How We Write

Putting a piece of writing out into the world is a bit like tossing a pebble down a mountainside. Usually it clatters down alone, bouncing a bit off this outcrop or that. It eventually loses momentum, settles in with other older pebbles, mostly forgotten. But sometimes, the pebble will bounce in such a way that it triggers other pebbles, and a little landslide ensues. Larger chunks of rock start to break loose and fall, and there the metaphor breaks down.

My blog post from a few months ago, Wilderness Group Tour, ended up being just such a pebble. It is far and away the most visited entry I’ve posted on this blog. It was shared quite a bit on Facebook, and several long, involved, thoughtful, rewarding discussions grew around it. One of these discussions grew into a twinned pair of blog posts by Professors Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie, both here at the University of Toronto. These were partly a response to my post. But more importantly, the blog posts were by two well-respected tenured academics at a big research institution. They were throwing aside the curtain, Wizard of Oz—style, to reveal the truth about their writing practices. And how does the wizard make her magic? How does the writing get done? In both cases: not the way the “Finish Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day” crowd says. Not tidy, not neat. Not too different from the way both Akbari and Gillespie wrote as graduate students, in fact. Productive panic, instrumentalized anxiety, terror of the deadline.

With those posts, the illusion that successful academics all follow a stately, graceful, calm and confident writing practice has been destroyed – to the benefit of everyone (me included) who has angsted out about their heretofore pathologized ‘bad’ writing practice, their inability to become deliberate steady 500-words-a-day types. Scholarly writing, it turns out, is as idiosyncratic as the scholars who produce it, and the methods and manners of writing vary hugely with personality and context.

And there bloomed a book. A collection began to quickly coalesce, taking as starting points my blog post, Akbari and Gillespie’s posts, Stuart Elden’s response to all three, and Alice Hutton Sharp’s post about a writing group organized by graduate students that actually persisted and succeeded where so many fail. Under Akbari’s editorial guidance, more voices were brought in, ranging widely in age, embodiment, background, discipline, position within the broader academy. How does disability intersect with writing? What about babies and cancer and other Big Life Events? What about collaboration? Editing? What about writing ‘lockdowns’ to finish (or take a big chunk out of) a book-length project? How do we write? How have we written? The book emphatically does not dictate how to write. It doesn’t speak in one voice. It’s about what it’s like to write in the Humanities in the present moment, as stressed imperfect humans who are doing their best with often-scattered minds and always-fallible bodies. No bullshit.

How We Write Cover Image: detail from "Wabi Sabi Agness Martin" by Yvonne Wiegers (

How We Write
Cover Image: detail from “Wabi Sabi Agnes Martin” by Yvonne Wiegers (

This is How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blank Page. It’s now available from punctum books, an exciting publisher dedicated to putting challenging and unusual pieces of academic writing into the world. In line with punctum’s mission, the book is free to download as an e-text (you can and should make a donation – punctum are a registered charity, and they do good work) and cheap to buy as a thing-you-can-hold-in-your-hands.


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?

Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 2

Read Part 0
Read Part 1

In yesterday’s post, I gave a brief sketch of the history of Atlantic Canada as a concept. I explained how it was a political and economic creation of 1949, weakly grouping together the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland, and Labrador, three regions with distinct histories and cultural contexts. I concluded by suggesting that literature is a good place to look for evidence of a deeper regionalism, one based on a sense of regional commonality – and that, in the case of Atlantic Canada, the literature suggests the region does not cohere — it does not exist. Newfoundland, in its literature, tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with the outside world – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’

Today, I’ll take a brief tour through a variety of examples that prove my point, before concluding with some suggestions as to where Atlantic literary regionalism can go from here.

Hugh McLennan’s first published novel, 1941’s Barometer Rising, demonstrates how the Maritimes perceived Newfoundland as ‘other’ just before they were joined under the umbrella term ‘Atlantic Canada.’ McLennan was born and raised in Nova Scotia (partly in Cape Breton); Barometer Rising is a creative and intellectual engagement with the idea of Canada eight years before ‘Canada’ included Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a novel very much invested in nation-building, very easily read as an allegory. McLennan positions an emergent Canada between the colonial Scylla and Charybdis of the US and the UK, exhibiting the promise of a hybrid vigor.

