Category Archives: Literature

New English Courses at VIU Explore Diverse Ethnic and Cultural Perspectives

Courses are open to the community through the University’s Love of Learning program

VIU’s English Department is pleased to present three new courses next semester that examine literature from a variety of non-traditional perspectives and mediums. From reconciliation, to post-colonial Caribbean lifestyles and cultures, to the quest for unforgettable journeys, these new courses incorporate a diverse range of perspectives and writing styles, and question people’s assumptions about literature and art.

In a rare and unique opportunity for students and community members, English 332: Topics in Indigenous Literatures will include class visits and public readings from some of the authors studied in class, including Eden Robinson, whose novel Monkey Beach won the BC Book Prize’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. While many of the stories deal with the lasting effects of Canada’s colonial past, they are also about healing, reconciliation and hope. Dr. Paul Watkins will explore these stories through several mediums, including fiction, poetry, art, comics, film and music, and students will participate in a creative intervention project.

“The hope is to open up spaces that challenge the colonization that affects us all, whether we are aware of it or not,” says Watkins.

As students read, watch and listen, they will also Tweet with the hashtag #ENGL332. The readings are sponsored by VIU’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the First Nations Studies Program, the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

If you’re itching for a little taste of the Caribbean then maybe English 333: Topics in Post-colonial Literature is your course. From Rihanna and Bob Marley, to the dub poetry of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and the magical realism of Junot Diaz, English 333 delves into anti-colonial, post-colonial, feminist and queer perspectives expressed through various mediums, including literature, art, music, film and literary theory.

“The Caribbean is on the move, and it moves me,” says Dr. Melissa Stephens. “I see it as a shape-shifting constellation of people and places, politics and art, feeling and intellect. This course will help you grasp the enduring impact of colonial violence, but also, and most importantly, the work of resistance and liberation.”

Finally, adventure seekers will want to check out English 222: Travels in World Literature, during which Dr. Jeannie Martin examines a range of provoking historical travel writing along with popular contemporary works that highlight journeys in search of the romantic, the pastoral and the picturesque.

“Books about travel and tourism are wildly popular these days, but often unwittingly extend the enterprise of imperialism,” says Martin. “This course raises questions about the ethics of presenting the truth of another place and another culture. In this age of globalization, we passport-carrying privileged, viewing the world through the limited lens of our own cultures and experiences, are not the only travellers. Raising questions about who travels, why we travel, and why we write about our travels encourages us to form more complex relationships with other peoples, places and cultures.”

These courses are open to the general public via VIU’s Love of Learning program, which allows community members to take an academic course without the stress of exams or assignments at a discounted rate of only $99 per 3-credit course plus ancillary fees. Pre-requisites will be waived for Love of Learning students.

To learn more, visit the VIU English Department news page.

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: jenn.mcgarrigle@viu.ca | T: @VIUNews

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – 1:45pm
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Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King is one of Canada’s most prolific writers: a renowned novelist, broadcaster (The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour), screenwriter, one-time NDP electoral candidate, and the first person of Aboriginal descent to be chosen to give the Massey Lectures (in 2003). In The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America Thomas King shares his extended reflection on Native (King’s chosen term) identity through history, humour, and personal meditations. For King, stories define who we are and The Inconvenient Indiantakes this maxim and displays—through the weft and warp of history—why the stories we tell matter, especially since Canada’s story is often about the country’s strained relationship with First Nations people.

To read the full review over at The Bull Calf, click here.

