Which Scandalous Bodies? Black Women Writers Refuse Nation Narratives

We mark the twentieth anniversary of Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies (2000) in the midst of a global pandemic and demands for racial justice. It is difficult to ignore these conjoined moments as we re/ consider the location, function, and impact of diasporic literatures in Canada—an increasingly diverse and complex body of work that by necessity is involved in border crossings, moving both within and outside the nation-state. While Kamboureli’s formative text was motivated by a discrete set of questions about the place/displacement of ethnic literatures within specifically national conversations about multiculturalism, a consideration of how the terrain of Canadian literature may have shifted in the years since its publication and the provocations that remain unaddressed provides a timely opportunity to rethink the relationship between diasporic literatures and the Canadian state. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which Black Canadian literature as a particular cultural intervention, and its modes of interrogation, what Sylvia Wynter calls “counter-signifying practices” (268), allow us to identify a set of paradigms that exceed both the category of ethnic literatures and the limits (physical, ideological, and political) of the nation-state. How might a discussion of Canadian ethnic literatures need to shift to account for Black women as writers and critics? In attempting to provide a preliminary response to this question, I draw on NourbeSe Philip’s introduction to Bla_k and Dionne Brand’s “An Ars Poetica from the Blue Clerk,” both published in 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation.

The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act, although an expansion of previous policy, was only twelve years old at the time of the publication of Scandalous Bodies.1 The passage of the Act, as Kamboureli demonstrates, generated significant media and academic responses throughout the 1990s about the nature and place of cultural diversity in Canada. I read Scandalous Bodies, therefore, as an attempt to situate Canadian ethnic literature less as a product of its global origins and entanglements and more firmly within a corpus of Canadian literature, culture, and politics. While eschewing the role of literary historian, Kamboureli nonetheless presents an important twentieth-century survey of Canadian ethnic literature, moving from a discussion of F. P. Grove’s European universalism in the mid-1920s, to the function of anthologies and anthologizing in the mid- to late-twentieth century, and ending with a reading of “history as a montage” in Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981).

I find Kamboureli’s reflections about the possibilities and limits of Canadian multicultural policies in making space for diverse literatures in Canada particularly useful. Identifying multiculturalism as “sedative politics” that recognizes diversity while keeping intact “the conventional articulation of the Canadian dominant society” (82), she critiques Canada’s official policy as primarily a social and political tool meant to control the terms of cultural diversity and difference. With multiculturalism written into official law, Canadians could oscillate between practices of “disavowal and scandal” (83)—on the one hand pretending that the “problem” of diversity had effectively been “managed” while treating moments of perceived multicultural excess as scandalous. This critique of multiculturalism was not new, appearing in such works as Philip’s essays in Frontiers (1992), Rinaldo Walcott’s Black Like Who? (1997), Roy Miki’s Broken Entries (1998), Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference (1999), and Himani Bannerji’s The Dark Side of the Nation (2000), published in the same year as Scandalous Bodies.2 Kamboureli’s early intervention, however, specifically sought to locate a critique of multiculturalism alongside a consideration of the history and reception of diasporic and ethnic literatures in Canada to disrupt an “Us and Them paradigm” (xiv) and articulate the means by which it might be possible “to learn to live with contradictions . . . without fetishizing difference” (xv). She seeks a “mastery of discomfort” (130), a kind of “negative pedagogy” (25), which recognizes the “failure to know the Other” as an opening into new forms of relationships (130). The use of the word failure, she clarifies, is a means to eliminate “the yoke of the capital ‘O’ . . . to release ethnic subjects from their condition of marginalized Otherness” (130).

What her work never quite makes clear, however, is the identity of the privileged or unified national subject she both invokes and critiques: “It is because I think we still have a long way to go that I do not speak in emancipatory or messianic terms” (130, emphasis mine). Does the invocation of a “we” as knowable subject supersede the “Us and Them” paradigm she is seeking to disrupt, and in such a scenario, when does one cease to reside among “them” on the outside or margins of the nation and come to occupy the space of the we/us? Who are the “we” who have the power to finally release the ethnic subject from her “condition of marginalized Otherness”? Unlike Kamboureli, who can choose to resist a “politics of self-location” (6), Black women as writers and critics are always already located in their work, not as a function of self-representation but as a product of history. Their virtual erasure from Kamboureli’s critique of multiculturalism and recording of Canadian ethnic literatures signals the extent to which practices of making history and literature function in service of nation-state narratives that cannot adequately account for Black women’s presence and imagination.

