Tuesday, September 18, 2007

done and DONE

Your friendly neighbourhood blogger PASSED her comprehensive exam with flying colours!

Stay tuned for major changes between now and October 1...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

fear and loathing in freddy beach

Arg! I write my comprehensive exam in four days, sixteen hours, and ten minutes!


Does anyone have any advice for a terrified young Ph.D. candidate?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

In reading "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial" by Thomas King, I realize now that my write up of Medicine River was nothing short of ignorant. In King's words:

Associational literature, most often, describes a Native community. While it may also describe a non-Native community, it avoids centring the story on the non-Native community or on a conflict between the two cultures, concentrating instead on the daily activities and intricacies of Native life and organizing the elements of plot along a rather flat narrative line that ignores the ubiquitous climaxes and resolutions that are so valued in non-Native literature. In addition to this flat narrative line, associational literature leans towards the group rather than the single, isolated character, creating a fiction that de-values heroes and villains in favour of the members of a community, a fiction which eschews judgments and conclusions.

The purpose of this, King explains, is two-fold: it's to allow white readers the experience of Native culture free of stereotyping, glamourizing, literary tourism, or pandering; but it's also to remind Native readers of their own culture as valuable, as representable in text, and as present and active rather than archaic and dead.

I now understand better the project of Medicine River, and can genuinely say I learned something useful today.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

where is here? here is queer

This book has been one I have gravitated towards, flipped through, and quoted from for many years, but until now I had not sat down to read the whole thing cover-to-cover. I feel like I should have years ago. I think this book at Atwood's Survival should have been handed to me at the start of my English degree with the words, "Read this or perish!" Seriously, how did I get this far without this book? Mysteries never cease...

Here Is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada
by Peter Dickinson

In this book I contend that the identificatory lack upon which Canadian literary nationalism has historically been constructed -- the 'where' of Fry's 'here,' for example -- is in large part facilitated by, if not wholly dependent upon, a critical refusal to come to grips with the textual superabundance of a destabilizing and counter-normative sexuality. This counter-normative sexuality I am labeling 'queer,' a term that applies equally in this book to the erotic triangles foundin John Richardson's New World and those that resurface in Leonard Cohen's New Jerusalem; to the hyper-masculinity of Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West and the feminist revisionism of Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic, to the apparent sterility of Mrs. Bentley's prairie Horizon and the unexpected verdancy of Maude Laures's desert horizon; to the sexual dissimulation inherent in Pierre X. Magnant's admission 'une phobie d'impoussance' in Trou de mémoire and the sexual exhibitionism accompanying Claude's mantra of 'Chus t'un homme' at the end of Hosanna; to Duncan Campbell Scott's miscegenated Madonna and Tomson Highway's hybrid Trickster. This is not to say that 'here' is only or ever 'queer,' nor that resistance to a heteronormative nationalism is always or exclusively homosexual; what the range of texts discussed in this book does suggest, however, is that 'queer,' as a literary-critical category of an almost inevitable definitional elasticity, one whose inventory of sexual meanings has yet to be exhausted, challenges and upsets certain received national orthodoxies of writing in Canada.

If you want to play a really fun game, ask a first- or second- year literature student why they hate their CanLit classes. If they're feeling honest and you're not their professor, you might get what seemed to be an increasingly common complaint when I was hanging about with undergraduates at my former institution. That is, they all seem to feel CanLit is "a bit weird." Probe below that surface, with a student who is wavering between the immaturity of high school and the no-holds-barred free-for-all of residence sexuality, and you will come pretty close to the truth: "What's with all the weird sex?"

In Canadian Literature, I hold two truths to be self-evident: our protagonists fail, and our protagonists engage in alternative sexualities, both of the pro- and anti-social kinds (pro-social alternative sexuality being homosexuality, transsexuality, asexuality, and anti-social alternative sexuality involving violence, rape, and the damaging of other people). Often, the two occur together; more often, the one is a symbolic representation of the other. Off the top of my head and going through the CanLit selections of my undergraduate career, I can think of a woman having sex with a bear, about a million and a half rape scenes, hundreds of people coming of age and coming to terms with their sexuality, more weird group sex and necrophilia than one might expect, and a whole lot of transvestism as symbolic representation of self. No wonder our 19-year-old undergrads are so confused and scared.

