Scandalous Bodies at Twenty: An Interview with Smaro Kamboureli

The following interview took place over email between September 28 and October 8, 2020 in Toronto.

Myra Bloom: You begin Scandalous Bodies by describing your struggle to position yourself as a Greek Canadian scholar within the political/ disciplinary landscape of Canadian culture and criticism. This is a question you revisit again, through an explicitly decolonial lens, in your introduction to an issue of University of Toronto Quarterly (vol. 89, no. 1, 2020) that you recently co-edited with Tania Aguila-Way. There, you explore what you call the “aporia of solidarity: affirming, enacting, and living in solidarity while respecting the incommensurability of differences and engaging with the persistent and resistant politics that render some losses grievable and others ungrievable” (“Introduction I,” 7). I want to ask how (whether?) this formulation has helped you address your own questions of self-identity, and how your self-understanding (as a scholar, citizen, diasporic subject) has evolved in the intervening years.

Smaro Kamboureli: Let me start by expressing my gratitude to Paul Barrett, Kit Dobson, and to the other contributors, for revisiting Scandalous Bodies. It’s gratifying to know that a younger generation of colleagues finds it relevant today. And my thanks to you, Myra, for the opportunity to reflect on it and my thinking in the intervening years. So, about my identity as a Greek Canadian framed in terms of my writing then and now. I don’t know where to begin, but here it goes. The aporia of solidarity may be a recent formulation for me, but my sense of the incommensurability of identity differences has always been part of my thinking, even when I was not yet able to put it into words. I was writing Scandalous Bodies in the middle of a period—the 1990s debates—that was as tumultuous and mind-changing as the one we live in now. That “moment” had a formative impact on me. By that time I had already gone through the shock of discovering that I was an other in the eyes of others, and had developed a very sharp sense of the difference and tension between being and becoming, of the “nervous state” (to echo Homi Bhabha) embodied in hyphenated identities. Perhaps the most important thing I got out of that period was the realization that I had to reckon with my ethnic whiteness and its ambivalences in ways that I had not done before. So, in one word, it’s unbelonging that defines me.

MB: Can you talk specifically about how your Greek heritage has shaped this sense of “unbelonging”?

SK: Being a Greek in the diaspora carries the brand of being an Orientalized white, for modern Greek identity is inflected by the ambivalence of being a part of and apart of the West. Greek modernity has always had to contend with the heritage of ancient Greece, the four hundred years of colonial history under the Ottoman Empire, and the European construction of Hellenism. I was conscious of this before I came to Canada, but in the course of my research for Scandalous Bodies I came across James Woodsworth’s Strangers Within Our Gates, where Greeks were described as “parasites.” That put things into perspective, which was further complicated by my accent. Funny, isn’t it? I’m stating this in the past tense, but it’s a condition that persists. I’m a white woman who can pass as a “normative” Canadian until I open my mouth. Not much has been written about the burden of accent. Rey Chow is a notable exception. She writes about Derrida’s embarrassment about his French accent—not a proper French accent apparently—and talks about how the linguistic impurity of an accent can place the speaker right on the border of discrimination.1 I always pause because there is no box I can check to declare how my accent others me in the ears of others.

More specifically about my Greek background, unlike many diasporic scholars who are embedded in their communities, and whose work often revolves around these communities, I’ve never had a close relationship with the Greek Canadian diaspora, never felt the need to belong this way. Not that I disavow my cultural background but my sense of not belonging in the Greek diaspora is mutual, for in the eyes of the Greek communities I tried to relate to in my early years in Canada, I was not a good fit either. So, who I have become as an immigrant comes from my affiliation with different communities and through friends—people of colour—whose activism has taught me, and continues to teach me, a lot. That’s how I’ve learned the rewards and discomforts of solidarity—by unbelonging, being “there” but not being one of them. I suppose this is one thing I mean by the aporia of solidarity: how to come to terms with the fact that I share a ground with others even though I know I tread on it in different shoes, that I belong, yet all the while knowing that I could be asked to step back because of my white body. So, by the time I had started writing Scandalous Bodies, I was profoundly aware of the pitfalls of essentialist notions of identity, of ethnic absolutism.