Newfoundland does not occupy much space in the text – but it does appear, and not in a way that supports the logic of Newfoundland as a ‘natural’ extension of the Maritime region. Early in the text, when character and setting is being established, we learn that the well-off Wain family employees Sadie, “our indispensable Newfoundland maid” – a diasporic Newfoundlander. She only makes a few appearances, mostly in the establishing section of the novel. She is firmly coded as ‘ethnic’ or ‘other,’ a comically subordinate subject. She speaks in an over-the-top Stage Oirish dialect, dropping haitches all over: “Ho, Miss Penny! . . . Mr Halfred, ‘e do heat something terrible!” Unorthodox spelling and grammar record her dialect phonetically. As numerous sociolinguists have pointed out, English orthography already bears little resemblance to the sound of words. Phonetic renditions of dialect reliably indicate who the text wishes to single out as ‘other’, usually for reasons of race, ethnicity, class, or some combination of such qualities.

In depicting Sadie, McLennan borrows clichés and tropes of the Irish servant in the English household. When we first see Sadie, she is caught napping in the kitchen, like the lazy or shiftless stock Irish servant of the English canon. In a novel as deeply symbolic as Barometer Rising, it is easy to read Newfoundland through Sadie as Ireland to Canada’s England, unmistakably ‘other,’ a source for ‘indispensible maids’ who express unsophisticated thoughts in comical accents.

Contemporary Newfoundland is obsessed with imagining the pre-Confederation period, the period in which Barometer Rising is set. When reading Wayne Johnston’s works in The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle makes a strong case that Newfoundland’s recent foreign past is a wellspring of renewal for Newfoundland’s sense of difference from the rest of Canada. Newfoundland’s idea that it was its own country, not too long ago, is for many the guarantor of its status as a distinct society within Canada. Newfoundland’s history is typically overwritten by Canada’s history – “our” first Prime Minister, we Newfoundland schoolchildren learn, was John A. MacDonald; Newfoundland Prime Ministers like Philip Little and Robert Bond are erased from the public’s imagination.

This prompts a vigorous writing-back among Newfoundland writers who continually re-tell and reference Newfoundland’s unCanadian past, keeping the kernel of Newfoundland’s foreign identity undigested. As Cecily Devereux puts it, when introducing Wayne Johnston, Newfoundland is “characterized simultaneously in terms of what has been lost and of what remains always there, internalized or incorporated at the level of memory” (The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland).  “When it came time to sing the Ode [to Newfoundland,” Johnston says, in the lecture that follows, “all the grownups were teary-eyed, almost happily, it seemed, as if to reminisce about the loss of one’s country was something they revelled in and looked forward to.”

The necessity of engaging with Newfoundland’s recent foreign past underpins and infiltrates even such unlikely ‘cosmopolitan/global’ texts as Lisa Moore’s Alligator or Michael Winter’s The Architects are Here, both of which repeatedly remind readers that Newfoundland, not so long ago, was foreign to Canada, and that parts of it remember that foreignness, cling to it, renew it via narrative.

English Canada had split its government and its economic heart between cities, and so had the French. Nothing grand could happen, no flagrant tragedy, no dictator or revolution because the power was in Ottawa and Quebec City, while the business and culture were in Toronto and Montreal. But St John’s possessed both, and St John’s looked at Newfoundland as its country. (Michael Winter, The Architects are Here)

She wanted Newfoudland before Confederation because what kind of people were they? She remembers her mother’s housekeeper tearing the skin off rabbits in the kitchen sink. . . . She could not put into words about how she’d captured the history of Newfoundland in this film, new because she was inventing it. . . . (Lisa Moore, Alligator)

The feeling that Newfoundland somehow remains foreign within Canada turns up reliably in post-1949 Maritime literature – even in Cape Breton, the northern tip of Nova Scotia, physically and culturally most proximate to Newfoundland, with a strong history of Newfoundland diaspora. Newfoundland is imagined not as a sibling or cousin but as a proximate stranger, a place with some sense of Important Difference.  Unlike most of his work, Alistair MacLeod’s story “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” is not set in Cape Breton. It is set in a Newfoundland outport contemporary to the date of publication (1974). It is almost shocking in its romantic treatment of the setting. The folk realism of MacLeod’s Cape Breton gives way to a depiction of a mist-shrouded Newfoundland of supremely superstitious folk where houses do not have telephones and children are so pure and free from the taint of mainstream North American consumerist culture that they do not know ‘freezee pops’ and other junk foods (a personal note: even the smallest outport had a store that sold processed mass-marketed treats; my father drove a Pepsi truck on the Cape Shore in the very early 1960s).