On Lower Frequencies: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man 581

Set primarily in 1948 tumultuous America, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an evocative novel that deals with black identity, technological manipulation (Afrofuturism), social disillusionment, racial oppression, and invisibility. More broadly, the novel concerns individuality, tracing the numerous ways we sound our identities within political or communal networks. In the novel, an unnamed black man embarks on a Dantean journey from the South—where local white men mock him in the infamous “Battle Royal” scene and offer him a scholarship to a black college—to the basement streets of Harlem where the narrator finds a new brand of racism and where everyone he encounters, whether white or black, has an idea of who he is and what purpose he can play in their destiny. Invisible Man, which appears as one of the 100 Best English Novels (Time), is, as Lev Grossman wrote, “far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”

Although published in 1952, Invisible Man remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson and all too frequent incidents of racial profiling, often with dire consequences as in the cases of Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin; within a Canadian framework, the novel’s theme of invisibility heartbreakingly relates to the general invisibility of First Nations people, specifically the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women. Beyond its continued relevance, Invisible Man remains controversial for its honest depiction of racist America, as well as its voyeuristic sexual content, particularly the story of incestuous rape told by the signifying blues singer, Jim Trueblood. In fact, last year the Randolph County School Board voted to remove Ellison’s novel from its library shelves. Aside from the graphic content, abstract language, and historical scope of the novel, Invisible Man is also a difficult novel to teach because of its sheer size—a robust 581 pages.

Yet it is for all these historical reasons and challenges that I recently taught Invisible Man and will continue to do so. In a course structured around Sonic Afro-Modernity and Social Change we used the theme of sonic Afro-modernity (a term that comes from theorist Alexander G. Weheliye) to examine how Ellison’s interplay between sound technologies (the phonograph) and Black music and speech produced new modes of thinking and becoming, particularly allowing for new ways to engage with identity, temporality, and community.

Ellison’s Invisible Man opens with the unnamed protagonist getting into the “grooves of history,” listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” on the phonograph—locating the music’s aura, as Wehelyie argues, “not in the original musical utterance but in the mode of mechanical reproduction itself, making him one of the foremost intellectual architects of sonic Afro-modernity” (47). Ellison’s unnamed narrator states: “Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’—all at the same time” (7-8). Ellison’s choice to foreground Armstrong’s performance of “Black and Blue” (initially composed by Fats Waller) in the prologue to his circulatory text highlights how one articulates one’s historical somatic experience through the performance of identity.

The surreal hallucinatory episode of listening to the nodes of music via Armstrong’s own listening and discord of identity (with the aid of some reefer) becomes the act of improvised identity-performance for the narrator. The Invisible Man’s reimagining of the performance through a recorded performance—with a desire for simultaneous recordings—is the “authentic act” (in the non-authentic sense: that is, the performative nature of identity resists closure), where the grooves take the narrator inside and outside of history. Ellison—like a DJ mixing records to navigate a murky topology—creates a “mix” and becomes an innovator of “sonic Afro-modernity.” I use this example to show how there can be a politics at work in the DJ’s mixing (that “the mix” can articulate the layered nature of history, identity performance, and racial politics), and to emphasize that the DJ mix—certainly for Ellison—is an act of citizenship.

Through music I was able to index many of Ellison’s signifying strategies and show my students how identity—much like community and society itself—is a process that is always changing. As Ellison writes in his work Shadow and Act, “because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it” (234), suggesting that Black identity, or any identity formed within improvising principles, is continually in process. Hence, jazz and, more ubiquitously, improvisation are about finding alternatives to dominant modes of being, which is why Ellison’s nightmare of living as a black man in America is also filled with possibility and hope.

There are moments when we realize (along with the narrator) that freedom can be as simple as walking down the street in our own skin proudly displaying our cultural heritage. For the narrator that comes in one moment (there are others) where he eats a cooked, syrupy yam on the streets of Harlem: “I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome with a sense of freedom—simply because I was eating while walking on the street” (Invisible 263-64). No longer compelled to hide his Southern Black identity, the narrator ponders the connection between food and identity, feeling a profound sense of self-determination and autonomy—a sense that comes with progressing forward while simultaneously embracing, confronting, and remixing the past.

