The Powers of Representation and Transgressive Fires: Reflecting on the Impact of Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies

When I first became aware of myself as a diasporic subject, in both the object and subject sense of the term, I was a young, naive English undergraduate student enrolled in the only Asian ethnic literature course offered by the University of Alberta’s English department in the 2000s. Until I took that Asian American literature course with my first mentor Teresa Zackodnik, it never occurred to me that members of my ethnic and diasporic community could produce a body of literature that was worthy of scholarly study. Actually, it had never occurred to me that such a body of cultural production even existed. I, of course, always knew that a canon of Asian writers existed in Asia. But diasporic writers writing in English outside of Asia that looked like me? Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Monique Truong, and David Henry Hwang? Or Asian Canadian writers like SKY Lee, Larissa Lai, Rita Wong, or Kim Thúy? That was never on my radar. And it’s not that I never aspired to write any literature of my own. Almost every young, bright-eyed English major aspired to do so. It’s just that if I had conceived of myself as a writer, it was always as a writer or a woman writer but never as a diasporic writer.

On the advice and encouragement of my first ethnic literary studies prof, I went on to feed my latent hunger for Asian diasporic writing by working with her mentor, the late Donald Goellnicht, in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster. It was here that I trained in the fields of critical race and diaspora studies through a transnational, postcolonial, and Indigenous studies framework that freed me from following any single scholarly approach or disciplinary methodology. Even though my doctoral project read Indigenous and Asian relations through the works of Asian diasporic writers situated in Canada, it was never framed first and foremost as a “CanLit” study. Theoretically informed by crossing the disciplinary borders of CanLit, my research was situated comparatively within and beyond Asian Canadian studies, and unapologetically so.

I provide this bio to situate myself as a diasporic settler scholar who has always worked in and around the institutional boundaries of CanLit, yet never fully fit well within the field. I also offer this bio in order to contextualize the scholarly kinship that I feel with Smaro Kamboureli’s 2000 book Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Published twenty years ago, Scandalous Bodies was one of the first critical studies of ethnic writers in Canada that focused on their diasporic contexts. And it did not offer a singular unified approach to do so. Nor did it select a buffet of diverse ethnic and diasporic voices to form a multicultural survey of Canadian ethnic literature that would have just ended up reifying their marginality, or worse, re-commodifying their difference. Much like how ethnically diverse communities demand careful attention to their own cultural, historical, and ideological specificities, Kamboureli adopted a “negative pedagogy” (Scandalous 25) by opening her analysis to a wide range of literary and cultural texts that informed and shaped her approach to studying diasporic literature and subjectivity in Canada, ranging, surprisingly, from a 1987 German film, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire; to a 1925 classic CanLit novel, Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh; to representations of multiculturalism during the 1980s and 1990s in Canadian media, state policies, and the philosophical work of Charles Taylor; to literary anthologies of ethnic writers published in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s; and concluding with a classic Asian CanLit text, Joy Kogawa’s 1981 Obasan. In each of these close readings, Kamboureli incisively demonstrates a method of reading ethnic texts not as mere reflections of an ethnic writer’s identity but as autonomously transgressive and excessive (xv) representations borne out of politically lived contexts and unequal power relations that often solicit competing knowledges about how we have come to understand and reproduce ethnicity and difference.

During the 1990s, at the time of her writing, there were very few adequate models for analyzing diasporic cultural production in Canada; or at least from Kamboureli’s perspective, there were very few effective scholarly treatments available in CanLit that would also do so without reproducing the problems of ethno-essentialism or re-entrenching the asymmetrical power relations of the Canadian state and its multicultural others. But since the publication of Scandalous Bodies, her work has helped to transform the practice of literary and cultural criticism in Canada, foregrounding the critical importance of studying race, ethnicity, diaspora, and gender in the field of CanLit even as its academic and mainstream publishing institutions were, and remain to this day, epistemological and corporeal spaces that overwhelmingly privilege systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and (settler) colonialism.

