Reconceptualizing Canadian Generalists

The five articles in this issue pose intriguing questions about archives, storytelling, ways of knowing, language, and metaphor as they examine Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, Jordan Scott’s poetry, and Don McKay’s The Book of Moonlight. As a general issue, there was no set of questions for these articles to respond to, and consequently no expectation that there would be a shared focus. The range of scholarship is demonstrated through the subjects, texts, critical approaches, genres, and themes with which the authors engage. And yet, there are still many rich overlaps and common lines of inquiry that run through these articles—mutual lines that are suggestive for reflecting on the field of Canadian literary studies and its connections to other scholarly fields. Reading these articles together reveals how scholars are thinking alongside each other (although not necessarily with each other) about mutual interests that span transnational sites, genres, and critical approaches. It also offers a way of conceptualizing the field of Canadian literary studies at this moment.


Focusing on moments of critical coherence is a very different method for approaching the field than most of us have been trained to perform. Such a method compels us to question how we are to define the field of Canadian literature and, moreover, what constitutes the position of the Canadianist. Such an endeavour returns us to questions about how we are to understand the relationship between what we teach in the classroom, the material we research and produce scholarly writing about, our critical approaches (which often extend beyond national borders), and how we define the field of Canadian literary studies itself. Other issues include how we perceive our scholarly and pedagogical interests as being in dialogue with or different from other scholars in the field.


The field of Canadian literature, like many others, has been under immense pressure to understand its relevance, value for students, relation to the discipline of literary studies and other coterminous fields, and how it engages with the contemporary social context. That these are old rather than new questions is part of what makes them intriguing. Writing two decades ago, Barbara Godard asked us to interrogate Canadian literary studies by employing a Bourdieusian analytic: “the lived social relations of ruling, taken-for-granted understandings, and practices of the everyday—that interact dynamically to compose ‘the field of cultural production’” (209). From this critical perspective, Godard argues against an objective knowing of the field that presumes to grasp it in its totality:


There is no such thing as a “complete” diagram in the representation of a given field. Maps rarely halt and contain but gesture toward continuations and/or disjunctions. The visibility of relations, the inclusion or exclusion of positions and details, depends on the scale of the map in question. A different scale of analysis, from greater distance or proximity, leads to a shift in focus and a new map. As a surveyor, my perspective is not detached from the field under analysis but positioned within it and implicated in the shifts in critical stance I have outlined. (241)


In this essay, Godard remarks upon the changing geopolitical contexts for reading Canadian literature, noting that the field was institutionalized during the Cold War but that she writes in an era of global capitalism. Despite these changing circumstances, however, there still remains a persistent “‘geografictional’ (van Herk) imperative in Canadian literature discourses” (211).


Is a Canadianist defined by their comprehensive knowledge of canonical material designed to centre Euro-Canadian subjects through narratives of settler colonialism and nationalism? This presumed knowledge of dominant Canada and its literature has long shaped the field, even as there have been many debates over canon formation, the relations between the so-called centre and margins of Canadian literature, and strategies for decolonizing the field. For instance, this presumption operates as a guiding principle for doctoral field examinations and reading lists as we seek to assess the candidate’s ability to teach in the field or demonstrate mastery of it. This continues to be true even when our own classrooms are often preoccupied with very different concerns or even make use of different reading practices. Laura Moss poses this problem in a 2006 editorial for Canadian Literature when she asks, “Am I being responsible to the rich history of Canadian literature if a student I work with hasn’t read Susanna Moodie, A. J. M. Smith, Don McKay, or Joy Kogawa when he graduates? How much does literary history play a part in the literary future?” (7-8). The same year, M. G. Vassanji raises similar questions about an author’s place within the field as he notes that writers are often preoccupied by the question of for whom they write and what the category Canadian means to readers. Questioning the work this critical category performs, Vassanji observes that the general sentiment regarding migrant writers is to “[g]ive them the space, this is a tolerant country: but are they truly, completely Canadian?” (12). The exclusionary dimensions of such understandings of Canada and Canadian literature are obvious, and Vassanji argues instead for a more dynamic conception. Such a conception accounts for changes to the Canadian literary landscape by including the histories and stories that migrants carry with them: “Canadians have fought not only in the World Wars, but also in the wars of liberation of Africa, Asia, and South America . . . The stories of the Jewish Holocaust, the holocausts in Rwanda, the Partition of India, and the massacres of Cambodia are also Canadian stories” (Vassanji 12).


