Thinking through Modes of Production
When our Editor-in-Chief Christine Kim graciously agreed to let Sarah-Nelle and me write this editorial, she was interested in our perspective as graduate students on the production of Canadian Literature. As PhD candidates in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia (UBC), we bring different experiences to the production of both the journal and the field of CanLit. The term production registers different modes of meaning: as an action of manufacturing raw materials, as a process of management, and as a larger project of providing ideas for consideration. When I was hired to work at the journal, I became involved in the first mode of production, as I began coordinating the journal’s social media presence, assisting in the administrative workflow, and organizing CanLit special events.1 But as a graduate student working on contemporary Canadian and British women’s writing, when I think about production, I come back to the labour involved in the last mode and CanLit as a broader intellectual project. My research is deeply concerned with the ethics of disruption and how we navigate the tension between inherited socio-political spaces and our own sometimes disorienting experiences. Jody Mason’s contribution to this issue touches on this latter mode of production as well, as she asks readers to consider “the material conditions of knowledge production, dissemination, and reception” in teaching literature produced on or about the lands known as Canada (139). For me, then, producing CanLit is fraught with questions about how to ethically and mindfully navigate the material conditions of both the journal, as a potential institution of power, and CanLit as an intellectual project more generally.
Putting an issue of the journal together involves managerial and administrative choices that affect the dissemination and reception of the journal; the way I perform those tasks is always informed by the labour involved in scholarship’s constant negotiation of multiple ethical concerns and responsibilities. During my candidacy process, I’d read Sarah Banting’s “If What We Do Matters: Motives of Research in Canadian Literature Scholarship,” where she suggests we “position ourselves rhetorically as knowledge-makers, as scholars who are working hard to always improve our collective critical understanding of important texts and phenomena” (32). As part of the intellectual project of knowledge production, we are taught to enter into and “attempt to shift, define, and exemplify” (41), ethically, our values and responsibilities as a community of scholars. Positioning myself as a knowledge-maker means critically understanding the different ways institutional power shapes our processes of knowledge production. This connects with Richard Ohmann’s work on the way canons are shaped, and how, historically, literary objects and theories become canonized because they receive “the right kind of critical attention” (206). In being a part of the production of Canadian Literature, I’m cognizant of the politics involved in producing an enduring object of study that, on the one hand, helps promote our collective critical understanding of important texts and phenomena about Canada and, on the other, canonizes the right kind of critical attention through the production process.
While, as Sarah-Nelle suggests below, in CanLit and other fields, literary value is closely tied to the reproduction of whiteness and other forms of privilege, we attempt to use CanLit and Canadian Literature as a platform to shift, question, and challenge those spaces of privilege and preconceptions of legitimized critical inquiry. In my interview with Junie Désil, we explore the experience of Blackness and how the figure of the zombi(e) disrupts white, historical, privileged narratives (which includes naming and questioning my own privileged perspective as a white settler born on the lands known as Canada). Along another line of inquiry, Neil Querengesser’s contribution to this issue considers how Alice Major’s poetics of ecological catastrophe addresses the ways in which “a disproportionate number of peoples affected by the current global crises are non-white, colonized, and otherwise globally disadvantaged” (38). Querengesser’s investigation of language, meaning, and pedagogy resonates with my own concerns (as many of the articles in this issue do) about the ethics of knowledge production as he maps out the residual effects of “imperialist and colonial activities” (45).
As graduate students, we are quite familiar with the research, writing, and editorial processes of producing knowledge. In my first year of the PhD program, I participated in an article workshop. CanLit’s former editor, Margery Fee, was my faculty mentor. During the workshop, she patiently guided my essay through revisions, looking for an argument that would contribute something new to the field. I was looking at Margaret Atwood’s production of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, developing a narrative about the communal efforts of research and production assistants, readers, and editors, in the form of a gift economy, in which Atwood’s literary output is located. In Payback, Atwood approaches debt as a metaphor, thinking about how different kinds of relationship are established through economies of reciprocity. Debt, for Atwood, becomes about responsibility, balance, and interconnectivity. Margery was interested in my approach, but after a few revisions had to break the news that I didn’t really have an argument. I was narrating Atwood’s process, discussing how amazing it was that the book-length lectures were produced in just under six months, while uncovering Atwood’s wit and managerial style in the archival research I’d done. But the volume of Atwood’s literary output isn’t really news. Margery pointed me towards Lorraine York’s Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. I read it, sighed, and abandoned the essay when the workshop was over.
