- The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration by Jennifer Bowering Delisle
Monographs about Newfoundland literature don’t come along very often. When they do, they can seem like books written by insiders for insiders—by Newfoundlanders for Newfoundlanders. More often, scholars publish on “Atlantic Canada” or “the East Coast” as a literary region—but even these books acknowledge that Newfoundland is distinct from the Maritime provinces in significant ways. Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s recent book grapples with one of these differences: the titular Newfoundland diaspora, in which Newfoundlanders, compelled to scatter across the continent, maintain networks of belonging, longing, and meaning-making to resist assimilation into the larger Canadian culture that, since Newfoundland’s contentious 1949 confederation, claims to contain and possess them.
The prefatory material and introduction have a lot of difficult work to do. Insiders—Newfoundlanders—take it as a given that a coherent Newfoundland diaspora has existed within North America since the late nineteenth century, and that “‘interprovincial migration’ does not come near to describing the nature and complexity of this phenomenon.” Yet outsiders may be skeptical—may worry about the semantic dilution of the term diaspora, may ask whether white anglophone Newfoundlanders really carry the often racialized mark of the diasporic subject. Delisle, herself an inheritor of the Newfoundland diaspora (“growing up [in [End Page 558] Edmonton] I did not really consider myself an Albertan, even though I had never lived anywhere else. I constructed my identity out of my Newfoundland heritage”), walks this fine line. It is tricky to prove that a people’s trauma and suffering are “real” without deploying an unseemly algebra of oppression. Delisle avoids this pitfall, in part because the wealth and diversity of the texts she examines and her comparative approach provide the non-Newfoundland reader with the necessary “proof of concept,” as it were. Delisle proves herself widely read in diaspora studies and related critical fields—she does not use the term Newfoundland diaspora in a naive or uninformed manner, and she calls on scholarly interventions by Lily Cho, Smaro Kamboureli, Paul Gilroy, Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, and many others to illustrate her points.
After defending its theoretical premise in its first section, The Newfoundland Diaspora contains eight chapters in four further sections. In the second section, Delisle examines the affective responses to diaspora in Donna Morrisey’s novels and Carl Leggo’s poetry, examining nostalgia as a vexed mode in a discourse plagued by touristic self-parody and anxiety about sentimentalism. Delisle joins other critics in rehabilitating nostalgia as a useful aesthetic mode for the diasporic subject, albeit one reliant on the reader’s ethical imagination to prevent distortion into exoticism and cliché. The third section reads E.J. Pratt and Wayne Johnston as “representative” diasporic Newfoundlanders, called on by Canadian discourse to “authentically” embody Newfoundland culture even as they are criticized within Newfoundland for their supposed lack of authenticity. Part Four, “Imagining the Newfoundland Nation,” returns to Johnston and also reads David French’s plays, pairing Newfoundland’s recent history as a foreign territory with its persistent claim to its own national narrative. Newfoundlanders are read as “new” Canadians, uncomfortable, and perhaps unwilling, immigrants in the aftermath of 1949. Difficult questions arise here, among them: what claim might Newfoundlanders have to the term ethnicity? Newfoundland migrants in the rest of Canada resist assimilation while being subject to prejudice and sometimes violence for their failure to perform “white civility.” The book’s final section is perhaps its most theoretically daring, dealing with “Postmodern Ethnicity” and the negotiation of identity by children of the diaspora. “For second-generation diasporic Newfoundlanders, ethnic affiliation may be embraced, rather than imposed by experiences of racism, but Newfoundland nevertheless does evoke strong feelings of identification and a significant ‘emotional commitment.’” Delisle reads Ontario-born David MacFarlane’s “family memoir of Newfoundland,” The Danger Tree, through the theoretical lens of postmemory, written from a hybrid “third space.”
Canadian literary studies has often glossed over Newfoundland, even though its ambivalent, unsettled situation within Canada—“vexed” is [End...