New Correspondences

Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies begins with the chapter “Critical Correspondences: The Diasporic Critic’s (Self-)Location.” This chapter is the “other of the manifesto on ethnicity” that Kamboureli “wanted to write but never did” (1). She describes feeling that “[her] study was in search of a different author” (2), partially because both the genre of the manifesto and the content of her ethnic study prove impossible in her political and critical milieu. Describing the Canadian critical scene of the 1990s, she experiences “the various events and debates of those years as if they belonged to a ‘revolutionary moment,’ yet [she] also felt suffocated by the tendency of the sides involved to reduce them to ‘brutal simplicities and truncated correspondences’” (2, quoting Stuart Hall). Kamboureli’s struggle to resist these simplicities, to read the present historically, and to embrace the productive power of turbulence while refusing essentialisms, strategic or otherwise, is familiar to us today.

In the shadow of her manifesto on ethnicity, we get a different mode of criticism, one which reads the articulation of diasporic identities and cultural differences as “not a simple joining of two or more discrete entities” but a continued “transformative move of relational configurations” (Brah 110). Kamboureli employs her own “Diasporic Critic’s (Self-)Location” to challenge the pervasive “denial of complexity” (2) of identity, enunciation, representation, location, text, and interpretation. This mode offers relief to her (and our) “personal and academic weariness” that results from “the seemingly tangible gap that separates academic discourse from social reality” (2). Her opening chapter is thus a self-reflexive navigation of her own complex positioning as critic and public intellectual that begins by posing the questions to scholars and writers alike: “[W]ho are we? Whose interests do we represent beyond our own academic interests? Who do we write for, and why?” (2).

These difficult questions are still with us: how do critics, particularly in the field of Canadian literature, use their training to not merely discuss and describe but to intervene in public life without resorting to reductive simplicities or polysyllabic posturing? Thinking about our field today, how do we offer complex and historically minded analyses of CanLit that are attuned to the necessary critiques of the past few years? Part of my interest in Kamboureli’s work, twenty years after its publication, lies in her struggle to find a way out of this bind through her diasporic framework of “critical correspondences.” Rather than surrender the signs of Canada or CanLit, she rewrites them through a series of “transformative move[s]” (Brah 110) that break “the hold that nativism has on Canadian literature” (Kamboureli 8) and instead inscribe diaspora, ethnicity, and difference as frames that render the project of CanLit both legible and unfamiliar. Reading her work today, I ask: How do we position ourselves in relation to the critical discourses and debates of the past? What forms of “Relational Knowledge” (168) and kinds of correspondences have Canadian critics taken up in the twenty years since Scandalous Bodies was first published and how do we self-locate today? How has the lexicon of our criticism transformed and how does that change the stakes of our critical engagement?

Scandalous Bodies is the product of an era, and one detects the assumptions and possibilities of that era in the text. Kamboureli writes from a position of institutional security that is simply not a reality for many of today’s critics. As I read, I wonder; who is not speaking and how have neoliberalism and precarity silenced the correspondences of generations of critics? Similarly, Kamboureli’s method, a sort of philological approach that reads texts socially and society as text, maintains a critical distance that may be less common in today’s more activist-minded criticism. She thus describes Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire “as a complex text that gave me both the distance and the proximity I needed to read Canadian multiculturalism” (21).1 Does this simultaneous distance and proximity still appeal to us or do we, feeling the effect of living in perpetual “emergency time,” eschew critical distance in order to attend to the urgent political questions that animate Canadian criticism today?

In many ways, Scandalous Bodies, along with a number of other texts, helped to break the hold of two dominant trends in Canadian criticism, what Frank Davey in 1992 identified as the “aesthetic/humanist ideology” (13) of Canadian criticism and a competing “nationalist” (13) ideology. For instance, Sam Solecki, writing one year before Kamboureli, attacks what he calls the “soft or postmodern multicultural attitude,” namely the view that “all value judgments are relative . . . and all cultural artefacts are equally important or of equal value and relevance. No centre, no margin, no majority, no minority, everything and everyone of equal value and significance” (24). Solecki’s coded defence of a white vision of Canadian literature is precisely the sort of nonsense that subsequent critics have challenged.

I have been in correspondence with Scandalous Bodies since first reading it in the early 2000s. Indeed, one of the first things I realized in my present rereading was the extent to which my own criticism of Canadian multiculturalism is indebted to Kamboureli’s thinking. I was also struck by Kamboureli’s adroit movement between the texts of government policy, journalism, theory, public debate, and literature. Yet I also notice that the discursive aspects of Kamboureli’s “texts” appear overdetermined; Kamboureli wants discourse to do a lot. I wonder how a more materialist approach to the events of the Writing Thru Race conference, the Oka standoff, or the history of residential schools might have pulled Kamboureli’s analysis away from the discursive.

