Introduction: Generous and Grounded Connections

In 2009, Canadian Literature marked its 50th year of publication. To celebrate, the University of British Columbia and the Faculty of Arts (led by Laurie Ricou) held a Canadian Literature Gala. Along with public lectures by Stephen Galloway, Thomas King, and Roch Carrier, we hosted book launches for Sherrill Grace’s On the Art of Being Canadian and From a Speaking Place: Writings from the First Fifty Years of Canadian Literature, edited by W.H. New, Rejean Beaudoin, Susan Fisher, Iain Higgins, Eva-Marie Kröller, and Laurie Ricou; a literary tour of Vancouver in the brilliant sunshine on board a yellow school bus;  a film screening of A Shine of Rainbows and a discussion with the director, Vic Sarin;  and an art auction in support of the Canadian Literature 50th Anniversary Tuition Awards (with work donated by Margaret Atwood, Vivian Bevis, Stephanie Bolster, Sally Clark, Leonard Cohen, Thomas King, Roy Kiyooka, Patrick Lane, Dennis Lee,  Joni Mitchell,  W.H. New, Joe Rosenblatt,  Tony Urquhart, and Aritha Van Herk, among others). We also hosted a two-day academic workshop on the future of Canadian literature (both the field and the journal).

In an early brainstorming session on possibilities for the academic part of the Gala celebrations, Margery Fee and I sat in my office trying to conceive of a format that could mark the past fifty years while thinking forward to challenges in the field in the future. With an emphasis on the future, we knew it was important to foreground the work of emerging scholars and graduate students but we also wanted to have many established scholars contributing to the discussion as well.  When Margery suggested a workshop with 5 minute “interventions,” I frankly thought she was a bit zany. Who would pay their own way to fly across the country to deliver a five minute paper? Besides, who would come on a weekday in the middle of term? However, since we both liked the concept of pointed brevity, since a SSHRC deadline was looming, and since we regularly ask our own students to do two-page response papers, we thought we’d give it a try and ask our colleagues to do the same.  Make a point and share the floor. We looked left and right at my bookshelves, compiled a list of people who had written the best work on those shelves, and set off inviting people.  Noting that the object of the workshop was to create space for a community of Canadian literature specialists to consider a diverse range of perspectives on where the field of Canadian literature should go in the future, we asked people to consider what the next fifty years of Canadian literature might look like and to ponder the significant obstacles we might face in getting there.  Several wonderful people had to decline our invitation, but to our surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People were keen to recognize and mark the contributions of the journal to the field and to consider where it (journal and field) might go from here.  That began the road to an event that was most clearly marked by intellectual generosity.  As one participant said to me, it wasn’t about his own five minutes of comments, it was about listening to thirty-four other people’s minutes and then talking with them about their ideas. In the end, people from twenty-one universities came to Vancouver and passionately demonstrated how un-trite it is to ask what is at stake in what we do. We are grateful to all our colleagues from across the country for their generous contributions to our workshop and to the auction, both central events in the celebration of the journal’s 50th Anniversary. The response among Canada’s artists, academics, and writers—and their support of students in the field—was heartening.

The written interventions compiled here showcase some of the round-the-room conversations we had in October, but they are incomplete. The sessions were ninety minutes long, with five or six interventions presented in each, and an hour of discussion. We can’t capture those conversations here, or the ones we shared around the sushi, sandwiches, tea, or cookies.  For instance, a good deal of time was spent noting very practical ways to combat funding cuts to the arts and culture, and to universities, other time was spent discussing the logistics of an academic life, and still other time was passed in conversations about new works of fiction and poetry. Not all interveners opted to submit their interventions for publication here either:  David Chariandy spoke of the concept of being “post-race,” Jeff Derksen focused on the dangers of neoliberalism, Sneja Gunew commented on cosmopolitanism, Julia Emberley deconstructed promotional material for Canadian Girl dolls, Judy Brown modelled the value of slowing down in the classroom, Glenn Deer talked about the politics of reviewing, and Manina Jones highlighted the need for close readings.  And here we do not have the keynote addresses beautifully delivered by Aritha van Herk, Reingard Nischik, or W.H. New, or the important research being done by the graduate students at the workshop: Matthew Hiebert (on George Woodcock), Margo Gouley (on Isabella Valancy Crawford), Brenna Clarke Gray (on Douglas Coupland), Paul Huebener (on time), Kathryn Grafton (on reading publics), Cristina Ivanovici (on European Atwoods), Allison Hargreaves (on indigenous reconciliation), David Gaertner (on limits of reconciliation), and Samuel Martin (on Alistair MacLeod and Wayne Johnston). These students were selected, first by their home universities and then by our adjudication panel, to receive travel awards to present fifteen-minute papers on their doctoral research at the workshop.   Their contributions to the event were invaluable.  So, these interventions should be read as important segments of the myriad conversations that occurred in a glass-walled room surrounded by cedars on the unceded Musqueum territory of the UBC campus in the fall of 2009.

