On Feeling History and Emerging Otherwise

For this handover issue, our outgoing editor Laura Moss wrote the call for papers and oversaw the initial stages of the submission process for these four peer-reviewed essays and interview. I am grateful to her for setting up this special issue as well as for her support during this transition period. It is fitting that this issue should mark a conclusion of sorts to Laura’s tenure as editor given her strong commitment to mentoring junior scholars. This issue on emerging scholars is the third one that the journal has published under her leadership, following Emerging Scholars (no. 226) in 2015 and the double issue Emerging Scholars 2 (no. 228-229) in 2016. The CFP for Emerging Scholars, Redux indirectly references this sustained focus on emerging scholars when it notes many of the changes that have taken place around the world and within Canadian literature since that first special issue came out five years ago. Moss explains the impetus for turning to emerging scholars by observing that “We seem to be living in a state of sustained urgency. Urgent times prompt us to want to hear from emergent voices.” Since the submission date for this special issue closed at the end of January 2020, the rhetoric of urgency has become even more pervasive in Canada as we have been hit by the first and second waves of COVID-19 and experienced the deepening of social and economic crises. Given these conditions, it seems particularly important to ask what exactly it means to designate something or someone as emerging, and, moreover, what work this does for the field of Canadian literature.

In Canadian Literature’s inaugural emerging scholars issue, the category of the emerging was largely taken up in terms of graduate students and how they are trained to enter into scholarly debates. Most of the editorial for that issue was written by two emerging scholars, Sheila Giffen and Brendan McCormack, who were then PhD students in the UBC English Department working at the journal. They write about the expectations to produce groundbreaking scholarship, and note that such scholarly goals ingrain within us a tendency to “tur[n] away from a critical genealogy of thought in order to more decisively clear the way for innovation” (8). The colonizing dimensions of this metaphor of clearing the ground in order to produce new knowledge are impossible to overlook. But such an approach is also troubling because it assumes that new scholarship is valuable for its radical difference from the past, and this assumption limits our ability to recognize how the new often replicates what has come before it. Giffen and McCormack’s editorial leaves us with important questions about how students are trained in the field of Canadian literary studies, in terms of the methods and debates they are taught to be conversant with, how they enter into them, and the ways in which they learn to assign value.

The conflation of the emerging with the new also poses challenges for reading practices. As a field, we need to pay attention to which voices and concerns tend to get characterized as emerging and the kinds of feelings, politics, and forces that are typically described as urgent. To work through this, I turn to Raymond Williams’ categories of the emergent, the residual, and the dominant. With these terms, Williams gives us a vocabulary useful for understanding the complex ideological tensions within a particular moment. The residual is Williams’ term for the past and he uses it to emphasize that the past is not passive. Rather, he argues, while the residual was “formed in the past . . . it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). Williams also demands that we think about newness in more nuanced terms as he points out the difference between the new and the oppositional, or as he puts it, what is “emergent in the strict sense, rather than merely novel” (123). The residual and the emergent mark different phases of culture even as they are always intertwined with each other. In this way, the new directions that emergent culture point us in are always actively produced through their relations to residual and dominant culture. While the emergent and the residual are useful critical tools that name the dynamic relations between past and present, they do not explain the mechanics of what propels the emergent or walk us through what the emergent might do. How, for instance, might the emergent come to influence or even challenge the dominant social order? Williams provides some direction on how we might answer these kinds of questions when he tells us that if we want to better understand his cultural categories of the emergent, the residual, and the dominant, we need to engage with what he calls structures of feeling (127). Through this prompt, he directs our attention to the “affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought” (132). I read Williams’ emphasis on the need to account for affect and relation in our understanding of culture and its construction as arguing that embodied knowledge is central to the work of cultural transformation, and this is an insight that carries tremendous power these days.

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a good example of Williams’ concepts as her recent Giller win marks her as a talented emerging writer for many, even though, as Beth Follett notes in her contribution to a forum published in this issue, Thammavongsa is not a new writer. That she has only recently come to the attention of a dominant public is evidence of how poets and small publishers are “under the radar of mainstream media, even while we build up and reinforce the very ground that is Canadian literary culture,” as Follett puts it. Thammavongsa’s work has long written against implicit expectations of what refugee texts sound like. Her spare and brilliant book of poetry Found shares insights about what it means to enter the world through refugee and migrant histories while preserving the details and dignities of those subjects. Thammavongsa’s recent book of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, continues this approach by writing about refugees and the children of refugees but refusing to fulfill dominant expectations of how these stories should look. Instead, Thammavongsa’s stories showcase the desire to be loved and acknowledged by telling us about an older woman having a sexual reawakening, the indignity of being passed over for a promotion in favour of a teenaged boy, the loneliness of a mother whose daughter has grown up and left her behind, and a woman remembering her mother who left years ago and her father’s refusal to grieve because he had done that when he became a refugee. These are, in other words, stories about everyday individuals who are marked by residual histories but not wholly determined by them. This forum on Thammavongsa’s work was curated by Vinh Nguyen and it includes the perspectives of editors and booksellers who have known the author since before the publication of her first book of poetry; critics working in Canada, the US, and Asia who read her work for its tremendous beauty and contributions to Southeast Asian diasporic literatures; and a piece called “There Are No Prizes” by Thammavongsa. In many ways, Thammavongsa is an apt illustration of what Lisa Lowe means when she argues that we can often only recognize the emergent in hindsight and not as it is actually emerging (19). And in other ways, Thammavongsa’s writing can be seen as residual as it shows how “elements of the past . . . continue, but are less legible within a contemporary social formation” (Lowe 19).