Diaspora is a key term for linking, disseminating, corresponding to a range of voices that enables Kamboureli to unravel the Gordian knots of identity and articulation, discourse and action. Less a mobile army of metaphors and more a framework of comparative difference, she theorizes and practises how the “constant disjoining and relinking of the chain of events that constitutes diasporic experience” (38) transforms not only diasporic subjectivity but also seemingly stable conceptions of nation and ethnicity.

Yet Kamboureli’s opening discussion of Benjamin’s angel of history and her rereading of that figure in Wings of Desire needs to be tempered by recent analyses of the import of place and the continuing power of nation to structure diasporic and national imaginaries alike. What spectral logic links the Janus-faced figure of diaspora with the resiliency of nationalism? When Gilroy argues (Against Race 2000) that diaspora “offers a ready alternative to the stern discipline of primordial kinship and rooted belonging” (123), he resists, like Kamboureli, the grip of “nativism” on culture and identity. Yet, in the twenty years since Scandalous Bodies’ publication, Indigenous attention to the importance of place and “rooted belonging,” postcolonial assertions of other, resistant modes of nationalism, as well as differentiation between voluntary and forced migrations, have challenged the focus on hybridity and the mobile subject.2

Further, for a book concerned with bodies, Kamboureli is primarily attuned to the body as discursive, symbolic, imaginary; the language of ethnicity that pervades the text obscures the differences between racialized bodies. She draws on Fanon, for instance, to interpret the white supremacist gaze depicted in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, yet we must also consider the differences between how Black and Asian subjects are imagined within that scopic frame. Fanon is not describing the act of diasporic or “racial interpellation” (Kamboureli 187) in a general sense but, rather, the corporeal alienation, the “amputation,” “excision,” and “hemorrhage” of Black embodiment experienced within the “racial epidermal schema” (Fanon 112). As the activism of Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and a range of recent scholarship have all shown, diasporic and racialized bodies are managed, disciplined, and attacked according to how they are racially imagined within a white supremacist schema.

While the language of ethnicity in Scandalous Bodies does not fully develop how settler colonialism and white supremacy function complementarily in Canada, the text does provide a compelling framework with which to think about how citizenship is embodied and racially differentiated. Kamboureli has mapped the terrain that has made many subsequent analyses of race and white supremacy in Canada possible. Further, if the “scandal” of embodied ethnicity has shifted in recent years, there remains a continued “effort to force the national imaginary to confront multiculturalism through body images, images already racialized and ethnicized” (Kamboureli 89). How, then, do today’s politics of inclusion and diversity, so readily co-opted by capital and government alike, reinforce the “sedative politics” (82) that Kamboureli discerns?

A return to Kamboureli’s analysis of the “sedative politics” of multiculturalism, and the continued scandal around race in Canadian writing, historicizes today’s emergent fascism to reveal its roots in past polemics against the inevitable failures of multiculturalism. The angry voices that accused multiculturalism of silencing a white majority now find their views reflected in calls to “Take Canada Back” and in more extreme articulations of xenophobia and racism. Yet, Kamboureli is also carefully attuned to the productive power of official and critical multiculturalism to both manage difference and to reframe citizenship and nation from the margins. We see that productive power when Kardinal Offishall insists “I am multiculture” or in Maestro’s “Black Trudeau,” where he rewrites the script of Canadian identity from the vantage of the Black diaspora. Thus Kamboureli’s careful reading of both the productive and repressive power of multiculturalism goes beyond simplistic conceptions of “the facade of equality and multiculturalism” (Wang 149) or the “lie” (Walcott 396) of Canadian multiculturalism.

Kamboureli’s analysis of “scandal” is also helpful for us today, particularly as scandal itself has become something of a routine mode of engagement in contemporary criticism (fuelled, no doubt, by social media). The rise of the discourse of scandal suggests a shift away from once-vaunted critical distance towards immediacy and timeliness, or is it presentism? Certainly the scandals of Canadian literature are real; they are significant and they merit extensive analysis and material change in our critical, professional, and personal practices. Scandalous criticism has demonstrated its capacity to call out, to identify, to demand change. But how far can a criticism of scandal take us? How can it resist being erased by yet another scandal or being co-opted by institutions via public acts of symbolic repentance? What avenues of transformation or reconstruction are closed off when scandal or outrage become our default modes of engagement?

