Research Roundtable: Newfoundland’s Queer Challenge to Canada and the Linguistic Turn

What follows is a modification of a presentation I gave last fall to the Research Roundtable, an annual event at the University of Toronto’s Graduate English program, where upper-year PhD candidates and faculty give twenty-minute presentations about their work. I’ve adapted that presentation into this blog post. While my thinking has changed over the last year, what follows more or less accurately reflects my main scholarly project at the moment: the disruptive and sometimes queer ways that Newfoundland’s literature is positioned within Canada.

I’m from Newfoundland (a great help in my work), and one of the origin points of my project was the realization that I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada. Yet my family isn’t a recent arrival in North America — I’m an eighth-generation Newfoundlander; my family has been here for so long that it’s not clear where in Europe we even came from (although Southeast Ireland and/or Southwest England is a safe enough bet). This realization—that I was the first in my family to be born Canadian—troubled the neat categories I’d been trained since childhood to use when thinking of the broad categories or ‘types’ of Canadians: ‘old Canadians’ (the English/French ‘two solitudes’ sorts), ‘new Canadians’ (recent or ‘recent’ immigrants), and Native Canadians (First Nations and Inuit). My family, and other Newfoundland families like it, fit none of these categories.

Many communities fall through the cracks between these three broad and overly-simplified categories: African-Canadian descendants of Black Loyalists and Jewish Canadians, to name just two examples. But my family were – are – Newfoundlanders, and that goes beyond the standard model of regionalism and into some strange territory: my family came to Canada in the mid-20th century from a foreign country, but that foreign country doesn’t exist anymore. They arrived in Canada on April 1 1949, but they traveled nowhere. They immigrated without moving. A diaspora without moving? A displacement that yet retains place? In one sense, I felt that I had stumbled on an utter conundrum, a conundrum no one had yet unpacked.

The Newfoundland writers I work with are in a position similar to my own: first generation Canadians whose parents did not go anywhere, but were instead the object of a massive performative speech act, all transformed, as if by magic, into Canadians in 1949 when a small group of men (and they were all men, all white men) signed a piece of legislation.  The authors I study are, for the most part, the children of those who underwent this transformation. One exception is poet Robin McGrath, who was, according to the biographical blurb on the inside covers of her books, a “castor oil baby” — that is, in the days before Newfoundland joined Canada, her pregnant mother dosed herself with castor oil to induce early labour, so that her child would be born a Newfoundlander and not a Canadian. Of course, McGrath’s experiences as a child and an adult would be of that same new, hybrid, Newfoundland-Canadian nature—but the mere existence of such “castor oil babies” shows that Canada’s acquisition of Newfoundland was not painless or simple, and that it prompted rather extreme acts of resistance in some quarters.

I’ll now provide some historical context, for anyone not familiar with the specifics of the case. Like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc, Newfoundland was a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century; Labrador, while nominally under Newfoundland’s control during this period, is more correctly thought of as a kind of neglected colonial possession. And of course, Newfoundland and Labrador were (are) both home to several First Nations, who should be understood as comprising distinct cultures with distinct histories.

Here, when I am speaking of Newfoundlanders, I am mostly speaking of a culture I’ll call using the Newfoundland English word “livyers,” taking my lead from The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial museum and art gallery. The Rooms uses “livyers” to mean Newfoundland and Labrador cultures of European origin that have grown distinct from both Europe and North America during the centuries since their founding. Early European settlement began in the 1610s but mostly happened in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It drew overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) from two very specific sources: the area around Waterford City in Ireland and the West Country of England (think Thomas Hardy country). This combined with Newfoundland’s relative isolation to foster a strong sense of identity amongst residents.

The livyer culture was subject to the British Empire, but self-government began in limited form in the 1830s, was expanded in the 1850s and again in 1907, and lasted up until 1934, when Newfoundland fell into a debt crisis. Newfoundland appealed to Britain for help, but Britain would only provide financial aid if Newfoundland surrendered its democracy and its self-government, submitting to a curious form of dictatorship-by-Westminster-appointed-committee until its books were balanced. This economic self-sufficiency was actually attained (or re-attained) early in World War II —Newfoundland even began issuing interest-free loans to Britain—but Britain was reluctant to let Newfoundland simply revert to its prior status. There were more pressing concerns during World War II, of course. But even after the war, the question was deferred for several years. In recent years, correspondence has been declassified which shows the extent to which London and Ottawa conspired to bring Newfoundland (and Newfoundland’s colonial possession Labrador) into Canada; this is the subject of a recent book by Greg Malone, called Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders—which perhaps overstates its case or strays into conspiracy territory, but which does grow out of archival research. The correspondence is concerned with encouraging a “correct” outcome – that of Confederation with Canada — but making sure it seemed as if this was the spontaneous and freely-expressed will of the Newfoundland people. Basically, conditions were massaged, and when those conditions seemed favourable to ensure the desired outcome (giving Newfoundland and Labrador to Canada), a referendum was to be called.

