Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 3

In part one of this series of posts, I gave the context for ‘Atlantic Canada,’ explaining how it’s a top-down bureaucratic invention based on accommodating the new province within an existing federalist hierarchy economic development, not on any sense of cultural or historical commonality among the supposed ‘Atlantic’ co-regionalists. In part two, I read a number of texts in the supposed Atlantic Canadian literary tradition to see if a sense of Atlantic literary regionalism emerged from them. My conclusion: it did not. In this final part, I’ll suggest some ways forward – if Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism is a non-starter, then what are some alternate conceptualizations that might prove fruitful?

It is clear that an unexamined/uncritical use of Atlantic Canada as literary region persists in some quarters, out of inertia, laziness, or ignorance. But those who do critical work on the region (or “region”) are aware of its discontinuities and incoherences. Most of them consistently flag “Atlantic Canada” as a problematic term of limited use. So why does the term, and the idea that there is something unifying and homogenous about Canada’s ‘East Coast,’ persist?

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Partly, in the rest of Canada, it is because “Atlantic Canada” is a fantasy space where European settlement is thought to be genuine, deep and well-rooted. The idea of the Atlantic region fulfills for many the unspoken fantasy of a white homeland on the North American continent. Complication and deconstruction of “Atlantic Canada” are unnecessary and unwelcome. The imagined homogeneity of the region is key to these passively racist fantasies. In such fantasies, Atlantic Canada is the region that gives Canada legitimacy; it is the region through which Britain and Ireland became Canada – are continually becoming Canada. Put simply: in settler-colonialist Canada, it is in the interests of the hegemon to maintain discrete and simplistic regionalisms. Atlantic Canada serves a specific function in the ideological machinery of the Canadian state as a colony eager to clothe itself in signifiers of legitimacy.

There is also the harsh truth that academics are grant-applicants. It may be easier to receive a grant if one talks of “Atlantic Canada.” Certainly it may be easier to publish a book with “Atlantic Canada” in the title, as opposed to, say, “Cape Breton” – there is a larger market. Similarly, an undergraduate class on Newfoundland literature is less likely to be approved than an undergraduate class on Atlantic literature. Both the Maritimes and Newfoundland have a more copious literary production than many would expect, but the perception might persist that, say, Newfoundland literature might prove too ‘small’ or ‘narrow’ a textual corpus to support a great number and diversity of scholars.

Herb Wyile, in Anne of Tim Horton’s, repeatedly stresses that Newfoundland is a special case, unlike the Maritime provinces in many important ways; yet the subtitle of his book includes the phrase “Atlantic Canadian Literature,” giving a tacit endorsement, re-inscribing the idea of Atlantic Canada as literary region. Wyile is reading through the lens of globalization and the movement and structures of capital (hence his title – although I will add: growing up in Newfoundland’s southwest Avalon in the 1990s and early 00s, the nearest Tim Horton’s was 90 minutes’ drive away). “Atlantic Canada” makes a certain sense through the lens of globalization, because it has been hailed into being by economic development policies, and is subjected to national and global forces through that appellation.

Wyile and Jennifer Bowering Delisle, author of The Newfoundland Diaspora, have written the two most important critical treatments of Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism in recent years. Their monographs suggest, respectively, two routes of departure. In many fields, regionalism has undergone a shift away from delineating, describing, and policing the boundaries of ethno-national structures. It now concerns itself with paths and networks which affiliate a diversity of cultures and histories – “the Mediterranean” is one such ‘collection of paths,’ for example. “The Atlantic” is another. This departs from the model of region as an Andersonian imagined commonality/history. Instead, this model describes distinct and distinctive networks of interactions and exchanges – cultural, commercial, industrial, political, military.

This is the way forward suggested by Wyile’s book, with its critical preoccupation with globalization and networks of economic exchange (and exploitation). Wyile acknowledges that Newfoundland has deep, fundamental historical and cultural differences from the other Atlantic Provinces, and that the Maritimes themselves do not particularly cohere, either. It is Atlantic Canada’s place as part of a globalized, corporatized network of exchange that characterizes the region for Wyile.

Although global capital may treat the four provinces in a similar fashion, I still do not see strong evidence in the region’s literary production of an intra-regional network of exchanges – if anything, intra-regional paths are less trod in a globalized Atlantic Canada; the network is post-regional. I would contend that Newfoundland had more to do with Cape Breton 100 years ago than it does now.

In The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle does not read her chosen texts through a regional lens at all. She makes the bold claim that Newfoundlanders comprise a diasporic community within Canada. This allows us to consider new alignments within Canada – perhaps Newfoundland has more to do with Alberta than it does with New Brunswick. Perhaps Newfoundlanders carry their Newfoundland-ness with them regardless of geographic location.

But there is a more daring argument hinted at in Bowering Delisle’s book. Newfoundlanders can be read, in their literature, as always already diasporic, even when they are in Newfoundland, because the distant homeland is an historical entity, chronologically distant rather than (or in addition to) physical distant, known only in the imagination, reconstructed from narrative but never experienced first-hand. If this is the case, geographic region becomes less of an issue, and the Newfoundland subject becomes transnational and transhistorical – leaving region behind, while maintaining a sense of imagined commonality – Newfoundland is then a potential model of a post-regional community.

I would like to gently put forward new imaginative groupings that might provide startling and strange new readings, further deconstructing the concept of region, and the role of regions as load-bearing pillars in the structure of the Canadian state. I would like to encourage unexpected new groupings. This has begun to happen this century, with a few writers (Lisa Moore and Edward Riche among them) exploring the idea of aligning Newfoundland not with the Maritimes, not with Ireland or Great Britain, but with Iceland, a psychic shadow-twin for Newfoundland. Neither cultural commonality nor shared history nor trade nor political affiliation ground this linkage – it is a kind of surprise, an exciting and fruitful comparison because so unexpected and so contrary to the rigid delineations of geopolitical thought. Might a playful geographic queer reading practice be possible, where discontinuous non-synchronous regions are constructed along new lines of affiliation that are not necessarily bound by physical space? What might that look like?

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