In this respect, perhaps one of the most provocative and promising aspects of returning to Scandalous Bodies is to query scandal as a critical mode and to refuse to surrender the sign of CanLit to a singularly scandalous reading. Kamboureli’s philological, “elliptical” (Beauregard 145) approach enables her to carefully attend to the subtle, conflictual, and productive dimensions of CanLit as signifier and discourse. For instance, in her analysis of criticism of Frederick Philip Grove, she acknowledges that while “the development of Canadian literature as Canadian has been integral to the political and cultural discourses constituting Canadian identity,” it is also “this kind of negotiation of imperial and colonial signs, of complicity and resistance, of metropolitan aesthetics and cultural differentiation, that refuses Canadian literature the immutability” (35, emphasis mine) of a fixed signifier.

In place of the singular reading of CanLit as scandal, her analysis predicts Karina Vernon’s recent comments that “[n]ot only is there a genealogy of struggle in CanLit, there is a genealogy of struggle as CanLit. What I mean is Canadian literature as a critical discourse” (14, emphasis original). The criticisms of the past few years have demonstrated the many failings and scandals of CanLit, yet the work remains to uncover this genealogy of struggle. Joshua Whitehead offers the image of CanLit as “a collection of mirrors that have amalgamated into a reflective system spelling out nationalism—a whole thing rather than a web of fractures” (164). This is certainly one formation, but the critical task implied by Vernon, Kamboureli, and others is to dispel the illusion of the mimetic or “reflective system spelling out nationalism” and instead uncover the “web of fractures” that lies beneath.

If Scandalous Bodies marked, for many of us writing today, one beginning of how to read Canadian literature against the grain, centring racialized writers and bodies while gesturing towards work that remains to be accomplished, then how might we continue to read the “genealogy of struggle as CanLit”? Another way of thinking about this is if CanLit truly is in ruins, we might see those ruins as also “the threshold of what Canadian literature has become since those ‘strangers within our gates’ took it upon themselves to cross the boundary separating those who are silenced, who are written about, from those who give voice to themselves” (Kamboureli 132). If we are on such a threshold, then how do we develop a critical practice that historicizes; that reads the world textually, but not just as text; that puts race, diaspora, Indigeneity, land, gender, and embodiment into troubled dialogue while also recognizing the partiality of one’s own view and the need to listen and learn? Kamboureli offers one model, via the experience and framework of diasporic dislocation as an eclectic method of engagement that refuses strategies of containment and instead pushes beyond the “Manichean delirium” (Fanon) of the nation and diaspora, CanLit and its other.


1 The protagonist of Dionne Brand’s novel Theory, Teoria, insists that “[a]ll my life I’ve sat at an angle, observing the back and forth of other people’s lives. . . . I excelled at finding just the right distance from actions and conversations” (6). Brand’s satirizing of academia, and theory in particular, undercuts scholarly fascination with “finding just the right distance.” Brand’s book is such a fantastic trap for academics that any interpretation inevitably renders us the punchline of her joke.

2 See, for instance, Pheng Cheah’s Spectral Nationality, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Indigenous Resurgence and Co-resistance,” Daniel Coleman’s “Indigenous Place and Diaspora Space,” Rey Chow’s Writing Diaspora, or David Chariandy’s “Postcolonial Diasporas.”

Works Cited

Beauregard, Guy. “Nation/Transnation.” Review of The Americas of Asian American Literature, by Rachel C. Lee, and Scandalous Bodies, by Smaro Kamboureli, Canadian Literature, no. 169, 2001, pp. 144-47.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. Routledge, 1996.

Brand, Dionne. Theory. Knopf Canada, 2019.

Chariandy, David. “Postcolonial Diasporas.” Postcolonial Text, vol. 2, no. 1, 2006, Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Cheah, Pheng. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. Columbia UP, 2003.

Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Indiana UP, 1993.

Coleman, Daniel. “Indigenous Place and Diaspora Space: Of Literalism and Abstraction.” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 61-76.

Davey, Frank. “Poetry, Audience, Politics and Region.” Canadian Poetry, no. 30, 1992, pp. 13-14.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, Grove, 1967.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Harvard UP, 2000.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford UP, 2000.

Kardinal Offishall. “The Anthem.” The Anthem, One Man Music, 2011.

Maestro. “Black Trudeau (Rap Prime Minister).” Orchestrated Noise, Universal Music, 2013.

McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Indigenous Resurgence and Co-resistance.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 19-34.

Solecki, Sam. The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy. U of Toronto P, 1999.

Vernon, Karina. “CanLit as Critical Genealogy.” Canadian Literature, no. 239, 2019, pp. 13-17.

Walcott, Rinaldo. “The End of Diversity.” Public Culture, vol. 31, no. 2, 2019, pp. 393-408.

Wang, Phoebe. “Visions and Versions of Resilience: Mentoring as a Means of Survival.” McGregor, Rak, and Wunker, pp. 149-56.

Whitehead, Joshua. “Writing as a Rupture: A Break-Up Note to CanLit.” McGregor, Rak, and Wunker, pp. 163-68.

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