American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 789-813
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In 1965, in the concluding essay to the first Literary History of Canada, Northrop Frye wrote that the question "Where is here?" was the central preoccupation of Canadian culture. He equivocated as to the causes of this national condition of disorientation, alternately suggesting historical, geographical, and cultural explanations–the truncated history of a settler colony, the lack of a Western frontier in a country entered as if one were "being silently swallowed by an alien continent" (217), a defensive colonial "garrison mentality" (226)–explanations that were unified by their unexamined Eurocentrism. Frye’s thesis has since proven to be an inexhaustible departure point for commentaries on Canadian literary criticism–as witnessed by this very essay, by the title of one of the four books under review, as well as a recent issue of the journal Essays in Canadian Writing, organized around the question, "Where Is Here Now?" The question was first asked at what many take to be the inaugural moment of the institutionalization of CanLit, when the field began to be considered a credible area of research specialization.1 Since then, as one of the contributors to "Where Is Here Now?" observes, "Canadian literature as an area of study has become a rather staid inevitable in English departments" (Goldie 224).
So Frye’s question has become a somewhat tired one. Canadians who watched the first five years of The X-Files television series and saw familiar British-Columbian landscapes deployed as low-cost backgrounds stretching from New Mexico to New England might be forgiven for continuing to ask the question "Where is here?" however. The landscape of Minus Time, a 1993 novel set in Toronto, seems to comment on this right-price versatility of Canadian locations, as its protagonist bikes past blue mailboxes that transform her city into "New York or Boston or Baltimore" (Bush 79). According to this analysis, Canada’s status as a Hollywood set is the product of a generalized postmodern condition. Dionne Brand’s poetry collection, Land to Light On (1997), offers a different analysis, one that counters the Eurocentric assumptions of Frye’s explanations for the condition of disorientation and "strangled articulateness" (Frye 220), by representing these [End Page 789] as the particular experiences of the minoritized migrant subject. In Brand’s poems, speakers renounce the nation-building project and the commitment to "offices or islands, continents, graphs"–especially when this commitment demands the surrender of "parentheses" about the "engine turning up refugees, / corporate boards, running shoes, new economic plans" (47, 102). The critical trend that accompanies the emergence of these new takes on the question "Where is here?" is indeed distinguished by a greater willingness to engage such untidy parentheses, to explore internal differences and border conflicts (as opposed to differentiating Canada from external others). Turning to Canadian literature as an object of study has become a problematic move, requiring a more critical motivation than mere promotionalism or even the desire for self-knowledge.
In the fiction of English-speaking Canada and Quebec from the 1970s to the 1990s considered by Marie Vautier and Dawn Thompson, the authors locate textual strategies that speak to wider questions in postcolonial and feminist theory, pointing the way beyond the impasses of self-other problematizations and identity politics founded on a right to self-representation. The question of national specificity is displaced here by a focus on literary mode and formal technique. Vautier discusses a myth-making practice that extends beyond Canada to the entire New World (minus the US); Thompson isolates a nonmimetic "holographic" technology at work in Québécois and English-Canadian fiction but is unwilling to...