Edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker
I’m conflicted about Refuse. I can’t decide whether sporadic admiration for the punchy, manifesto style of the collection outweighs my irritation at the compulsory generalizations and hyperboles that its signature rhetorical features. I’ve made more markings on the pages—underlines, circles, arrows, irritable counterpoints, even exclamatory profanities — than I’ve done in any other book on Canadian Literature, but I suppose this degree of frustration may be indicative of an engaging read.
Refuse attracted considerable interest even before it was published because it’s a decidedly polemical postscript to “a series of controversies and scandals” that marked Canadian culture a few years ago. The Steven Galloway affair at UBC looms large as the lynchpin of the entire rotten system called CanLit, specifically the formation of UBCAccountable and the November 2016 signed by 89 writers in support of Galloway, who was fired from his post as Creative Writing Program Chair for what the school called “serious allegations” concerning harassment and abuse. This overdetermined controversy, in turn, is augmented by a trio of similar private and institutional scandals, namely the allegations of sexual harassment at Concordia, the Niedzvecki cultural appropriation scandal, and the debate on Joseph Boyden’s indigenous identity. After these outrages, the three editors claim in their introduction, “the signifier ‘CanLit’ currently lies in ruins.” Further, these historical incidents compel a discussion of larger, systemic problems, namely that “[t]he intersections of rape culture, anti-Indigenous violence and cultural appropriation, and anti-Blackness seem to permeate CanLit.” And so the book goes the loaded rhetorical question the editors ask in stark, binary terms: “is CanLit redeemable, or should we burn it down?”
The irritation I encountered reading Refuse was likely the result of simple disorientation at the litany of problems it articulates. Is the book targeting the particulars of L’affaire Galloway or the universal myths that go into the formation of any abstract cultural noun like CanLit? Or maybe it’s the deep state of economic forces that enable a national or literary culture to happen in the first place? On one page of “Living in the Ruins,” the editors unpack the expression “CanLit” and suggest it’s too simple to represent “an industry, a cultural field, and an academic discipline”; one page later, they claim CanLit “still clings to a notion of the literary that excludes a lot of the stuff a lot of Canadians like to read”, like Harlequin Romances, children literature and graphic novels; on another, they boldly state that Canada and its literature were “built on the same foundation of Indigenous genocide, anti-Blackness, anglophone dominance, racist immigration policies, eugenicist attitudes toward disabled people, and deep-rooted misogyny.” Academics do love problematize things, but sometimes these lists of grievances, particularly when they’re not always supported by analysis, sound like overkill, as in this sentence where the editors are doing their obligatory academic due diligence of checking their privileges as “able-bodies cis white women with stable jobs”: “White saviours with good, liberal intensions are part of the problem in CanLit, because they can speak over BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour), LGBTQ2S+, and disabled people very easily, and mainstream Canada listens to them more carefully and closely.” Okay, so cultures have this nasty habit defining themselves against those it excludes but calling it out as an ism-based privileging of one over the other doesn’t always amount to much outside grad school. It’s like Simone De Beauvoir says, “the category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself … no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.”
According to the back cover, this collection “works to avoid a single metanarrative” and brings together “a cacophonous and transformative multitude of voices,” most contributions are similar in their censorious positions. Gwen Benaway’s poem “But I Still Like,” for example, is a solid work from a formalist perspective, one that I could imagine teaching though I’d be stymied by what to do with lines like “our legendary writers / moonlight as rape apologists” and “can lit is cis lit.” Marie Carriere’s essay, which also happens to be one of my favourites because it doesn’t reiterate the PC habit of mentioning every identity except economic class, opens with an invocation of the “horror show” concerning white neoliberals and alt-right defenders of “free speech” in the case of Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, who upset her administration and many online commentators in 2016 for screening a Jordan Petersen video. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t quite see how this issue, or many of the others in the collection, line up and connect to CanLit. Hence the irritation. When I listen to the CBC Canada Reads, my first response isn’t to finger-wag the radio for excluding more works than they include, when I read about Margaret Atwood’s “survival” motif or Northrop Frye’s “Garrison Mentality” archetype, both stock metaphors in old-fashioned CanLit teaching, I don’t scream “colonial violence!”, and when I hear news reports about a teacher and employee facing serious allegations I don’t respond by saying “rape culture” and I don’t disregard legal fictions of “due process,” the principle that a person’s procedural rights are entitled under Canadian law but in Refuse derogated as “a narrow idea”, and the presumption of innocence, the right encoded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms that “Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.”
Though my disorientation reading through Refuse was steady, it was by no means impossible to pinpoint moments of reflective thoughtfulness among the trigger-happy cacophony of plaintive voices. Carriere’s essay, which I’ve already said is notable for its inclusion of class, may have shifted my thinking with her explanation that calling attention to “settler occupancy of treaty or unceded ancestral lands”, which I admit I’ve always I found hollow liberal talk, is a “speech act” that just may be teaching us that “saying so is not nearly enough.” Thom’s East Van trans poem warrants mention here, too, because amid the surly word bullets aimed at “white people” and their “settler colonial project”, it’s light, even funny: “i mean, seriously / crack open ‘CanLit’ / how many skinny Chinese fags / can you find? … and how many sad white women / languishing exquisitely / in rural towns / … i rest my case.” Point taken. Perhaps the most effective essay, one which thankfully invokes the language of unionism at least as much as it does the trending identity-monikers of academese, belongs to Dorothy Ellen Palmer who, in her a critique of the UBCAccountable CanLit “glitterati” signatories, offers one of the most sensible sentences in the collection: “They aren’t in the union and don’t want to be. They snuggle up to power to benefit from its glow.” Although I simply don’t believe that all those who signed that letter want to “snuggle” with literary power, Palmer’s piece did make me wonder if the same “glitterati” would defend a less illustrious teacher whose name doesn’t register on the CanLit radar and who works at a run of the mill teaching institution. I certainly wouldn’t expect an outpouring of grief and calls for justice if I had these allegations launched at me by a student, but then I also know that such allegations have a way of destabilizing careers from their first articulation. Palmer’s contribution, like those by Lorraine York, Laura Moss, and Tanis McDonald, who writes a solid analysis of the metaphor of class war which framed media coverage of the UBCAccountable.
Given the nature of these controversies in the years immediately preceding #MeToo, there are good reasons for the hyperbole, and given that most public discussion about the scandals occurred in the attention economy of social media platforms, there are reasons for the plaintiff overkill, too. As much as I want to understand the collection’s central grievance here — against Galloway — I don’t. Most reviews I’ve read and podcasts I’ve heard are positive, and reviewers on Goodreads have given it an average of 4.29 stars, so I imagine it’s doing something right. Maybe I missed something or maybe I’m another white male heterosexual settler from some old guard resisting change because it threatens my privilege? As much as I want to take the side of the oppressed, which in my job as a teacher I’m supposed to do, I can’t quite move beyond thinking that allegations are not charges and complaints are not convictions. I can, however, say that it’s entirely possible to inhabit a contradiction, in the classic Marxist manner, and be irritated by a text that is also engaging. »From issue #82
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