, citing Alicia Elliott’s questioning of how the field continues to repeat its mistakes. We can read the forum as an attempt to transform the field and perhaps even “shatter the mirrors of repetition” (Kamboureli 6). Andrea Davis, for example, advocates for an approach that thinks through race, and Blackness in particular, noting that this is an aspect missing from Scandalous Bodies. Davis argues that in order to move beyond the limits of multicultural critique, critics must consider how “Black Canadian writing is also informed by a different set of questions / problematics than those emerging from other ethnic groups, including the legacy of slavery and complexity of Black identities marked by repeating experiences of fragmentation—not just hybridity.” In her contribution, she turns to the work of Dionne Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip, who find in poetry “a new grammar of Black being.” In addition to devising new questions that enable us to attend more carefully to the lifeworlds of minoritized subjects, the forum also prompts recognitions of the critical conversations that informed Scandalous Bodies. Sarah Dowling reminds us that, in addition to being in dialogue with Canadian literary scholarship, Scandalous Bodies also participated in debates about bodies, haunting, and grief, but that the book’s affinity with these wider discourses has tended to be forgotten. “Perhaps this was simply because the nation-based framing of most literary criticism—even a work like Scandalous Bodies, which troubles national frameworks by attending to ethnicity and diaspora— artificially separates texts with similar critical frames,” notes Dowling. Her essay reminds us of the distinction between the conversations that inform our reading and writing practices and the ways in which our work gets taken up, thereby underscoring “the cultural and political syntax of our communities.”

The articles in this issue pose related questions for their readers. In “Rig Talk and Disidentification,” Melanie Dennis Unrau draws our attention to the mechanisms of forgetting that are embedded in petroculture formations. She examines two collections of poetry about oil work published during different oil booms and over a thirty-year span. The forgetfulness of petroculture becomes visible through the writing and reception of these two works and is understood in relation to settler-colonial claims to land, the boom and bust cycles of the economy, and readerly tendencies. Andrea Beverley also takes up environmental concerns in her essay “Uranium Mining, Interdisciplinarity, and Ecofeminism in Donna Smyth’s Subversive Elements,” which analyzes Smyth’s text as an underexamined contribution to the archive of environmental literature from the 1980s. Positioning Smyth’s book within debates about environmentalism and alongside contributions by notable figures such as Margaret Laurence, Beverley highlights the literary activism of ecofeminists. A return to earlier feminist approaches is also part of Margaret Steffler’s project as she offers a reading of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, a novel that depicts three generations of Mennonite women in the fictional colony of Molotschna as they share stories to critique patriarchal violence. Steffler draws on influential feminist theorists such as Cixous and Irigaray to examine the women’s dialogues about gender inequity and violence. Reflecting on what it means to encounter these fictionalized dialogues now given the impact of the #MeToo movement, Steffler notes that “there is nothing new in the stories women are telling, but there is something new in the underlying urgency to heed women’s feelings and narratives.” Vikki Visvis also poses questions about what it means to return to earlier narratives in her essay on Frances Itani’s Deafening, a novel that engages with D/deaf education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Visvis examines the novel for how it represents debates over sign language and oralism as illuminating anxieties about national exclusion, and considers these depictions in terms of historical realism and historical revisionism. She explores what it means to write “a configuration of nation where the D/deaf as able-bodied function as a metaphor for a fit, healthy, and adaptive Canada.” The final article in this issue, by Thomas Hodd, also pushes these conversations about genre and historical inattentiveness further as it directs our attention towards Will R. Bird’s war fiction, which was informed by Bird’s experiences serving in World War I as a sniper and a rifleman. Re-evaluating the dearth of critical attention paid to Bird’s writing despite the wide readership it reached, Hodd asks us to consider how questions of genre (i.e., short story vs. the novel) and those of military rank (non-commissioned vs. officer) may have contributed to the forgetting of a popular writer. In addition to these articles, this issue contains a reflection on homes, past and present. Botao Wu employs a creative-critical method to reflect upon his experiences of growing up in China and the stories that shaped his understandings of place, inquiring with poetry into how he carries these memories with him during his migrations to Vancouver and other cities and as he continues to search for physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual homes.

Taken together, the contributions to this issue present readers with an opportunity to reflect upon the ways that our disciplinary constraints shape how we return to history, and upon our particular investments in returning to the past. These contributions open up ways for thinking of Canadian literature in terms of the methodologies, objects, writers, authors, and institutions that shape it as a field. This is also the final issue that our designer George Vaitkunas will prepare for us. George has been a valuable member of the Canadian Literature team for over twenty-five years, and #243 marks the one-hundredth issue that he has designed for the journal. We are grateful for his contributions to the journal over the past decades and wish him all the best in his retirement.

Works Cited

Buurma, Rachel Sagner, and Laura Heffernan. The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study. U of Chicago P, 2021.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. 2000. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009.

Kang, Laura Hyun Yi. Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women. Duke UP, 2002.

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.