Inside/out the Field: The Asian Canlit Imaginary

This is my fourth attempt to write about my “engagement with Asian Canadian critique.” Each time I tried to address it, I stumbled on the problem of origins, a spectral figure stalling me. You see, I could not help but hear this invitation as one that calls upon history, that demands a kind of recuperative or archivist approach, initiating a return to an originary moment: my encounter with “Asian Canadian critique.” Intimations of “first contact.”

But what constitutes “Asian Canadian critique” in this context, I wondered. Does it include only critical discourses or does it posit “critique” as an assemblage of the literary—the literary as critique—and the critical? Was I approached as an insider or an outsider to the field? (The guest editors’ invitation referred to “experts” in the field, those who are in “conversation” with it, and those who stand “outside” it.) Who had drawn these lines, this compartmentalization of critical discourse? Why delineate the field’s terrain in such terms? Was my narrative supposed to be about the field’s emergence or about my own emergence within the field? There was, I felt, an après-coup element at play, echoes of belatedness (a recurring motif in the field), this time my own belatedness in relation to “Asian Canadian critique.” For how could I have engaged with it if it hadn’t already pre-existed my encounter with it, at least with one manifestation of its diverse materialities?

Assuming—wrongly so perhaps—that this forum was an invitation to summon up memories, I recalled the late 1970s: the time I arrived in Canada (the diasporic subject seems to be inexorably marked by belatedness), but also a time that coincided with the beginnings of the Japanese Canadian Redress movement: Roy Miki’s frequent visits to Winnipeg where I lived at the time—listening to him talk about the Internment, a shocking revelation for this brand New Canadian, and the challenges of the redress process; visiting St. Agathe where his family was forced to relocate, his mother pregnant with him, and finding the house where they lived. I remembered meeting Roy Kiyooka during my first visit to Vancouver, reading Transcanada Letters, seeing and reading StoneDGloves, a bit later “Dear Lucy Fumi.” I remembered, too, hearing Fred Wah talking about his trip to China and his coming upon the ghost of his father (it was in a train station, I think). I remembered meeting Jim Wong-Chu, finding out about the Asian Canadian Writing Workshop and subscribing to its magazine; hearing Jam Ismail reading From Sacred Texts (Hey, Jam, where have you been? It’s been ages); reading Yellow Peril Reconsidered; visiting Racy/Sexy (I still wear the event’s t-shirt, though it barely fits me now) and interviewing Henry Tsang; participating in Inglish, a symposium at Vancouver’s Western Front (I remember walking out of one session in a huff but can’t recall why); encountering Larissa Lai, Rita Wong, Himori Goto, Scott Taguri McFarlane, Ashok Mathur, all graduate students at the time and variously located in anti-racist and cultural work.

A range of personal and intellectual, as well as highly affective, encounters and turning points that were absolutely critical—“critical” in more ways than one—in my varied engagements with “Asian Canadian critique.” These engagements have mediated and shaped as much my own diasporic subjectivity as my writing about diaspora and CanLit in general. Asian Canlit has been an integral part of my thinking about what I prefer to call Canlits.

Still, I felt stymied by this re-turn to origins until I remembered what Walter Benjamin says about origins. At the same time that he acknowledges that origin is indeed a historical category, he also disengages it from the process of genesis: origins “describe[s] that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (45). Now things began to make some sense.

My gradual foray into what the editors of this issue might mean by “Asian Canadian critique” has followed an array of (often overlapping) trajectories. It has always involved visibility and invisibility, e.g., Roy both present and absent in that St. Agathe photo (sorry, Roy, for turning you into a figure of speech—metaphor and metonym at the same time), but also (in some contexts) my non-Asianness, my off-whiteness; destruction / disappearance and restoration of justice; what had / has been silenced and various processes of articulation / restitution.

Being inside and outside of it. In tension with it.

So, yes, I believe I can say that I have experienced Asian Canlit as a coalitional space, a site of resistance and creativity, of various practices and discourses that have reformed as much the literary landscape as the social, cultural and institutional sites I happen to inhabit. Asian Canlit and Asian Canadian critique as a field, if you want, that is by necessity unfinished and interminable. In flux.

Is it possible or even desirable for Asian Canadian critique to move beyond the nation? Of course it’s possible; some critical discourses have already taken it on that route. Would this be desirable? Well, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

I’ve been trying to answer these questions while on the road, crossing various nation-state and cultural boundaries. From Israel to the West Bank. From the Palestinian Occupied Territories to Greece, a nation-state in economic and refugee crisis mode. From Greece to Canada, where my mother and I were invited by Rifaat and Fatma to celebrate Iftar during Ramadan with them and their four children, my extended family for over half a year now. From Canada to Chile, on a road trip that is as much about arrivals as it is about returns. I’m on this road trip practicing and testing shadowing as a methodology, more specifically bearing witness to Return Atacama, Monica Martinez’s collaboration with the artist collective Constelaciones. Monica, a Chilean Canadian artist, has taken our group to the Atacama Desert (we’re in the middle of it right now actually). At various stop points, so far on long stretches of sand along the Pacific coast, she’s paying homage to those who have disappeared or gone away during the Pinochet regime and his Caravan of Death by placing, and leaving behind, cross-shaped ceramic sculptures. Solid yet ephemeral (the tide may wash them away or someone may pick them up), threading together different broken narratives, they are the preamble to the Constelaciones collective’s performance in two days, much deeper into the Atacama desert, on the same theme, return: coming to terms with dis/appearance, un-belonging, grief and the celebration of perseverance, the efficacy of cross-cultural alliances.

You think I’m all over the place now, don’t you? Yes, of course I am (in more ways than one). But in the course of these crossings and encounters I have developed an embodied understanding that we do inhabit transnational spaces, often unbeknownst to us. We may inhabit them as interlopers or as subjects formed by them; as hosts or guests; as subjects in transit. Their relationality to our lives and the narratives that have shaped them often remains buried or forgotten until an image, a name, a word, a happenstance brings it back to life. (In my case, it was Allende’s name and its connection to my high school years and the Greek junta, a recollection that has rescripted my role as witness [witness as a distant other] in the Atacama Desert as that of someone who has her own dues to pay in this Chilean space.)

Yet it’s important to remember that the embeddedness that constitutes the transnational is not necessarily innocent; it can be as fraught as the nation’s own hold on us. So I don’t think we can afford to do away with the nation—and the nation-state. I think we have to remain alert to how the nation thrives by instrumentalizing us and our constitutive narratives and locations, but also to remind ourselves that it has the potential to help us resist neoliberalism and neocolonialism. As a condition that crosses over and moves through more than one (kind of) nation—nations can be independent states or lacking a state, occupied territories or colonized within states, or nominally independent but completely under the thumb of, say, the IMF or the Troika in the Euro Zone—the transnational is at once complicit with and resistant to the nation-state. Working with/in the dialectical tension between national and transnational paradigms might perhaps be the most productive way to advance Asian Canadian critique.

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