At the time, multiculturalism had already become an entrenched policy, one whose presumably egalitarian agenda was already belied by how it had been instrumentalized as much by politicians as by writers and academics. I found it ironic that all of a sudden virtually everyone was writing about what we then called ethnic authors, that the ethnic other, in all its pathologies and incommensurabilities, had become a beloved topic, while little was done to address systemic problems. It was this recognition—the scandal of it—that got me writing Scandalous Bodies.

So, that was then. Where do I find myself now? Hard to say in a few words. I find this moment to be similarly scandalous, and my sense of unbelonging remains equally pronounced, albeit in ways that are inflected somewhat differently. I believe, wholeheartedly so, in the urgency of the issues that have galvanized the field recently, but I feel I’m outside the fray of things partly because I’m not on social media and partly because I resist the righteousness that often characterizes some of the recent debates. I’m troubled by the name-calling, the rushed way people pass judgment, the implications of the new social and academic protocols that are meant to address racism, sexism, settler culture, but which often only help advance white liberalism or a culture of containment and intimidation.

MB: In Scandalous Bodies, you railed against the gap between academic theorizing and lived realities, and in his essay in this collection, Paul asks, “[H]ow 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?” (Barrett 124-25). His question is rhetorical but I’m wondering whether you have an answer.

SK: I tried to figure out this issue by writing an essay about “Public Intellectuals and Community,”2 an essay in honour of Roy Miki. Perhaps not surprisingly, the trope I used in that essay, one I borrowed from Alphonso Lingis, is also about unbelongingness. I deploy his notion of a community of those who have nothing in common to uncouple identification from community, idealism from solidarity. You see, I’m leery about idealism, about any certitude as to who might hold the right answer, or what that answer might be, to the issues that call for action. I agree with Chow that idealism has a history of violence, a violence akin to fascism: not as in Nazism but in the way Foucault describes it in his Preface to Anti- Oedipus—“the fascism in us all” (xiv) is how he puts it—the desire to dominate even though we set out to act against domination. One thing that I know for sure is that the dichotomy between theory and lived reality is false. Theory is not to be understood only as an abstract system of thought; action is already embedded in it. Perhaps it helps that I’m Greek and thus cannot but hear the word in Greek. Theory from theorein, a verb, means to look at; a theoros is a spectator. For me, then, theory is already about bearing witness, which I take to be the first step toward solidarity and action. I’m not suggesting that all scholarship is activist, but rather that what we do within the academe, even on the page, can be activist, a manifestation of solidarity. One space we all share as scholars is the university. This is our shared lived reality, and, God knows, there is still a lot of work to do within our institutions, though scholars and poets like Len Findlay, Lillian Allen, Rita Wong, Stephen Collis, and Larissa Lai exemplify, each in their own distinct way, how academic citizenship can extend beyond the university.

MB: The Canadian critical landscape has been transformed in recent years with the dumpster fire metaphors, the publication Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, and other events you have referred to elsewhere as “CanLit’s scandalous zeitgeist” (Kamboureli, “Introduction I” 18). Do you think the politics of scandal have lost their efficacy in “the age of outrage”? How does your writing/academic practice envision a different mode of critical engagement?

SK: Outrage is the right word, but I think we need to hear it as a polysemic sign. There is no shortage of things that provoke, should provoke, outrage. So, no, I don’t think scandals have lost their efficacy; if anything, they’ve gained more critical purchase. I think the way I define scandal in my book—as a sign at once of excess and transgression, of violation and indignity—still stands. What has shifted, at least in my understanding of things vis-à-vis CanLit, is that often the response to scandals is scandalous itself. Call me old-fashioned but I believe that, no matter how we think of CanLit, it is first and foremost about books. The Niedzviecki case was about Indigenous writing, but most of what is associated with the CanLit scandals as of late has to do with bodies, with the behaviour of particular individuals. I’m uncomfortable with today’s tendency to metonymize individual bodies with CanLit. And to me it’s highly ironic to call CanLit a dumpster fire at a time when it’s never been more inclusive, indeed more hospitable to debate. Not to mention that reducing CanLit to scandals, and doing so in the name of solidarity, has become a way of gaining cultural capital while foreclosing other, perhaps quieter but more productive, ways of seeking solidarity and making a difference. In other words, I think that there are alternative framings than that of dumpster fire, and I resist the assumption that any single movement, no matter its media currency, has a monopoly on the ethics of CanLit.

