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The Devil is in the Details

Carolina de Souza

This August marks the ten year anniversary of my immigration to Canada. Yes, time does fly. It’s been ten years of wearing snow boots, and scarves, and hats, and gloves. Ten years of pronouncing my name with an English accent, ten years of thinking, writing, and dreaming in a foreign language. But also ten years of safe nightly strolls, free health care, and scholarships that actually last the entire month. So yeah, I have nothing to complain about.

I was born and raised in Brazil. My South American education meant that when you were reading Shakespeare in high school, I was reading Camões. When you were reading Dickens, I was reading Eça de Queiroz. And when you were reading Virginia Woolf, I was reading Fernando Pessoa.

Okay, perhaps the difference here isn’t that substantial, since we were both reading texts from our corresponding colonizing literary traditions. This is true, but not the whole story, since I suspect your teenage-self had never heard of the names I just cited while Portuguese translations of these British authors have always been widely available in Brazil. So when I decided to pursue graduate studies in English, even though I had some catching up to do, the task didn’t seem as unattainable as perhaps it would be to you if our roles were reversed.

Now, with this in mind, let me to tell you another story.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a friend’s baby shower, an event I was certain would involve a guest list composed of names I did not recognize. For an introvert (I study literature, of course I am an introvert), being forced to interact with strangers can be quite stressful so looking for similarities I could use to start conversations was my only goal. Only I failed. From my point of view, I failed because I was the only immigrant, the only one with an accent, the only person who had not been raised watching Sesame Street. But from the perspective of the other guests, we did not have anything in common because I looked too “Canadian,” and thus unable to relate to their experiences as children of parents born in the Philippines.

Now, let’s transpose this little anecdote to world literature studies. Largely a North American phenomenon, world literature seems to be responding to a North American necessity, perhaps as a means of accounting for the large influx of immigrants bringing their favourite books overseas. Focusing primarily in our context here in Toronto, having lived through these two stories caused me to question some of our certainties. Within a global stage, Canada is known for its multiculturalism and its inclusion policies—particularly when compared to the US and Europe. So studying world literature in a Canadian institution has incredible potential to promote positive change, since it will inevitably be sustained by a cultural landscape that fosters tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. Right?

I wish it was that simple. It feels almost unnecessary to reaffirm the impact of global capitalism and mass media throughout the world, which for our purposes means the wide distribution of English language texts, along with their cultural products. So Shakespeare today, for example, along with his set of international characters, enjoys immense global acclaim largely as a consequence of British imperialism. We are also familiar with the many postcolonial adaptations of his plays, at the same time acknowledging and challenging this influence, thus turning invasion into inversion. But we are world literature scholars, and our world is not made of polarities, hierarchies, and dichotomies. Correct?

The domain of postcolonial literature, with its important and necessary political dimension, cannot be the same as the domain of world literature, even though we have much to learn from postcolonial analysis of global power relations and the different local responses to globalization. Let me say that again: world literature has much to learn from discourses aimed at “decolonizing” the way we perform our scholarship, but we face a different set of problems. In order for world literature to promote a truly global politics, “writing back to empire” cannot be all we see. There is evidently much more to the fiction of Borges, and Achebe, and Rushdie than an answer to someone else’s questions. If we approach these texts expecting to find exotic landscapes and unusual customs, then this is what we will find. And nothing else. I am of course not saying that the trauma and violence of colonialism is not a recurring element. What I mean is that if this is all we are searching for, chances are we will stop our analysis once we find it. Where the postcolonial scholar ends, the scholar of world literature must begin. We must look beyond these forced oppositions even if all we can initially see are unstable frontiers and anxiety producing questions.

I hope you have followed me so far, perhaps even agreed with my arguments, but we both know I got a little bit vague there at the end. Let me explain.

We are here in Canada discussing world literature from our comfortable and warm homes, writing on our mac books, with enough money in the bank for a last minute Amazon order so we can finish that article. We are proud of our status as a cordial and inviting group of people that have been exposed to multiple languages and cultures for most of our lives. And yet, we still use terms such as “peripheral nations,” “minority literature,” and “replacing injustice with inclusion.” You don’t yet understand the issue I am pointing to, do you? There is nothing wrong with speaking of tolerance and inclusion, right?

I’ll start with the easiest argument. The notions of centre and periphery are relative and arbitrary, since what is central to me might not be to you, and vice-versa. Thus my initial comment on Camões, Queiroz, and Pessoa.

Now, to challenge the idea of “minority” or “ethnic” literature we need to move one step further. Sure these are also terms that depend on point of view, but with one important difference: they are steeped in ideology. The interplay between minority and majority changes once we move from the context of Canada to that of the entire globe. While the majority of the population of Canada might be of European ancestry, this is not the case for the majority of the world. So if we continue to label texts from China or India as “minority,” for example, we are not only logically incorrect, but we are, most importantly, still speaking from within the dominant mode of discourse, that same discourse used to justify imperialism and of which we claim to be trying to deconstruct.

Questioning the notions of “tolerance” and “inclusion” so characteristic of Canada’s multiculturalism might make us all a little uncomfortable. So hang in there. The fact that second and third generation Canadian born citizens are still being asked about their “backgrounds” makes me question the type of tolerance we are exercising. The mere “inclusion of the excluded” doesn’t seem enough, not only because it over simplifies a complicated situation, but also because it prevents us from asking different questions. By focusing on “canonizing” (or “discovering” and “exploring”) texts from other parts of the world, without discussing the ideologies and power relations that dominate our research, we are only perpetuating the status quo. In order for world literature to attain a truly global status, its relevance must reach beyond North American universities. Perhaps our first step should be to acknowledge that despite our reputation as an inclusive nation, we are nevertheless still operating from within the Western framework. It is only once we recognize the eventual racism of our alterity policies that we will be in a position to propose transformation. It is only by seeing passed our blind spots, by moving beyond the illusion of mythical identities and ideological straitjackets, that we will achieve a truly global perspective.

World literature studies must first and foremost be self-critical, not only mindful of the play of forces acting on our global stage, but also capable of recognizing that our questions might only be significant to us. Meaningful international conversation can only occur among subjects, not between subject and object. It is only by placing these other voices in tension with our own that a true critical perspective can emerge. It is only by understanding the immense reach of hegemonic ideologies that certain clichés can cease to exist. It is thus only after (un)learning our certainties, after forgetting our theories, that we will be able to establish a space for surprise that fosters innovation, a space where world literature studies can finally fulfill its transformative potential.

Carolina De Souza is a doctoral student in the Department of English at York University. She specializes in contemporary world literature, focusing on the intersection between Latin American and global expressions of Magic Realism.