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February 2015

Re-inventing the Wheel


From the top of my very short blogging soap box, I tooted my horn yesterday. But what was perhaps less clear was the lack of original thought behind my rant. I am not alone in thinking the agrandisement of CanLit’s purview necessary, nor am I one of the first to think of it.

Thinkers and researchers like Smaro Kamboureli, who have tirelessly pushed this literature beyond its own frontiers, hemispheric researchers like Winfried Siemerling, global connectors of the likes of Michael Cronin, all strive to look outward, rather than inward, to define literature. Those are the footsteps into which I insert my own awkward feet.

The translation studies researcher in me adds a keen sensitivity to language, and its transfer, use, and misuse. A bit like a linguist, I like to follow the path of works, see where their surprising circulation leads. And this leads me to national, linguistic, cultural and sociological barriers and frontiers of literature that erect themselves naturally in front of certain literary scholars who sometimes do not see past them (or see them at all, for that matter). This is conceivably where I differ from several CanLit scholars, I bring the translatory dimension to literary works, in their textual existence, and their circulatory existence, as published works.

Two dimensions — the text and what happens to the text once it is published. The connection between these two dimensions is not one made off the cuff. Researchers like John Guillory make that amply clear. Canonization has nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of the text. So what is it about the text that “speaks” to the instances that canonize them, and why do we follow them like sheep? The connection between text, translation and circulation, how is it forged? A triangulation to be investigated within the confines of CanLit. How does one end of the triangle shed light on the other? Is there any rhyme of reason to the connections?





Canadian literature is wide, large and extremely beautiful when inclusiveness is the word of order. It is composed of different languages, many of them indigenous. It is open to a wide variety of influences, often contradictory. And it is understudied.

I am not interested in going down that path, the one of why it isn’t taken as seriously as other major literatures, at least not now. Others before me have gone this route, brandishing various very thought provoking reasons, not the least being our lack of a strong (global/national?) identity. It is this ceaseless inward looking eye that bothers me, the need to streamline, categorize, catalogue and label works, so that they fit in a very narrow understanding of what constitutes CanLit. (What a great abbreviation, just think about it: “can” like the verb, a literature that “can.”)

I consider any work that is produced by anyone who has at one point in time identified with, was born, lived, touched or died on Canadian soil, to be a part of CanLit. Indigenous productions, Québécois literature, being contentious members, are for me, works of Canadian literature. They all participate in the complex conversation that is Canada. The idea is not to exclude, but to include more voices, more works, more authors, in order to open this exclusive club. The idea is to trace links between these different works and stand far back enough to see an outline of what CanLit really is.

History has its part to play in this grand piece, but not just Canadian history. What is Canadian history if European and American history (and by extension their literatures with their authors and works) are not included in this structure? Not much. We were not constituted in a vacuum, and we do not operate in one either. No one does. I’m thinking of Jack Kerouac, for example. Why isn’t he considered a part of CanLit? Yann Martel is claimed by CanLit, how is Kerouac any different? Parental filiation in both cases. Martel retains a certain Canadianness, whereas Kerouac had his completely erased.

And translation also has its place. And not just French and English translations. Here, I have in mind Joséphine Bacon’s poetry, in Innu and French, side by side, translated by Phyllis Aranoff, from French into English. And think about works by English-language Quebec authors, translated into French in Quebec. These are all works of CanLit, albeit from minority literatures.

Works to be included in minority (or perhaps minor) literatures, all under the umbrella of CanLit, works that belong to movements, rather than strictly regions. Poets like W. W. E. Ross could finally trully inhabit the Modernist space it deserves. Why couldn’t regional and literary currents intersect, juxtaposed one upon the other, and not be considered contradictory? And what of chronology? Other than being uselful to find out publication and circulation information, it should not constitute a barrier to belonging. Here, Sherry Simon’s three Montreal Modernities comes to mind, parallel currents that did not intersect, but reflected an era much larger than themselves.

And I could go on. And I will go on. I promise.