It is indeed difficult to decipher where Black Canadian literature fits within Kamboureli’s definition of ethnic literature, or even what she means by ethnic. Her goal, she argues, is not to “define ethnic diversity” but “to problematize difference,” refusing to join the “debate about the semantic and political differences between diaspora and ethnicity” (xiv). While she mentions some well-known Black Canadian writers tangentially, like Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke, and includes Lorris Elliott’s Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada (1985) and Ayanna Black’s Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent (1992) in a list of ethnic anthologies, Black Canadian literature does not figure as a category in her discussion.3 While this was clearly not the project she set out to do, it is important to point out that thinking through race, and Blackness specifically, differs from thinking through ethnicity. Since Black Canadian literature is both multi-generational and immigrant, it must account for the presence of a long tradition of Black writing in Canada going back two hundred years, including slave narratives as well as contemporary writers like George Elliott Clarke and Sylvia Hamilton, who are at least seventh-generation Canadians. Black Canadian writing is also informed by a different set of questions/problematics than those emerging from other ethnic groups, including the legacy of slavery and complexity of Black identities marked by repeating experiences of fragmentation—not just hybridity. Neglecting race as a mode of thought and community, thus, elides possibilities beyond a critique of multiculturalism.

When we understand Black Canadian literature as being both within and exceeding nation, reading and thinking with this literature opens up questions that are not merely about its location within the Canadian literary canon, a critique of cultural marginalization, or a desire to transcend marginalization. Black Canadian literature has work to do in the world because of the unfinished project of freedom. Rather than simply demarcating marginality, it is interested in how one acquires agency, freedom, and even humanity. In the face of what Walcott calls Black diasporic “catastrophe” (“The Black Aquatic”) and Philip names Maafa, from the Kiswahili word for “terrible occurrence” or “great disaster” (Bla_ck 33), Black Canadian literature must continually interrogate the deep ruptures caused by colonialism even in the absence of a language that can articulate the depths of such a catastrophe. Black people “cannot, try as we might, cauterize the wound of colonialism: it suppurates, bleeds sometimes, extrudes pus, sometimes appears healed but aches always” (Philip, Bla_ck 16). How does one speak or write this kind of injury?

In “An Ars Poetica from the Blue Clerk,” Brand invokes Christina Sharpe’s notion of “dysgraphia” to mark the limits of language and narrative in enunciating the weight of suffering that has accrued from transatlantic slavery and its aftermaths. As Brand argues, narrative attempts to respond to this dysgraphia of disaster necessarily reproduce and import the very language of the dysgraphia: “We are people without a translator. The language we use already contains our demise and any response contains that demise as each response emboldens and strengthens the language it hopes to undermine” (60). As a result, “the Black body in narrative is always spectacular, always spectacularised, marked. The dysgraphia, of dominant and of dominating narratives, unwrites, and makes incoherent, Black presence as presence” (60). Exceeding Kamboureli’s too-easy category of ethnicity, the Black body as a particular kind of “scandalous body” becomes lodged in the archives of a narrative history that is unable to transmit or sound “a tomorrow, beyond brutalisation” (59). Brand argues that it is in poetry—“with its capacities to deposit and unearth plural meanings, with its refusals of a particular interrogative gaze” and its undermining of the roles of the reader/critic—that a Black female writer may better locate the possibilities for “a grammar in which Black existence might be the thought and not the unthought; might be” (59).

These concerns about language, content, and form repeat in Philip’s chapter. As she explains, “I continue to be plagued by working with language that was fatally contaminated by its history of empire and colonialism, and having no language to turn to in order to hide or heal” (Philip, Bla_ck 32). She finds herself perpetually hunting, searching for the words that do not exist in Canada’s official languages of English or French to translate Black experience and thought. Like Brand, it is primarily in poetry that she finds the rudiments of a new grammar of Black being: a tool that enables her to understand her “own theorizing about the why, how and what I write” (32).