A couple of years later, I submitted a revised conference presentation to a special call for papers at another journal. It was rejected. I sent the article and review letters to my mentors for advice. Reviewer 1 was kind, offering a generous “Revise and Resubmit” along with advice on restructuring the essay and streamlining my argument. One of my mentors scoffed at the damning report from clichéd Reviewer 2 (a clear “Reject”), asking if they’d even read the article. It was good to have insight from my mentors that softened (and interpreted) the referee letters. But, alas, an R&R and a Reject meant the editors couldn’t accept my article. Still, I was grateful for the feedback and experience, and wrote to thank the editors for the time and energy that went into the peer-review process as well as their thoughtful, encouraging, and constructive feedback.
Both the navigation of my ethical responsibilities as a scholar and my own work as a knowledge-maker informed my sense of scholarly publishing when I was hired to work at Canadian Literature. And, relying as it does on the contributions of many individuals, the production of each issue calls to mind Atwood’s notions of debt and other critical conversations about indebtedness and gift cultures. It’s not unusual to describe these gift economies in academia with the term service, or required labour and a necessary evil that supports our research, but service work in the context of a gift economy is an integral part of the intellectual project of knowledge production. Although, in many ways, gift cultures have been co-opted by the encroachment of capitalist corporatism in the university, in her review of Lewis Hyde’s work, Atwood describes this co-optation as the crucial dilemma of “how to maintain yourself alive in the world of money when the essential part of what you do cannot be bought or sold” (“Trickster”). While we must always be mindful of how we contribute to the canonization of literary objects, approaches, and perspectives, what Hyde describes as “the emergence of community through the circulation of knowledge as gift” (131) is fundamental to the production of many scholarly journals and publications.2 This ideal is often at odds with the actual mechanics of knowledge production. As an aspiration, however, it reiterates the goals of community values and ethical concerns we attempt to produce and reproduce through the circulation of knowledge within the community we create of authors, mentors, and readers.
We should foreground these goals each time an issue of Canadian Literature comes together and each time we contribute to CanLit as an intellectual project. The labour involved in the different modes of production requires that we maintain ambivalence about the status of CanLit and Canadian Literature as institutions of power while at the same time we attempt to improve our critical understanding of what Canada means or what it means to be Canadian or how identities tied to those categories develop. By circulating knowledge as a gift, we can collectively draw on our diverse experiences as ethical readers, thinkers, writers, interpreters, and advocates to shape future critical understandings and possibilities. Doing this work will ensure that what we do matters and comes to shape the different ways we can think about what the “right kind of critical attention” might mean for the intellectual project of knowledge production.
As a copy editor for Canadian Literature, I can’t help but turn an editorial eye to the journal’s title. A term of nationality, Canadian signals a relationship between person and place that Canada, a place in question, struggles to fulfill. To account for Canada’s existence, John Borrows contends, one “might as well speak of magic crystals being sprinkled on the land as a justification for the diminution of Aboriginal occupation and possession” (563). As place, the phenomenon of Canada rests on a legal claim that is difficult to account for; even to formally acknowledge one of the many legal orders that predate the Canadian common law, as Val Napoleon points out, constitutes “a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the western legal system” on these lands (154).3 Those of us who think and work with Canadian texts—literary or legal—must confront the reality that, in Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s words, Canada “takes a great deal of work to maintain” (xii), and that this work resides in the continual dispossession of Indigenous peoples. If a Canadian is a person whose relationship to place serves colonial dispossession, what does a literary tradition produced and enshrined by Canadians do beyond culturally reinforcing that dispossession?4
This pause over Canadian-ness will sound familiar to CanLit scholars, so I should admit that I am not a scholar of Canadian literature; I’m a medievalist. I came to Canadian literature and Canadian Literature in an elliptical way, finding remarkable the settler-colonial ethics of place and arrival alternately outlined and implied by scholars such as Borrows and Napoleon. The courts’ inability to account for Canadian sovereignty constitutes a limit of imagination, its dispossessive effects the inverse of Daniel Heath Justice’s decolonial call to “imagine otherwise” (210). Settler difficulties with land acknowledgement and reconciliation are, accordingly, not incidental but fundamental. I began my doctoral study at UBC because these ethics, such as they were, bemused me. How long has strategic forgetting, or unimaginative unaccountability, been a tenet of what would become the settler-colonial imagination? Where can we see tactical irrelation develop as a Eurowestern political strategy? By tactical irrelation, I mean the process by which people are abstracted from the places they occupy, becoming mobile and in some sense fungible: a precondition, in my view, for the transplant of people that is central to settler colonization (see also Moreton-Robinson 30-31). I asked and still ask these questions as an above-defined Canadian at a Canadian institution, and I turned to medieval English literature with an interest in possible futures for the lands currently known as Canada. But Canadian literature remains for me unclear and imprecise.