In other of MacLeod’s stories, ones set in Cape Breton, Newfoundlanders remain a tribe apart. They are like the Cape Bretoners, in that they are globetrotting labourers, but their relationship to tradition and home lacks the ambivalence and complexity accorded to MacLeod’s Cape Breton subjects. Newfoundlanders pass through Cape Breton on their way home, strange and singleminded as salmon returning to a spawning ground, clearly set apart from their Maritime cousins, despite any shared qualitites.

Other Newfoundland texts, like many written by Wayne Johnston, or Trudy Morgan Cole’s By the Rivers of Brooklyn, make two moves which further undermine a sense of Atlantic regional affinity. They imagine pre-Confederation Newfoundland as an un-Canadian island turned in on itself, but they also imagine that Newfoundland’s primary external relationship is with New York and New England, further stressing Newfoundland’s ambivalent relationship with Canada, leapfrogging the Maritime provinces as a kind of fly-over (or ‘sail-past’) country in the bargain.

Newfoundlanders work on high steel, building New York’s skyscrapers. They rent apartments in Brooklyn’s Little Newfoundland neighbourhood (which actually did exist), or they sleep on benches in Central Park if down on their luck. They stay with sisters and cousins when they first arrive; they run into people they know from home while walking the busy streets.

Maritime literature also reinforces that region’s ties to the northeastern US. Texts like Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on your Knees likewise orients its affiliation not to Upper and Lower Canada, but to New England and New York. But, while fictional Newfoundlanders find other Newfoundlanders in New York, and fictional Maritimers find other Maritimers, the paths of Maritimes and Newfoundlanders never cross in these textual representations. In none of these texts does a diasporic Cape Bretoner bump into a diasporic Newfoundlander on the busy streets of Manhattan and experience the immediate recognition and fellow-feeling of exiles who come from the same place – the fellow-feeling of subjects sharing a diasporic identity. If such encounters were to exist, it would strongly suggest a sense of commonality that pertains when all other structures are inaccessible or have failed – Hillier and Conrad’s definition of regionalism, given in part one of this series of posts. But, in my experience, such encounters do not exist in the literature. In New York and New England, the Newfoundland diaspora and the Maritime diaspora are distinct.

In the next entry, I’ll examine a few critical attempts to deal with this failure of Atlantic Canada to cohere as a literry region, and I’ll suggest some possibilities for ways forward and next moves.

Continue to Part Three


Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 1

Read Part 0

“Growing up in small town Ontario, I was only dimly aware of the ‘Maritimes’ and ‘Atlantic Canada’ and what little I knew of these terms and regions reflected well-worn stereotypes. For me, the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada were synonymous with each other. . .”

Corey Slumkoski begins Inventing Atlantic Canada by reporting his childhood biases regarding Canada’s four easternmost provinces. Slumkoski is hardly alone: here is a recent map taken from an Alberta-based tour company’s brochure, advertising a package tour of Newfoundland. They have taken the island of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) and placed Newfoundland towns and attractions on it.


This made it through several layers of proof-reading to publication. The map went viral in Newfoundland corners of social media in May 2015. The company issued an apology, speaking of their “passion” for Newfoundland. They published a corrected map – except, this time, they made a classic error. The Newfoundland capital, St. John’s, is labelled as Saint John, the city in New Brunswick, a 1,706 km drive away.


To complete the hat trick, the Metro newspaper reported on this snafu with the headline MARITIMES MAP MIX-UP, when Newfoundland is emphatically NOT one of the Maritime provinces – and that is the point. In the broader Canadian imaginary, the four easternmost provinces are so similar as to be more or less interchangeable.

In Anne of Tim Hortons: Globlization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, Herb Wyile describes both the negative and positive aspect of this general Canadian view of Atlantic Canada: culturally homogenous, lazy and ungrateful recipients of welfare and transfer payments, a parochial drain on the rest of the country, but also a bucolic touristic playground, good humoured hard-drinkers with charmingly quaint folkways, accents reminiscent of the British Isles, a site (or even THE site) of “pre-modern” authenticity for Canada’s settler society.

