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Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada

Edited by Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer
Subjects Political Science, Globalization, Literary Criticism, Social Science, Multiculturalism, Canadian Literature
Series TransCanada Hide Details
Paperback : 9781554583362, 284 pages, January 2012
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554584185, 284 pages, May 2012


Excerpt from Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora and Indigeneity in Canada edited by Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer

From the first chapter Diaspora and Nation in Métis Writing by Sophie McCall

For the past several years, a growing split has become increasingly evident in critical studies of diasporic and Aboriginal literatures in North America: while most critics of diasporic literatures engage with questions of migrancy in an era of transnational corporatization, the majority of critics of Aboriginal literatures have turned to the language of sovereignty and nationhood in an era of land claims, self-government agreements, and modern-day treaties. On the surface, this gap may seem appropriate. Theories of diaspora may be best suited to address immigrant experiences of displacement, while sovereignty, nationhood, and cultural autonomy are key terms to address current trends in Native politics. Many Aboriginal literary critics, such as Lee Maracle (1996), Craig Womack (1999), and Lisa Brooks (2006), directly link their arguments for “intellectual sovereignty” to current political negotiations over land and governance. Meanwhile, in the work of critics engaged with studies of diaspora—such as James Clifford (1997), Diana Brydon (2000), and Lily Cho (2006)—the language of nation is an unresolved tension, as these critics attempt to grapple with complex transnational formations of identity, labour, technology, and security. It is possible, as Brydon has argued, that “concepts of diaspora reach their limits in the claims to indigeneity” (23), especially in light of current decolonization movements in Aboriginal communities.

However, in this chapter I argue that a diasporic-Indigenous-sovereigntist critical approach may be best suited to address Métis writing, which paradoxically enacts national (i. e. , the Métis nation) and diasporic (i. e. , Métis-sage) identifications. 1 The work of Gregory Scofield, a Métis poet and writer whose ancestry can be traced back five generations to the Red River Settlement, and whose father he recently discovered was Polish-Jewish and German, underlines the necessity to articulate a flexible critical framework that explores both diasporic and national imaginings. Reading the poetry collections Native Canadiana: Songs from the Urban Rez (1996), I Knew Two Métis Women (1999), and Singing Home the Bones (2005), as well as his memoir Thunder through My Veins: Memories of a Métis Childhood (1999), I argue that nation and diaspora cannot be understood as binary opposites, but rather should be viewed as interdependent and mutually constitutive. More pressingly, I argue in favour of bringing in conversation discussions of diaspora, Aboriginal literary nationalism, and Métis subjectivity for the following reasons. Theories of diaspora may offer some vital insights into the history of displacement of Aboriginal peoples in Canada (i. e., the creation of reserves, the forced relocation of Aboriginal communities, and the scattering of Aboriginal communities and families through residential schools and foster care). By countering the tendency to look at specific diasporas separately, and to hierarchize them according to unspecified criteria, as Lily Cho warns against, we have an opportunity to build coalitions between disparate minority histories and to produce a model for relational history writing (Cho 13). Diaspora may also help address experiences of mixed-race, urban, or off-reserve Native peoples, who may or may not maintain strong ties to a sovereigntist nation based on a defined territory. We might garner a better understanding of sovereignties-in-motion, or confederacies, and develop new ways of conceptualizing Native nationalisms that address the wide range of relationships that Aboriginal peoples have to their ancestral territories. 2 By the same token, theories of Aboriginal nationhood have much to contribute to conversations about diaspora. Indigenous sovereigntist perspectives may help articulate community-based processes of participatory citizenship. Diasporic and Indigenous-sovereigntist standpoints share the desire to challenge settler nationalisms and expose the exclusions that have produced Canadian citizenship, even as they grapple with the often devastating effects of a highly mobile, neo-liberal, global capitalism. And theories of diaspora, in conjunction with theories of Indigenous sovereignties, potently acknowledge the underlying maps of Native North America and how First Nations territories traverse the 49th parallel.

