Women, Asia, and Canadian Identity

  • Shoshannah Ganz
    Eastern Encounters: Canadian Women's Writing about the East, 1867-1929. National Taiwan University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Chuan Xu

Shoshannah Ganz looks into a variety of genres of writing by Canadian women in early Canadian history. These include travel writing by women who were travelling for adventure, trade, or missionary activity; racist writing which echoed some of the mainstream politics and popular racist mentality of the day; fiction set in China, Japan, and India; and the philosophical writing of a Buddhist convert. To bring these texts into dialogue with the contemporary reader, Ganz examines these women’s writings through the lens of postcolonial theory.

The book has five chapters. The first two explore travel writing from the perspectives of Canadian women travelling to Japan, China, and India. The third chapter examines Nellie McClung’s 1921 autobiographical fiction Purple Springs, which exhibits xenophobia and a racist attitude toward the East. Ganz attributes McClung’s racist outlook to the general attitude and praxis in political realms, racist accounts of the East and “Eastern philosophy,” and racist ideas about the East circulating in Canadian popular fiction in the early twentieth century. The fourth chapter examines the influence of the medieval Japanese Tale of Genji on Winnifred Eaton’s novels while looking into the complicated socio-cultural issues underlying the adoption of a Japanese pseudonym by Eaton, who was a woman of mixed British and Chinese ancestry. The fifth chapter explores the influence of the Buddhist practice of pilgrimage—and particularly the sixteenth-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage tale A Journey to the West—on the Eastern writings of L. Adams Beck.

Ganz’s study brings to light the historical presence of Asian Canadians and the Asian influence on the making of Canadian nationhood while recovering women’s voices in early Canadian literary discourse. Aiming to provide “a clear articulation of the stories of nationhood that includes Asian presence from and before confederation,” the book attempts to render a critical postcolonial re-examination and thus reinterpretation of the history and stories that were omitted by founding Canadian scholars. The reason behind this omission was the White-settler culture and nationalism which excluded Asian presence. Ganz’s ambitious project is nothing short of “a rewriting of the story of nation to include Asian stories and origins as part of the emergence of Canada as a nation.” Ganz’s work is part of the recent attempt by writers and scholars to address the “acts of omission and commission” concerning Asian Canadians in early nation-building narratives. As articulated by Arun Mukherjee, “Canadian nationalism, for us non-whites, is a racist ideology that has branded us un-Canadian by acts of omission and commission.” Ganz’s study highlights the fact that “the influence of Asia on the formation of Canadian identity, culture, and literature has been a part of the story from the very beginnings of the nation.”

As far as the travel writing is concerned, Ganz points out that the works were not only popular in their own right; they also exerted a profound influence as sources for later writers who set their works in Asia. Ganz’s meticulous research centres around questions such as whether the texts represented a genuine encounter with Asian cultures, which would involve dialogue or personal change, or whether they were merely seeing the other through the colonial gaze. Did these women’s reading and writing about the cultures that they had experienced in their travels have any impact on their lives? Did the authors experience any personal change or transformation? Did the writing reflect the colonial position of the dominant culture?

Ganz’s study succeeds in establishing the presence of a meaningful but heretofore overlooked discourse in early Canadian literature. As she points out, the discussions of Asian culture, literature, religion, philosophy, and travel, as well as the representations of Japan, China, and India in Canadian women’s writing, contributed to the spread of Eastern ideas in the broader Canadian culture. Therefore, these women writers, though not considered persons in Canada until 1929, had a significant impact on Canadian culture and letters. The book has laid down solid groundwork for further research on the subject.

This review “Women, Asia, and Canadian Identity” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 143-144.

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