Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings

I belong to a privileged group of non-Canadian scholars of Canadian literature. I have a degree in English from the University of La Laguna (Spain), an MA in European Studies from Keele University (UK), and a PhD in Canadian literature from the University of La Laguna, where I work as a professor today. Why Canadian literature? People often ask me. I could reply that I had always felt attracted to Canada, or that I found the field fascinating. But my honest answer often is: Well, it was there for me. After taking courses in English (from England) and American literatures, I had become interested in a new and exciting field. I had gone to Madrid to attend my first conference on Canadian Studies and my PhD supervisor was fully involved in the creation of the no-longer-existing Spanish Association for Canadian Studies. There were study grants and research grants. During the 1990s, as I was writing my PhD thesis, I received a Government of Canada Pre-doctoral Award so that I could spend an academic year at the University of Toronto. Other important pre- and post-doctoral research grants followed both from the Canadian and the Spanish governments that paved my way towards specialization and moved my research forward, providing me with invaluable access to texts and experiences, and facilitating conversations and interviews with writers, professors, and critics. I visited Canada almost every year.

I still do. And I remain very grateful for all the opportunities. But, after a period of uncertainty and increasing cuts, the Canadian government funding—the specific programs designed to promote Canadian Studies abroad and help international scholars and students to conduct their research in Canada—has altogether disappeared. In the past thirteen years, my frequent research visits have been exclusively facilitated by the government of Spain through the funding of a series of multi-year collaborative international research projects on Canadian literature which I have designed and directed.1 But, since they do not have access to such sources of funding, fewer and fewer young researchers choose the field today and present doctoral students tend to move away from Canadian Studies into areas where they are given research opportunities.

Global Readings
It is in that critical context that the call for papers for this special issue made all the more sense as it implicitly probed the state of Canadian literature outside national boundaries. In their collected volume Beyond “Understanding Canada”: Transnational Perspectives on Canadian Literature, editors Jeremy Haynes, Melissa Tanti, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York assert the importance of looking at “transnational CanLit scholarship in the aftermath of its defunding” (Haynes et al. xii). The essays in that collection draw on a Janus-faced notion of transnationalism, proving that looking at CanLit as transnational literature does not only rescale the field by positioning it firmly in global arenas that necessarily exceed national imaginaries, as Kit Dobson has done, for instance, in Transnational Canadas. That is a demand that comes from the very literary texts since the stories are increasingly global. Such a process of rescaling also involves the consideration of highly diverse global communities of readers with equally diverse contexts and frameworks of interpretation. Rescaling in this sense means recontextualizing, establishing the value of Canadian writing on a different scale, shifting the site of reading to look at texts from new critical lenses. While it is now commonly accepted that Canadian literature has become a global literature, implying that any understanding of textual localities is traversed by vectors that exceed, complicate, and extend the nation in literal and metaphorical ways, the gaze is seldom reversed and little attention has been paid to the role of international scholarship in the current transformation of the field.

Much has been written in the past decade about the need to open the national category to the porosity of the prefix trans—pushing institutional and disciplinary boundaries and reorienting critical discourse on Canadian literature. Smaro Kamboureli does this most notably in her critical work of the past decade, an important line of research initiated by the publication of the edited collection Trans.Can.Lit. Striking a parallel note, Diana Brydon and Marta Dvořák put forward the metaphor of crosstalk as a “framing device” to investigate the capacity of different imaginaries to interact and “create complex forms of interference” (Brydon and Dvořák, 1). As several critics have pointed out, critical work by non-Canadian scholars remains crucial to those developments for various reasons. Firstly, it provides a “multi-positioned glimpse of a national literary culture in the very act of being transnationally consumed, represented, contested, commodified, and much else” (Haynes et al. xvi). Secondly, it “acknowledges the shift in Canadian literary discourse away from the thematic performance of ‘Canadianness’ and instead toward the pursuit of self-knowledge within
a body politic that includes and exceeds those residing in Canada” (Haynes et al. xxv).

