Entering Closed Entrances; Engaging Oppositional AestheticsA.H. ltwaru & N. Ksonzek and Arun Mukherjee reviewed
Although the subject of race in Canadian literature has made for some splashy headlines over the past couple of years, relatively little critical work of substance has been produced in Canada. This is not to discount the commendable efforts of writers such as Himani Bannerji, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Roy Miki and Jeannette Armstrong, Dionne Brand and, of course, two of the writers being reviewd here, Arnold Harrischand Itwaru and Arun Mukherjee, but their critical voices are few among many. True, today, even the many find themselves compelled, perhaps a little too readily, to enter the discourses of race theory and analysis, but rarely are such manstream voices, located as they usually are within white academic circles, able to convey the sociopolitical urgency of theorizing race systematically. And all too often, the popular voices speaking to the issues of race and racism (such as Warren Kinsella's Web of Hate: Inside Canada's Far Right Network and Margaret Cannon's The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada) become all-consumed with right-wing extremism, which serves to exonerate the white supremacist system that tis the rule, rather than the exception, to Canadian culture. Add to this the work of cultural and social critics from the United States and Britain, folks like Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, Gayatri Spivak, bell hooks, Patricia Williams and scores of others, whose critical sensibility is strong but, naturally enough, lacking in terms of Canadian specificity, and the truly critical work around race theory—by, about, and for people living in Canada—is dismally lacking in volume and range.
For these reasons, works like Closed Entrances: Canadian Culture and Imperialism, by Arnold Itwaru and Natasha Ksonzek, a series of loosely grouped selections of criticism and reflection, is a welcome shift from the normal course of academic publications which pay only superficial attentin to issues of race. Going from the specific to the general—from individual expression and experience to they systemic—Closed Entrances performs as a critical foil to the racial injustices brought about by discourses of multiculturalism and diversity. Most of the book is written by Itwaru— Ksonzek, in addition to designing the book's imposing cover, contributes by way of a joint introduction and an insightful personal essay-journey, 'Echos of Empire,' which echoes Marlene Nourbese Philip and others in its indictment of the now infamous Into the Heart of Africa Royal Ontario Museum exhibit.
Itwaru's prose is flowing and flowery, metaphor-laden in its attempt to spell out the functions, methodoligies, and effects of Canadian imperialism. Inside this prose are indicents of racism experienced by the writer, on the street, in academic institutions and through the public spaces of the CBC (a case study of three white critics discussing Moyez Vassanji's No New Land) and of the ROM, a reiteration of Ksonzek's earlier piece.
Occasionally, however, Itwaru's systemic critiques seem too limited in their complexity. For instance, while I believe his perception is correct that in literature, conventional narratives are informed by linear plot-lines and that many publishers, reviewers and readers"... are downright hostile to works which they disparage as being 'plotless'..." (48), I am not so convinced that plot driven narratives are necessarily pro-imperialist and an"...essential stategy of domination ..." (49) any more so than that works of literature which avoid the conventions of plot are necessarily liberatory and/or progressive.
If this were the simple case, then many wirters who 'use' plot, no matter how progressive their professed or implied politics may be, would be considered pawns of the system, and many writers who resist such conventions, and this incuded much of the Canadian post-modernist and language-based set, would be, by virtue of their methodolgy, radical subversives. However, I recognize the validity of Itwaru's claims in terms of systemic analysis, particularly regarding his solid anti-imperialist insistence that permeates this text.
Oppositional Aesthetics: Readings from a Hyphenated Space, by Arun Mukherjee, is much more academically-inclined than Closed Entrances, it only because this anthology of essays tends to focus on particular pieces of literature within certain genre-bound conventions. However, like the Itwaru/Ksonzek text, Oppositional Aesthetics attempts a systemic critique of institutions and literatures. This book is really two books in one, including as it does the now out-of-print Aesthetic of Opposition (Stratford: Williams-Wallace, 1988) in its entirety. Mukherjee covers a range of topics in her seventeen essays, many dealing with issues of specific concerns to readers of South Asian literature, but all addressing, in some manner, the insidious systemic nature of oppressive forces in our institutions of literature and 'higher learning.'
Some of Mukherjee's specific subjects include the works of Rienzi Cruz, who she lauds as a poet not afraid to "assert his difference" from mainstream norms; Michael Ondaatje, who she castigates as one who buys into, rather than resists, an offical Canadian society; and Ven Begamudré, who she describes as a scavenger of 'official' Indian sources rather than a translator of personal experience. But the true nature of Oppositional Aesthetics is more readily apparent when Mukherjee is critiquing the racism implicit in white feminism, or attacking the universalist criteria often used to judge (and dismiss) writers of colour, or outlining the discursive strategies, most specifically irony, employed by what she calls "hyphenated Canadians." Interesting, too, is Mukherjee's professed alliance with "a diverse set of constituencies such as writers and critics in the Third World...feminists, racial-minority, gay and post-structuralist critics and theorists in the West" whose challenges she feels impowered by even as she disagrees with what she says might be a tendency to universalize this allied resistance. Nonetheless, the concept of 'oppositional aesthetics' is an attractive one for those looking for strategies of resisting dominant norms while continuing to perform strategically as academics, writers and readers of literature.
Both Oppositional Aesthetics and Closed Entrances offer strong Canadian alternatives to both radical imported and liberal homegrown texts around race theory and literature. The personal narratives told by Mukherjee, Itwaru and Ksonzek allow for the development of a substantial systemic critique—and often a strong indictment—of Canadian race relations. And while Mukherjee's text might be more useful to the student of literature and Itwaru/Ksonzek's text might be more appropriate to those interested in a larger cultural critique, both Oppositonal Aesthetics and Closed Entrances provide new insights into an as yet largely uninvestigated critical terrain.