Moss and Vassanji identify ways in which the desire to reproduce the status quo tends to be articulated, as well as the structures that enable this tendency. In light of these issues, we might ask, What space exists for scholarship that pushes us in different directions, such as that of Indigenous literary scholars whose focus moves throughout Turtle Island instead of remaining only Canada? Or Black studies scholars who engage with literary production that circulates throughout multiple diasporas including Canada? What about critical debates about gender, sexuality, disability, or refugeeism, to name just a few, that exceed national parameters but are of crucial importance to Canada and Canadian literature? What do these different ways of moving through and working with Canadian literature suggest about the ever-widening gap between the dominant fiction that this field, or perhaps any field, is a thing to be reproduced and our experiences as teachers and researchers that show us otherwise?


Following Stuart Hall’s insight that the archives of diaspora are living archives, we can theorize Canadian literary archives in terms that emphasize their unfinished and open-ended nature (89). For Hall, archives “always stand in an active, dialogic, relation to the questions which the present puts to the past; and the present always puts its questions differently from one generation to another” (92). Thus to centre
questions of Indigeneity, migration, gender, and sexuality, for instance, is to legitimate perennial questions about power, privilege, and nation in relation to how we engage with the archives of Canadian literature.
Given the dearth of new faculty positions in the humanities, these kinds of questions about the shape of the field are being asked with increasing urgency in conference panels as well as workshops on professionalization held by departments and professional organizations. It is becoming increasingly clear that hiring committees cannot simply hire to reproduce the field as it once was or was imagined to be. Instead, Canadian literary studies must seriously consider where emerging scholarship in the field is directing us and reframe existing critical conversations and reading lists. The dynamism of the field, as it negotiates forces that both demand and resist change, also compels us to reflect upon the terms of knowledge production for Canadian literary studies.


In the space that remains, I want to draw attention to some of the overlapping directions taken by the articles in this issue. In so doing, I ask us to consider what might come out of reframing these overlaps as what I want to call an intimate dialogue, in the sense of being both personal and proximate. Here I extend Lisa Lowe’s methodology of reading the “processes of settler colonialism, slavery, and imported colonial labor” as “coeval” (20) in order to hold the different lines of critical inquiry represented by these articles within the framework of Canadian literary studies. Bringing together historical phenomena and creative texts that are more often read discretely, such a method offers an opportunity to recognize intimacies between conversations that are not always immediately apparent. This method does not assume that work within this
field is determined by national paradigms or literary traditions that connect generations of writers and thinkers. Instead it asks what critical energy drives engagements with Canadian writing. In other words, what kinds of questions is Canadian literature helping us think through and with?


The essays by Walter Villanueva on Soucouyant and Melanie Braith on Kiss of the Fur Queen share an interest in examining the institutional structures of healthcare and residential school. The archives Villanueva and Braith investigate compel us to note the labour of carework undertaken by individuals, often to compensate for the cracks in institutional infrastructures. The lack of support for children with disabled parents is a topic that Villanueva addresses while he “approach[es] Adele’s disorder as a literal medical condition . . . to explore how her caregiving needs affect not only her but also those around her.” But as Allan Isaac argues in Filipino Time, his book on the contracted labour performed by Filipino migrants, we must recognize the psychic and material demands particular to care labour. Unlike other forms of contracted labour, “[c]are work is not repetitive, mechanical, skilled labor housed in the factory. Other and more human capacities, especially the capacity to dream and improvise, are called upon to be used and developed to do care work effectively” (Isaac 10). Similarly, through a reading of archival materials related to Kiss of the Fur Queen, Braith helps us understand the kind of work Jeremiah performs as he cares for his brother when Gabriel is on his deathbed. Isaac’s point that carework constitutes a form of “creative labour” as it forms relationships (16) resonates with the arguments made by Braith and Villanueva as they explore the everyday lives and labours of caring sketched out in Kiss of the Fur Queen and Soucouyant.


