Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 316-320
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Here Is Queer:
Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada
Here Is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada. By Peter Dickinson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. x + 262. $50.00 (cloth).
It has been almost three decades since Northrop Frye posed the question, "Where is here?" In his recent book, Peter Dickinson responds with a resounding, "Here is queer." Whereas Frye portrayed Canadian literature as distinguished by a sense of national ennui, Dickinson's Here Is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada rejects this analysis as a "failure of imagination" and instead offers a rethinking of "Canada" that transcends mere geopolitical terms. Indeed, rectifying an apparent "absence" in Canadian writing, Dickinson's study explores the ways in which the literature of this country has been imbued with a transgressive, queer, sexual subtext.
Influenced by the insights of poststructural theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Homi Bhabha, Dickinson juxtaposes "against the predominantly nationalist framework of literary criticism in this country an alternative politics, one propelled by questions of sexuality and, more often than not, homosexuality" (p. 4). Through an analysis of a small selection of novelists, poets, and playwrights, he argues that "nation" and "sexuality" are not discrete entities, but, rather, are profoundly intertwined elements of identity. By performing a queer reading of what he believes to be canonical texts, he complicates the concept of nationalism by addressing the ways in [End Page 316] which sexuality, gender, and ethnicity have informed expressions and experiences of nationhood in Canada. As a consequence, he argues that although Canada has often been assumed to lack a coherent, unifying national identity, its literature has been characterized by a persistent, sexually subversive, counternarrative of nationalism. Refusing to perceive nationalism, sexuality, gender, and ethnicity as autonomous variables of identity, Dickinson reveals them to be overlapping phenomena and, in doing so, challenges many conventional interpretations of Canadian literature.
In his attempt to destabilize Canadian literary tradition, Dickinson focuses on groups that have most often been marginalized by it, such as homosexuals, lesbians, and First Nations. By reading against the grain, he endeavors to transform the "absent presence of queerness in Canadian literature into a more manifest or embodied presence," and thereby renders "otherness" an important aspect of Canadian nationalism (p. 6). Commencing with a discussion of John Richardson's Wacousta (1832), Dickinson assesses the extent to which this novel may be read through the lens of homosexuality. Consequently, he portrays the novel as an example of resistance to "heteronormative nationalism" (p. 5). Rejecting the traditional reading of Wacousta as a struggle between wilderness and civilization--indeed, many literary critics have traced the preoccupation with nature as the source of Canadian national identity to Richardson's work--Dickinson perceives a different "syndrome" at play. For him, the anxiety of the novel is rooted as much in same-sex desire and mixed-race attachments as it is in nature (p. 13). Dickinson also examines these themes within the twentieth-century works of Sinclair Ross, Philip Buckner, Leonard Cohen, and Hubert Aquin. By reading these works in a "queer" light, he challenges the "identificatory lack upon which Canadian literary nationalism has historically been constructed," arguing that it has been facilitated in part by "a critical refusal to come to grips with the textual superabundance of a destabilizing and counter-normative sexuality" (p. 4).
To further substantiate these claims, Dickinson explores various expressions of literary nationalism in the twentieth-century context and the ways in which a homosexual discourse has influenced the shapes they take. In reference to the work of Timothy Findley, Dickinson argues that homosexuality here serves to signify an ambivalent attachment to the idea of nationhood. In the cases of Patrick Anderson and Scott Symons, he sees homophobia and discrimination as the causes for the exclusion and underappreciation of these authors. Concerned primarily with the reception of their work, Dickinson argues that Anderson and Symons in the latter half of the twentieth century were...