The first such referendum happened in 1948. The choice was between continued rule by the Westminster-appointed committee (called “Commission of Government”, something that was, in my experience, a true geo-political curio), Confederation with Canada, and a reversion to independent government as it had existed in 1934. Resumed independence won this first referendum, but it did not win greater than 50% of the vote. A second, run-off referendum was arranged, with the least popular option – Commission of Government — dropped from the ballot. After a bitter and divisive campaign, Confederation with Canada won by 6,989 votes, or 52% to 48%. Famously, the ballots were destroyed immediately after the election, making a recount impossible. Perhaps most importantly, the split was not uniform across the soon-to-be-province. Newfoundland was (and is) large, with many diverse regions; some, including the capital and (then) only city of St. John’s and the areas around it, rejected Canada – in some districts, such as Ferryland and my own home district of Placentia, Confederation with Canada was rejected by a margin as large as 80 to 20 – so, some communities in Newfoundland forcefully rejected Canada and strongly and democratically reaffirmed their allegiance to an imagined NFLD nation, one that had been deferred since 1934, and one that would now be permanently deferred.

* * *

Bearing all of what I’ve just explained in mind: I am often puzzled by the absence of Newfoundland’s palimpsestuous foreignness from discourse about Canadian nationhood and Canadian literature. Even in Northrop Frye’s writings on Canada in the 1950s, when the first Canadian-born Newfoundlanders were not yet old enough to begin school, Newfoundland is mentioned alongside British Columbia as a natural part of the nation, as if it had always been part of Canada, as if it was only thinkable in that sense. Newfoundland barely registers in Atwood’s Survival, being mentioned only three times—once alongside the arctic as a rhetorical short-hand meaning “a far away place most Canadians are unlikely to ever visit” (but what if the reader happens to live there?), and twice as the place EJ Pratt is from (without that seemingly trivial fact bearing any weight on the argument at hand – Pratt could just as well have been from Nova Scotia or New Brunswick and Atwood’s arguments about his work would be unchanged). The sense that there might be something foreign or Other lurking just below the surface of Newfoundland is utterly absent, even though, when Survival was published, Newfoundland had been part of Canada for only 23 years. Newfoundland does not come up in Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 touchstone text The Canadian Postmodern either, even though Newfoundland’s marginal and ex-centric position, its complex and troubled relationship to any sense of a monolithic Canadian nation-state, fits very nicely into Hutcheon’s attempt to move the critical conception of Canada away from its monolithic colonial past to a de-centred and uncertain (productively and optimistically so) space of multitudinous possibility. Newfoundland is mentioned once in Kit Dobson’s recent Transnational Canadas, as the place that Lisa Moore is from, in much the same fashion that Atwood mentions it pertaining to Pratt—the unique context of Newfoundland does not figure into the argument. This is the case even though Newfoundland’s status as only recently and ambivalently Canadian territory, always-already a transnational space by virtue of its unusual political history, suits the arguments of Dobson’s study very nicely.

This failure of Canada’s literary theorists to properly attend to Newfoundland’s potential for troubling the discrete hierarchies of the Canadian nation continues to puzzle me, because Newfoundland’s status as a community within Canada with a claim to difference is common enough. Yet, in my experience, the signifiers of this difference are often subject to two moves that rob them of their power. The obvious one is the disrespectful othering of the ethnic joke (the goofy Newfie stereotype). The second, more subtle move reads signifiers of Newfoundland identity as ultra-traditional Canadian symbols—not as troubling the nation, but deeply reinforcing it. A traditional Newfoundland fishing village is hijacked as a piece of hokey (white Anglo) Canadiana, even as Newfoundlanders like Kay Anonsen write of how, despite reluctantly abandoning such villages to move to the Canadian heartland, they will “never feel like … a Canadian.”

In the same vein, Lisa Moore (Newfoundland’s first and so far only long-lister for the Booker Prize) was interviewed by the Walrus a few years ago. Her second novel, February, had been accused by Barbara Amiel (who, by her own admission, hadn’t even read it) of being “too Canadian.” Asked to respond to the “too Canadian” charge, Moore answered like so: “I’m from Newfoundland, and that probably comes before being Canadian, or at least gets mixed up in it: they’re two separate identities mixing together.”

