Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border by Gillian Roberts (review)
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Reviewed by
Gillian Roberts. Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border. McGill-Queen's University Press. xii, 284. $34.95

This book makes a highly original contribution to the fields of border studies, hemispheric studies, and English-Canadian literary studies by probing "the mythic status that the 49th parallel has accrued in the dominant Canadian national imaginary." But rather than focusing exclusively on the relationship between Canada and the United States, Gillian [End Page 110] Roberts examines Canada's complex status as a nation with its own colonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial relationships to various populations within its borders. To frame her arguments, Roberts employs the concept of hospitality, borrowing from the work of Kant and Derrida in productive and revealing ways, to explore the power dynamics between the host nation and those who visit (an) Other's territory, and to foreground the implicit contradictions that lie within the term, which etymologically "allows itself to be parasitized by its opposite, hostility." The notion of being a good guest and a generous host are central to these ideas, but of course, as Roberts points out, not all visitors or residents are welcoming or respectful. In using this terminology to frame her readings of various texts, Roberts highlights the tensions that exist both between Canada and the United States and within Canada itself, traversing a wide range of works in multiple genres and forms (including poetry, television drama, novels, and plays) to explore how the forty-ninth parallel is depicted and understood by English-Canadian writers.

Discrepant Parallels is written in an accessible and engaging style, and with a deep familiarity with Canadian literatures and cultures, but without the requisite fearfulness that has tended to shape Canadian approaches to hemispheric and border studies. As an academic trained in Canada but professionally located in the United Kingdom, Roberts offers a refreshingly thoughtful vision of how Canadian literatures might benefit from these critical approaches while carefully differentiating her work from that of US-based Americanists who "include Canada among their inter-American studies of literature and culture," yet "tend to sidestep Canadian studies and its longstanding engagement with the Canada-US border." The result is a study that is self-reflexively aware of the importance of the forty-ninth parallel for communities within Canada whose perceptions of the border deviate from and complicate Pierre Trudeau's famous depiction of the United States as an elephant who, even when sleeping, affects Canada with every "twitch and grunt." The five chapters of Roberts's book explore a range of texts produced from 1980 onward, reflecting a focus on the most recent thirty-five years of Canada-US relations which has been shaped by NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the aftermath of 9/11. Discrepant Parallels begins with an analysis of "the Canadian nationalist investment in the 49th parallel," which includes studies of Canadian poet David McFadden's Great Lakes Suite (1997) in chapter one, and a consideration of three televisual texts (Bordertown, Due South, and The Border) in chapter two, followed by chapters that address populations within Canada and across the border, including Indigenous writers who struggle with the imposition of the forty-ninth parallel, and African-Canadian authors who expose Canada's history of inhospitality, "which has been obfuscated by the nation-state's self-congratulation for offering [End Page 111] sanctuary to escaped slaves." The fifth chapter returns to the complicated dynamic of Canadian-Latin American relations in a hemispheric context in order to approach the traditional power imbalance felt by Canadians with respect to the United States from a different angle, revealing points of privilege that might otherwise be unacknowledged (for instance the Mexican migrant workers who populate Canadian farms, providing cheap seasonal labour). Roberts stresses the fact that Canada does not always play the role of hospitable host, drawing on a variety of texts – including most powerfully Guillermo Verdecchia's one man play, Fronteras Americanas/American Borders (1993) – to illustrate how various writers challenge the pervasiveness and complicity of Canadians in cultivating often negative and demeaning Latin American and American stereotypes. In doing so, Roberts engages in the crucial conversations that need to happen to better understand Canada...


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