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Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography

Edited by Eleanor Ty
By Christl Verduyn
Subjects Ethnography, Literary Criticism, Canadian Literature
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Paperback : 9781554580231, 342 pages, August 2008


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)

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography, edited by Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn


I. Theoretical Challenges and Praxis

The Politics of the Beyond: 43 Theses on Autoethnography and Complicity | Smaro Kamboureli

Autoethnography Otherwise: Challenging Poetics and Re-Meaning Race in Fred Wah’s Creative Critical Writing | Paul Lai

Tides of Belonging: Reconfiguring the Autoethnographic Paradigm in Shani Mootoo’s He Drown She in the Sea | Kristina Kyser

II. Generic Transformations

Strategizing the Body of History: Anxious Writing, Absent Subjects, and Marketing the Nation | Larissa Lai

The Politics of Gender and Genre in Asian Canadian Women’s Speculative Fiction: Hiromi Goto and Larissa Lai | Pilar Cuder-Domínguez

“auto-hyphen-ethno-hyphen-graphy”: Fred Wah’s Creative-Critical Writing | Joanne Saul

III. Artistic/Textual/Bodily Politics

Troubling the Mosaic: Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand, Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, and Representations of Social Differences | Christine Kim

Ken Lum, Paul Wong, and the Aesthetics of Multiculturalism | Ming Tiampo

Potent Textuality: Laiwan’s Cyborg Poetics | Tara Lee

IV. Global Affiliations

“Do not exploit me again and again”: Queering Autoethnography in Suniti Namjoshi’s Goja: An Autobiographical Myth | Eva C. Karpinski

An Ethnos of Difference, a Praxis of Inclusion: The Ethics of Global Citizenship in Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night | Miriam Pirbhai

Ying Chen’s “Poetic Rebellion”: Relocating the Dialogue, In Search of Narrative Renewal | Christine Lorre




Contributors’ Bios

Pilar Cuder-Domínguez is Associate Professor of English at the University of Huelva (Spain), where she teaches British and English-Canadian Literature. Her research interests are the intersections of gender, genre, nation, and race. She is the author of Margaret Atwood: A Beginner’s Guide (2003), and the (co)-editor of five collections of essays (La mujer del texto al contexto, 1996; Exilios femeninos, 2000; Sederi XI, 2002; Espacios de Género, 2005; and The Female Wits, 2006). She has been visiting scholar at universities in Canada and the United States: McGill (1997), Dalhousie (1999), Northwestern (2002), and Toronto (2004). Her current research deals with Canadian women’s transnational poetics.

Smaro Kamboureli is Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature at the University of Guelph and the Director of the TransCanada Institute. Her publications include Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada and a new edition of Making a Difference: Multicultural Literatures in English.

Eva C. Karpinski teaches women’s life writing, cultural studies, and feminist theory in the School of Womens Studies at York University in Toronto. Her research interests include postmodernist fiction, immigrant autobiography, translation studies, and feminist ethics. She has published articles on John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Federman, and Eva Hoffman. She is the editor of Pens of Many Colours, an anthology of Canadian multicultural writing. Her article on Angela Carter won the best essay award from Utopian Studies in 2001.

Christine Kim is Assistant Professor of English at Simon Fraser University. Her teaching and research focus on contemporary Canadian literature, feminist theory, print culture and publishing, and diasporic writing. She has published articles in Mosaic, Open Letter, and Studies in Canadian Literature and has an essay forthcoming in Essays on Canadian Writing.

Kristina Kyser is an instructor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, where she completed her doctorate in 2004. Her research and teaching interests include literature and ethics and postcolonial theory. She is also interested in interdisciplinary approaches to Canadian literature from the perspectives of philosophy, religious studies, and political science. She has published or presented papers on Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King, Rohinton Mistry, and Yann Martel. She is currently revising her book-length study, Swallowed by the Whale: Bible and Nation in English-Canadian Writing, for publication.

Larissa Lai is Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of two novels, When Fox Is a Thousand and Salt Fish Girl. Her research interests include race, memory, subjectivity, globalization, sexuality, labour, cyborgs, strategy, and borders.

Paul Lai teaches Asian American literature at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He is researching a project on sound and Asian American cultures. His work considers Asian American Studies as a pedagogical practice, an institutional presence, and a theoretical space for addressing social issues. His work explores how things like anthologies, music websites, and comedy routines link screams, cries, melodies, accents, and other sounds to Asian American identities and politics.