In this way, Ellison’s novel is prophetic (and Afrofuturistic): it speaks of change and resistance while acknowledging the cyclical nature and echo effect of oppression. History, as a metaphorical record, is distressed, scratched, and in need of a DJ (and an audience) to make it sound. Ellison, as a sonic architect, is an early progenitor of Afrofuturism: a movement that lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to tell us we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination). As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour” (Guardian). Combating visions of tomorrow that view blackness as the failure of progress and technological cataclysm, Ellison shows that through the manipulation of technology, Black culture actually helped create modernity and notions of subjectivity, temporality, and community. History as remix, as a cyclical boomerang, allows Ellison to dig into the crates of the past to explore and expose the effects racism has on both victims and perpetrators.

Invisible Man deals with an entire “unrecorded history” (471) that is open for (re)interpretation and (re)examination, particularly by and for those groups of people who were once relegated to historical footnotes. We are thus challenged, as Robin D. G. Kelley argues in Race Rebels, to “not only redefine what is ‘political’ but question a lot of common ideas about what are ‘authentic’ movements and strategies of resistance” (4). Politics, as a “history from below” (5), also functions by what Kelley defines as “infrapolitics” (8), a term he uses to describe the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups who function beyond the visible spectrum. It is from “the lower frequencies” (581)—those subtonic bass notes—that the unnamed narrator (as a representative of the oppressed) continues to speak to a contemporary North America still recovering and living with the legacy and malaise of slavery, reformulated in some respects, under the guise of capitalism. Under this lens, we cannot trivialize contemporary acts of resistance by political youth movements like Occupy, Idle No More, or the Egyptian Revolution (2011, Tahrir Square), which effectively connected various people and global media outlets together to enact change—however grand or relative in scale and action. The recent First Nations Idle No More movement was the result of legislation (most directly Bill C-45) introduced by the Harper government, which violated treaty and land rights. Again and again: the record of history continues to spin.

Ellison’s Invisible Man remains a multifarious DJ mix of apposition and amalgamation. We encounter characters that personify actual historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Emerson, and Marcus Garvey and cultural references and influences that include Dante, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Melville, and Louis Armstrong. It is in this mixing, between Western classical and Negro Folk traditions (Shadow 190) that Ellison creates a polyphonic dialogue, displaying that Black music, literature, and culture are never fixed or stable, but rather layered and complex: the novel, like Brother Tarp’s chain, “signifies a heap” (388). Invisible Man matters because race and culture still matter. On a more global level, especially in the age of information and censorship, art still matters.

Reading (and making space to teach Invisible Man) remains an act of allowing one’s own identity position to be moved by the lower bass registers of sound. We are called to listen to those deemed to be on the lower registers of society. Ultimately, identity and, by extension, community involve the precarious act of yielding to others’ voices, which is at the crux of genuine multiculturalism and, often, interesting literature. I have an original first edition of the novel (3rd printing) and I can only imagine how people felt reading the novel for the first time in 1952. As I leaf through its taupe and textured pages, I realize that in spite of much change in terms of citizenship rights in North America, many of the power structures in the novel remain entrenched in our current society. When we finish the novel, a long endeavour, we (as the narrator does) are challenged to leave our holes of hibernation, “shake off the old skin and come up for breath […] even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). The landscape might have slightly changed, certainly our understanding of the world via technology has, but our responsibility to make the world a better place remains as pertinent as ever. No wonder the highly visible want the book taken off the shelves.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1995. Print.

—. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.

Weheliye, Alexander. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

MaComère’s New Issue Pays Tribute to Dionne Brand

My article, “Listening to a Listening: The Disruptive Jazz Poetics of Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries (a call towards freedom)” is now out in  MaComère’s most recent issue, Volume 14 Numbers 1 & 2 (2013-­‐2014), titled Critical Perspectives on Dionne Brand.

MaComère is the first journal to publish an issue dedicated to providing sustained, critical  focus on Brand’s works.  For over thirty years, Dionne Brand has been testing the capacity of language to address ethical questions of global consequence. Her work spans a wide range of genres, including poetry, prose (novels and short stories), the essay and documentary film. Poet Laureate for the City of Toronto from 2009 to 2012, Brand has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011 for her narrative poem Ossuaries.