With those ideas in mind, our Call for Papers posed a series of important questions: How are Canadian texts read and circulated beyond the national borders? What is the place of Canadian literature in the institutional spaces of universities outside Canada? How do those transnational contexts negotiate the relationship between texts and readers? Are there defining differences in the ways non-Canadian scholars approach CanLit? How does transnational scholarship influence, challenge, enrich, and rescale Canadian literary production?

In Spain, some previous work has been done in the directions marked by our CFP. Most notably, the collected volume Made in Canada, Read in Spain, edited by Pilar Somacarrera, assessed the circulation and reception of Canadian texts in Spain, including the questions of translation and university curricula. This special issue planned to continue and expand that type of work by inviting scholars of Canadian literature from around the globe to engage critically with any aspect of Canadian literary production, dissemination, or reception.

We sent the CFP to all international Associations, Centers, and Programs of Canadian Studies abroad. We shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and I also personally contacted potential contributors. However, submissions were not very numerous, and, unfortunately, several of those articles submitted did not pass the peer-review process. That this was so should open a space for reflection on the situation of Canadian Studies as an international field. The articles in this issue certainly bring to view the two-way direction of reading and writing Canadian literature globally, demonstrating the porosity of transnational scholarship as well as advancing innovative perspectives that may contribute to the rescaling of the field.

Investigating the figure of Robert Kroetsch outside a strictly Canadian context, and most particularly from an American perspective, Simona Bertacco’s “Rescaling Robert Kroetsch: A Reading across Communities, Borders, and Practices” brings to light insufficiently explored connections between regionalism and postmodernism both in Canada and the US. Kroetsch’s literary aesthetic and technique, and especially his long poems, have much in common with American poetry of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet current institutional frameworks of reading, still often constrained by national categories, have prevented his writings from achieving prominence south of the border. Bertacco draws on Stephen Voyce’s notion of poetic community to look at the role of Kroetsch, both as a writer and as a critic, across three different literary communities that transcend national borders: the group of writers, artists, and critics around the theoretically-oriented journal Boundary 2; the Canadian prairies community of writers and readers; and the innovative Black Mountain poets led by Charles Olson in the US and its Canadian counterpart, the TISH movement, on the West Coast. This article positions Kroetsch’s work at the intersection of North American literary traditions and vindicates its decisive contribution to postmodern experimentation both in Canada and the US. This is what a literary rescaling looks like.

Bertacco mentions the popularity that Robert Kroetsch has enjoyed in Europe, although this strand is not pursued in her article. That is in fact the case, especially in Germany, where Kroetsch was often invited to give lectures and teach at universities. Interestingly, I have found nothing in the way of a comparative perspective between Kroestch’s work and contemporary German literature.

While contemporary Canadian literature is taught and read in many European universities, comparative studies are still very scarce. It is precisely that lack that Anna Branach-Kallas’ “Trauma Plots: Reading Contemporary Canadian First World War Fiction in a Comparative Perspective” implicitly aims at addressing by offering a panoramic study of Canadian WWI writing in the wider transnational context of war literature. Looking at the representation of trauma within that global framework opens up promising lines of research: such as the idea that Canada’s WWI texts show a distinct emphasis on telling what was happening beyond the trenches and a tendency to break the masternarrative of glory and heroic sacrifice by paying attention to the role of marginalized voices in the war (be they women, people with disabilities, or Indigenous characters). Rescaling Canadian literature relies here on a self-conscious exercise of zooming out to then zoom in again and see new things, other ways of reading, the presence of larger issues.