So what’s the difference? The Maritimes are the trio of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The first two are founding members of the Canadian confederation. PEI joined six years later, in 1873. Atlantic Canada includes Newfoundland and Labrador, two politically linked but distinct landmasses, physically discontinuous from the Maritimes and from each other. Newfoundland and Labrador only joined Canada in 1949. It was a contentious and deeply ambivalent decision. Newfoundland had been a quasi-nation within the British Empire for several generations beforehand – a status equal to Canada’s own at the time (Prime Ministers, passports, stamps, banknotes, the lot).

Newfoundland and the Maritimes diverged well before Confederation, though. Robert Finlow argues in favour of an Atlantic Canadian regionalism, writing of “similarities among these provinces”, including “a population with fewer recent immigrants, mostly old-stock British and Acadian, with First Nations and African-Canadian minorities” – but this argument defeats itself with its own example. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were shaped immensely by New England planters and by Loyalists arriving after the American Revolution. Neither group settled in Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s settlement drew overwhelmingly from the area around Waterford in Ireland and from Devon, Dorset, and Somerset in the southwest of England, a pattern of European settlement more distinctive and limited than anywhere else in North America – including the Maritime provinces. Finlow is right that Acadian and African Canadian communities make important contributions to the story of the Maritimes, but this is less the case in Newfoundland. Lebanese and Chinese Newfoundlanders, though, are important minority communities making cultural contributions reaching back well into the 19th century – yet they often go unacknowledged and unheard when Atlantic Canada is taken as a whole, because they are not afforded a place in the common racial algebra of the supposedly homogenous region.

One important note: Labrador will not enter into my discussion, although it may be the final nail in Atlantic Canada’s coffin (if Newfoundland doesn’t ‘fit,’ Labrador really doesn’t fit). My reasons are similar to Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s when she omits Labrador from her book The Newfoundland Diaspora:

“[Labrador] constitutes a separate literary culture with unique issues and concerns, which merits its own critical study. To include Labrador in my study would be to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones, which is a move I want to oppose rather than support.”

I, too, want to oppose such a move. “Atlantic Canada” as literary region is also an attempt to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones.

Atlantic Canada was invented as a political region in 1949, intended to be a single federal unit. As Slumkoski explains, Atlantic Canada is inextricably related, ontologically, to the Maritimes, despite the differences between Newfoundland, Labrador, and the three Maritime provinces. Term 29 of the Newfoundland Act, the legislation that made Newfoundland (and Labrador) part of Canada, “reveal[s] that . . . [Ottawa] saw Newfoundland as an extension of the Maritime Provinces; it was the Maritime provincial average – not the Canadian one – that would be the new province’s benchmark for economic and social development.”

In one legislative stroke, Atlantic Canada is both created and locked into a permanently disadvantaged place in the legislative structure of federalism: the goal is to make the poorer, less developed, marginalized Atlantic Provinces equal to each other, not equal to the rest of Canada. Atlantic Canada was thus legally united at the moment of its creation through its structurally disadvantaged position within federalism.

Further, Atlantic Canada seems to have been devised as a purely economic and political region, not a cultural one. Slumkoski notes that “little was done following Confederation to link Newfoundland and the Maritimes as a cultural region or to foster cultural ties between the two jurisdictions. . . . thus it fell to Term 29 to bind the new region.”

A parody created by twitter user @ficklesonance

A parody created by twitter user @ficklesonance

Is this sufficient? Historians James Hillier and Margaret Conrad suggest it is not. They make a case for region as concept, along the lines of Benedict Anderson’s theory that nations emerge through repeated expressions of an imagined sense of commonality — the ‘imagined community’ of Anderson’s famous book. They argue that ‘region’ is defined by some sense of commonality by those who claim it: “While the Atlantic Canada ‘region’ can be easily found on a map, ‘regionalism’ implies a political stance, a consciousness of shared outlook that can be summoned up when other structures – familial, communal, provincial, national, global – fail.”

Literature is a good place to look for expressions of such regional identity – literary texts express ideas about place and culture, and in that way they can be used to ‘map’ the boundaries between places and between groups. Texts from the four Atlantic provinces provide little evidence for the existence of an Atlantic regionalism with the qualities Hillier and Conrad use to define regionalism. The four provinces share some characteristics, but their literary production does not suggest a sense of enduring commonality. In its literature, Newfoundland tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with Canada – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’

In the next installment of this three-part entry, I’ll look just at how literature from both Newfoundland and the Maritimes imagines (or fails to imagine) Atlantic Canada.

