Perspectives critiques dan des productions litteraires migrantes au feminin, au Quebec et au Canada
Perspectives critiques dans des productions litteraires migrantes au feminin, au Quebec et au Canada
Through illustration of work by authors Andree Dahan, Mona Ltaif Ghattas and Nadine Ltaif, the essay shows how writing by women of ethnic or racial minority identification in Quebec effects political and social critique in ways similar to that which can in observed in texts by women of ethnic/racial minority identification in English Canada. Appearances to the contrary derive from the differing contexts of production – Quebec and English Canada.
This essay emerges from my ongoing study of writing by women in Quebec and English Canada. In recent years, my focus has been on work by writers of racial or ethnic minority group identification. Here terminology is problematic, as noted in essay throughout this volume, but broadly speaking I am referring to writing by women whose identification – imposed or chosen – is with groups having minority status on the basis of race or ethnicity. The matter of choice, and the categories “race,” “ethnicity,” minority status, gender and class, all raise questions about the locations from which they are perceived. In this essay, I write as a reader of Quebec literature living outside the province, whose (North European) immigrant family experience did not include many of the realities recounted in the literature under study here, though it helped sensitize me to their significance. Writers of “minority” identification have been producing work that poses many challenges and questions. The issue that interests me here is an apparent difference in what I shall term “political edge” in two bodies of work, one written in French, the other in English.
From its headwaters in the politically inspired writing of Quebec’s Revolution tranquille in the 1960s, through its interaction with French feminist writing of the 1970s, the work of Quebec women writers has manifested a political edge which has not been as striking in the work of colleagues in English Canada. This is not to suggest English Canadian women’s writing is devoid of social critique and political protest! But texts such as Michele Lalonde’s Speak White (1974), Louky Bersianik’s The Euguelionne (1976), Nicole Brossard’s L’Amer, ou le chapitre effrite (1977), and France Theoret’s Bloody Mary (1977) – to name these – enjoined readers toward social engagement and political commentary. This project had impact for English Canadian writers such as Daphne Marlatt and Gail Scott, who engaged in dialogue with Quebec women writers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s in English Canada authors such as M. Nourbese Philip, Dionne Brand, Himani Bannerji and Lee Maracle – again, to name only a few – drew readers’ attention with sharp – edged, politically provocative works. Not only did they deal with issues of gender within Canadian experience, they articulated the need for attention to considerations of race or ethnicity as well as to class and gender.
The first part of the essay offers sample works as a foundation for the question that I wish to probe further: is there an equivalent body of work amongst women writers of racial or ethnic minority identification in Quebec? And if so, what is it political character? This will be the focus of the second part of the essay. A third and final section will consider very briefly some sociopolitical factors which may underlie these literary observations.
That language and representation are not neutral, but rather the site where social and political meanings are produced, as well as vehicles for the ideologies behind these meanings, has been the insight of contemporary linguistics and cultural movements such as feminism, postmodernism and postcolonialism. Writers such as Brand, Bannerji, Philip and Maracle consciously locate their work at the inter – section of language and society. They take up the struggle over meaning and representation, and their work has the potential to disrupt the ideologies that dominate contemporary society in Canada as elsewhere. In Bread out of Stone (1994) Dionne Brand writes that “the English Canada that I live in is always surprised by and resistant to cultural intervention from people it does not recognise as fitting into its imposed forms” (179). English Canadian culture, Brand elaborates,
is not an oppressed culture and can impose this stasis on all discussion also, so we have the situation where in 1994 its artists and social commentators refuse to admit the existence of an ideology some five hundred or more years old through which their ancestors arrived and prospered … we are unwilling and unable to be filled by this, just as we are unable inevitably to qualify for the grant of “whiteness” (Bread out of Stone 180).
In questioning societal assumptions, revealing injustices and imagining new possibilities, works like those by Brand, Bannerji, Philip and Maracle reveal that their language is not only literary but also political in inspiration. This writing often foregrounds political events or concerns – as in Afua Cooper’s poem “The Power of Racism”(f.1) in which the poet asks how “the ROM could mount an African exhibition/without consulting Black people.” Cooper is referring to the 1990 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, “Into the Heart of Africa,” which met articulate protest from many members of Toronto’s (and Canada’s) black communities. Among these was poet and novelist M. Nourbese Philip, whose fiction and essays articulate facts of racial prejudice within Canadian experience. “I wish them to know the contempt which the literary establishment of this country has for Black writers like myself,” Philip writes in her collection of essays Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1992), citing by way of example
George Bowering, one of the preeminent members of this establishment, writing and publishing in the Globe and Mail that he had read my poetry and was very surprised to see that I was a good poet! I want them to know that racism is alive and kicking shit all across this country; that in Toronto, for instance, four Black people have been shot by the police in the last two years, in situations that didn’t warrant those shootings; that similar shootings take place in Montreal; not to mention the long history of racism in Nova Scotia against the oldest Black population in this country (264).
