Transnational Nationalism

  • Melissa Tanti (Editor), Jeremy Haynes (Editor), Daniel Coleman (Editor) and Lorraine York (Editor)
    Beyond "Understanding Canada": Transnational Perspectives on Canadian Literature. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Robert Zacharias

Beyond “Understanding Canada” takes its name and impetus from the Canadian government’s 2012 cancellation of the “Understanding Canada” program, which ended nearly forty years of financial support for interdisciplinary studies of Canada around the world. As the title suggests, the collection quickly moves beyond the Understanding Canada program to examine a broader range of questions regarding the transnational circulation of Canadian literature. The collection is clearly intended to showcase the type of work put at risk by the government’s decision: eleven of the fourteen essays are written by scholars of Canadian literature based at universities outside Canada—in Spain, Serbia, Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Jamaica, Slovakia, and the UK.

The collection is separated into five themed sections, plus a critical introduction co-authored by the editorial committee (Melissa Tanti, Jeremy Haynes, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York) that briefly recounts the Canadian government’s efforts to foster Canadian studies abroad, or what they call “transnational nationalism.” Emphasizing the program’s relative low cost and wide reach, the introduction notes that the government supported the study of Canada in some fifty countries over the past forty years. Importantly, they also call attention to the politics underpinning the unequal distribution of that support, noting that the policy’s “priority areas” aimed to shape the focus of the funded research, just as its geopolitical aspirations determined the countries eligible to receive funding. The programming is further interrogated in the collection’s first section, “Contexts, Provocations, and Knowledge Territories.” Christl Verduyn’s essay offers a useful primer on how the Understanding Canada program fostered the work of the International Council for Canadian Studies (ICCS), along with specific examples of how the ICCS managed to flourish within—or, just as often, between—the program’s expressed “priority areas.” Smaro Kamboureli’s essay acknowledges the program’s successes but questions the “simplistic nature of the collective outcry” against its cancellation, reminding readers of its ideological strictures and suggesting that its termination provides an opportunity for a productive repositioning of international research in the field. Elizabeth Yeoman’s essay is the first of several to thematize translation, noting that the program’s designation of English and French as “official languages” of study limited the range of partners abroad much as it has restricted the scope of material engaged in Canada—a point she makes via her own work with writing in Indigenous languages.

Some of the most notable work in Beyond “Understanding Canada” explores Black Canadian literature (in the second section, “Roots and Routes”). Pilar Cuder-Domínguez begins her essay by surveying the “staggering amount of work” that has been undertaken to address the now standard critique of Canada’s absence from studies of the Black Atlantic, turning to Esi Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne to suggest that the novel “balances out the opposing drives of diasporic and essentialized black consciousness described in black Canadian studies.” Anne Collett’s essay reads the absence of Canada in Olive Senior’s poetry to suggest that the racialized text “works to create a ‘condition of resonance’” for the country, while Michael A. Bucknor suggests that the “emphasis on an oppositional politics of disruption in black Canadian studies” has made it difficult to trace “diasporic intimacies and intricacies of black global networks.” Bucknor examines personal letters from Austin Clarke’s archive to follow the international lines of Clarke’s “literary friendships and affective alliances.” Bucknor’s emphasis on Clarke’s strategic use of the CBC and his work with “white establishment collaborators” leads him to provocatively suggest that it may be “worthwhile to begin thinking through what the political stakes are for widening and whitening the black Atlantic in Canada.”

The rest of the collection is somewhat less cohesive than these early sections, and in my reading the essays in the fourth section (“Border Zones”) may be better read through sections three (“Mapping Bodies, Place, and Time”) and five (“Reading Publics”). In the third section, Katalin Kürtösi and Claire Omhovère move away from the collection’s focus on literature: Kürtösi contends that Emily Carr’s West Coast home positioned her on the productive margins of Canada’s already marginal modernist movement, while Omhovère offers a theory-heavy meditation on Canadian landscape photography. Belén Martín Lucas’ strong essay explores the liberatory possibilities of a range of queer and racialized speculative Canadian fiction, and can be productively read alongside Ana María Fraile-Marcos’ examination of Michael Helm’s underappreciated Cities of Refuge: both offer theoretically informed readings of texts that interrogate the narrative of Canada as a peaceable kingdom.

The most compelling evidence of the unique readings enabled by the transnational perspective, however, arrives as the collection closes. Vesna Lopičić and Milena Kaličanin’s exploration of Yugoslavian history in David Albahari’s work is exemplary of a transnational approach that sheds new light on Canadian literature specifically by engaging its international referents. Lucia Otrísalová, Cristina Ivanovici, and Don Sparling each offer compelling insights into the signification of “Canada” in Cold War Eastern Europe, with Otrísalová cataloguing the Canadian texts selected for translation in Slovakia between 1948 and 1989, Ivanovici considering the translation of Canadian literature in Eastern Europe to explore what she calls the “different valuations of capitalist capital versus cultural capital,” and Sparling accounting for the role of Canadian diplomats and passionate professors in the Czech Republic. The analyses offer reminders of the often ad hoc manner in which Canadian literature has circulated around the world.

Like similar recent collections showcasing transnational perspectives on Canadian literature, Beyond “Understanding Canada” also reveals the international conversation’s own set of interests and priorities. Although the collection’s focus is informed by the original workshop and the time lag of academic publishing, reading Beyond “Understanding Canada” during the current tumult of the field within Canada makes it occasionally hard to recognize the relatively placid field as it is presented here. Still, the distinctiveness of the transnational perspective is a key part of the argument the collection makes, and in this regard, it succeeds admirably, overcoming the “material challenges” of international scholarship not only to argue for but also to demonstrate convincingly the transnational nature of Canadian literary studies.

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