Looking back at her long career as a writer of Trinidadian descent in Canada, Philip further identifies her location in relation to the nation-state through metaphors of unfixity and disappearance. In recognizing her multiple locations as “Black, African-descended, female, immigrant (or interloper) and Caribbean,” she discerns the ways in which these identities precipitate “hostilities within the body politic of a so-called multicultural nation” (13). As a result, she writes “on the margins of history” and “in the shadow of empire,” forced to function “against the grain as an unembedded, disappeared poet and writer” (13). Yet, while Canada—a place in which she counts herself as “among the ‘unbelonged’” (15)—is one of the two places she calls home, she neither desires nor seeks attachment to a nation-state: “Labels remain, but I am now considerably older and embrace the idea that while indigenous to the world, I remain exiled, possibly permanently” (15). The project of thinking and writing Black existence as “the thought and not the unthought” (Brand 59)—of thinking against the impulses of the nation— positions both Philip and Brand as diasporic interlocutors and wayfarers. Commenting specifically on her relationship to the settler-colonial state during Canada’s celebration of its sesquicentennial, Philip asks: “Can one ever be/long on what is essentially stolen land? Even if not stolen by you. And if there exists no word to describe one’s state or condition in relation to where one lives, is one permanently erased?” (Bla_ck 34). Echoing a critique of the politics of multiculturalism, she chooses to enter “the idea of Canada” not through Kamboureli’s “negative pedagogy” or in search of some kind of reconciliation with the state, but “through the land” (34). Such an entrance opens up the “possibility of being in a relationship of integrity and truth” with Indigenous peoples while also recognizing that in a world “in which we have all been uprooted from ourselves . . . belonging must begin to embrace the idea of fluidity and movement” (34-35).

In the search for language and resistance to the idea of the scandalous/ spectacularized Black body, Brand and Philip refuse the easy containment of nation narratives and their articulation of a “we” as unnamed and, therefore, unchallenged subject. They are ultimately less concerned with a national struggle between “Us and Them” and more committed to the project of reimagining their freedoms in all the places in which they may live. Likewise, as a diasporic reader/critic, I see my role as both attending to the dysgraphia of catastrophe and dreaming different futures with the writers who have sustained me in this country.


1 The entrenchment of Canadian multiculturalism in Canadian law took place over a seventeen-year period following the 1971 introduction of a federal policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. Multiculturalism was subsequently recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and a new policy of multiculturalism was enshrined into law with the passage of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988.

2 Critiques of multiculturalism have continued to proliferate. For additional perspectives see Barrett, Davis, Fleras, and James.

3 Kamboureli also references Makeda Silvera’s Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology (1991), which includes work by well-known Black women writers, like Dionne Brand and Audre Lorde, but it is not an anthology of Black or Canadian literature exclusively.

Works Cited

Bannerji, Himani. The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Canadian Scholars’, 2000.

Barrett, Paul. Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism. U of Toronto P, 2015.

Black, Ayanna, editor. Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent. HarperCollins, 1992.

Brand, Dionne. “An Ars Poetica from the Blue Clerk.” The Black Scholar, vol. 47, no. 1, 2017, pp. 58-77.

Davis, Andrea. “‘The Real Toronto’: Black Youth Experiences and the Narration of the Multicultural City.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 51, no. 3, 2017, pp. 725-48.

Elliott, Lorris. Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada. Williams-Wallace, 1985.

Fleras, Augie. “Racializing Culture/Culturalizing Race: Multicultural Racism in a Multicultural Canada.” Racism, Eh? A Critical Inter-Disciplinary Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada, edited by Camille A. Nelson and Charmaine A. Nelson, Captus, 2004, pp. 429-43.

James, Carl E. Seeing Ourselves: Exploring Race, Ethnicity and Culture. 4th ed., Thompson Educational Publishing, 2010.

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

Mackey, Eva. The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada. Routledge, 1999.

Miki, Roy. Broken Entries: Race, Subjectivity, Writing: Essays. Mercury, 1998.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. Bla_k: Essays and Interviews. Book*hug, 2017.

—. Frontiers: Selected Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture, 1984-1992. Mercury, 1992.

Silvera, Makeda. Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology. Sister Vision, 1991.

Walcott, Rinaldo. “The Black Aquatic; Or the Evolution of an Intellectual Project in a Time of Crisis.” Black Life: A Toronto Teach-In on Black Studies, Literature, Visual Arts, and Disability Studies, 18 Sept. 2020, Zoom, York University, Toronto. Panel Presentation.

—. Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada. Insomniac, 1997.

Wynter, Sylvia. “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice.” Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, edited by Mbye B. Cham, Africa World, 1992, pp. 237-79.

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