Continue to Part Two


Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’, part 0

Last weekend I gave a paper at a panel on rethinking regionalisms in Canadian literature¹. Three proper blog posts adapted from that paper will follow. But first, an anecdote:

The concept of region has been given a very hard time in the panel and through the question and answer period. A question is asked wherein suburbs of Vancouver are described and characterized without being named. A panelist (not me) nods in recognition and interjects “Surrey.” The question-asker brightens up and enthusiastically goes “yeah yeah!” They have hailed each other as co-regionalists; they have recognized knowledge of a region as a mutual bond and it pleased them to do it. It made them a little excited, a little happy. This is the affect of regionalism in action.

But if anyone recognized what had happened, no one said anything about it. I didn’t even realize the signifiance of the moment until my husband, Chris Piuma, pointed it out to me after the fact.

I tell this story because I don’t want to forget that moment. I want it to stand as evidence that region is still in play even when we think we’re past it. It runs deep and its actions are subtle.

Continue to Part One

¹For the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) at Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. Here’s the program.


Wilderness Group Tour: PhD dissertations and writing/support/accountablity groups

I was recently asked to make a brief presentation about dissertation writing/support groups. I was one of four presenters at a workshop hosted by the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies. I had a few thoughts about these writing groups, why there is such a hunger for them among PhD candidates, and why they usually seem to be of limited success. What follows is a modified script of my presentation. It speaks primarily to my experiences at the University of Toronto, but may be of broader interest and use.

I’ve been a member of at least three writing or accountability groups since beginning work on my dissertation, and I’ve been invited to join more.

One group met (still meets) weekly (usually), at a café on campus, to set goals for the week ahead and to review how each member did (or did not) meet goals set at the previous week’s meeting – to hold each other accountable (thus, “accountability group”). This group became more of a coffee klatch, a welcome chance for casual face-time with friend-colleagues – a chance to talk shop and to catch up on departmental gossip. This is very valuable, psychologically and socially – writing a dissertation is often very isolating and depressing. But, as a means of ensuring I got my crap done, week to week, it didn’t work well for me.

A second group met only a few times before melting away. This was more of a ‘writing lock-in’ than an ‘accountability’ group. A fellow candidate in my department emailed a wide range of her peers (myself included), asking if we’d be interested in booking a room in our department for the purposes of a group writing session – no conversation, no distractions, just three hours of fingers going click-clack on keyboards, followed by a decompression session at a nearby pub for any interested. This was brilliant – I responded very well to this format. However, it almost immediately began to come apart at the seams – the group was large, and the question “when shall we meet again?” became an unmanageable one. Person A can’t do this day, Person B can’t do that time, and so on. Two more sessions happened, as far as I’m aware, each one with fewer attendees. The last one I went to, I showed up about 20 minutes after it was meant to have started, and there was no one there. Scheduling conflicts and the demands of labour outside of/beyond the dissertation (labour necessary for survival) torpedoed this group.

A third group is still extant, and is more of a writing workshop. There are five members, and we try to meet every 6-8 weeks or so. A few days before a meeting, two or three pre-selected people circulate a chapter draft, article draft, or some other lengthy piece of academic writing; the meeting begins with social time (again, this has a great value in and of itself) before moving on to fairly intense and detail-oriented workshopping. This was also very useful, but, again, holding regular, timely meetings became a challenge. All members of this group are no longer funded, and so have pieced together incomes through multiple low-paying jobs, academic or otherwise. Further, the recent strike of TAs and Course Instructors at the University of Toronto drew all of our time and energy as we fought a bitter battle to bring our income at least a little closer to the poverty line it currently falls shamefully short of. As such, we have yet to hold a meeting in 2015, although plans are in the works.

All of these experiences tell me two things. First, there is a great hunger for these groups. They are a locus of hope for PhD candidates who are feeling desperate and adrift. Second, these groups are not particularly effective and are often short-lived.

I have some theories as to why both things are so.