View the Table of Contents, here.

Soundin’ Canaan in 3 Minutes

Next week I am competing in an event where you have to deliver your thesis in 3 minutes with no more than one basic slide. This is quite a daunting task, and given that my 300+ page thesis (in a draft version currently) covers so much, and given that I don’t really have time to discuss any of the specific poetry in detail, I thought I’d primarily touch on some of the larger themes around music and citizenship. I often get asked, so what’s the gist of your thesis? In 3 minutes it sounds  roughly like this:

I will briefly outline how music and citizenship relate to my thesis project, Soundin’ Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry, which is about historical recovery and imagining Canada’s future. Like the image of a needle touching down on the historical record, the past tells us much about where we can go, for as Amiri Baraka states, “The future is always here in the past.” Most Canadians don’t even know slavery existed in Canada, and few are aware of the historical black communities in Canada such as Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver and Africville in Nova Soctia, which thanks to the work of the poets in this thesis hasn’t gone unnoticed: Canada Post, as part of Black history month (2014) commemorated Hogan’s Alley and Africville on a stamp. Soundin’ Canaan (Canada was often referred to as Canaan in spirituals during the black migration to Canada), draws from a cross-fertilization of communicative techniques to examine how citizenship is reexamined by African Canadian poets’ resistive soundings.

Centered on the poetry of M. NourbeSe Philip, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Dionne Brand, and rapper K’naan, my dissertation builds on the work of scholars who have admirably mapped and written about African Canadian literature. Uniquely it examines how many African Canadian poets draw from African American and pan-African musical forms (including blues, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, dub, and so on) in order to remap the concept of identity and citizenship. Soundin’ Canaan, addresses the politics and ethics of Canadian multicultural policy and citizenship—focusing on intersections between music and text as a border-crossing praxis. I ask: what does Canadian citizenship sound like, particularly as voiced by African Canadian poets interested in a fluid citizenship that moves, like music, between local and global spaces?

Idealistically, citizenship—like music—is not confined to any single space. While in prison, Nelson Mandela listened to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” an act Paul Gilroy describes as “The global dimension of diaspora dialogue [made] momentarily visible.” Essentially, music travels across borders, and through such sonic imagining, the value of a global (yet still often regional) citizenship is avowed. My methodology itself is closest to the practice of DJing, which provides a malleable guide to my murky topology: DJs mix multiple records by using various constituent elements of rhythm, timbre, texture, and overall sonic experience. In essence, I ask what happens when you put a mixer and crossfader between several diverse cultural realities?

By looking at citizenship through the lens of music as an often dissonant site (or text) of struggle and identity formation, Soundin’ Canaan demonstrates how music in African Canadian poetry is not solely aesthetic, but a form of social, ethical, and political expression. What happens when those not normally seen as citizens with full rights—the disposable—are brought more into the picture and seen as co-performers of the Canadian remix project? No longer for the elite alone, citizenship is to be universally confirmed for all Canadians.

Canada signified as Canaan represents faith and contradiction for the poets explored in this thesis. Isolation can only create more of the same, and so multiculturalism, reimagings of citizenship and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s notions of The Just Society present an opportunity to moderate disorder and fragmentation by embracing difference through fraternity. Much of this thesis is an idealization of what Canadian multiculturalism can aspire to be: a gesturing towards a more equal and free society for all its members.

The Shining: Does Kubrick’s film Redrum King’s novel?

Over the last week I’ve read—or rather engulfed myself within—Stephen King’s The Shining. It is one of my favourite films, and so I thought I should give the novel a chance. In fact, despite the thousands of books I’ve read, studied, and written about, I’ve never actually read a Stephen King novel, and so I wanted to correct this overlook on my part. Fortunately, the hardcover edition I have also contains Carrie and Misery, and so I will likely read those soon, as well as perhaps The Stand, which I’ve heard might be King’s finest work.