Oddly or appropriately, my trajectory toward CanLit began in closer-than-usual proximity to the Crown. The summer of 2019 saw me travel to London, England, to consult a late medieval English manuscript with the support of UBC’s Shakespeare Research Travel Grant. During that trip, I emailed a fellow medievalist, Tarren Andrews, about contributing to the special issue of English Language Notes that she and her then-supervisor, Tiffany Beechy, would be editing. The issue’s theme was Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts, and while I’ll spare Canadianists a plunge into the rigours of medieval studies,5 many of the problems Andrews raises in her introduction speak to CanLit, too: she asks, for example, how “the fraught history of medieval studies, with its ties to imperialism and role in colonialism, complicate a sincere coalition with Indigenous studies and Indigenous scholars,” and cautions against settler and other scholars taking up such questions “without much (if any) Indigenous input” (1-2).
Taking part in Andrews and Beechy’s volume was challenging and exciting. As I worked on what I hoped would be my first article, I saw for the first time, fleetingly and in a deadline-induced fugue state, the collaboration that scholarly writing production entails. Andrews’ guidance and editorial synthesis were generous and acute, and my reviewers’ comments were insightful and constructive. (As in Sharon’s case, Reviewer 2 proved much more skeptical of the article’s merit than Reviewer 1.) Unexpectedly, too, I was struck by the copy editors’ comments. The notes and corrections from Christopher Mazzara and Ellen Leach filled me with mild chagrin, but also admiration, aspiration, and pleasant surprise. A long-time freelance editor and one-time communications assistant, I had held academia and copy-editing as distinct career paths, insofar as academia still qualifies as one. Besides still more chagrin when Mazzara later found a tortuous coordination error afflicting a clear half of my endnotes, I also felt vocational hope.
Two years later, when Sharon encouraged me to apply for the role of Canadian Literature’s assistant to the editor-in-chief, I was preparing a syllabus that engaged, finally, with Canadian literature. This late encounter was spurred in part by the long list of absences in Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue, a place-based poem whose narrator glimpses, however peripherally, early Canadian settlers’ dispossessive irrelation: “How do you grow a past/ / to live in” (35)?6 Soon, I had brought to the question of Canadian literature two niche, arguably unpalatable interests. The first was Seed Catalogue, for which few students shared my enthusiasm. Finding Kroetsch’s efforts vain in more than one sense, they preferred Jan Zwicky, Dionne Brand, and the more direct disruptions to the bounds and limits of Canadian and literature we encountered in Elizabeth LaPensée and Michael Sheyahshe’s third, futurism-themed volume of Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. The second niche interest was copy-editing.
Working with Christine Kim and the scholars who write for Canadian Literature, together with my colleagues Sharon, Emma Gilroy, and amanda wan, has allowed me to cultivate those same facilitative, sharp-eyed skills I admired in Mazzara and Leach. This work brings its fastidious pleasures: moving a misplaced comma, say, or fighting—valiantly, I like to think—the ever-encroaching tide of academic scare quotes. But even those of us who enjoy such emendations should pause over them. Copy-editing is prescriptive by nature, evoking and reinforcing race- and class-based hierarchies of correctness, its necessity belied by that heyday before standardized spelling when, for instance, Geoffrey Chaucer could render cushion as “qwisshin.” Editing to a house style such as CanLit’s relieves some of these faults: a matter of preference and ongoing discussion, house style reflects descriptive, contextual coordination, not idealized universalism. In my job interview with Christine and Donna Chin, our tireless managing editor, I often repeated the word precision. Through niceties of grammar and style, as well as more substantive questions of clarity and organization, I hope to help contributors communicate as precisely as possible their negotiations of Canadian literature. CanLit itself may be imprecise, but that imprecision can foster creative and scholarly imagination within, beyond, and in spite of Canada.
As Sharon’s synopses above suggest, each article in the present issue takes on identity and imprecision in Canadian literature. Drawing twentieth-century French existentialism together with postcolonial discourses of exile, Ric Knowles develops a theory of refugee theatre to illuminate the ambivalence of escape and arrival in the work of Ahmad Meree, a Syrian refugee and playwright. In “Performing the Divided Self: The Refugee Theatre of Ahmad Meree,” Knowles contends that Meree’s theatre at once entertains and confronts its settler audiences. It is before and in spite of these audiences, within and despite Canada, that Meree “has chosen to write and perform himself into meaning” (74). Eleanor Ty similarly explores the pressures of racialized and gendered cultural narratives in “Asian Canadian Graphic Autopathographies,” a study of Kimiko Tobimatsu and Keet Geniza’s Kimiko Does Cancer and Teresa Wong’s Dear Scarlet. Both graphic memoirs document not only the difficult process of being-inhabiting a newly ill bodymind, but also the “influential ideologies” of success, health, womanhood, and the model minority that each author wrestles with in her gradual, irresolute process of recovery (82). Finally, Sherif H. Ismail considers identity and relation in a climatological key. Reading Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal, he brings Dipesh Chakrabarty’s controversial notion of “species history” to bear on the bonds humans share with Neanderthals and asks how these bonds might pertain to Earth’s more-than-human past, present, and future.