The conjunction of political and theoretical concerns relates to the authors’ very position and indentities as writing subjects. Writing as a black or an Aboriginal Canadian woman becomes a political act in and of itself. Writing as process and practice is seen to be inherently and necessarily political, part of a larger struggle which often involves political action – frequently around women’s issues or race relations. A well – known example of this is M. Nourbese Philip’s involvement with Vision 21(f.2) and the latter’s intervention at the PEN international meeting in Toronto in 1990. In such instances, writing frequently bursts beyond the “limits of literature.” To cite Dionne Brand again,
I’ve had moments when the life of my people has been so overwhelming to bear that poetry seemed useless…. At times it has been more crucial to wield a scythe over high grass in a field in Marigot; at times it has been more important to figure out how a woman without papers in Toronto can have a baby and not be caught and deported; at times it has been more helpful to organise a demonstration in front of the police station at Bay and College Streets. Often there’s been no reason whatsoever to write poetry. There are days when I cannot think of a single reason to write this life down (Bread out of Stone, 182).
Another notable example is the work of dub poet Lillian Allen. In “I Fight Back,” Allen gives voice to the familiar/unfamiliar “foreign domestic”:
Here I am in Canada bringing up someone else’s child while someone else and me in absentee bring up my own
AND I FIGHT BACK […] They label me Immigrant, law – breaker, illegal, minimum wager refugee Ah no, not mother, not worker, not fighter I FIGHT BACK I FIGHT BACK I FIGHT BACK (Women Do This Every Day, 139 – 140)
Numerous other example might be cited, along with entire collections which have appeared recently, such as Makeda Silvera’s The Other Woman: Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature (1995), Arun Mukherjee’s Sharing Our Experience (1993) and Carol Morrell’s Grammar of Dissent (1994) and Carol Camper’s Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women (1994), among others.
Compelling, controversial, instructive and sobering, these are writings whose equivalents seem less readily identifiable in Quebec. The sounding board provided by La Parole meteque, a review featuring immigrant women writers established in 1987, no longer exists. Work by Regine Robin (notably La Quebecoite, 1983) stands out, but appears to be relatively isolated, as is that of writers such as Gloria Escomel and Ying Chen, for example. A sense of collective critique seems harder to locate in Quebec than in English Canada at present. It is, however, possible to find.
Groups of South Asian, black, or Italian women writers are not as visible in Quebec as in English Canada. But there does appear to be an emerging group of Quebec writers of Arabic background – and a concomitant “racialization” of this group of writers.(f.3) In the second part of this paper, I will focus on works by a few writers of Arabic background, notably Andree Dahan, Mona Lattif Ghattas and Nadine Ltaif.
This essay was first presented as a paper to the Association for Canadian Studies (June 1995), and revised for delivery at The Windy Pine Colloquium (August 1995). A modified version of the essay, written fully in English, is to appear in Cultural Identities in Canadian Literature, ed. Benedicte Mauguiere. The field research which underlies this essay has been assisted by support from SSHRCC.
(f.1) In Memories Have Tongue, 73. The full text of the poem is “The power of racism/the power of racism/the power of racism/is such that Neville who is six foot two and weights [sic] 210/could be threatened with assault by three white children/The power of racism/the power of racism/the power of racism/is such that a Yusef Hawkins was killed in Brooklyn/due to the colour of his skin/the power of racism/the power of racism/the power of racism is such/that the ROM could mount an African exhibition/without consulting Black people.”
(f.2) Perhaps witnessed by the recent rash of debates and publications around the question of wearing the hijab/tchador.
(f.3) Described by Philip, in an interview with Janice Williamson, as a multi – disciplinary, multi – racial group “committed to making sure that the practice of art in Ontario is free of racism, sexism, and economic disparity” (Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers, 242).
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