Think about a gradate student’s training — the upper-year undergraduate seminar, the course-based Masters degree (and it is almost always course-based; at this point, the Masters thesis, where it still exists, is something of an antediluvian survival), the PhD coursework, studying for a set of comprehensive or qualifying exams. These are all highly structured and hierarchical, but none of them bear resemblance to dissertation writing. My point: graduate students are trained to work well within structures. Graduate school is mostly (only?) accessible to people who thrive in structures. It self-selects for that sort of person — but the institution’s hope is that, upon candidacy, the grad student will become a very different kind of person, a person who thrives in a vast open unstructured plane. I suppose the theory is that, from the moment of candidacy, the aspirant PhD will be self-structuring, having existed within structures for so long. But it’s pretty clear: For most of us, when the mould is removed, we slop everywhere, distressingly amorphous; we attempt to attain a structure, but most of us do not have the ability or resources to maintain those attempts. Tightly controlled panic begins to creep in.

The writing or accountability group is one attempt to create and maintain structure. It’s an attempt to reintroduce the structure of coursework to the dissertation. A set group of people have regular meetings, with deadlines for producing work. But, as Eric Hayot points out in his straightforward and sensible The Elements of Academic Style, the practice of professional academic writing bears only a passing resemblance to the kind of writing taught and modeled in graduate courses.

No one I know writes publishable essays in three weeks, much less when simultaneously working on one or two other essays over the same time period. . . . The way things work now, a visitor from Mars might reasonably guess that the purpose of the first two or three years of graduate work is to train students in a writing practice designed to generate 75 pages or so over three or four weeks.

As Hayot rightly says, the kind of research and writing experience received up until the moment of candidacy does not train students to a writing practice where months of research lead into months of writing lead into months of revision — where a good, finished, ‘in the bag’ chapter will reasonably take two semesters to complete, if not more. The structure of the system has set us up to fail — it has taught us to work and write in one way, and then a switch is flipped and we are expected to write and work in a radically different way, one we have had no preparation for, no training in, no familiarity with. Most new candidates don’t even have a clear idea of what a dissertation looks like, how it’s structured, how it’s built.

This is one reason why accountability groups fail — they are attempts to reassert the structure of a graduate course, but everyone is  fumbling novice, and, in any case, courses, as we knew and experienced them, are not useful models for dissertation writing.

The other reason these groups fail is also structural. In short: it’s the money. Gradate students live a precarious existence well below the poverty line; in order to pay rent and buy groceries, most have to take on extra work, have to piece together a livable income. I can’t tell you the number of times an accountability group has melted away because scheduling meetings became impossible due to multiple jobs, academic or not.

The solutions to both of these problems seem obvious to me. The training that graduate students receive, prior to candidacy, needs to be retooled so that it inculcates habits and rhythms of professional academic writing. Graduate students need to be familiarized with how a large intellectual project moves from first idea through to finished scholarly monograph. Perhaps, once upon a time, the Masters thesis was useful training in this, but this is no longer the case, as Masters degrees have become pure course work at most institutions.

Without such changes, promoting “writing groups” and “accountability groups” is merely the institution passing its educational responsibility on to the graduate students who are the same students in need of that education. It is like expecting a first year ‘Great Books’ literature survey to be self-taught by the undergraduates who have enrolled in it.

Perhaps PhD coursework needs to be radically reimagined to teach how professional academic writing — public, publishable scholarly writing — is done. Perhaps dissertation writing groups should have faculty shepherds who attend meetings and set or create appropriate structures and goals. Perhaps this is a role that dissertation supervisors can take on — in which case, such duties need to be formally laid out as part of the terms of faculty member’s employment. Or, my department, English, has mandatory Pedagogy and Professionalization classes in the second and fourth years of the PhD, respectively — perhaps a “dissertation writing” class in the third year is in order, where at the end of the semester, ideally, each student will have written a chapter draft through a structure of escalating class assignments. Academic writing courses exist, but, at least in the Humanities, they seem poorly attended. There is a sense (perhaps incorrect) that they teach more basic writing skills students (primarily in STEM fields) who may be deficient in them, the kind of skills a literary scholar, philosopher, or historian mastered some time ago. Do any of these classes teach the writing practices of Humanities and Social Sciences professors as they embark on book projects? If not: why not? If so: how can we improve their marketing to reflect their utility?

Second, institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time an energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted. Fix that, and dissertations will get written.