As a journal led by non-Indigenous scholars that explores how Canadian identity creates and contests itself through literature, Canadian Literature cannot resolve the alchemical fiction of Canada any more than CanLit as a literary category or Sharon and I as individual settlers can. Following the authors in the present issue, rather, we might take the aporia of CanLit not as a problem demanding resolution, but as a potentially fruitful space to face Canada’s inherent tensions and contradictions. As readers, scholars, and editors of Canadian literature, we might seek to build on past successes and failures of those similarly situated—not to settle questions, but to be transformed by them.
- When I was hired in early 2021, I also quickly became involved in the process of updating the workflow of the journal’s production, including our knowledge base and student-staff manuals, and managing our websites. Additionally, I helped renew the journal’s print design and logo with the assistance of a student from the UBC Arts Amplifier program. It was through this program that Sarah-Nelle and I first worked together on another project and where I learned about her editorial experience.
- I balance Hyde’s optimism about the gift with what Sianne Ngai describes as ugly feelings, cognizant of how entitlement can seep in around the edges of gratitude and expectation as well as how rage, alienation, paranoia, irritation, anxiety, and complaint can challenge hierarchies of assumed power and break down exclusionary narratives of community.
- Borrows explains Crown title in alchemical terms: “A society under sovereignty’s spell is ostensibly transformed, for use and occupation are found to be extinguished, infringed, or made subject to another’s designs” (558). Five years after Borrows’ article, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that “Canada’s [sic] Aboriginal peoples were here when Europeans came, and were never conquered” (para. 25), in the same sentence taking Canadian sovereignty as a given.
- In a forthcoming article, Emily McGiffin draws on Tiffany Lethabo King and Katherine McKittrick to advocate greater engagement with Black Canadian studies in the premises and framing of such questions—and such halves of editorials.
- Suffice it to say that medieval studies can also be, to borrow a phrase from Alicia Elliott, a “dumpster fire” (93; see Rambaran-Olm).
- I want to acknowledge my wife, whose inspiration has been vital: they are an avid reader of Indigenous legal scholarship and an effortless memorizer of prairie poetry.
Andrews, Tarren. “Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts: An Introduction.” Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts, special issue of English Language Notes, vol. 58, no. 2, 2020, pp. 1-17.
Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. House of Anansi Press, 2008.
—. “Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art.” Los Angeles Times, 25 Jan. 1998, latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-jan-25-bk-11790-story.html.
Banting, Sarah. “If What We Do Matters: Motives of Research in Canadian Literature Scholarship.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 42, no. 3-4, Sept.-Dec. 2016, pp. 27-64. Project MUSE, doi.org/10.1353/esc.2016.0019.
Borrows, John. “Sovereignty’s Alchemy: An Analysis of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, Fall 1999, pp. 537-96.
Elliott, Alicia. “CanLit Is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, Book*hug Press, 2018, pp. 93-98.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Vintage Canada- Random House, 1983.
Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018.
Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch, U of Alberta P, 2000, pp. 29-46.
LaPensée, Elizabeth, and Michael Sheyahshe, editors. Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. Vol. 3, Inhabit Education Books, 2020.
McGiffin, Emily. “Transatlantic Extractions in Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return.” Canadian Literature, no. 253, 2023, forthcoming.
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. U of Minnesota P, 2015.
Napoleon, Val. “Delgamuukw: A Legal Straightjacket for Oral Histories?” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, vol. 20, no. 2, 2005, pp. 123-55.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2007.
Ohmann, Richard. “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975.” Canons, special issue of Critical Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 1, Sept. 1983, pp. 199-223. JSTOR.
Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “A Wrinkle in Medieval Time: Ironing out Issues Regarding Race, Temporality, and the Early English.” New Literary History, vol. 52, no. 3-4, Summer/Autumn 2021, pp. 385-406.
Supreme Court of Canada. Haida Gwaii v. British Columbia (Ministry of Forests). Supreme Court of Canada, 2004 SCC 73, scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/ item/2189/index.do.
York, Lorraine. Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. U of Toronto P, 2013.
As the current Marketing, Communications, and Outreach Coordinator at Canadian Literature, Sharon Engbrecht is interested in many aspects of the journal’s management. While they are currently completing their PhD in English literature at the University of British Columbia, their work at the journal has led them to explore the project-management side of literary production.
Sarah-Nelle Jackson is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, where she researches medieval English literature, environmental humanities, Indigenous legal studies, and game studies. In her dissertation, “The Troublesome Erthe,” she traces the Middle English word erthe (“earth”) across texts that narrate imperial failure and crises of human–non-human governance.
Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.