If CanLit continues to burn in a raging “dumpster fire,” a phrase that Alicia Elliott (Haudenosaunee), Jen Sookfong Lee, and countless others (see McGregor, Rak, and Wunker) have used to describe a recent period of political scandals in the late 2010s exemplified by moments such as the Steven Galloway and UBC Accountable affair; CanLit’s #MeToo movement; the blazing fall of Joseph Boyden; Write magazine’s despicable Appropriation Prize; and Rinaldo Walcott’s very public break-up with CanLit (see Kamboureli, “Introduction I”; and van der Marel), then what is a diasporic non-white settler critic such as myself to do? To riff on The Clash, should one stay or should one go?

Reflecting on the scholarly and cultural impact of Scandalous Bodies at the close (or renewal?) of this past fiery decade has left me leaning with much ambivalence towards staying in CanLit, even if I only ever held one foot in the field. Aside from the contributions that it has made to render race, ethnicity, diaspora, and gender legible and worthy of study in the Canadian literary establishment, what makes Kamboureli’s book relevant in our current political climate are the questions that it raises about the politics of self-location, the imperative placed on all critical thinkers, but perhaps now more so than ever on racialized, diasporic, Indigenous, female, and non-binary gendered critics, to position ourselves in relation to our critical practice and objects of study. What is the answer to finally extinguishing CanLit’s “dumpster fire”? How can we work to make its academic and publishing institutions less oppressive and exploitative for the current and future generations of scholars who teach, write, study, and publish critically and creatively in this field? Is it ever enough to include and foreground differently excessive bodies and texts in our academic and public institutions? Or will such acts of inclusion always remain part of a slow and incessantly futile diversity project given all of the systemic racial, colonial, and socio-economic barriers that have and may continue to keep the CanLit student body and professoriate overwhelmingly white and/or economically privileged (see van der Marel)? These are intersecting neoliberal concerns that we must consider and challenge more than ever as we await the full societal and socio-economic brunt of the present COVID-19 pandemic on the academic-industrial complex.

Twenty years ago, Scandalous Bodies profoundly revealed how institutions of all kinds inevitably find ways to co-opt and manage difference, that is, questioning if difference could ever gain any sustainable visibility and meaningful inclusion. These mechanisms can be highly “sedative” (82), as Kamboureli warns us, especially for those of us who have come to represent or study such bodies and texts in the academy, and particularly if we are not careful in how we read and locate these differences. Yet two decades later, history seems to keep repeating itself: unequal power relations between and amongst subjects and their social contexts appear more entrenched than ever. However, as much as I have grown wary of the raging “dumpster fire” that has become—or has always been—CanLit, I would never want to abandon the liberating and affirmative, even if highly sedative, possibilities of foregrounding and including the cultural production of different bodies and texts in the study of literature in the Canadian academy. It is what seduced me to join the discipline back when I was a young and clueless undergraduate English student in the late 2000s; it effectively seduced me enough to pursue a precarious academic career in the humanities that incurred unsustainable levels of debt for most of my twenties and thirties. But if we are to move forward and continue to find ways to thrive in this field of study, perhaps one way to do so would be to fight for the right to not be contained, to find and advocate for more flexible, autonomous, and transgressive ways of reading and thinking and producing critical works within and beyond institutional boundaries, much like the methodological approach to studying and theorizing ethnicity and difference that Kamboureli so insightfully developed in her book at the turn of the millennium.

Works Cited

Elliott, Alicia. “CanLit Is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” Open Book, 7 Sept. 2017, open-book. ca/Columnists/CanLit-is-a-Raging-Dumpster-Fire. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Kamboureli, Smaro. “Introduction I: Literary Solidarities: ‘Should I Be Here?’” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 1, 2020. pp. 1-22.

—. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. 2000. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009.

Lee, Jen Sookfong. “Open Letters and Closed Doors: How the Steven Galloway open letter dumpster fire forced me to acknowledge the racism and entitlement at the heart of CanLit.” The Humber Literary Review, 2017, Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker. “Introduction: Living in the Ruins.” Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by McGregor, Rak, and Wunker, Book*hug, 2018, pp. 9-28.

van der Marel, L. Camille. “White Like Me? Reading the Room at Mikinaakominis/ TransCanadas 2017.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 1, 2020, pp. 51-70.

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