Most of the book was read in our cozy 700sq foot apartment as Toronto was hit with one of its biggest snowstorms of the year. While I haven’t quite suffered writer’s block, I have had ten to twelve-hour days cooped up inside the house (I continue to work diligently on my PhD thesis, which is a little over a month away from a full first draft) where I feel like I am going a little crazy. Not that I admire or identify with Jack Torrance as he struggles with his own writing and budding insanity, but I certainly felt a detached and sinister sense of camaraderie with him: all work and no play make Paul a dull boy. The main difference between King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation is that King’s novel is more human. King is concerned with familial relationships and the internal psyche of his characters; by comparison, Kubrick focuses his lens on larger metaphors, structure, and allegory.

To say one is better than the other is to do both works a disservice. They are vastly different. Personally, I prefer the film. It helps that Jack Nicholson gives one of his most inspired performances and that I am an immense fan of Kubrick’s work. I think the film’s visual images are more potent than in the book, and its finale is more operatic and horrifying. And yet, I appreciate the imaginative prowess and humanity of King’s novel. The love and strong relationship between Jack and Danny was hardly emphasized in the film. Jack’s alcoholism and gradual descent into madness, related to King’s own struggles with alcohol, is also much more developed in the book. Further, in the novel, Wendy is a multifarious and resistive character whose internal struggles are largely reduced to shrieks on the screen. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking character change—although this one feels like an assassination—is that Dick Hallorann’s role is greatly reduced in the film. He is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and in Kubrick’s film he is abridged to just another black man dying on the screen. He is not even mourned by Wendy or Danny. Like all the characters, Danny is much more complex in the book, but it is his lack of complexity on the screen that makes him so damn creepy. We are not meant to identify with Kubrick’s characters; we are victims of Jack and the Overlook Hotel’s history of violence, which makes for a more unsettling film than the book.

Once again, if the medium is the message then Kubrick’s stylistic choices are suitable to the cinematic force of his adaptation. Kubrick’s visual choices have been written about in great detail and even inspired the satisfying, although a little too drenched in conspiracy theory, documentary Room 237. The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaption is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. In fact, I found that, at times, King’s haunted house clichés and ghosts were just not that frightening, although the build-ups in the novel are very captivating. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying, for me, largely because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Wendy and Danny do escape Jack (the Minotaur) in Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather than the burning (I will not spoil the ending) and warm ending of King’s book, Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

Before filming, Kubrick told King on the phone he didn’t believe in hell, and that he “thought stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic.” No wonder King was so disturbed by Kubrick’s film, since King’s book is both supernatural and optimistic, and Kubrick’s film is not. Love conquers evil in King’s novel, and Danny receives some practical advice at the end of his trials: “But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on.” It’s hard to think how Danny and Wendy will go on at the end of Kubrick’s film, but somehow they must. Both films are powerful allegories for the darkness of the human spirit. King’s novel is just much more optimistic since love, not perseverance and survival, overcomes evil.

Personally, I enjoyed Kubrick’s film more than the novel, but the source text was a pleasure to read, especially since the novel switches between so many different viewpoints. Most great film adaptations, I also enjoyed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange more than Burgess’s novel, are successful because they ignore their source text. King was so angered by Kubrick’s adaption that he eventually remade the movie himself, in what many have described as a painfully boring and uninspired adaption, although wholly faithful to the original. Perhaps King’s version is closer to translation than it is to adaptation. Comparing the book to the film is like comparing apples and oranges. And yet, I’ve been doing that somewhat here, but largely to emphasize they are very different works, and should be thought of as separate entities. Kubrick uses the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. Maybe the film version should open with the preface: inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining. And while the film has certainly outshined the book (inspiring many other riffings such as in The Simpsons), perhaps another reason King was so frustrated by it, both deserve a place on your bookshelf. In some ways, both the film and novel  complement one another, presenting a fuller picture of how, as King puts it in the book, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”