It is my hope that the very awkwardness of a cobbled-together diasporic-Indigenous-sovereigntist critical perspective will produce a critical jostling that will question both Nativist and neo-colonial leanings that sometimes surface in these critical debates. In Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literatures in Canada (2000), Smaro Kamboureli states that her efforts to “trace the possibilities of diaspora” is reflective of her “desire to release [herself] from the hold that Nativism has on Canadian literature”(8). What she means by Nativism here is a false claim to belonging in settler-nationalist discourses, based on a manufactured one-to-one relationship between land, language, literature, and community. 3 Nativism produces a fairly high degree of anxiety in the work of other theorists of diaspora, most notably in the work of Paul Gilroy, who argues that diaspora furnishes an alternative to “primordial kinship and rooted belonging,” as well as a principled critique of “the disabling assumptions of automatic solidarity based on either blood or land” (Gilroy 123, 133, qtd. in Chariandy, “Postcolonial” par. 4). Similarly, in Nations without Nationalism (1993), Julia Kristeva speaks forcefully against Romantic-nationalist constructions, arguing that the “cult of origins” creates “a weird primal paradise family, ethnicity, nation, race” which, combined with “the soil, the blood, and the genius of the language,” are the roots of a xenophobic national idea (Kristeva, qtd. in Hoy 127). Yet as much as I support these critiques of Nativism, the question must be asked: What are the ramifications of the portrayals of claims to Indigenous belonging in light of Native peoples’ current struggles over land, resources, and development in Canada? Though none of these critics is talking about Indigenous populations in their hopes that diaspora as a critical tool may critique “a positivistic image of the ethnic imaginary” (Kamboureli xii), or offer a way to think “against race” (Gilroy), or imagine “nations without nationalism” (Kristeva), this silent space between Indigenous and diasporic theories demonstrates that bringing into conversation theories of diaspora, Aboriginal sovereignty, and Métis subjectivity is highly contentious; I need to proceed with caution in moving within and between these overlapping yet explosive discourses.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada, edited by Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer

Introduction | Christine Kim and Sophie McCall


Diaspora and Nation in Métis Writing | Sophie McCall

Canadian Indian Literary Nationalism? Critical Approaches in Canadian Indigenous Contexts—A Collaborative Interlogue | Kristina Fagan, Daniel Heath Justice, Keavy Martin, Sam McKegney, Deanna Reder, and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

Breaking the Framework of Representational Violence: Testimonial Publics, Memorial Arts, and a Critique of Postcolonial Violence (the Pickton Trial) | Julia Emberley

“Grammars of Exchange”: The “Oriental Woman” in the Global Market | Belén Martín-Lucas


Unhomely Moves: A. M. Klein, Jewish Diasporic Difference, Racialization, and Coercive Whiteness | Melina Baum Singer

Asian Canadian Critical Practice as Commemoration | Christopher Lee

Diasporic Longings: (Re)Figurations of Home and Homelessness in Richard Wagamese’s Work | Renate Eigenbrod

Afro-Caribbean Writing in Canada and the Politics of Migrant Labour Mobility | Jody Mason


Racialized Diasporas, Entangled Postmemories, and Kyo Maclear’s The Letter Opener | Christine Kim

Underwater Signposts: Richard Fung’s Islands and Enabling Nostalgia | Lily Cho

“Phoenicia ≠ Lebanon”: Transsexual Poetics as Poetics of the Body within and across the Nation | Alessandra Capperdoni

Word Warriors: Indigenous Political Consciousness in Prison | Deena Rymhs

Works Cited



Contributors’ Bios

Melina Baum Singer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. Her research explores the transnational and diasporic literatures in English Canada. She has co-edited, with Lily Cho, two special issues of Open Letter, “Poetics and Public Culture” and “Dialogues on Poetics and Public Culture,” and has a recent article, “Is Richler Canadian Content?: Jewishness, Race, and Diaspora,” in Canadian Literature 27 (2010).

Alessandra Capperdoni teaches modern and contemporary literature in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. She specializes in Canadian and anglophone literatures, feminist poetics, critical theory, and postcolonial and European studies. Her articles have appeared in Translating from the Margins / Traduire des marges, Translation Effects: The Making of Modern Canadian Culture, Inspiring Collaborations: Canadian Literature, Culture, and Theory, and the journals TTR: Traduction, traductologie, rédaction, Open Letter, and West Coast Line. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Shifting Geographies: Poetics of Citizenship in the Age of Global Modernity.