If we read the contributions by Braith, Joon Ho Hwang, and Eric Schmaltz together, questions about secrets begin to emerge. Braith’s essay on Kiss of the Fur Queen addresses how the abuse Jeremiah and Gabriel experience in residential school and the secrecy surrounding it harm their kinship relations. It is only through aniskwâcimopicikêwin, which “literally means ‘the process of connecting stories together,’”1 that Jeremiah is able to “make meaning of his own experience while reclaiming a story from a tradition that the residential school tried to suppress.” In his reading of Jordan Scott’s Lanterns at Guantánamo, Schmaltz outlines the many restrictions to which Scott is subjected before and during his visit to the notorious US offshore detention camp, as well as the limits that these restrictions place on the poet’s ability to represent his experiences of the prison. The mode of secrecy shapes Lanterns at Guantánamo. “Without actual images of torture and violence,” Schmaltz observes, “Scott’s photographs point to these elements of Guantánamo, leaving us to imagine the various forms of violence that the state uses to coerce speech from prisoners who are unwilling to speak.” Secrecy also determines ways of seeing and knowing in Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, and Joon Ho Hwang’s essay focuses on the structures of power that determine how outsiders see North Korea. Hwang argues that while Delisle has the uncommon opportunity to challenge our perceptions of North Korea as an outsider who was permitted to visit the country, Delisle’s work unfortunately often tends to reinforce stereotypes of North Korea. These three essays enable us to interrogate the tension between what Ma Vang describes in her work on Hmong histories and refugee epistemologies as the tension between what is secret and “what has been silenced” (24).


Kevin Tunnicliffe’s essay on Don McKay reads The Book of Moonlight as “a two-way dialogue” between McKay and Wallace Stevens. He focuses in particular on their use of metaphors such as the moon and moonlight, arguing that “metaphor poses a question as to the limits and uses of language.” Metaphor is also an object of Braith’s attention as she considers the interpretive problems it poses for the audiences of Jeremiah’s play. In this instance, “[t]he audience is not able to reconcile testimony and the Cree custom of metaphor and does not understand that the metaphor is part of the active engagement that Indigenous storytelling asks of the audience” (Braith). For both Tunnicliffe and Braith, metaphor directs our attention to the limits of communication and asks us to imagine how we might move beyond these limits. Metaphor is also a point of discussion for Villanueva who pushes against what he sees as a trend in scholarship of “metaphorizing Adele’s mental condition.”




1. Here Braith cites McLeod, Indigenous Poetics (8).


Works Cited

Godard, Barbara. “Notes from the Cultural Field: Canadian Literature from Identity to
Hybridity.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 72, winter 2000, pp. 209-47.

Hall, Stuart. “Constituting an Archive.” Third Text, vol. 15, no. 54, spring 2001, pp. 89-92.

Isaac, Allan Punzalan. Filipino Time: Affective Worlds and Contracted Labor. Fordham
UP, 2021.

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke UP, 2015.

McLeod, Neal. Introduction. Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by McLeod. Wilfrid
Laurier UP, 2014, pp. 1-14.

Moss, Laura. “Playing the Monster Blind? The Practical Limitations of Updating the
Canadian Canon.” Canadian Literature, no. 191, winter 2006, pp. 7-11.

Vang, Ma. History on the Run: Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies.
Duke UP, 2021.

Vassanji, M. G. “Am I a Canadian Writer?” Canadian Literature, no. 190, autumn 2006,
pp. 7-13.

This editorial originally appeared in Canadian Literature 248 (2022): 5-10.

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.