Over the past few years, there have been many debates in Canadian literature about the continued marginalization of BIPOC, LGBTQI2S, and female voices. These questions about power, and perhaps more importantly about empowerment, have continued to demand our attention during these pandemic times. I am interested in looking closely at the multiplicity of emerging voices and forces and asking how they capture the attention of various audiences. Or to put it another way, how do the emergent and its readers come to form a structure of feeling? And for whom? This question of emergent intimacies is especially pertinent given how the imbalances of social power have become even more pronounced over the past year. For instance, the violent policing of Black lives has impacted Canadian post-secondary institutions, and many departments tried to formulate public statements against racism earlier this year. These actions happened as multiple forms of violence continued to be inflicted upon Indigenous peoples. We can think here about how the video of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam being assaulted by the RCMP sparked public outcry in June at the same time that protests were being held across Canada in support of Black Lives Matter. Other forms of racism have also increased; in places like Vancouver, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen by 878% in 2020 (Kotyk). And in addition to these forms of physical violence, many Indigenous peoples and racialized Canadians have become even more vulnerable during the pandemic because their access to health care is limited, they work as caregivers or in other front-line positions, or are at heightened risk for other structural reasons.

I want to return once more to Raymond Williams to examine the structures of feeling in contemporary Canada in order to ask whether they might be changing and new dimensions may be emerging. If structures of feeling give us a means of thinking about “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” (132), then this is perhaps another way of asking how the meaning of racialized and Indigenous life in Canada can be felt differently, a question that many people have been grappling with for a long time now. And I want to suggest that one way that structures of feeling can be transformed or perhaps emergent structures can come into being is through the recognition of experiences of oppression and common feelings. I am thinking here of Korean American poet and critic Cathy Park Hong’s description of the flash of recognition that she felt when watching Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert for the first time:

It may be odd that I also felt a “shock of recognition” when I first saw Pryor. But watching Pryor reminded me of an emotional condition that is specific to Koreans: han, a combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and U.S.- supported dictatorships that have never been politically redressed. Han is so ongoing that it can even be passed down: to be Korean is to feel han. (54)

In my Korean diasporic literature class this semester, we talked at great length about the specificity of this emotion and what it might mean for Hong to equate han with Koreanness but also to recognize that han or something akin to it may be felt by non-Koreans. During these conversations, we explored structures of feeling as particular to peoples and tied to histories and places, and as shaping how we enter into conversation. Tiffany Lethabo King also writes about being transformed when she experienced what Hong calls the “shock of recognition.” For King, listening to an Anishnaabe woman’s story changed how she understood Black slavery and who she understood herself as being accountable to as the story “unmoored and disassembled me in ways that I and others did not expect” (ix). Hong’s and King’s anecdotes illustrate how powerful new insights can emerge when we feel histories, and how these can reorient the kinds of critical knowledges we seek to produce.

This special issue draws attention to emergence as a cultural process that involves complex negotiations with histories, institutional powers, and communities in a few different ways. We have essays by four emerging scholars, Shannon Claire Toll, Orly Lael Netzer, Geoffrey Nilson, and Charlotte Comtois, that engage with contemporary Canadian literature and film in English and in French. Fred Wah’s interview with Nicholas Bradley discusses the recursiveness in Wah’s writing, a process of returning to earlier writing and reframing it that resonates with the dynamics of emergence. New also to Canadian Literature was a virtual poetry reading held in November organized by Phinder Dulai. Under the title of “Verse Forward: Poetry on the Front Line,” Dulai brought together Kevin Spenst, Isabella Wang, Fred Wah, and Jillian Christmas to read their poetry, which spoke to themes of home, race, identity, and the environments in which we live. We are grateful to these poets, whose words and performances created a sense of much-needed community during the pandemic. A selection of their poems is featured in a special section of this issue. In addition to these poems, we also have poetry by John Barton, Yuan Changming, Bill Howell, Jen Currin, Kenneth Sherman, and Camille Lendor.

To think about emergence in Canadian literature is to reflect upon mutual histories, illegible presences, and the terms of recognition, amongst other matters. And it is to ask, what might happen to our conceptions of Canadian literature if we stopped seeing marginalized writers and critics as new and instead recognized the long histories from which they emerge? These are questions that I hope future submissions will take up as the journal continues to engage with Canadian literary and cultural work as well as the power dynamics and structures that influence how we read it.

Works Cited

“Call for Papers for a Special Issue on ‘Emerging Scholars, Redux.’” Canadian Literature, 29 Oct. 2019, canlit.ca/call-for-papers-for-a-special-issue-on-emerging-scholars-redux/. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Giffen, Sheila, and Brendan McCormack. “What’s New?” Editorial. Canadian Literature, no. 226, 2015, pp. 6-15.

Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World, 2020. King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies.

Duke UP, 2019.

Kotyk, Alyse. “Anti-Asian hate crime incidents rose by 878% compared to last year, Vancouver police report says.” CTV News, 29 Oct. 2020, bc.ctvnews.ca/anti-asian-hate-crime-incidents-rose-by-878-compared-to-last-year-vancouver-police-report- says-1.5166754. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke UP, 2015. Thammavongsa, Souvankham. Found. Pedlar, 2007.

—. How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.

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