- Towards a Globalectical Reading of Comparative Canadian Literature
Taking British and American literatures as examples, and in light of Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur proposed as far back as 1827, David Damrosch, one of the leading scholars in the field of World Literature, in one of his articles in 2010, problematizes the notion of national literatures. Exploring the question of world literatures versus national literatures, Damrosch laments that “we have habitually construed our national traditions in narrow and inconsistent terms, playing a double game of language and geography that has policed internal and external boundaries alike.” He further contends that “for nations in which various languages were spoken, creating this equation [between nation and national language] meant marginalizing the minority languages or repressing them outright” (27). Canadian literature can certainly be read as a case for this argument as the question of Canada’s national literary space is complicated by issues of migration, language and multiculturalism, and Canadian writers writing in non-official languages have been marginalized.
Thus, in this brief article I focus on a narrower area of Comparative Literature: Comparative Canadian Literature. At a time when Comparative Literature and language programs in Canada are struggling to survive, the argument that I make in this short piece may run counter to trends, but is therefore all the more pressing. Historically Comparative Literature has faced resistance, and the notion of the ‘death of the discipline’ has been circulating for over a decade. Thus far, the discipline has not perished, and it is with the hope of not only its survival, but its increasing relevance, that I argue that we, the scholars of Comparative Canadian Literature, need to move forward in a direction that will allow us to acknowledge the existence of lesser-known writers who have called Canada home and continue to write in their heritage languages. In fact, Canadian literature is rich in linguistic diversity and cultural complexity in ways that have yet to be fully recognized by the body of accompanying [End Page 216] literary criticism. Nonetheless, the discipline of Comparative Literature in Canada has typically focused on the study of English and French Canadian literatures.
A cursory look at Canadian literature anthologies and university syllabi reveals that Canadian literature is studied and taught predominantly in two official languages, with an occasional nod to literatures in aboriginal languages. It may be time for Canadian comparatists to read Canadian literature globalectically. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his recent article suggests that “the globalectical approach is...a method of both organizing and reading literatures: any text can lead the reader from the ‘here’ of one’s existence to the ‘there’ of other people’s existence and back. In organizing the teaching of world literature, a reader should start from wherever he or she is located” (42). Thiong’o further argues that “a globalectical imagination also calls for changes in attitudes to languages: monolingualism suffocates, and it is often extended to mean monoliterature and monoculturalism” (42). In this context, we could expand our comparative study to what remains unexplored within Canada.
Canada’s policy of bilingualism has constructed an environment of linguistic hegemony: English and French enjoy official status, which relegates other languages to the margins. If Comparative Literature programs require students to study disparate literatures and cultural texts, where is this same diversity located in the national context? In other words, where do heritage-language cultural texts fit into Canadian definition of its own national literature and its multicultural socioscape? In the scholarly world, some journals have recorded the Canadian literary activity in heritage languages. For example, Canadian Fiction Magazine (see issue numbers 36 and 37), Exile, and Canadian Ethnic Studies have published special issues providing details about authors writing in other languages. Also, Watson Kirkconnell, from 1937 to 1965, reviewed Canadian literature in languages other than French and English annually in the University of Toronto Quarterly. But other than these specific instances, there has been relatively very little scholarly production in this area. In fact, Canada has a vivid history of authors writing in non-official languages; some of these authors were established and well-known in their own countries before they moved to Canada.