Lily Cho is associate professor of English at York University in Toronto. Her recent publications include “Future Perfect Loss: Richard Fung’s Sea in the Blood,” Screen 49. 4 (2008); “Asian Canadian Futures: Indenture Routes and Diasporic Passages,” Canadian Literature 199 (2009); and Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Renate Eigenbrod is associate professor and head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, specializing in Aboriginal literatures. Besides the publication of her monograph, entitled Travelling Knowledge: Positioning the Im/Migrant Reader of Aboriginal Literatures in Canada, she has co-edited several volumes of scholarly articles, most recently a special literature issue of The Canadian Journal of Native Studies and the volume Across Cultures/Across Borders, published by Broadview Press.

Julia Emberley is professor of English at the University of Western Ontario. Her recent book is Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada. Recently, she has published articles in English Studies in Canada, Topia, The Journal of Visual Culture, Humanities Research, and Fashion Theory. kristina fagan teaches Aboriginal literature and storytelling in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She co-edited Henry Pennier’s autobiography, Call Me Hank: A Sto:lo Man’s Reflections on Living, Logging, and Growing Old, which was launched with a traditional Sto:lo feast and book-burning (so that the dead can read the book). She is a member of the Labrador Métis Nation, and her current project is a study of Labrador Métis narrative and identity.

Daniel Heath Justice is an enrolled Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the author of Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History (University of Minnesota Press), The Way of Thorn and Thunder (published as a trilogy by Kegedonce, and a single-volume omnibus edition by the University of New Mexico Press), and numerous articles on Indigenous literary criticism, history, and cultural studies. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Indigenous North American Literatures and associate professor of Aboriginal literatures and Aboriginal studies at the University of Toronto.

Christine Kim is assistant professor of English at Simon Fraser University. Her teaching and research focus on Asian North American literature and theory, contemporary Canadian literature, and diasporic writing. Her journal publications include Open Letter, Studies in Canadian Literature, Mosaic, and Interventions (forthcoming). She is currently working on a book-length project titled Racialized Publics.

Christopher Lee is assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia. His articles have appeared in Amerasia Journal, Canadian Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Journal of Asian American Studies, Router, and differences. His book The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature will be published by Stanford University Press in 2012. His current research focuses on trans-Pacific literary formalism during the Cold War and formations of “Asia” across settler colonial societies.

Keavy Martin lives in Treaty 6 territory, where she is assistant professor of Indigenous literatures at the University of Alberta. Her articles have appeared in journals such as the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, English Studies in Canada, and Canadian Literature, and she is currently completing a book-length project on Inuit literature in Canada. In the summer, she teaches with the University of Manitoba’s annual program in Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

Belén Martín-Lucas teaches postcolonial literatures in English and diasporic film and literatures at the University of Vigo, Spain. Her research focuses on the politics of resistance in contemporary postcolonial feminist fiction, looking at the diverse strategies employed in literary works, such as tropes and genres.

Jody Mason is assistant professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her book, which analyzes discourses of unemployment in twentieth-century Canadian literatures, is forthcoming in 2012 with the University of Toronto Press. Mason has published work on the relations among class, diasporic formations, and the politics of mobility in Canadian Literature, Studies in Canadian Literature, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, and University of Toronto Quarterly.

Sophie McCall teaches contemporary Canadian and Indigenous literatures in the English department at Simon Fraser University. Her book, First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship (2011), explores the complexity of the issue of “voice” by examining double-voiced, cross-cultural, composite productions among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal collaborators. She has published articles in Essays on Canadian Writing, Canadian Review of American Studies, Resources for Feminist Research, Canadian Literature, and C. L.R. James Journal.

Sam McKegney is a settler scholar of Indigenous literatures. He grew up in Anishinaabe territory on the Saugeen Peninsula along the shores of Lake Huron, and currently resides with his partner and their two daughters in lands of shared stewardship between the Haudenosaunee and Algonquin nations, where he is an associate professor of Indigenous and Canadian literatures at Queen’s University. He has written a book entitled Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School and articles on such topics as environmental kinship, masculinity theory, prison writing, Indigenous governance, and Canadian hockey mythologies.