Peter Dickinson goes beyond the surface readings of these texts to study the impact of the queer on the Canadian literary canon, and in the meantime asserts a necessity to challenge our assumptions about what national literature is. For generations we have insisted on seeing queer literature as outside Canadian experience somehow, when a quick flip through our canon shows that it has been there, ignored by critics, for ever. From the obvious triangulation of sexual desire in Wacousta (what else is it when your best friend's twin sister, the spitting image of him, is your sole sexual desire?) to the weird doubling of self in the Philip and Mrs. Bentley and their relationship with their "son" in As For Me and My House, alternative sexualities and male homosocial desire is prevalent in the literature of Canada. To argue that it is anyway outside the experience of Canada is increasingly ludicrous with ever passing year in Canadian literature -- here is, more and more as we become more aware as critics and scholars, queer.

My favourite chapter of this book is Dickinson's chapter on Tomson Highway, because I've always been intrigued by the way Highway constructs masculinity in his plays. In his first play, as Dickinson points out, the men are gone; in the second, they are immasculated. There is a level upon which colonized men are doubly colonized, because they feel that their power has first been robbed of them by the white men and then by the feminist interests of their own women. Dickinson takes on critics who have argued that Highway's plays are profoundly misogynist by pointing out that anywhere we see a trickster character, we must be careful not to take the plays at face value. Certainly, Highway attacks issues of misogyny in his theatre, but he does so without being complacent to those hurtful ideas. Furthermore, Dickinson touches on the two-spirited characters in Highway's plays, and explores the character of Big Joey as a figure of sexual attraction for both the male and female characters in the world of the Wasy Reserve. Importantly, by showing Nanabush as a campy/drag figure, Highway is making clear the place for the two-spirited, gay, or transgendered person in Aboriginal mythology, recreating the space that existed for such people before missionaries and colonizations destroyed the world on non-heteronormative sexuality.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

staying with the burning rock for a little longer, here's Michael Winter

The Big Why
by Michael Winter

What is integrity anyway, except constancy in character. And what if maintaining constancy is false. What if one assumes that the soul is not thoroughly unwavering. Why honour the man who does not change his opinion. Who does not alter his course. Who is methodical and predictable. Why praise the pattern. What if there is no accurate measure of a man's behaviour. A few things: the pulse of the world is always shifting between poles. I have become attached to the ontological. I believe in atheism and the power of the ontological. The reason I do not believe in God is because I am happy with this world. I believe in slim books. I believe in the shape a boat cuts through ice. Sometimes we need God. Our hunches are not intuitive, or they are a blend of nature and the absorption of cultural ways. The third is will to know a truth. This is my book, this will to know.

God, I love Michael Winter. He has a way of looking at the world and capturing all the confusion and fear and angst and joy and excitement in one of two sentences. In The Big Why, Winter leaves aside his usual literary persona of Gabriel English to create a historical fiction. This novel tells of the American painter Rockwell Kent and his decision, in 1914, to uproot his family from their comfortable New York and to transplant them in a Newfoundland fishing community called Brigus. Kent struggles to fit in in the small community, but seems to take as many steps forwards as he does back. When the first world war erupts in earnest, Kent's passion for German culture, his vegetarianism, his socialism and his pacifism all make him the perfect target for assumed anti-British sensibilities, and he is eventually run out of the country of Newfoundland as a German spy.

