- Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s by Larissa Lai
Acclaimed novelist, poet, critic, and academic Larissa Lai has published her first scholarly monograph, focusing on a cultural and activist scene in which she participated, as she describes from the outset of the book. As specified in its subtitle, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s focuses on Asian-Canadian literature spanning the last two decades of the twentieth century, but, more broadly, it provides a rich history of anti-racist cultural practice during this “time of massive social transformation.”
Following an introduction that situates the project theoretically and in relation to mediatized contemporary racialized “scandals,” the first chapter discusses autobiographical writing. Lai reads Evelyn Lau’s Runaway and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony as self-narrativizations that “break silence.” But the efficacy of this strategy varies: “through the writing of autobiography, traumatic memory can be momentarily disinterred from its crypt within the psyche of the marginalized subject,” but it also “runs an equal danger of reinterment in the collective psyche of the nation.”
The second and third chapters focus not on single-authored works but on collaboratively produced texts. First, Lai compares two groundbreaking special issues: “Awakening Thunder” (a 1991 special issue of Fireweed) and “Colour: An Issue” (a 1994 special issue of West Coast Line). Though separated by only a few years, these special issues “emerge from different moments within the anti-racist movement” and are differently “marked by their classed, gendered, and geographic locations.” Next, Lai turns to anthologies. “Romancing the Anthology” is the book’s longest chapter and covers a lot of ground, from theorizing anthologies and counter-anthologies to discussing the rise of “Asian-Canadian” as a designation and an area of study, before turning to the notable anthologies Many-Mouthed Birds, Piece of My Heart, and Premonitions. Lai is particularly attentive to the self-definitions and intersectional coalition-building within these projects.
The fourth chapter centres on close readings of Hiromi Goto’s novels Chorus of Mushrooms and The Kappa Child as they relate to storytelling, monstrosity, and representation. Perhaps most memorable is Lai’s use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of carnival in relation to Goto. With Goto, Lai is investigating the emergence of anti-foundational, non-realist literature among Asian-Canadian writers. The implications of an anti-racist engagement with post-structuralist conceptions of language and subjectivity are further explored in chapter five. For Lai, the poetry of jam ismail and Rita Wong demonstrates the radical possibilities of poetic language that illuminates absences, excesses, and multiplicities. [End Page 338]
In the final chapter, Lai moves toward the present moment, drawing on theories of globalization and late capitalism as she reads Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For. Lai is most interested in the potential political agencies of the characters Oryx and Quy, who are depicted as collective, extra-human entities possibly (and differently) akin to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s subaltern, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s multitude.
The conclusion circles back to the controversy surrounding the 1994 Writing thru Race conference, which Lai touches on at numerous points throughout the book. Like the final chapter, the conclusion also outlines how much has shifted since Writing thru Race, in Canada and globally. Though she must write “joylessly” of the reign of capital and the militarization of the state, she also writes hopefully of the cultural productivity that emerged after the dissolution of earlier mobilizations.
Without exception, each chapter in this book contains a cohesive argument, yet there are also threads and themes that run throughout, enhanced and rearticulated through the various literary analyses. One of the most compelling is the question of how to non-dismissively rethink the so-called identity-based anti-racist mobilizations of the 1980s and early 1990s. Ultimately, Slanting I, Imagining We “traces an open-ended liberatory impulse through a period of anti-racist work...