Critical Collaborations is the last of three essay collections that has emerged from what co-editor Verduyn describes as “three linked conferences that began in Vancouver in 2005, that continued in Guelph in 2007, and that concluded at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2009. Canadian poets probably won’t discover much about the contemporary writing of poetry in this volume, nor fiction writers about the writing of fiction – though it could result something strangely welcome if they did. The collection is primarily about interdisciplinary methodologies of literary criticism that may be appropriate to current Canadian writing, or at least to current writing associated with the first three nouns of its subtitle.
It is the third and final volume in Smaro Kamboureli’s “Trans.Can.Lit” series that began in early 2005 with the call for papers for a “Trans.Can.Lit” conference at Simon Fraser on a growing “crisis” in the field of Canadian literature. The CFP’s “rationale” for the conference and possible follow-up ones was the belief of the organizers – then principally Kamboureli and Roy Miki – “that Canada has reached now yet another turning point, trying as it is to negotiate its multicultural phase of the last two decades with the pressures of globalization. While the unraveling of the nation's coherence may have resulted in a loss of purpose, this loss is not to be lamented. Instead, we see this turning point as representing a critical moment that invites a complete rethinking of the disciplinary and institutional frameworks within which Canadian literature is produced, disseminated, studied and taught.”
But the papers offered at the conference and published in its selected proceedings, Trans.Can.Lit (2007), showed little agreement about, or even interest in, the “turning point” and “national unravelling” that the CFP had proclaimed. In her introduction to the proceedings, Kamboureli made no reference to either – focussing instead on how Canadian
The proceedings of the second conference, edited by Kamboureli and Robert Zacharias, were published as Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Studies (2012). The volume’s title could have been “shifting the grounds of the TransCanLit series” – or perhaps “more shifting of the grounds.” In Kamboureli’s introduction the “turning point” of the 2005 rationale returned, but now only as one of many routine ongoing occurences within literary publications and debates – accumulating turning points, each of which alters the “field-imaginary” of CanLit (12). The “unraveling” process also returned, but now it was not the nation-state that was unraveling but “Canadian literature as an object of study across many thresholds” (8) – small, dispersed unravelings. Even “crisis” made a return, not as a single demanding moment that required a series of conferences, but as a normal part of “emerging events” and the various minor disruptions and changes they cause to the cultural imaginary. That is, each of the 2005 CFP's embarrassing terms were subtly normalized – with the less-than-credible implication that they had been intended to be read this way all along.
Much of Kamboureli’s focus now was on the institutionalization of Canadian literature and on how its institutions “must be examined” (15). This focus seemed a bit belated, since that examination had begun in the mid-1980s in the University of Alberta’s six History of the Literary Institution in Canada (HOLIC) conferences and their published proceedings – not that the work of those conferences does not need to be recurrently extended and updated. But she seemed unaware that this highly theorized and influential multi-year project had taken place. A second new focus was interdisciplinarity, with many fewer contributors here with CanLit backgrounds than in the first volume, and much more engagement with what Kamboureli called the “thematics” (“cultural, political, economic”) of literary study (32) than with actual literature. She argued that this new thematics was different from the Canadian thematic criticism of the early 1970s – that it was explicitly rather than covertly political, and focused on much smaller and more specific constituencies than the nation-state. But she could not conceal that it was at least equally sociological and cultural in its goals.
This latest and final volume is sharply defensive, perhaps not unexpectedly, of both the Trans.Can.lit project and itself. Kamboureli again contributes the introduction; new co-editor Christyl Verduyn contributes an afterword, “Critical Allegiances,” in which she quotes at length, and praises, much of Kamboureli’s introduction to the second volume. Both editors appear to be attempting to redefine the project for yet a fourth time. Now far removed from the “crisis” of an “unravelling” nation, “turning point,” and “complete rethinking of the disciplinary and institutional frameworks” of CanLit that the 2005 rationale had proclaimed, Kamboureli begins her “Introduction” by declaring a state of “constant flux” to be the “normative” one of any literary field (1). Verduyn opens her afterword by quoting some of Kamboureli’s words in volume two on studies of Canadian literary institutions, “‘Something has happened to English Canadian literary studies’” – a shifting “‘toward a foregrounding of the situational and material conditions’ that influence literary production in the country and that ‘broaden our understanding of what the literary entails’” (227) and adding “I argue that the TransCanada project is a vital part of what has happened.” TransCanada is apparently now to receive partial credit for what the HOLIC conferences had begun and partly accomplished decades before.
I have had other reservations about the TC project. Its TransCanada has rarely included Quebec. In this volume the only extended reference to the province is to the “reasonable accommodation” debacle in 2006 in Herouxville; its only discussion of French-language literary texts occurs in François Paré’s essay “Tradition and Pluralism in Contemporary Acadia.” The project’s wide use of the word “diaspora” contributes to that word’s ever-increasing imprecision. All humans are currently diasporic in the project’s contemporary understanding that they don’t currently live where their immediate or distant ancestors once lived. The project has also repeatedly attempted to create a fictional unitary “Canadian Literature” to criticize and dissent from. Here Kamboureli declares that “we can no longer speak of CanLit as a singular construct; ... CanLit has become Canlits” (4) as if the acknowledgement of divergent multiple canons of Canadian literature (including my own of “‘specialized’ canons” (59) and of a “heterogenous Canadian ‘canon’” (77) in my 1994 book Canadian Literary Power – a book edited by Kamboureli) had not been made a number of times before.
The most illuminating essay in the collection is poet Larissa Lai’s “Epistemologies of Respect,” one of the few which gets around to discussing literary creations. Lai writes about how, as an Asian-Canadian member of a ‘settler’ culture,’ she has experienced her relationship to Indigenous culture and literature as complex, and is fascinated by art that offers views of Asian/Indigenous interaction. She provides detailed descriptions, analysis, and photographs of three very recent works that address Asian/Indigenous relations – a 2008 performance, How We Forgot Here, by the Toronto-based First Nations theatre group, The Movement Project; Vancouver artist David Khang’s 2008 performance How to Feed a Piano; and Marie Clement’s 2003 play Burning Vision. Like all performance art, these are works that are difficult to disseminate beyond the small local audiences that witness them. Lai’s thoughts about these will make many readers wish that they had been in those audiences.
As for the TransCanLit project, its gradual shifts from “crisis” and “turning point” to “normative flux” have been fascinating to watch, but personally I would have preferred from the editors not only a broader historical understanding but more transparency and self-reflection. The latter could have been a major critical contribution.