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  • Intersections of Gender and Ethnic Performativity in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees
  • Corey Frost (bio)

Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees is a thematically complex novel, but in theoretical terms, it is perhaps most interesting for the way it metaphorizes one political struggle in terms of another, specifically through the intersection of its postcolonial and gender-transgressive ( or "post-gender") themes. This essay examines and attempts to explain some of those strategies of resistance.

Fall on Your Knees tells the story of an ethnically mixed family living in Cape Breton in the early part of the twentieth century; this paper will focus mainly on the characters of Kathleen and Rose. Kathleen, who sees herself as "pure white" and wants to be an opera singer, is the red-haired eldest daughter of the Piper family; Rose, who is also of mixed race and who identifies as black, is the pianist that Kathleen meets in New York. There are several obvious ways in which the novel takes irreverent aim at the controlling myths of imperialism. One of these challenges is evident in the hybrid, heterogeneous community that the novel presents as a counter-example to the nationalist imaginary picture of Canadian society, and Maritime society, in particular; this strategy is the focus of the first section of this article. Other strategies of resistance in the novel are less obvious but ultimately more compelling. The second section of the article looks at how the novel demonstrates ethnic performativity, by which I mean an interpretation of ethnicity as a constantly performed construction rather than an essential attribute. The third section compares and [End Page 195] combines that concept with the notion of gender performativity in order to see how the two concepts overlap and complement one another in the novel. I will make use, primarily, of Judith Butler's insights into gender performance and of several concepts from Homi Bhabha, particularly, the notion of disjunctive temporality ("DissemiNation")—an idea central to the functioning of gender and ethnic performativity as strategies of resistance.

Postcolonialisms in Settler Societies and Counter-narratives of the Nation

Literature that manifests a resistance to colonialism in settler societies is necessarily characterized by a fundamental ambiguity: the object of that resistance cannot be located entirely outside the resistant subject. The field of contestation can never be reduced to a simple Manichean binary of colonizer and colonized, as the settler community is always variously implicated in the colonizing act. The question of who is colonizing whom must become a multifarious inquiry into the nature of subordination, marginalization, and cultural identity. Therefore, Canada, for example, which historically and politically is a postcolonial society, exists in a web of intricate and ongoing relationships of colonization, including the assimilative forces faced by Native cultures, the overwhelming external influence of US cultural imperialism, and the internal hegemony of federalist constructions of a Canadian nation. Anti-colonial resistance in Canadian literature, then, is played out in the diverse, ongoing, and recursive struggles for cultural identity, the performance of cultural specificities, the struggle for control of identitary narrative: the struggle for the story.

From the point of view of the individual regions of the country, the strongest inhibition to the autonomous creation and preservation of Canadian cultural identities may well be Canada itself. There is a tension between the efforts of the central nation-building institutions (i.e., the federal government) and the efforts of regional communities to control the cultural expression of their own identities. For example, Toronto-based writer R.M. Vaughan—originally from New Brunswick—points out in an essay on the "infantilization" of Maritime culture that federalist versions of national identity require Maritimers to fill the role of pre-modern rural folk, representing the nation's roots and a foundation of faithful labour in resource-based industry. He [End Page 196] compares their function to that of the simple peasants bringing up the rear in Socialist propagandist paintings. What does this have to do with the reality of life in the Maritimes, or more pointedly, with Maritimers' own image of themselves? It is the need for evidence of cultural diversity on the federal level that leads to the imaginary...


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