Inventer la vie

In her preface to Trans.Can.Lit, Smaro Kamboureli describes Canadian literature as “a troubled and troubling sign” that is “never fully released from the various ways it is anchored” and, yet, possesses the potential to “disturb and alter the conditions that affect it” and thereby “point . . . to an elsewhereness that is not yet legible.” Eleanor Ty and Kit Dobson explore this tension in their respective projects as they productively complicate and expand the idea of an “anchored” Canadian literature, and bring important attention to what Ty describes as the everyday “social dimensions of globalization.” Both authors advocate a critical approach to movement in order to foreground a diversity of affiliations, subjectivities, and forms of agency and belonging that are often elided by fixed points of reference.
In Unfastened, Eleanor Ty makes a compelling argument for the need to rework the terms “Asian Canadian” and “Asian American” in relation to millennial literature. She suggests that such descriptors, which locate the nation at the centre, do not speak to the heterogeneity or multiple available identifications within communities marked “Asian” in the global era. For Ty, the 1990s marked a shift from autoethnography and “realist narratives” to what she terms “Asian North American narratives”—or, writing that multiplies the relations and diversifies the concerns and potential responses of Asian subjects through the use of postmodern techniques, elements of the fantastic, and alternate forms of expression and mobility.
The six chapters, grouped thematically into three sections, explore the interplay of desire and cultural expectation, feelings of inadequacy, and concrete barriers to inclusion, as well as the violent, evasive, complicit, and “playful” responses of Asian diasporic characters to the interconnected, and often limiting, structures of nation-state and global capitalism. Refusing to position Asian diasporic subjects as “fatalities of globalization,” Ty has chosen cultural texts that feature displaced characters who are affected by the unequal power structures of globalization yet have “handled, negotiated with, manipulated, and even enjoyed their mobility in a globalized world.” Writers such as Brian Oley, Lydia Kwa, and Ruth Ozeki are foregrounded, as are representations of global sex trade workers, children of migrant workers, and men and women living with disabilities. While Ty effectively demonstrates how physical, psychic, and social mobilities have multiplied the spaces, relations, and concerns addressed in Asian North American literature, some of her most compelling examples reflect a continued tradition of anti-racist work. The writers, their characters, and the critic, herself, challenge reflexive associations of certain characteristics, traditions, spaces of belonging, and even “tactics of subversion” with gendered, racialized, and ethnic subjects by defamiliarizing these very aspects. That this work of “unfastening” interpretive categories is an ongoing, mobile project is suggested by her Coda, where Ty proposes the term “Asian global” to describe narratives that do not easily fit within existing paradigms, thus opening up space for further mobilization.
Albeit with a different emphasis, Kit Dobson similarly seeks to “rescale” and multiply the possibilities of Canadian literature in Transnational Canadas. Divided into three parts, each with its own introduction and conclusion, Dobson creates a genealogy for the emergence of transnational writing in Canada—one that unfolds chronologically based on how “discourses of nationalism shift.” Drawing together Marxist thought, poststructuralism, Indigenous, and transnational feminist theory, Dobson suggestively argues that it is not possible to think about “literature or culture . . . outside of the system of economic exchange”; a transnational approach to writing in Canada must instead “think through capitalism” in order to consider whether and how difference can be articulated amidst forces of deterritorialization and reterritorialization.
Citing the 1951 Massey Commission’s position on the paucity of a national literature as a jumping-off point for discussion, Dobson retraces and deepens key debates surrounding the intersection of the nation-state, capital, and global flows in the production of literary culture and subjectivity. Part One takes up Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and its criticism to contemplate the possibility of a “deconstructive politics of responsibility” that remains open to alterity and sees transformative potential in nonreductive alliance. Dobson maintains that, while writers of the centennial period imagined forms of national cohesion in opposition to the forces of global capital—namely, American imperialism—their work also demonstrates a concern for the failure of a fixed national identity to open up a space of belonging for its citizens. Part Two traces how the 1980s inaugurated the increased publication of “racially marked writing”—especially when such writing affirms how the nation imagines itself. Novels like Obasan and In the Skin of a Lion, once considered “radical” for bringing recognition to elisions of race, ethnicity, and class, are now often faulted for not contesting the basis for the “imagined nation” in the same way that texts such as Jeanette Armstrong’s Slash do. Although collusion with dominant culture is a risk of gaining visibility and voice within the public sphere, postcolonial writers continue to enact their difference. The “flexible subjectivity” of Roy Miki’s poetic practice in Surrender and examples of “critically considered movement” present in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For represent acts of resistance to forces that seek to stabilize identities within the nation. Dobson argues that it is through various forms of situated mobility that the potential for a “politics of alliance that remains open to difference” might be found.
While the expansiveness of the terms “Asian global” and “Transnational Canadas” risks turning openness to alternative meanings into a greater obfuscation of meaning, Ty and Dobson’s use of these terms provocatively challenges scholars, teachers, and students to consider the implications of “unfastening” our own reliance on terms for interpretive certainties and to remain open to the relations that live within and just beyond our critical scope.

This review “Inventer la vie” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 147-147.

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