Tara Lee holds a Ph. D. in English Literature from Simon Fraser University. Her teaching interests are in Canadian literature and ethnic minority writing. She has published articles on Asian Canadian literature and identity in journals such as West Coast Line, Dandelion, and Cultural Studies Review.

Christine Lorre is an Assistant Professor of English at Université Paris III--Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her teaching interests are in American studies, literature in English, and translation. She has published articles in journals edited in France (Etudes canadiennes / Canadian Studies, Commonwealth, Journal of the Short Story in English / Cahiers de la nouvelle, Lisa) and as chapters in books published in France (Lectures d’une œuvre: The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, Editions du Temps; Les Amériques et le Pacifique, Université Rennes 2) and in Canada (Vision / Division dans l’œuvre de Nancy Huston, Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa).

Mariam Pirbhai is an Assistant Professorin the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where she teaches Post-Colonial Literatures and Theory. Her publications includearticles on Indo-Caribbean Literature,Post-Colonial Theory,Multicultural Writing in Canada, and onliteraryfigures such as Salman Rushdie. She is presently working on a book-length study of the theoretical and socio-historical intersections between indentured labourand slavery in Caribbean writing.

Joanne Saul teaches English and Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto. She is author of Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2006). She is also co-owner of the independent bookstore TYPE Books in Toronto.

Ming Tiampo is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her research examines questions of cultural translation and transmission in an international context, concentrating on Japan’s relations with the West as well as pluralism in Canada. Her current projects include an exhibition on pluralism in Canada, as well as a book that considers the Japanese avant-garde art movement Gutai in a transnational context. She has published and given papers in Japan, Europe, the United States, and Canada, and in 2004–5 was the curator of the award-winning exhibition “Electrifying Art: Atsuko Tanaka 1954–1968” at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. She is a founding member of the Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis (CTCA) at Carleton.

Eleanor Ty is Professor and Chair of English & Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Author of The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives (University of Toronto Press, 2004), Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796&0150;1812 (University of Toronto Press, 1998), and Unsex’d Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s (University of Toronto Press, 1993), she has edited Memoirs of Emma Courtney (Oxford 1996) and The Victim of Prejudice (Broadview 1994) by Mary Hays and has co-edited with Donald Goellnicht a collection of essays, Asian North American Identities Beyond the Hyphen (Indiana University Press, 2004). She has published essays on Michael Ondaatje, on Joy Kogawa, on Jamaica Kincaid, on reading romances, on Exotica, and on Miss Saigon.

Christl Verduyn is Professor of Canadian Studies and Canadian literature at Mount Allison University. She publishes on Canadian and Québécois women’s writing and criticism, multiculturalism and minority writing, life writing, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature. Recent books include Identity, Community, Nation: Essays on Canadian Writing (with D. Schaub, 2002), Marian Engel: Life in Letters (with K. Garay, 2004), and Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries (2005). Her 1995 study Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings received the Gabrielle Roy Book Prize.


Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography explores some of the latest developments in the literary and cultural practices of Canadians of Asian heritage. While earlier work by ethnic, multicultural, or minority writers in Canada was often concerned with immigration, the moment of arrival, issues of assimilation, and conflicts between generations, literary and cultural production in the new millennium no longer focuses solely on the conflict between the Old World and the New or the clashes between culture of origin and adopted culture. No longer are minority authors identifying simply with their ethnic or racial cultural background in opposition to dominant culture.

The essays in this collection explore ways in which Asian Canadian authors (such as Larissa Lai, Shani Mootoo, Fred Wah, Hiromi Goto, Suniti Namjoshi, and Ying Chen) and artists (such as Ken Lum, Paul Wong, and Laiwan) have gone beyond what Françoise Lionnet calls autoethnography, or ethnographic autobiography. They demonstrate the ways representations of race and ethnicity, particularly in works by Asian Canadians in the last decade, have changed have become more playful, untraditional, aesthetically and ideologically transgressive, and exciting.


  • Commended, Association for Asian American Studies Literary Studies Book Award 2008


"The essay collection is noteworthy in its comprehensive analysis of a diverse range of literary texts, and analysis that involves a critical examination of autoethnographic writing in its complicity with and departures from representations of otherness. "

- Ranbir K. Banwait, Canadian Literature 204

"Beyond Autoethnography offers an impressive set of critical interventions that illustrate the range of scholarship in Asian Canadian literary studies and will be of great interest to scholars and students of contemporary Asian Canadian culture. "

- Christopher Lee, Pacific Affairs, Volume 82, no. 2, Summer 2009