Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
This volume is the result of an ambitious three-year international research project funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education under the title “Penelope’s Embroidery: Literary Tradition, Cultural Identities, and Theoretical Discourses in the Anglo-Canadian Fiction of the Late 20th Century.” For the editor, the reference to classical mythology is far from frivolous, as it suggests the book’s main goal to unmoor dominant literary paradigms. Like the original Penelope, the contributors have set out to unravel the threads making up CanLit since the days of Canadian nationalism in the late-1960s, by mapping later developments, by critiquing entrenched notions, or by opening up new venues of inquiry, most of all those that, in having been barred from the official record, have become ghostly presences.
Structurally, the first and the last essays allegedly frame the larger questions. Coral Ann Howells charts the various approaches in drafting Canadian literary history from Carl F. Klinck’s groundbreaking Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English (1965) and Margaret Atwood’s Survival (1972) to The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature, edited by Eva-Marie Kröller and herself in 2009. Howells perceptively assesses the balancing act of exclusion and inclusion that each of these projects undertook, and highlights the tensions between shifting understandings of literature and of the nation itself. Closing the book, Michèle Lacombe invokes Rauna Kuokkanen’s term “critical intimacy” in her call for literary studies—and more generally, academia—to take on board Indigenous epistemologies and establish a more fruitful intercultural dialogue. Like Howells, she historicizes the rise of Native Canadian literary nationalism (vis-à-vis its American Indian counterpart) against the background of the Expo ’67 World Fair in Montreal, stopping to consider how it challenges the silences and gaps in the colonial record. To these two chapters I would add Smaro Kamboureli’s on Asian Canadian Studies fits in well because it similarly critiques the methodological and epistemological foundations of a whole field of study. Kamboureli takes issue with what she considers an uncritical reliance on U.S.-created paradigms and argues that concepts such as “Asian North American” may bend towards the American to the detriment of its Canadian component, so hers is a call to clarify the stakes and terms of discussion.
The remaining essays address different sets of questions. Ana María Fraile’s “When Race Does Not Matter” analyses in detail the complex politics of mixed-racedness in fiction by Lawrence Hill and Kim Barry Brunhuber to conclude that its racial hybridity does not fit into the nationalist African-Canadian school of thought (represented by George Elliott Clarke) or the diasporic school of thought (Rinaldo Walcott); she interprets this fact as a revisionist move on the dialectics of both schools. Another thoughtful close reading of a Canadian text is provided by María Jesus Hernáez Lerena, who describes how Michael Crummey’s masterful use of several genres (testimony and journal writing, private confession) in River Thieves mends the historical record of Newfoundland by disrupting historicity and by shifting the epistemological underpinnings of the reconstruction of the past. Genre is also the subject of Belén Martín-Lucas’ chapter on the use of speculative fantasy by contemporary racialized women writers to interrogate hegemonic cultural assumptions. This essay identifies the variegated manifestations of the monstrous mutant female body populating writings by Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson and Suzette Mayr, laying the critical groundwork for a body grammar of dissent in their fiction. Likewise, body politics surface in Richard Cavell’s thoughts on identity formations outside traditional nationalist models. His analysis of Jane Rule’s work, placed as it was both outside the founders’ narrative and the multicultural narrative, adds to the book’s running thread of the constructedness of Canadian cultural memory, making a strong argument to include sexual orientation in our understanding of citizenship. Darias-Beautell’s chapter draws the reader’s attention to how urban growth may have erased parts of Vancouver’s collective memory (e.g. its Indigenous topoi) in an essay that takes on board relational affective views of space in order to interrogate idealized views of the city in late renderings of the city of Vancouver in literature and the visual arts.
The book is extremely well researched and wide-ranging, so it is a welcome contribution to current debates about Canadian cultural and literary studies from national and international perspectives. LikeTrans.Can.Lit (2007), Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Studies(2012), or Crosstalk: Canadian and Global Imaginaries in Dialogue(2012), to mention the latest, it turns an inquiring eye on the dominant discourses in Canadian literary studies, providing a thought-provoking account of ongoing critical conversations.