So. I’m in an English department; Moore is a novelist and short story writer; this is a PhD in English literature. One of my original brainwaves was to investigate how this sense of “two separate identities mixing together” manifests in Newfoundland writing, which – very helpfully for me — has been undergoing something of a flowering in the past twenty years. And yes, everywhere I looked, I found evidence of it. It was in the obvious places  — Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, for example, where the failed national project of Newfoundland continues to haunt the island and its peoples. But it was also in the not-obvious places. Michael Winter, for example, touches on it several times in his novel The Architects are Here, which, if you’ve read it, is about as far away as you can possibly get from an elegiac attempt to write the soul of a lost and fading nation. But the ghost is there, when Winter explains how St. John’s remembers that it was once a national capital, and resents that it is no longer one, and despises the island’s second city, Corner Brook, a ten hour drive west of St. John’s, on the island’s west coast, a city that only grew into a city after Confederation — despises it as a representation of – Winter’s term – the Canadianisation of Newfoundland, a process the city of St. John’s never acquiesced to, and is still unreconciled to. What a phrase: “the Canadianisation of Newfoundland.” It’s there in Lisa Moore’s Alligator, a novel often praised for being urban, urbane, cosmopolitan, globalized, untraditional, unburdened by melancholic and hidebound political/nationalist memory — and yet a central thread in the novel’s plot is the story of Madeline, a filmmaker. She’s is dying of a heart condition. She moves back home to Newfoundland after a successful career on the mainland. She’s driven to create her magnum opus before her faulty heart kills her. That magnum opus is a film about Newfoundland before Confederation. Even though Madeline can remember Newfoundland before Canada from her very early childhood, her desire is framed as incomprehension: “She wanted Newfoundland before Confederation because what kind of people were they?” Madeline feels irrevocably foreign to her own place, her own people, her own childhood memories of them; her film is a futile effort to reconcile this. Further, she is haunted by no less than the ghost of Archbishop Fleming, 19th century advocate of a romantic nationalism in Newfoundland, now seeking to complete the project via Madeline’s film. At the same time, there is also, in Alligator, Russian mobster Valentin, who is marooned unexpectedly in Newfoundland, and is attempting set up operations there. He thinks of the place as a “cold, ugly island that hardly existed, could not be found on many maps.” This is a stunning description: Newfoundland has fallen off the maps that grant ideological reality and solidity to a place. It “hardly exist[s].” It is no longer quite part of the world.

So. I needed a theoretical framework for all of this, and my initial sense was that diaspora studies might provide a useful tool. Lucky for me, that instinct has recently had outside confirmation: Jennifer Bowering Delisle has, just last fall (2013), published The Newfoundland Diaspora with Wilfred Laurier press. In it, she makes a cogent and sensitive argument for why Newfoundland literature can be read through a diasporic lens – acknowledging that the term diaspora is under threat of dilution through uncritical use, but arguing that, in Newfoundland’s case, its use is entirely appropriate. One important difference between Delisle’s readings and my own, though, is that she is reading an intra-national diaspora, an actual physical displacement of people – Newfoundlanders who have been compelled to relocate, painfully and reluctantly, to remote locations that are still within Canada (southern Ontario and Alberta, primarily), where they feel both an irreconcilable sense of otherness from their surroundings and a melancholic relationship with a remembered and distant homeland, where they join together with other displaced Newfoundlanders to form diasporic communities of Newfoundlanders in exile in Canada. I am making the argument that there is something stranger going on in Newfoundland itself: that “the Canadianisation of Newfoundland” has created among Newfoundlanders – even those who do not leave – a diasporic relationship between themselves and the imagined community from which they draw their identity – some imaginary Newfoundland before Canada, accessible through imaginative vehicles such as literature.

In his essay “Candles in the Dark,” Michael Crummey talks about a “curious homesickness” for the place where he already is. In doing so, he explains perhaps more succinctly and certainly more gracefully than I can why I think diaspora is, even in this case, a valid lens for thinking about some of these issues:

“the particular circumstances that made Newfoundlanders so distinct are no longer … defining forces … these things we know only through stories now, through the memories of those fewer and fewer still alive… I’ve always felt a curious homesickness watching the last of that world settle into displaced memory…. I’ve spent my entire life as a writer trying to bridge that distance”

In “Cataract,” the final poem in Crummey’s collection Hard Light, we read of a father and a son sailing together through ancestral spaces. The son, the speaker of the poem, is hungry for the father’s memories and his stories of the place, but the father’s stories cannot satisfy: they sail on, “And Breen’s Island just over the cliff to starboard, as good as fifty years away”

Here, the diasporic homeland is practically within a stone’s throw—50 yards, as Crummey puns— yet its distance from the speaker is measured not in physical distance but in years: “as good as 50 years away.” And 50 is, here, more than a nice round number – Hard Light was published in 1998; fifty years before, 1948, was the last year that Newfoundland was foreign territory to Canada. Even though there is no chasm of geographical space between the speaker and the imagined home, there is a chronological gap that matches a political gap, a sense of painful estrangement from the homeland.

