Toward Nation-to-Nation Relationships in Literary Studies

Reviewed by Jennifer Henderson

This book argues that a discursive land-clearing is perpetuated by frames that produce and organize Canadian literature in terms of such categories as “early,” “regional,” or “multicultural,” when these either ignore or subsume distinct Indigenous traditions. Bryant makes convincing connections between European legal fictions such as vacuum domicilium and terra nullius and what the institutions of CanLit do when they suppress the existence of early Native literatures in oral or non-alphabetic forms. Maliseet writings on birchbark, Passamaquoddy wampum belts, and Innu message sticks are examples of Indigenous systems of signification expressing intimate connections of people to place. In relation to European systems, they have held “competing cultural images,” stories of belonging and right relationship that settler communities have walled off in order to protect their self-justifying fictions. If nation-to-nation relationships, rather than strategies of concealment or assimilative recognition, are to be practised in the field of literary studies, Bryant argues, we must learn to read in ways that break down this defensive wall. A central goal of The Homing Place is to produce a sense of “cartographic dissonance,” the “recognition that colonized or settled environments and Indigenous place-worlds occupy the same geographic coordinates even while existing in fundamentally distinct epistemological worlds.” Several chapters resituate early settler writing in relation to the Indigenous “place-worlds” it interrupts and disavows. Other chapters connect contemporary Indigenous writing—by the Innu poet Joséphine Bacon and the well-known Mi’kmaq writer, Rita Joe—to the non-alphabetic systems whose vital functions on behalf of land and people that writing continues.

The book focuses on the space of “Atlantic Canadian literature” but reimagines it through a combination of hemispheric, Atlantic World, and Indigenous Studies lenses. It models a reading practice informed by extensive archival research (including maps, letters, petitions, and material artifacts), tribal histories, historical geography, knowledge of recent struggles to assert territorial sovereignty and Aboriginal rights, and a healthy suspicion of many of the presuppositions of settler-nationalist and regionalist criticism. Bryant is well-versed in recent early American literary history which has produced the picture of an Atlantic world in which Anglo-Protestant settlers encountered the cultural and historical density of what the Abenaki historian Lisa Brooks calls “Native space.” Brooks’ The Common Pot (2008) is about the post-contact transformation of northeastern non-alphabetic traditions into Indigenous “treaty literature”—journals, written treaties, and histories—which, Brooks stresses, continued to map out sacred geographies and preserve communal stories, often in direct contestation of settler claims. Brooks is a key influence in The Homing Place and Bryant usefully extends her concepts and methods, discussing a selection of writers whose situations expose the contingencies (and violence) of the borders drawn by settler states and literary historians. A chapter on settler and Passamaquoddy storytelling in the “northeastern borderlands” of what are now called New Brunswick and Maine—the border drawn in 1783 cutting through Passamaquoddy territory—details settlers’ selective use and abuse of Indigenous historical and geographical knowledge in their efforts to establish a boundary between competing settler jurisdictions. A target of critique in several chapters is what Bryant calls “Canadian exceptionalism”—the set of tropes and truisms bolstering the self-image of Canada as entirely separate from and morally superior to the United States. This critique has been made before (in Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference, for example), but Bryant shows how it can be derived from attention to the “early American roots” of English Canada and to the continuities in “code systems” that belie the strategic differentiation.

Perhaps the strongest theoretical contribution of The Homing Place is its identification of a deep-seated prejudice in favour of the disembodied word—rooted in the tenets of Reformed Protestantism and transplanted to northeastern North America—that underpins the continued severing of stories from land, and the demotion of non-alphabetic forms of writing and knowledge-keeping. Bryant argues that this “iconoclastic barrier” still functions to protect the “industrio-scientific culture” of settler worlds from the ethically-, epistemologically-, and (potentially) politically-transformative potential of what the Anishinaabe-Haudenosaunee scholar Vanessa Watts calls Indigenous “place-thought.” While cautioning against fake breaches of this wall (in the form of self-serving gestures of settler indigenization), Bryant calls for, and models, a critical practice that does the homework necessary to respectful engagement. While I am a little less hopeful about the transition from listening to letting go, or from ethics to politics, I have not seen a more meticulously researched, historically-informed, and spatially complexifying example of what “literary diplomacy” might look like.

This review “Toward Nation-to-Nation Relationships in Literary Studies” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 126-128.

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