- Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture
Although she wrote and published widely, the pioneering theoretician and scholar Barbara Godard never brought together various strands of her critical work in one place as Smaro Kamboureli has done so beautifully here. Their publication in a single volume generates fresh meanings and readings for those familiar with Godard's work and invites new readers to discover a quirky and brilliant voice. An excellent interview with Kamboureli provides an overview of Godard's concerns and politics, from her student activism in the sixties to shortly before her death in 2010. [End Page 313] Godard's writing is impressive and challenging in equal measure. Its difficulties are also its greatest strengths: the author's familiarity with a huge range of theoreticians (Frye, Bakhtin, Derrida, Gramsci, Bourdieu, Kristeva, Lamy, Belleau) and approaches (structuralism and post-structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, theories of reading, discourse analysis), its multiple topics, ranging from comparative literature and translation theory to First Nations and black women's writing, its bold juxtapositions, the border crossings Godard constantly practises (between critical traditions, national bodies of fiction, genres). Deeply attentive to textual nuances, Godard constantly reminds us as well of politics, including the power relations at work in reading, reviewing, analyzing, and translating literary texts. Most of her articles are between thirty and fifty tightly packed pages long (some without a single subheading) and assume familiarity with many schools, critics, and debates, though she is also very good at summing up a theoretician's contribution in a sentence or two ('For Bakhtin, the sign is not neutral but a site of struggle and contradiction'). Finally, her essays sparkle with fascinating observations but sometimes lack a clear structure or sense of purpose (the journey is more important than the destination).
Some of the most powerful essays in this volume deal with theories and practices of Canadian literature, which in Godard's view is inevitably a form of comparative literature, given that Canada is a 'multilingual, multiracial state.' These concerns dovetail with Godard's interest in what would later be called 'intersectionality,' the intertwined oppressions of race, class, and gender. She relates in the interview that in 1981, at a women's studies conference, a black woman asked her why she had spoken only about white writers. Godard took the criticism to heart and would later publish extensively on 'minority' women writers. Those essays are especially remarkable in the ways they bring together readings of key texts and meditations on production, reception, publishers' biases, and other obstacles.
As Kamboureli notes, the essays have not been edited. The impulse to preserve moments in critical history is understandable, but some pieces would have benefited from a bit of work: there are a number of obscure passages and long-winded, sometimes wooden sentences. But Godard also had a gift both for in-depth analysis and for memorable turns of phrase: 'For feminists, Frye is a four-letter word,' or, '[I]n crossing the Atlantic to the United States, deconstruction lost its political edge.' A small quibble: though publication dates appear in the table of contents, it would have been useful to place them at the beginning of each piece to help the reader interpret terms like 'today' or 'over the last ten years.' Brief introductions to the period and context behind each essay would also have highlighted their originality and contribution. [End Page 314]
More than those of most people's, Godard's essays reflect her personality and voice: her multiple interests, her eclectic approach, her manic energy, and her desire to speak of everything at once. To (re)read them today is a difficult pleasure. I would have liked to see one or two essays on Quebec women's writing and on translation - major concerns underrepresented here. But Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture is a wonderful introduction to Godard's thought and writing. To help counter what Godard describes in the interview as the invisibility of pioneering scholarship and the 'relentless presentness of the field,' a...