Wednesday, August 29, 2007

where is here? here is queer

This book has been one I have gravitated towards, flipped through, and quoted from for many years, but until now I had not sat down to read the whole thing cover-to-cover. I feel like I should have years ago. I think this book at Atwood's Survival should have been handed to me at the start of my English degree with the words, "Read this or perish!" Seriously, how did I get this far without this book? Mysteries never cease...

Here Is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada
by Peter Dickinson

In this book I contend that the identificatory lack upon which Canadian literary nationalism has historically been constructed -- the 'where' of Fry's 'here,' for example -- is in large part facilitated by, if not wholly dependent upon, a critical refusal to come to grips with the textual superabundance of a destabilizing and counter-normative sexuality. This counter-normative sexuality I am labeling 'queer,' a term that applies equally in this book to the erotic triangles foundin John Richardson's New World and those that resurface in Leonard Cohen's New Jerusalem; to the hyper-masculinity of Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West and the feminist revisionism of Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic, to the apparent sterility of Mrs. Bentley's prairie Horizon and the unexpected verdancy of Maude Laures's desert horizon; to the sexual dissimulation inherent in Pierre X. Magnant's admission 'une phobie d'impoussance' in Trou de mémoire and the sexual exhibitionism accompanying Claude's mantra of 'Chus t'un homme' at the end of Hosanna; to Duncan Campbell Scott's miscegenated Madonna and Tomson Highway's hybrid Trickster. This is not to say that 'here' is only or ever 'queer,' nor that resistance to a heteronormative nationalism is always or exclusively homosexual; what the range of texts discussed in this book does suggest, however, is that 'queer,' as a literary-critical category of an almost inevitable definitional elasticity, one whose inventory of sexual meanings has yet to be exhausted, challenges and upsets certain received national orthodoxies of writing in Canada.

If you want to play a really fun game, ask a first- or second- year literature student why they hate their CanLit classes. If they're feeling honest and you're not their professor, you might get what seemed to be an increasingly common complaint when I was hanging about with undergraduates at my former institution. That is, they all seem to feel CanLit is "a bit weird." Probe below that surface, with a student who is wavering between the immaturity of high school and the no-holds-barred free-for-all of residence sexuality, and you will come pretty close to the truth: "What's with all the weird sex?"

In Canadian Literature, I hold two truths to be self-evident: our protagonists fail, and our protagonists engage in alternative sexualities, both of the pro- and anti-social kinds (pro-social alternative sexuality being homosexuality, transsexuality, asexuality, and anti-social alternative sexuality involving violence, rape, and the damaging of other people). Often, the two occur together; more often, the one is a symbolic representation of the other. Off the top of my head and going through the CanLit selections of my undergraduate career, I can think of a woman having sex with a bear, about a million and a half rape scenes, hundreds of people coming of age and coming to terms with their sexuality, more weird group sex and necrophilia than one might expect, and a whole lot of transvestism as symbolic representation of self. No wonder our 19-year-old undergrads are so confused and scared.

Peter Dickinson goes beyond the surface readings of these texts to study the impact of the queer on the Canadian literary canon, and in the meantime asserts a necessity to challenge our assumptions about what national literature is. For generations we have insisted on seeing queer literature as outside Canadian experience somehow, when a quick flip through our canon shows that it has been there, ignored by critics, for ever. From the obvious triangulation of sexual desire in Wacousta (what else is it when your best friend's twin sister, the spitting image of him, is your sole sexual desire?) to the weird doubling of self in the Philip and Mrs. Bentley and their relationship with their "son" in As For Me and My House, alternative sexualities and male homosocial desire is prevalent in the literature of Canada. To argue that it is anyway outside the experience of Canada is increasingly ludicrous with ever passing year in Canadian literature -- here is, more and more as we become more aware as critics and scholars, queer.

My favourite chapter of this book is Dickinson's chapter on Tomson Highway, because I've always been intrigued by the way Highway constructs masculinity in his plays. In his first play, as Dickinson points out, the men are gone; in the second, they are immasculated. There is a level upon which colonized men are doubly colonized, because they feel that their power has first been robbed of them by the white men and then by the feminist interests of their own women. Dickinson takes on critics who have argued that Highway's plays are profoundly misogynist by pointing out that anywhere we see a trickster character, we must be careful not to take the plays at face value. Certainly, Highway attacks issues of misogyny in his theatre, but he does so without being complacent to those hurtful ideas. Furthermore, Dickinson touches on the two-spirited characters in Highway's plays, and explores the character of Big Joey as a figure of sexual attraction for both the male and female characters in the world of the Wasy Reserve. Importantly, by showing Nanabush as a campy/drag figure, Highway is making clear the place for the two-spirited, gay, or transgendered person in Aboriginal mythology, recreating the space that existed for such people before missionaries and colonizations destroyed the world on non-heteronormative sexuality.

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