MB: It’s interesting that you still see books as the main substance of CanLit— lately this has felt less and less the case to me: even the sign “CanLit,” which once primarily denoted a literary corpus, has shifted to signify a “field of cultural production,” to use Bourdieu’s phrase.

SK: I’m not denying for a moment that CanLit has to be understood as an institution or as a field of cultural production. I’ve written extensively about this, the need to undiscipline the discipline, to recognize how its political unconscious is imbricated in how we profess the profession. I’ve mentioned books as just one example of why I’m troubled by some of the recent developments. Books are themselves the result of discursive processes, and they have their own materiality. If the argument that CanLit is in ruins today is based exclusively on the aberrant behaviour of some individuals, then something elemental is missing there. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s one thing to respond to a particular incident and another to conclude from such an incident that, because a CanLit author has done or said something offensive, the entire field, or their own work, is tainted. Unethical actions demand to be addressed, justice has to be served for all involved, but I don’t think this imperative can materialize by weaponizing CanLit against itself.

CanLit may very well be implicated in all this, but there is, at least in my mind, an undecidable relationship between the lives of texts and the lives of those who produce them. My role as a reader is not to police or authenticate the person behind the signature on a book. As far as I’m concerned, there is an irreducible relationship between who I am and what I do as a reader and how I behave alongside and beyond this relationship. To eliminate this gap would bring about closure, would deny the liminality of both subject positions and of texts, would mean operating from a totalizing understanding of both literature and subjecthood. If we stick for a moment longer with the lexicon of today and of my twenty-year-old book, it would be scandalous of me to respond to the compelling force of an event by relinquishing this undecidability; I would respond, yes, but I would do so not necessarily wearing the hat of a CanLit scholar.

MB: In the disciplinary context, it feels to me like the trend of sociological approaches to literature has made close reading a rare commodity. I therefore found it especially refreshing to revisit Scandalous Bodies, which scaffolds its arguments on extended engagements with specific texts such as Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh or Kogawa’s Obasan. I want to ask you about your methodology in that book, which you’ve taken some flak for. Some reviewers were unhappy with its eclecticism, calling it “unsystematic” (Christine Wiesenthal) and “a personal reading of texts” (Joseph Pivato). Paul’s essay posits that a less discursive approach would have been more effective in grounding your analysis in material conditions, including the lived experience of racialized subjects (Barrett 127). How do you answer these critiques?

SK: I’m a literary scholar, an interdisciplinary literary scholar who doesn’t want to lose sight of textuality, be it literary or critical. As to the reviews of Scandalous Bodies you mention, I can understand why Joe would find some aspects of my approach to be personal. That was when self-location became politically de rigueur for the first time. The personal elements, though, are mostly evident in the opening chapter, whose focus is on the diasporic critic’s (self-)location. As for Christine’s comment, she’s right. I make it clear from the start that, “strictly speaking, this book lacks a cohesive syntax,” that it doesn’t “present a single argument,” that it doesn’t “adhere to a single method of reading” (Scandalous xiv). I deliberately resisted a single “theoretical model or systematic approach” in order to “let specific texts give shape to my readings” (xiv). So, close reading is “the single privileged approach” (xv) in the book. But I also clarify that the kind of close reading I practise there is “not the kind that views a text as a sovereign world, but one that opens a text to reveal the method of its making, the ways in which it is the product of an ongoing dialogue between different realities” (xv). This is what I mean when I refer to the undecidable, irreducible relationship between the literary and the non-literary. Hence my contextualizing Grove and offering a close reading as much of his Settlers of the Marsh as of his lecture tours, and doing so alongside my discussion of the prison system and [Clifford] Sifton’s immigration policies at the time. That was my way of taking a canonized author outside of the canon’s domain, outing him as an ethnic writer while exposing in the process (at least I hope I did so) CanLit’s complicity. I considered that to be a useful methodological intervention that turned on its head the desire to be part of the canon at the same time that we put this canon down. And talking about multicultural fatigue and sedative politics, or engaging with the genealogy of “yellow peril” in the chapter on Obasan—these were similar critical gestures. That was how I engaged with racialization and racism.

