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  • Comparative Literature in Canada:A Testimony from Below
  • Andrea C. Valente

These impressions here are those of a junior researcher whose gaze comes ‘from below.’ In other words, it is a doctoral student’s autobiographical account of her academic trajectory from Brazil to Canada, and it asks to be understood as an analogy of the current status of Comparative Canadian Literature.

When I think back to being a graduate student at a university in the southern hemisphere, some ambiguous feelings in regard to Comparative Literature arise. In some Brazilian universities during the military regime, the discipline was seen as an alien object wrapped up in nationalistic ‘green and yellow’ tones1 under the direction of a literature science department. As the Brazilian comparativist Antonio Candido noted early on, Comparative Literature and Brazilian Literature shared a symbiotic relation under the discourse of identity and nationalism. For this reason, I was not keen on its colors and decided instead to take a Master’s interdisciplinary program in Applied Linguistics and Literature at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). This was housed in an English-German Department (Departamento de Letras Anglo-Germânicas), in which English-language competence was an important, non-negotiable requirement for admission into the program. In contrast, the modern language requirements for the Comparative Literature program were not as evident, and the program was, consequently, strongly monolingual, attracting mostly graduate students willing to work in the country’s national language (Portuguese) on its canonical texts. In the mid-1990s, the graduate programs in the Faculty of Letters faced some internal competition when a cutting-edge Master’s program in Interdisciplinary Studies in Applied Linguistics was launched with faculty members who had recently received PhDs from humanities programs in northern universities, such as Birmingham, Warwick, Toronto and UCLA. As a consequence, the new program rapidly outgrew the more established graduate studies, such as Comparative [End Page 209] Literature.

When I was in the second year of my Master’s, one of my professors started a partnership with an international research group in literature, and a guest professor from Germany was invited to carry out an empirical comparative study of literature. I was assigned to work as his research assistant. It turned out to be my first formal research in Comparative Literature and ended up being a very fruitful practice working across Brazilian and German literatures. However, at that time, I was not conscious of its comparative essence, since my graduate program was under the influence of the buzzword “interdisciplinary research,” a trend that laid set the groundwork for the coming millennium. For this reason, the term ‘comparative studies’ was missing from my personal glossary.

By not using the term ‘Comparative Literature’ in my papers, presentations and documents (i.e. curriculum vitae), I was inadvertently creating gaps in my academic narrative, something which caused me to suffer consequences later on. As long as the comparative aspect of my research background from Brazil remained invisible in my academic narrative, my discourse remained restricted to terms such as ‘empirical’ and ‘literary science.’ Failing to localize my research projects in the field of Comparative Literature Studies, I missed out on academic opportunities after settling in Canada. It seemed that my CV was unable to translate my former graduate studies into ‘Canadian academic experience,’ hindering my admission to doctoral programs in Canadian universities. Thus a long and winding path back to graduate school was ahead of me through an intricate maze from which it was hard to find an exit. Only when I took a course with Professor Joseph Pivato in Comparative Canadian Literature at Athabasca University to ‘upgrade’ my studies did I become aware of the voids in my CV. Eventually I found a way out that led me to the Graduate Program in Humanities at York University.

How can this autobiographical narrative intersect with the trajectory of Comparative Literature in Canada in regards to the challenges that have been imposed on both? There are at least three issues that decelerated my path towards graduate studies after my move to Canada: translation, (in)-visibility and canon, three elements, not coincidentally, that have been crucial to the establishment and development of Comparative Literature...


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