If there is a time-gap between the Newfoundland subject and the imagined Newfoundland, this sense of estrangement from the imagined community will only grow until the imagined community is eventually abandoned and there are no more Newfoundlanders, only Canadians. This apocalyptic model shows up with surprising frequency in Newfoundland literature: for decades now, Newfoundland has been doomed, judging from its literature. Bernice Morgan, in her novel Cloud of Bone, imagines a future Newfoundland that has been entirely depeopled except for a handful of rangers or coast guards—“none of them Newfoundlanders, of course,” she writes, to make sure we comprehend the extent of her fearful vision. Not only is this model hopeless because it rests upon a particular historical moment—it is also a closed system that admits no new-comers. If “true” Newfoundlanders must have this connection with a pre-1949 Newfoundland, then there are no more entry-points; the category becomes utterly closed to outsiders and insiders alike; the only way to be an “authentic” Newfoundlander would be to go back in time.

It was after this realization that my thinking began to shift. The writing by the first generation of Newfoundlanders born in Canada carries the trace of this melancholic diasporic sensibility, but what other ways have Newfoundland writers figured Newfoundland’s marginal and ex-centric character? A few recent texts have made some radical forays in just such a direction. Without abandoning Newfoundland’s claim to a sense of difference, they relocate the source of that difference from an imagined foreign past to an elective community of queer language practices. Jessica Grant’s delightful 2009 novel Come, Thou Tortoise is the focus of my final chapter, and best enacts this shift. Early in the novel, her protagonist, Oddly (a deliberate corruption of Audrey – language is always misbehaving in Grant’s version of Newfoundland), must travel home to St. John’s – her father is in a comma (“sorry, coma” Oddly translates for our benefit). On the first leg of her journey, from Portland OR to Toronto, she navigates the post-9/11 world of security theatre, of globalized de-regionalized neo-liberal subjects, and runs afoul of the TSA because of her “inappropriate” attitudes and reactions towards the signifiers of authority. However, the second plane, Toronto to St. John’s, is full of Newfoundlanders, who, through their playful attitude, now expressed not by an isolated individual (Oddly) but by a community, can turn the orderly heterotopia of the plane into a gently anarchic and anti-authoritarian space of strategic laughter – of joyful revolt. Oddly, comforted, thinks: “The sound of Newfoundlanders on a plane: if sarcasm were generous, that is the sound.”

Theorizing this generous sarcasm has become the task of my final chapter, and it is, I think, the key to what I so-clumsily call a “linguistic turn” in the title of this presentation. A sarcasm that not only exploits language’s ability to mean many things (things the speaker may not have intended, or even been aware of) but adds to it, somehow, or invites participation – is that what a generous sarcasm is? And if the strictly ordered, hierarchical space of a commercial aircraft is the perfect expression of the 21st century neo-liberal globalized state, is Grant suggesting a new way for Newfoundlanders to maintain a discursive distance, to create an alternative community based on this practice called generous sarcasm? If so, does its generous nature suggest an invitation to others to join in the collaborative practice of disobedient discourse? As Come, Thou Tortoise unfolds, I argue that this is precisely the case. Perhaps most importantly, almost none of the main characters who have made a home in St. John’s are born in Newfoundland (this includes both Oddly’s father and his partner, the man Oddly calls Uncle Thoby—not out of ignorance of the nature of his relationship with her father, but as yet another iteration of the discursive games and elective communities that disrupt normative cultural and political narratives and characterize the Newfoundland community of the novel).

Grant opens her novel with Oddly’s two contrasting flights to demonstrate first the state of globalized Anglo-North American society, then the ability of Newfoundlanders, as a group, to side-step the authoritarian expression of that society through the practice of discursive play, puns, deliberate misreadings and corruption of language, and “generous sarcasm”. The Newfoundlanders on Oddly’s second flight are marked, by their accents, as Newfoundlanders in what I suppose I’ll call the ‘classical’ sense, speaking in traditional Newfoundland dialect that suggest deep “livyer” heritage. But once Oddly arrives in Newfoundland, we see those same discursive practices, that same generous sarcasm, in the characters who are not Newfoundlanders “born and bred,” as the folk songs have it, but are instead “come from aways” who nonetheless belong within the queer discursive society of Grant’s Newfoundland. They are willing and joyful participants in this same dis-ordering game of “generous sarcasm” which, in this novel, creates and characterizes Newfoundland not as a closed community locked into an impossible melancholy, doomed to fade, but instead as a vibrant and elective community of generous readers, existing both on the literal and ideological fringe of the globalized world: happily, and luckily, “not on many maps.”


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