Rockwell Kent is a man of great passion, both in her art and in his life, but he is not someone who can direct that passion effectively, and the result is that he is left torn between the man he believes that he is and the man he would desperately like to be. Kent is a womanizer, and his desire for women leads him to cheat constantly on his wife, Kathleen. He justifies it to himself that he forewarned Kathleen that he could never be faithful, and for the most part Kathleen tolerates the affairs. Indeed, casual sexual encounters don't really bother Kathleen, though she seems to have married Kent with the expectation that he would grown out of that behaviour. For Kathleen, though, it is emotional betrayals that leave her shocked and speechless. The first occurs when Kent gets together with the woman he loves before Kathleen, Jenny, and they have a baby while Kent is married to Kathleen. The second comes when Kent takes up with the woman who is meant to be caring for their children while Kathleen is in the hospital in St. John's with a complicated pregnancy. This woman, Emily, was a friend of Kathleen's, and the betrayal is such that, for the first time, Kathleen calls Kent a burden. This is the beginning of the end of the marriage, and they eventually divorce. (Kent's affair with Emily also produces a love child, but nothing is learnt of that for many years later, and well after Kathleen's own death.) The bizarre thing about this painful and volatile relationship is that Kent repeatedly argues that he wants to be faithful -- that if he could be any other kind of man than the man he is, he would want to be a fully domesticated sort of person. He would want to be monogamous to Kathleen. His inability to be that man is troubling for him and leads him to constantly be split between the father and husband he ought to be and the womanizing man he actually is. Negotiating the male identity has always been a motif in the writing of Michael Winter, and here he retraces that idea with the very compelling tale of a man torn between two idealized selves, never quite capable of finding the balance or middle ground.

a little sojourn in newfoundland with lisa moore

by Lisa Moore

The brushed their teeth in filthy bathrooms with warped mirrors and naked light bulbs in mountain villages. The porcelain sinks had flares of rust and the drains went down into the earth and bubble up close by. She thought about the phrase, My husband. She said it to herself, This is my husband, Martin. She hated to say the word wife. It was not a word she could bring herself to say.

Husband, too, was questionable. It sounded stout, bifocaled, and involving of a cardigan.

There were things she would not do: she would not iron his shirts, she would not mow lawns or ever, ever, ever fake an orgasm or put her children in sailing or allow Martin to buy a motorcycle because she was afraid his head would get smashed in, though he wanted a motorcycle more than anything in the world, nor would she get fat or sleep on the couch or let the sun set on a fight or have an abortion or make meatloaf, although a recipe with orange rind and brown sugar had caught her eye.

She would not outright deny the motorcycle -- how could she -- but she would connive against it.

She would never freeze seven meals because she was going away and didn't want him to have to cook.

It frightenend her, what she had got into.

I can't lie. I really want to hang out with Lisa Moore. I have a crush on her in the grade six sense of the word, where all you want in the world is to be that person's best friend. I think we would get along well, but more than that I really want to hang out with the kind of person who can create the beauty that exists in her writing. Alligator is a triumphant novel about the
hidden connections between people and seems to suggest that the world is divided into those who follow their desires and those who do not. For the characters in Alligator, everyone is connected, from the brain-damaged side-show act who has put his head inside an alligator, to the girl in St. John's who is acting out for the love of two lost fathers, to the Russian mobster with the secret desire to go straight -- everyone is inter-related and inter-connected in intimate and important ways. As each life touches another, the text seems to ask us to consider our relationships with other people. When I first started studying English, a professor told me that the only way to make literature worth anything is to notice the hidden connections among things -- both within the world of the text and between the text and other cultural touchstones -- and Alligator is very much about the process of realizing one's place in society.

This is also a novel about roles and the parts we play. In the quote above, we see a woman struggling with the idea of being a woman with her own independent identity, and a wife as well. She fears being incapable of doing both those things successfully. In the end, feeling lost within the marriage, she divorces her husband, but when she comes to the end of her own life -- brought about through a heart condition and the stress of following her own dreams as a filmmaker in the years after her divorce -- she wants nothing more than to return to the connection she once shared with her ex-husband. For Madeline, this is the paradox that consumes her life, and in the end she dies because of an inability to find balance between the things she ought to do and the person she wants to be.

The most touching story in the novel though is the story of Colleen. Never having known her biological father, Colleen is raised by a step-father she loves unconditionally, but who dies when she is very young. Colleen begins an acting-out process of drinking, acting out, and promiscuity that places boundaries between herself and her mother than can no longer be crossed. From her mother's perspective, Beverly wants to love her daughter but fears that with all the punishing and court dates and disconnect she has forgotten how to mother. Colleen, for her part, cannot love, and she uses the love of others (like the sweet-tempered and kind-hearted Frank, who is also coping with the loss of a parent) for her own gain. When Colleen sleeps with Frank and then robs him, she changes his perception of the world and alters his life's trajectory; Frank ends up embroiled in the plot of a Russian mobster and nearly dies in a house fire. Colleen's inability to see the consequences of her actions is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the novel.