Whitman Undergraduate Conference, April 15, 2008
Canadian Identity in a Postmodern Age
Moderator: Erin Salvi
1. Sarah McCarthy | Alice (Munro) Through the Looking Glass: The View from Castle Rock and the Construction of Canadian Identity
Alice Munro is considered to be a master of the postmodern experimental story, but in her most recent book, The View from Castle Rock, published in 2006, Munro demonstrates a modernist impulse to create narratives rather than the postmodernist impulse to play with the reader's expectations and break down conventions. I will argue that this shift in aesthetics came about because Castle Rock, unlike her short stories, is seeking a sense of national Canadian identity. As there is no clear Canadian identity, it is impossible to deconstruct the myths surrounding national identity; without clear conventions of "Canadianess," those conventions cannot be questioned. While Castle Rock uses some of the literary techniques traditionally associated with postmodernism, such as fragmentation and unreliable narration, I believe that it uses these techniques not in order to make reaching truth problematic, but rather so that it might get the whole truth, or as close to the whole truth as possible. The peculiar form of The View from Castle Rock--it is not quite a novel, not quite a memoir, not quite a short story collection--grows out of a need to combine both historical fact and legend in the search for a national Canadian narrative. Munro combines genres in Castle Rock not so that the book's identity as a novel or short story collection might be made problematic, but so that the identity of Canadians might be made clear.
2. Mark Kennedy | Finding a Home: The Quest for Canadian Identity
Home is a concept we all struggle with. Coming from an immigrant perspective, I find it particularly difficult at times to come to any kind of conclusive terms with who I am, as a Canadian who has lived half of his life in the United States. By examining the Canadian presence on Whitman's campus through the Canadian Literature English senior seminar, the literature it discusses and interviewing Canadian students and members of Whitman's Canadian Alliance, and putting my observations in critical dialogue with Eva Mackey's House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, I seek to come to a greater understanding of what it means to feel a sense of kinship, of home, with these Canadians I've met, and what that might mean for a concept of a Canadian identity as a whole, which has for its entire existence been a notion steeped with uncertain complexity.
3. Grant Margeson | The Fluidity of the Hyphen in Fred Wah's Diamond Grill
In Diamond Grill, Fred Wah blends several genres. The text is fiction, biography, poem and novel all combined into a "biotext." With chapter titles that begin the first sentence of the chapter, this play with genre and form creates visible evidence of the theme of hybrid identities in the text. As Chinese Canadians, Fred Jr. and Fred Sr. are neither Chinese nor Canadian in a world that attempts to categorize them as one or the other. The very fact that multiple European nationalities can be associated under "Canadian," but Chinese cannot, points to the racial pressures that distance Fred Sr. and Fred Jr. from dominant Canadian culture. Fred Jr. and Fred Sr. maintain and enforce their hyphenated identity through the Diamond Grill restaurant, food, and narration. Ultimately, the hyphenated identity that Fred Jr. and Fred Sr. assert is one which allows them both to navigate and traverse the multiple identities that exist between Chinese and Canadian.
4. Erin Salvi | Weesageechak, Nanabush, Astum, Astum: Marginalized Tricksters and Marginalized Peoples in Tomson Highway's Literature
As one of the most acclaimed First Nations writers in Canada, Tomson Highway has grappled with the question of how Indigenous peoples can construct an identity in the present when the grave incidents of the past continue to haunt their culture. His writings on the topic are complex, as they do not blame any one party; he also does not offer a simplistic solution to this complicated problem. Rather, he weaves in traditional aspects of First Nations culture into portrayals of the present, creating a world in his writing just as intricate as the one in which we live. Particularly, in his novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, and his play, The Rez Sisters, Highway makes use of the ancient, archetypal trickster figure in order to highlight the difficulties present in a postcolonial culture. I will examine how in a society plagued by violence and passion, the trickster acts as a catalyst for marginalized people to prevail over the destructive present by helping them to remember and acknowledge the past and imagine a positive future.