So, I think that book has a lot to do with what Paul refers to as the material realities of racialized bodies—obviously not in the way that meets his parameters of an engaged approach, but in my own way. As for close readings, I love close reading as much as I love theory. I think close readings are a great and useful antidote to theory. In my essay “Reading Closely” about Asian Canadian writing, I reflect more extensively on the productive work that I think reading closely can do. That essay, too, got me some flak, but this is absolutely okay by me; this is how we can have a healthy debate. A colleague who criticized that essay was surprised that I greeted him warmly when I ran into him at Congress. I was taken aback by his surprise, for when I write a critique, I critique a text, not the person who wrote that text, and I guess I expect the same from others. Some of the CanLit arguments today are so personalized and so absolutist about what constitutes justice, they foreclose dialogue, they sour personal and collegial relationships, they muffle any dissent from their position. I’m troubled and saddened by this. Only once in my life I kicked a lit author out of my house who attacked me on CBC, but I was in my twenties and didn’t know any better.

MB: Curiously, Scandalous Bodies closes with an analysis of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan but does not conclude in a traditional sense. Kit Dobson suggests in his essay that the silence left by the book’s abrupt ending leaves space for the reader to initiate their own critique of dominant historical and cultural narratives. Can you talk about your decision not to write a conclusion?

SK: I must confess that what is curious for you and other readers comes naturally to me. I hate conclusions. I find them redundant and boring. And because I hate them, I find it hard to write them. Conclusions are closures; they foreclose interpretive possibilities. I’d rather leave it up to my readers to reach their own conclusions. So, Kit is right about the silence that he says comes after the chapter on Obasan; it is a silence that awaits the speech of others.

MB: In Scandalous Bodies, you draw inspiration from Walter Benjamin, who writes that “our task is to bring about a real state of emergency” (“Theses” 257) if we want to create meaningful political intervention. Speaking as we are in the middle of a pandemic, climate catastrophe, and huge mobilizations against anti-Black racism, the rhetoric of emergency certainly feels germane. Do you feel optimistic that our responses to these crises can bring about meaningful social change?

SK: Benjamin also says, in his essay “Critique of Violence,” that violence resides in the foundational moment of nation-states, that it is a product of both nature and history. This suggests to me that we cannot run away from violence. The thing is, the emergencies we’re confronted with today are not new; they have a long genealogy. I remember Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” a poem I used in my teaching to talk about how violence can change the course of history, how it gives birth to a new era by destroying another. It’s a beautiful poem about a horrible myth. But there came a moment when I couldn’t bear it any longer, never mind that I approached it through what I call in Scandalous Bodies negative pedagogy. That the rape of Leda is seen as serving the purpose of ushering in an epochal shift is not the kind of mythic or historical paradigm I can stomach. Zeus, the ruler of gods and humans, was a murderer and a serial rapist. It was a terribly unsettling and instructive epiphany, for I had grown up with these stories; they were my fairy tales.

This is a roundabout way of saying that it’s very difficult to try and put in perspective, let alone engage with, meaningfully so, all these crises, which reminds me of something Zygmunt Bauman said, that crisis is the normal state of humanity. I don’t know if it’s the pandemic that has exacerbated my sense of what we’re up against, but these days I’m not very optimistic. The murder of George Floyd, that of Ejaz Choudry, and all the other killings of Black people and people of colour by the police on both sides of the Canada- US border this past summer, the fact that such acts have long become habitual occurrences, that most of us experience the tragedies they cause and the responses they elicit only as media spectacles—all this is hard to bear.

Under lockdown this summer because of COVID-19, I felt like that woman in Dionne Brand’s Inventory who watches global violence unfold on her TV screen. I wanted to reread that book but couldn’t; it was, still is, at my office where I haven’t gone since mid-March. What makes it hard for me to be optimistic is the recognition that often what we learn from a particular crisis is not necessarily or easily transferrable to solutions that might avert another, that perhaps crisis has a way of both shocking us into action and numbing our responses. But crisis can also be extremely generative. The momentum that Black Lives Matter has garnered over this summer is a good example of this. But I recognize, too, that it’s very hard to sustain this momentum. It takes its toll; it can burn you out. Still, I don’t think we can afford to give up just because there is no end to the catastrophes surrounding us. This is where solidarity comes in.