Ecology and Indigeneity often interact with each other, raising some of the most global issues today. Ana María Fraile-Marcos’ “‘Who’s going to look after the river?’: Water and the Ethics of Care in Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle” reflects on those two vectors as they touch and intersect in King’s novel. The focus is on the role of water as a multivalent trope: used, on the one hand, to criticize extractive economies, and, on the other, to articulate and propose an ethics of care where Indigenous and feminist paradigms can cross roads and move forward in collaboration. Following Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, the reading is diffractive, meaning that the emphasis is on the points of interference, entanglement, and interaction between knowledges. Fraile-Marcos then takes a step further and looks at Gitxsan scholar Michael Blackstock’s Blue Ecology as diffractive, in that it combines Western and Indigenous approaches to water, balancing them out against each other. In contrasting and probing worldviews on the environment in King’s novel, this article implicitly highlights the potential of transcultural interdisciplinary readings of Canadian literature. The analysis offered is also necessarily global because the issues discussed are prominently so.

Tereza Virginia de Almeida’s short study of Leonard Cohen’s work as Neo-Baroque compositions is fascinating. She starts off with a personal note about the special resonance of Cohen’s work in Brazil to then propose a highly creative reading of his life, music, poetry, prose, and even drawings. The project takes the Canadian author for an unusual trip through two interconnected notions: the Cuban Severo Sarduy’s the ellipse and the French Gilles Deleuze’s the fold. Cohen’s inclination towards elliptical images—his tendency to leave things unsaid—sets the grounds for multiple readings according to also multiple, transnational contexts of reception, where unexpected meanings emerge. I look forward to hearing more of this Brazilian Cohen.

“Language and Loss in Michel Rabagliati’s Paul à Québec and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles,” by Andrea King and Kristiana Karathanassis, offers another kind of comparative framework. Working within Canada, the authors compare illness narratives across language and genre to consider Michel Rabagliati’s Paul à Québec (2009) and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me (2010). Looking at the debilitating effects of cancer and Alzheimer’s, respectively, the article shows how the interplay of visual and written language can tell the story of a life that ends in disease.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hsiu-chuan Lee’s interview with Madeleine Thien is how, discussing the use of history and memory in Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the writer talks about a sense of vulnerability that is global, and therefore shared by all, wherever we are. For instance, the history of the Cambodian genocide is also our history, Thien says, since it “is inextricable from the repercussions of American policies and decisions.” Transnational at its core, Thien’s intricate interdisciplinary method exploits the possibilities of human empathy at this global level, while insisting on paying attention to the specificities of the different contexts of living, writing, and reading. In reference to one of the characters in the novel, Thien defines the work of a compiler as someone who carries “bits and pieces, take[s] on the weight, the burden, and carr[ies] them from place to place until they exhaust themselves and hope that someone else will pick up those things and keep carrying them.” Reading literature globally becomes a compiler’s job. I hope that the readers of the following articles take up this suggestion and find reasons to carry their words elsewhere. This issue opens the space for those possibilities as it contributes, however modestly, to the rescaling of CanLit.


1    My most recent funded projects are “The City, Urban Cultures and Sustainable Literatures: Representations of the Anglo-Canadian Post-Metropolis” (FFI2010-20989) and “Justice, Citizenship and Vulnerability. Narratives of Precarity and Intersectional Perspectives” (FFI2015-63895-C2-1-R). I also direct the international group “TransCanadian Networks” (FFI2015-71921-REDT). The three projects have been generously funded by the Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (Government of Spain).

Works Cited

Brydon, Diana and Marta Dvořák. “Introduction: Negotiating Meaning in Changing Times.” Crosstalk: Canadian and Global Imaginaries in Dialogue. Ed. Diana Brydon and Marta Dvořák. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012, pp. 1-19.

Dobson, Kit. Transnational Canada: Anglo-Canadian Literature and Globalization. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009.

Haynes, Jeremy, Melissa Tanti, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York. Introduction. Beyond Understanding Canada: Transnational Perspectives on Canadian Literature. Ed. Melissa Tanti, Jeremy Haynes, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York. U of Alberta P, 2017, pp. xi-xxvi.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Preface. Trans.Can.Lit.: Resituating the Study of Canadian Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli and Roy Miki. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007, pp. vii-xv.

Somacarrera, Pilar, ed. Made in Canada, Read in Spain: Essays on the Translation and Circulation of English-Canadian Literature. Versita, 2013, pp. 10-20.

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