Spaces of Possibility

Reviewed by Veronica Austen

Andrea Katherine Medovarski’s Settling Down and Settling Up: The Second Generation in Black Canadian and Black British Women’s Writing looks to literary representations to contemplate the vital question, “what happens to individuals and families after migration.” Through a study of five novels from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Medovarski explores the inadequacies of diaspora studies, noting that this framework does not fully account for the experiences of children of immigrants. To Medovarski, the second generation challenges discourses that construct the diaspora, particularly in terms of migration and rootlessness. In Medovarski’s readings of Dionne Brand’s What We All Long for, Tessa McWatt’s Out of My Skin, Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon, Esi Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, those in the second generation do not necessarily see themselves as migratory subjects, but instead seek to “lay[] claim to a nation that casts them as outsiders.” As Medovarski observes, in so asserting their rightful place in the countries of their birth, these characters provide a new model for “being-in and being-of the nation,” one that acknowledges their navigation of competing pressures to assimilate and yet to preserve connections to a foreign “back home” that is not their own. In their attempt “to create inhabitable spaces for themselves” amidst conditions that exclude, this second generation becomes, according to Medovarski, uniquely able to question the nation’s “ongoing marginalizations of its legal citizens.” Using Barnor Hesse’s concept of “settling down and settling up,” Medovarski thus positions the second generation as able to “bear[] witness to the ways in which conditions of settling are uneven for, and sometimes hostile to, non-white presences.”

Particularly valuable in Medovarski’s work is her conceptualization of the second generation in terms of its expansion of the “conditions of possibility” (a concept borrowed from Michel de Certeau). In other words, Medovarski conceives of the second generation not just as a resistant force, but instead as a transformative one that can work to “remake citizenship on other, more ethical or more inclusive terms” and thereby create nations that are “‘more’ than they currently are.” Medovarski takes her cue from a wonderful selection of texts, intervening nicely into already established discourses surrounding some of the more well-known texts, while also helping to forge discussion of novels, like Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon or Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, that have been somewhat eclipsed by their authors’ later works. In positioning novels as a key mode of discourse for unsettling hegemonic views of nation, Medovarski finds in her selection of texts a model for asserting the value of “everyday practices” like friendship, trans-ethnic/-racial affiliations, and “outer-biological” kinship as the means for imagining new, more habitable national spaces. There are some gaps left in this text’s argumentation. For example, although a focus on gender and specifically on women’s experiences does appear sporadically through the text and culminates nicely in the chapter on Smith’s White Teeth, the choice of specifically Black women’s writing as the book’s scope, and the significance of this scope, remain unexplored. Further, although the chapter on McWatt’s Out of My Skin does some interesting work in contemplating the problematics of a second generation rooting itself to stolen Indigenous land, the focus on the protagonist’s navigation of Indigenous spaces is lost by the chapter’s end, which renders an interpretation or two not fully developed. Overall, however, Settling Down and Settling Up offers a timely and important contemplation of Canada and Britain as exclusionary nations, but also as spaces with the potential for change.

This review “Spaces of Possibility” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

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.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.