Deanna Reder (Cree/Métis) received her PhD from the Department of English at the University of British Columbia in 2007 and is currently assistant professor in English and First Nations studies at Simon Fraser University. She co-edited an anthology with Linda Morra (Bishops University) titled Troubling Tricksters: Revisiting Critical Conversations (2010) and is currently working on a monograph on Cree and Métis autobiography in Canada. Her article, “Writing Autobiographically: A Neglected Indigenous Intellectual Tradition,” is included in Across Cultures/Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literatures (2009).

Deena Rymhs is associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008), and her work on imprisoned authors has appeared in Life Writing, Biography, and the Journal of Gender Studies. She is currently writing another book on spaces of violence in Indigenous literature.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe) is originally from St. Peter’s (Little Peguis) Indian Settlement and is an assistant professor in the departments of English and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. In 2009, he co-edited (with Renate Eigenbrod) a double issue of The Canadian Journal of Native Studies (29. 1 and 2), focusing on “Responsible, Ethical, and Indigenous-Centred Literary Criticisms of Indigenous Literatures” and was a featured author in The Exile Book of Native Canadian Fiction and Drama, edited by Daniel David Moses (2011). He currently has two books under contract, the first (co-edited with Warren Cariou) is an anthology of Manitoba Aboriginal writing over the past three centuries titled Manitowapow (Portage & Main Press) and the second (co-edited with Jill Doerfler and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark) is a collection of critical and creative works on Anishinaabe story titled Centering Anishinaabeg Studies (Michigan State University Press).


Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada considers how the terms of critical debate in literary and cultural studies in Canada have shifted with respect to race, nation, and difference. In asking how Indigenous and diasporic interventions have remapped these debates, the contributors argue that a new “cultural grammar” is at work and attempt to sketch out some of the ways it operates.

The essays reference pivotal moments in Canadian literary and cultural history and speak to ongoing debates about Canadian nationalism, postcolonalism, migrancy, and transnationalism. Topics covered include the Asian race riots in Vancouver in 1907, the cultural memory of internment and dispersal of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s, the politics of migrant labour and the “domestic labour scheme” in the 1960s, and the trial of Robert Pickton in Vancouver in 2007. The contributors are particularly interested in how diaspora and indigeneity continue to contribute to this critical reconfiguration and in how conversations about diaspora and indigeneity in the Canadian context have themselves been transformed. Cultural Grammars is an attempt to address both the interconnections and the schisms between these multiply fractured critical terms as well as the larger conceptual shifts that have occurred in response to national and postnational arguments.


``Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada is a valuable contribution to an emerging discourse within the field of Indigenous Studies. It furthers a multi-disciplinary dialogue by exploring the relationship between transnationalism, diaspora, and indigeneity in Canada, while interrogating the value of postcolonial theory as a lens for working through these topics. With the objective of ‘[making] discernible the language rules governing our critical choices and the conceptual framework we mobilize, consciously or not’ (9), Cultural Grammars challenges existing notions of home, nostalgia, and authenticity, and explores the linkages between the respective histories that shape transnational and Indigenous identities. ... Cultural Grammars is highly sophisticated, intensely theoretical, and can be difficult to apply across disciplines on account of the specificity of some of the literary analysis; however. ... there are moments of insight in each chapter that encourage a broad array of readers to be self-reflexive of the nomenclature and theoretical frameworks employed in their own work. ''

- Gabrielle Legault, BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly

``These essays map the fields of debate about nation, Indigeneity, and diaspora to clarify the stakes of discussion rather than simply to choose a singular definition of those complex concepts. ... As a whole, the collection's charge to think deeply about terms of critique challenges critics not only to question the assumptions and stakes of various projects, but also to look outside the shibboleths of cultural studies subfields in order to avoid blindspots and to envision alternative futures free of corporatized modernity. ''

- Paul Lai, Canadian Literature, 215, Winter 2012