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Excerpt from Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography edited by Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn

From the Introduction by Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn

Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography explores some of the latest developments in the literary and cultural practices of Canadians of Asian heritage. The focus of the volume is on works by writers, artists, and intellectuals published in the last ten years that have shifted noticeably and even dramatically in style, genre, and subject matter from those produced some twenty or thirty years ago under the broad rubrics of ethnic or racial “minority writing”(1) or multicultural production. Research and writing on multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity have developed and changed considerably in Canada in recent years, as they have in the United States. The advent of postcolonial literary theory and anti-racist cultural practice during the 1980s in Canada generated intense investigation and interrogation, including of terminology itself. The term minority writing, for example, has been analyzed as a construct and expression of the power and literary politics of a given time and context.(2) Canadian critic and author Smaro Kamboureli has argued powerfully that “multicultural writing is not minority writing for it does not raise issues that are of minor interest to Canadians. Nor is it, by any standard, of lesser quality than the established literary tradition. Its thematic concerns are of such a diverse range that they show the binary structure of ‘centre’ and ‘margins,’ which has for so long informed discussions of Canadian literature, to be a paradigm of the history of political and cultural affairs in Canada.”(3) Writing from the United States in the late 1980s, Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd observed that “Western humanism still considers us [minority cultures] barbarians beyond the pale of civilization; we are forever consigned to play the role of the ontological, political, economic, and cultural Other according to the schema of a Manichaean allegory that seems the central trope not only of colonialist discourse but also of Western humanism.”(4) Today, commentators are more circumspect with regard to such sweeping statements about Western humanism, and more cautious about making such clear divisions between the West and the non-West, between the civilized and the savage. A racially minoritized writer in North America, for example, may no longer necessarily be associated mainly with the marginal, minor, or Other the way JanMohamed and Lloyd asserted. In 2000, Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje was awarded the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, the Prix Médicis, the Governor General’s Award, and the Giller Prize for his novel Anil’s Ghost, set in the civil war landscape of Sri Lanka in the late twentieth century.(5) While Ondaatje’s success does not negate a history of political, economic, and cultural colonialization and othering of non-Western subjects, there are strong indications that ethnic and racially minoritized authors in Canada and in the United States have made gains in their effort to claim Canadian or American subjectivity and to “return the gaze,” to echo a phrase used by Himani Bannerji.(6)

In his major survey, A History of Canadian Literature (1989), W.H. New noted how ethnicity, region, and gender marked the literature of the quarter century between 1960 and 1985.(7) In the fiction and poetry of the 1970s, New observed, realist accounts were the dominant mode of representation: “historical realism in fiction or drama; social themes and authenticity of detail were paramount, vocabulary and rhythm drew on vernacular speech, the presence of a recording ‘I’ as observer or participant in political and social issues reinforced the immediacy of the literary work.”(8) New described the typical tendencies of the novel of this period:

“There emerged among writers concerned to declare the experience of a particular ethnic group a series of semi-documentary works that in fiction most characteristically took the form of the Bildungsroman or novel-of-growing-up. One typical premise results in integration and success. A more common one involves a child of immigrant parents who adapts to the new land more readily than the parents do but who never seems quite to belong; the impulse to reject old values (or the desire to retain them) recurrently stands between the individual and the majority.”(9)

Among the poets New included were Marilyn Bowering, Erin Mouré, Lorna Crozier, Sharon Thesen, Mary di Michele, Eli Mandel, George Ryga, Joy Kogawa, and others. Some of the novelists listed included Rudy Wiebe, Marika Robert, Jan Drabek, Austin Clarke, Myrna Kostash, Harold Sonny Ladoo, Frank Paci, and Joy Kogawa.(10) Though there are inevitably exceptions to this kind of generalization, New’s observations about the type of work being produced in that earlier period provide a useful point of departure for our discussion of the expansion of modes of writing about race and ethnicity in the last decade.

While earlier work by ethnic writers was often concerned with immigration, the moment of arrival, issues of assimilation, and conflicts between the first and second generation, literary and cultural production in the new millennium is not solely focused on the conflict between the Old World and the New World or the clashes between culture of origin and adopted Western culture. Recent works by ethnic, multicultural, or minority writers in Canada have become more diverse and experimental in form, theme, focus, and technique. No longer are minority authors identifying simply with their ethnic or racial cultural background in opposition to dominant culture. Many authors consciously attempt to question or problematize the link between ethnic identity and literary production, while still recognizing the racialized context in which they write. Globalization, rapid shifts in technology and communication, cross-cultural and intra-community networks, and racial and cultural hybridization have affected and challenged representations of the Other in contemporary novels, plays, poems, and films. Questions of sexuality and gender have further complicated the assumptions about the ethnic subject and its representation—in particular, its autoethnographic representation. The essays in this collection explore ways in which Asian Canadian authors have gone beyond what Françoise Lionnet calls autoethnography, or ethnographic autobiography(11) and how the representations of race and ethnicity, particularly in works by Asian Canadians, have changed in Canada in the last decade.

The term “autoethnography,” according to Deborah Reed-Danahay, “synthesizes both a postmodern ethnography, in which the realist conventions and objective observer position of standard ethnography have been called into question, and a postmodern autobiography, in which the notion of the coherent, individual self has been similarly called into question.”(12) Reed-Danahay notes that “the term has a double sense—referring either to the ethnography of one’s own group or to autobiographical writing that has ethnographic interest.”(13) Similarly, James Buzard defines autoethnography as “the study, representation, or knowledge of a culture by one or more of its members,” but he notes that the term is “currently occupying the curious position of appearing at once the obvious successor to discredited ethnographic modes and, as yet, a far from universally adopted term in contemporary discourse on culture.”(14) Buzard points out that the term has been used “at the junction of Sociology, Communication Studies, and Education,” but it is still relatively under-used “by critical humanities and social-science scholars over the past several decades” who are clustered into two tropes of “voice and place—those of ‘Letting the Silenced Speak,’ ‘Telling Our Own Story,’ or ‘Speaking for Ourselves,’ on the one hand, and those of ‘Situated Knowledges,’ ‘the Politics of Location,’ or ‘Standpoint Epistemologies.”’(15)