Literary Pluralities

340 pages,
ISBN: 1551112035

Post Your Opinion
On the Edge of Empires
by Cherry Clayton

Migrating from South Africa to Canada, as I did in 1991, has meant a movement from a society historically constructed on racial binaries to one in which there were multiple claims on difference and social justice. "Identity politics" and even definitions of nationalism seemed to be involved in endless contestation by minority groups. It takes a while to understand that in Canada, as opposed to South Africa, it is assimilation, and not division, that has been the instrument of colonial and national domination. Assimilation in the name of "civilized" norms has been used against the aboriginal people, against the francophone `Canadiens', and against waves of immigrants at different times. Unequal assimilation, without rights and guarantees, has to be weighed against the opportunities for newness, tolerance, and diversity that such a political climate offers. The current plight of the aboriginal people speaks of historical damages that cannot be undone; the anger of racial minorities attests to forces and structures of racial exclusion that have been experienced on a daily level; the normative force of a Canadian literary canon predicated on European history is still unacknowledged in many universities.

It is against this cultural background that Literary Pluralities offers many informed and impassioned insights into the cultural construction of difference, the political and social realities masked by the all-encompassing label of "multiculturalism", and ways of unraveling the ideologically loaded tapestry of contemporary Canadian culture and literature. Essays vary from the polemical to the performative, from surveys of recent developments (Taylor on Native theatre) to careful retrieval of unrecognized writers (Ruffo on Bernice Loft Winslow).

Both Verduyn and Padolsky suggest that the discourses of race and ethnicity are new developments in Canadian debate, growing out of changing demographic patterns, the rise of postcolonial theory as an explanatory paradigm, and increased media attention. Padolsky points to differences from the United States resulting from Canada's English-French duality, the Official Languages Act, and an official policy of multiculturalism. He argues that minority writers often address cultural and instrumental concerns together, thus indicating a shared sense of disempowerment, but points to differences between minorities in their literary problematizing of a linguistic or cultural dominance, which often equates with racial dominance.

Tamara Seiler applies postcolonial concepts to a reading of Canadian contexts. Earlier definitions of Canadian literature were couched in nationalist paradigms of authenticity and freedom from imperial constraints. Now postmodernism, feminism, and globalization have destabilized ideas of a unitary culture or national identity. In the sixties and seventies, Canadian literary tradition still seems to have been influenced by the model of solitary man in a challenging landscape, a paradigm drawn from exploration and settlement, and invisibly patriarchal. The tension between mainstream Anglo-Canadian writing and the writing of racial minorities, recent immigrants, and Natives reproduces to some extent the original tension between empire and colony. Canadian literature is now being recognized as multiple and polyphonic, coinciding with an evolving postcolonial struggle against a hierarchical order of race and ethnicity. This can be seen as an extension of Canada's position on the edge of several empires-acknowledging diversity, amorphousness, and the realities of constant immigration.

Himani Bannerji's radical reading of multiculturalism as a strategy for containment, "On the Dark Side of the Nation", is less comforting. Because of the determined political marginalization of the First Nations, she argues that Anglo-French rivalry needs to be read through the lens of colonialism. The discourse of multiculturalism, she suggests, serves as a culmination for the ideological construction of "Canada". Difference is evoked but neutralized; cultural equivalence is implied; power relations and the economic implications of white supremacy are not addressed; colonialism, racism, and forms of continued oppression or exclusion are relegated to footnotes in a flattering picture of cultural federalism.

Bannerji analyses the work of Charles Taylor in Reconciling Two Solitudes as an instance of creating a legitimate nation space for Canada through a bland discourse of difference and multiculturalism which is partly an antidote to Quebec separatism. Pan-Canadian rhetoric makes for a transcendent nation which loses sight of a highly particularized ideological form of domination. The issue at stake is the power to define what Canada and Canadian culture are, as cultural power is always economically and legally sanctioned. Bannerji's argument outlines a fundamental contradiction between the colonization and continued marginalization of the First Nations, and the professed aims of a liberal democratic state. (This seems to arrive at the heart of the multicultural issue, and, if it is attended to, would spell very different academic and critical practices within cultural and educational strongholds.) In spite of the "Two Solitudes" mythology, French Canada has the same white Eurocentric agenda: "An unofficial apartheid of cultures and identity," she argues, "organizes the social space of Canada." And here I was thinking that I had left South Africa. Now I know better.

It has to be said that the essays by Québécois writers and, in particular, the analysis by George Elliot Clarke of racial constructions in Québécois texts bear out Bannerji's thesis. Perverse and stereotypical portrayals of inter-racial sex, mystical and recycled images of Negritude, sensuous noble savages all serve to illustrate that blackness has been a racialized metaphor for both liberals and nationalists in Québécois literary discourse. Clarke locates a form of eroticized racism in these texts, clichés of Black exoticism and sexual revenge which are related to romantic nationalism in Quebec. He argues that Quebec's claims to oppression are filtered through racial categories in the writing of Lantagne, Laferriere, Seers, and Garneau. The essays by ethnic minority writers in Quebec, such as Nadine Ltaif, indicate the difficulties of being minorities within a minority culture: the post-structural emphasis on métissage and hybridity within Québécois texts may be a critical response to the actual political marginalization of such minority writers.

In the essay by Native writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, one encounters a manifesto both of a radical difference, from "Canadians", and of radical belonging, to "the land". While acknowledging and substantiating the continuing effects of colonialism, racism, genocide, and more recent cultural appropriation, Akiwenzie-Damm poignantly celebrates a spiritual ancestry, a communitarian ethic of reciprocity, a spiritual aesthetic inseparable from political awareness. "Land" seems to take on a mystical meaning in the sociological conditions she describes on the reserves; yet the ethic of survival and resistance clearly depends on this mystical meaning. It seems a rather bitter irony given the contemporary issues of land distribution and reclamation. Akiwenzie-Damm is also the only essayist to speak unproblematically as the representative of a whole social grouping and culture.

There are many other instructive essays in this collection: on the teaching of minority literatures; on the positive aspects of immigrant writing in order to construct bridges of connection and communication; on the need to value realistic and autobiographical writing; on the recognition of pathfinders in certain genres, such as E. Pauline Johnson, Margaret Laurence, Tomson Highway. The contemporary debate between postmodernism and postcolonialism runs through many of the articles, and Canadian nationalism and multiculturalism are subjected to searching forms of analysis and example. The undervaluing of minority and Native writing can be seen as an extension of the European cultural supremacy which instituted assimilationist policy in the first place, and which expressed political struggles for survival and control. As these political struggles are ongoing, we need to understand the relationship between political power and cultural expression, citizenship and literature, multiculturalism and forms of knowledge. 

Cherry Clayton is a lecturer in English and Women's Studies at the University of Guelph. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with Canadian women writers.


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