Twenty years ago, Diana Brydon called on Canadian cultural critics to generate “a new set of questions” that might liberate us from a collective obsession with the “geographical fallacies, mating loons, and nostalgia for lost Edens” (14) that had dominated Canadian critical imaginaries for decades. For Brydon, the critical work of the early 2000s reconceived of Canadian writing through the lenses of race, diaspora, and Indigeneity in a manner that unsettled old paradigms of CanLit. This forum echoes Brydon’s call to generate new questions by returning to Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada (2000) twenty years after its publication.
Kamboureli begins Scandalous Bodies by noting, “This book could be seen as the other of the manifesto on ethnicity that I wanted to write but never did” (1). The false promise of the manifesto, Kamboureli argues, lies in its “messianic message” and its attempt “to rise above history. It is intended to take us beyond the cultural predicament of historical repetition, to defy determinism. Its historical value is posthumous, for a manifesto wants to be judged by the future it announces” (7). While Kamboureli refuses the “power and seductiveness” (7) of messianism and manifesto, her work has announced a future of sorts: a future for thinking about nation, citizenship, and literature against the “hold that nativism has on Canadian literature” (8). Twenty years after the book’s publication, this forum collects eight critical engagements with Scandalous Bodies in the interest of thinking through the challenges that Kamboureli confronts, the difficulties and provocations of her text, and how looking back might help us understand our present moment.
This historical work is particularly relevant for our field of Canadian literature. When Alicia Elliott rightly asks, “How is CanLit continually making the same mistakes?”, part of the answer is that too often Canadian cultural criticism neglects its own history. In particular, we forget the histories of artists and critics who have resisted racism and white supremacy in CanLit in order to challenge, reject, or transform the field. M. NourbeSe Philip, for instance, laments the debates and controversies of the past few years, particularly as
[t]here was no reference to that earlier debate that had raged across Canada’s literary community; indeed, there was no attempt to contextualize the discussions within the relatively recently lived history of the Canadian literary community itself, further cultivating even greater erasure around socially important issues, particularly those related to racism. (104)
The eight pieces assembled for this forum mark a small effort to return to that “recently lived history” by reflecting on Scandalous Bodies’ achievements, limits, and continued contributions. How have our articulations and readings of ethnicity, race, diaspora, and Indigeneity transformed in the twenty intervening years? Do we see anything redeemable in CanLit? Where Kamboureli sets her argument against a vision of settler “nativism” at the turn of the century, how does her focus on diasporic and ethnic subjectivities conflict with Indigenous expressions of nationalism? How do we read Kamboureli’s eclectic selection of texts, her movement between the texts of government policy and literature? Why does she not include a conclusion? How have changes in the labour market transformed how we think of intellectual labour, particularly as many of our brightest minds are excluded from these discussions by virtue of their tenuous employment?
Each of the contributors to this forum marks, in their own way, the import of Scandalous Bodies to their thinking. Kit Dobson and Libe García Zarranz note the prevalence of scandal in the present time of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with the emergence of new biopolitical regimes. For Zarranz, Kamboureli’s use of “negative pedagogy . . . driven by the ethical imperative to practice responsibility” offers a model for criticism and teaching alike. In his contribution, Dobson reflects on the etymological and theoretical relations of scandal and embodiment to expand Kamboureli’s framework to non-human animals and the environment. My own contribution to this forum echoes Dobson’s and Zarranz’s critique while investigating the relationship between ethnicity and race as well as the political efficacy of discourses of scandal.
Andrea Davis and Asha Varadharajan consider the values of Kamboureli’s engagement with multiculturalism via the language of ethnicity. For Varadharajan, the violent police killing of George Floyd, and the killing of many other Black men by the police in Canada and the US, indicates the limits of an engagement with the politics of identity and multiculturalism. In what ways, Varadharajan asks, do the discourses of identity fail to challenge the necropolitics enacted against George Floyd, Albert Johnson, Andrew Loku, Dudley George, Colten Boushie, and many others? For Andrea Davis, Black women’s writing provides a compelling archive that challenges CanLit’s imaginary as well as the community of others implicit in Kamboureli’s “ethnic” community. Davis seizes on the prevalence of the discourse of ethnicity, rather than race, in Kamboureli’s text to insist on the singular contributions and criticisms by Black women to Canadian literature.
Malissa Phung considers her own ambivalent relationship to CanLit: she wants to contribute “to finally extinguishing CanLit’s ‘dumpster fire’” even as she “never want[s] to abandon the liberating and affirmative, even if highly sedative, possibilities of foregrounding . . . different bodies and texts in the study of literature in the Canadian academy.” In a related fashion, Sarah Dowling reads Kamboureli’s attention to bodies, and her use of the figure of the angel of history, as emblematic of a particular critical vision wherein we “retroactively grieve the vulnerability of particular bodies” and “lament the violence of history.” Both Dowling and Phung consider what it means to write critically in a manner that does not “abstract ourselves from the wreckage” of our field and history, but, rather, writes from within the “cultural and political syntax of our communities” (Dowling).
Finally, in her conversation with Smaro Kamboureli, Myra Bloom explores Scandalous Bodies’ method, its goals, and how Kamboureli reads it today. Bloom’s reflection opens up the analysis of the text’s legacy into a broader conversation about the field of CanLit. Together, Kamboureli and Bloom explore “the trend of sociological approaches to literature” and the import of close reading to contemporary criticism. Their conversation also marks a rare opportunity to read two critics in CanLit engaged in serious, sustained discussion of the field and their work.
This forum is a small gesture towards historical thinking in Canadian literature and an effort to connect today’s debates and concerns to the work of the past. Scandalous Bodies is an important text, but my hope is that this conversation leads to discussions of equally important works: Daniel Coleman’s White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada (2006), Rinaldo Walcott’s Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada (1997), George Elliott Clarke’s Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (2002), M. NourbeSe Philip’s A Genealogy of Resistance (1997); the list could go on. To quote Brydon again, “[t]he questions proliferate, and there is thinking to be done” (25).
I would like to sincerely thank Myra Bloom, Andrea Davis, Kit Dobson, Sarah Dowling, Malissa Phung, Asha Varadharajan, Libe García Zarranz, and Smaro Kamboureli for their careful thinking, wonderful writing, and important provocations in this forum. Their contributions open new pathways and raise important questions; the strength of this forum is a result of their excellent work. Thank you also to Christine Kim and everyone at Canadian Literature for making this forum possible.
Brydon, Diana. “It’s Time for a New Set of Questions.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 71, 2000, pp. 14-26.
Elliott, Alicia. “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” Open Book, 7 Sept. 2017, open-book.ca/Columnists/CanLit-is-a-Raging-Dumpster-Fire. Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.
Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford UP, 2000.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. Bla_k: Essay and Interviews. Book*hug, 2017.
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