Adaptations: Artistic Fraud’s production of “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams”

Recently, I was lucky enough to see Artistic Fraud’s production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, adapted by Robert Chafe, on the second night of its four-performance maiden voyage. One scene near the end sticks in my mind. The whole Smallwood clan has gathered around the radio to hear the results of the first 1948 referendum regarding Newfoundland’s political future – Charlie, the grousing blustery alcoholic father, Minnie May, the high-strung mother down to her last nerve, Clara, the quiet and conventional wife, and the man himself, Joseph R. alias Joey, leader of the Confederate forces, our protagonist.

The scene opens with a radio announcer reading the referendum results: it’s a win for a return to self-governance, with 45% of the vote, but Confederation with Canada polls higher than expected, at 41%. The continuation of ‘Commission of Government,’ the strange dictatorial colonial interregnum that has administered Newfoundland since 1934, finishes a distant third, with 14% of the vote. As no ballot option received more than 50% of the vote, this means a second, run-off referendum is in the works, between the two most popular options – and it will be this second referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and delivers it to Canada as a tenth province in 1949.

It’s a proud night of triumph for Joey. Confederation has performed better than expected, and Joey anticipates that the supporters of continued colonial rule will be unlikely to switch to pro-independence – he knows that he’s going to win the second referendum. But the scene soon devolves into shouting, curses, recriminations, as Joey’s father, Charlie Smallwood – a man who, earlier in the play, bitterly instructed Joey to “love a woman, not a country” because “a country can’t love you back” – now patriotically accuses his son of selling both his soul and his homeland for a bit of political gain and Canadian coin.

The ensuing fight is fierce, probably the most heated and angry scene in the play. I read it as a symbolic representation of the very real family-destroying arguments that ripped through Newfoundland in the later years of the 1940s, as the issue of independence versus confederation divided families and communities – a trauma that still echoes today, not so many years after.

The night I saw the play, at every thunderous peak of rage, many in the audience laughed, as if the bitter schism being played out for us was a Codco skit.

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Newfoundland off the map: Michael Crummey’s “Sweetland”

I’m very pleased to announce that The Toronto Review of Books has just published my review essay “Newfoundland off the map: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland. You can read it by clicking that link.

I first read Sweetland on the train from New York City to Toronto. A book about a community’s final sputtering days (and its strange, stubborn afterlife), it felt especially appropriate to read it as I passed through America’s rust belt.

I finished shortly before Buffalo. It was like I’d been punched in the gut, a feeling that sometimes returns when I think of the book. Here, someone had finally written ‘the Resettlement novel’, and had done it with such emotional depth, such poetic richness, that I was convinced it would serve not just as a monument, but also as a tool.

But then, I got to thinking about how true that could be . . . .

Is the book Moses throws into the ocean maybe one of Crummey’s own? Perhaps even Galore? This passage becomes a despairing “what good did that do?” act of literary violence. Literature will not save us. Ghost stories and folklore will not save us. There may be no use in turning to folklore when an entire culture is going extinct.

That’s the corrective Sweetland offers. Rural Newfoundland is not a fairy-tale place inhabited by fairy-tale characters. It is a real place, a marginal culture choking and sputtering at the hand of circumstance.

Newfoundland off the maps: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Previously on Michael Crummey’s Galore


L’ancienne capitale française

In 2013, I wrote an essay for the Newfoundland Quarterly about how my hometown of Placentia, the French capital of Newfoundland from 1660 to 1713, has a French history rather than a French heritage — that the town today likes to pretend it has some special Frenchness, but that this claim is false and has been since the mid-18th century. I meditate on what our imagined Frenchness means,  how it figures into our sense of identity as Placentia-people (Placentians?), and why we vigorously maintain this imaginary French heritage when all the facts are aligned against its existence.

Le Gaboteur, the French-language newspaper for Terre Neuve et Labrador, took note of my essay and recently asked if they could translate it and publish that translation. Of course I instantly said yes — it’s thrilling when someone does something creative with a text I’ve produced, and I consider translation to be a creative act. Also, I’m very pleased that my ideas will have a second jog around the block, as it were, and that they will be read by people who have a significant interest in the stakes of my essay.

The translation was completed last week, and it appeared today in the most recent edition of Le Gaboteur. If you have (or get) an online subscription, you can read it here. If you live in a part of Terre Neuve et Labrador where Le Gaboteur circulates, you can pick up the November 24 issue and turn to pages 9 and 10.


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.

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