The interventions here begin with Herb Wyile’s speculation on the effects on the future of Canadian literature of what he articulates as the current neoliberal hegemony operating in Canada. He urges us to always be aware of the material conditions in which art is produced and studied. Carrie Dawson suggests that a “socially-engaged environmentally conscious tradition of Canadian literary criticism might begin by asking ‘how does your garden grow?’” instead of Northrop Frye’s “Where is here?” and Alison Calder rebels against the notion of being “post-prairie” or post-place as she argues the need to ground our analyses in specific locations and histories.  Rita Wong notes that “cultural diversity extends beyond the realm of the human into biodiversity” as she provocatively asks “What might a watershed moment in Canadian Literature look like?”—evoking real watersheds on her way to answering the question. Several interventions push against theoretical orthodoxies.  Susie O’Brien points out how in Canada postcolonial criticism and ecocriticism are often set up, unproductively, as at odds and suggests the need to rethink their key points of intersection in order to address overlapping issues like “environmental racism” or rural poverty, while Sophie McCall observes the possible productive conversations that could arise out of considering theories of diaspora in connection with Métis writers and writing about “sovereignties in motion” and “participatory citizenship.” Deena Rymhs argues the advantages of cosmopolitanism as a lens for reading indigenous works.  Dan Coleman calls for a recognition of the epistemic justice that comes out of the politics of respect, and Susan Gingell appeals to indigenous epistemologies to provide multiple “sound identities” within literature. Finally, Deanna Reder outlines a key element of Cree epistemology: the understanding of the pursuit of knowledge as an unending continuous intergenerational exercise.

In several interventions there is also an interest in the effects of technology on publishing and on the shapes and forms of what is produced. Ian Rae and Larissa Lai both contemplate the potentials of digital poetics, digital journals, and new modes of circulation of texts and ideas. Christl Verduyn wonders about the accessibility of digital archives, about what can be lost and what might be found, and cautions us to work now to keep them accessible in fifty years. Lily Cho looks back at the colonial archive to read the “archive-as-subject” that informs contemporary debates about diaspora and citizenship. Chris Lee reads a Chinese film and the troublesome implications of figuring Canada as a blank slate from an international perspective.

Thinking of a multiplicity of perspectives within Canada, Roxanne Rimstead considers linguistic divides and class bias in contemporary utopian literature. Winfried Siemerling and Marie Vautier both highlight the real problems and the possible solutions for the challenges of working within a bilingual nation and with literature and criticism that performs in both French and English.  Finally, Lorraine York, Linda Hutcheon, and John Ball each promote the concept of critical generosity and the need for a civil exchange of ideas among scholars, readers, and critics whether in a classroom, a book review, or a reader’s report. There is a clear sense in many of the interventions of considering what roles we might play in creating journals that harness cooperative collegiality, take their roles as sites of mentorship sincerely, and innovatively rethink structures of communication.

Three words keep reappearing in the interventions here: “grounded,” “generosity,” and “connections.” It seems relevant that in our gathering we made no giant proclamations about the future of Canadian writing, created no lists of key works or authors, damned no forms of writing as old-fashioned, and came away with no group manifesto. Instead, there was a quiet call for generously connecting ideas and people, and for taking seriously the places they inhabit and the art they produce.  And yet there was a sense of urgency in the air as well. While we did not need to argue the existence, or the significance, of Canadian literature as our predecessors had to do in some of the fifty years before we met, many of us felt that the engaged study of such literature is threatened in the current economic climate with federal and provincial governments hellbent on cutting culture funding and programs that support the arts at home and abroad, small publishing houses being taken over by multinational organizations with few ties to local needs and local markets, and a national university system that is being shifted away from the humanities in favour of the more profitable forms of education. I came away from the workshop with a renewed sense that being ethically grounded—as advocates of culture in the framework of neoliberalism and globalization— is the public role literary critics play today.
Who knows which of these interventions will seem quaint and which will be read as prescient in 2060.  If an earthquake decimates Vancouver, will the journal even survive? Less hyperbolically, if print journals go to complete open access on the internet, will literary journals like Canadian Literature be able to afford to continue?  Will there be libraries to hold them? If English departments are folded into general Arts or “culture” programs, will there still be courses on CanLit?  How flexible might Canadian nationalism be in fifty years? As the very concept of nationhood is being repeatedly called into question, how long can a journal based on the assumption of a “national literature” be sustained in a postnational, transnational, and/or global framework ? What kinds of global citizens will Canadian writers and critics be in the next decades?  Will other languages move into the national sphere more predominantly?  If Quebec separates, how bilingual will the rest of Canada remain? These are just a few of the questions I’d like to ask of the future.

Many of the recurring topics and keywords in cultural conversations and literary output over the last fifty years in Canada—environmentalism, nature, nationalism, feminism, First Nations self-government, Quebec sovereignty, sexual rights, civil rights, protection for Canadian culture, historical revisionism, memory, trauma, migration, institutions, citizenship, belonging, diasporic movements, globalization, cosmopolitanism, racism, terrorism, community formations, human rights, biopolitics—will likely continue to be of interest. The ways in which writers, poets, playwrights, computer programmers, and critics engage those issues, and many more, is sure to change.  That is what makes the future both exciting and intimidating.

I end with three hopes:  first, that critics of the future have enough distance and generosity to read the literature and the theoretical debates of the turn of the twenty-first century with respect (because I know that the next generation will soon come upon us and dismiss our ways as outmoded—too social, not enough art? too textual, not enough society?—as they did in the 1920s, 40s, 60s, and we did in the 90s) and I know that we all have a lot to learn from past debates, texts, and contexts. Second, I hope that there continues to be strong public support for arts and culture in Canada—whether that takes the shape of government programs or private patronage we’ll soon see. And third, and most importantly, I hope that such a thing as Canadian literature (the field and the journal, I have no doubts about the art itself) continues to exist because if this nation’s literatures are folded into a global study of contemporary writing, I worry about the long social, political, cultural, and literary history that could be lost in the process.  I anticipate that literature and its study will remain grounded in this place and connected to the troubled and triumphant history of its people and policies, but I also trust that it will change as demographics shift, as ideas develop, and as we move forward as writers, thinkers, and citizens.

This article “Introduction: Generous and Grounded Connections” originally appeared in 50th Anniversary Interventions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 204 (Spring 2010): 103-108.

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