MB: If you were writing Scandalous Bodies now, what other writers would you be considering? What texts do you see intervening in the debates about Canadian literary culture and national identity in important ways?

SK: I don’t think I would write a book about diaspora alone. Because diaspora has become so diasporized, because it’s no longer a marginal/ized field, I would put it into dialogue with Indigeneity. This is how I frame diaspora in the essay I recently wrote on the topic for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia for Literature, specifically through Lee Maracle’s (Stó:lō) poem Talking to the Diaspora. I’m interested in the intersections between diasporic and Indigenous narratives; in other words, in sites that produce literary solidarity, sites that emerge when we read these bodies of work alongside or through each other.

To answer your question more directly, there are three books I’m particularly interested in: Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, David Chariandy’s Brother, and Thomas King’s (Cherokee) The Back of the Turtle. My interest in Hage’s novel comes from my understanding that it goes against the grain of diaspora studies, particularly its primary concern with belonging. His protagonist is not the kind of other that elicits sympathy or empathy; he’s sexist, manipulative, a thief, a kind of misanthrope. How can you love or identify with a character of this sort? Not easily, if at all. And, yet, I love that character; I love him because of his resistance to belonging. So, I guess we’re back to where we started, my sense of unbelongingness.

And this is precisely one of the things that fascinates me about Gabriel in King’s novel, that he’s marked by a similar unbelongingness for reasons that complicate the unbelongingness in Hage’s text, not to mention that what plagues Gabriel’s consciousness is the ecological catastrophe he feels responsible for. Gabriel embodies disaster, yet, true to his name, he also annunciates hope. At the end of the novel he’s home but not at home, and the community he moves in and out of is one that includes a fascinating assortment of characters, including a Taiwanese family. As for Chariandy’s novel, I would look at it from the perspective of the figure of the artist, for it announces an important shift in CanLit. The figure of the artist has traditionally been a white figure. Of course Dionne Brand [in What We All Long For] has given us Tuyen, but Chariandy has given us Jelly. So, I’m interested in the figure of the artist as a Black DJ, as a hip-hop artist, who may also be queer, who says preciously little in the novel, who’s virtually homeless, but who can make community happen. The moment when he goes grocery shopping and comes back to cook a meal is so poignant. I love Jelly. So, that would be my challenge, how to bring together this cast of characters, not in the sense of “reconciliation” but in a sense that might offer some answers to the aporia of solidarity. I would go about this with Garry Thomas Morse’s (Kwakwaka’wakw) line, “the myth of being clean,” as my guidepost.


1 See Rey Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (2014).

2 See Kamboureli, “‘i have altered my tactics.’”

Works Cited

Barrett, Paul. “New Correspondences.” Canadian Literature, no. 243, 2020, pp. 124-30.

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Selected Writings: Volume I, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap, 1996, pp. 236-52.

—. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt, Schocken, 1968, pp. 253-64.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Anxious Nations, Nervous States.” Supposing the Subject, edited by Joan Copjec, Verso, 1994, pp. 201-17.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, edited by Randal Johnson, Polity, 1993, pp. 29-73.

Brand, Dionne. Inventory. McClelland & Stewart, 2006.

Chow, Rey. Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. Columbia UP, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. Preface. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. 1972. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, Continuum, 2004, pp. xiii-xvi.

Kamboureli, Smaro. “‘i have altered my tactics to reflect the new era’: Public Intellectuals and Community.” Tracing the Lines: Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki, edited by Maia Joseph, Christine Kim, Larissa Lai, and Christopher Lee, Talonbooks, 2012, pp. 182-205.

—. “Introduction I: Literary Solidarities: ‘Should I be here?’” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-22.

—. “(Reading Closely) Calling for the Formation of Asian Canadian Studies.” Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada, edited by Eva Darias-Beautell, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012, pp. 43-75.

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

Lingis, Alphonso. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Indiana UP, 1994.

Morse, Garry Thomas. Discovery Passages. Talonbooks, 2011.

Pivato, Joseph. Review of Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada, by Smaro Kamboureli. Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 156-57.

Wiesenthal, Christine. Review of Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada, by Smaro Kamboureli. University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 1, 2000- 2001, pp. 552-53.

Woodsworth, J. S. Strangers Within Our Gates: Or, Coming Canadians. Frederick Clarke Stephenson, 1909.

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