Theoretical interest in the relationship between literature and social reality -- between text and world -- is invested with particular historical urgency in present conditions of multiculturalism in Canada. By urgency I mean not merely importance or immediacy but also energy and necessity. Both the official institutions of multiculturalism and the various ethico-political polemics concerning immigration, equitable rights and the question of who can speak for whom, need to be understood not as the "illusions" of a cult, as Neil Bissoondath would have it, but as features of a historical process. The recent fractious debates in The Women's Press, the Canadian branch of PEN International, and The Writer's Union, which Bissoondath points to (156-85), indicate that literature -- and more broadly, writing -- not only affords access to the central concerns of multiculturalism but is somehow the means by which its dynamics are worked out.
The poetry of Canadian writer Andrew Suknaski illustrates very well literature's relation to multicultural issues and debate. What makes Suknaski's work so instructive, furthermore, is that it does so without involvement in the institutions or politics of multiculturalism, and even without recourse to the term itself. Instead, Suknaski's contribution lies in the way that his poetry operates at and thematizes the intersection of history and literature. Written in the late 1960s through the 1980s, Suknaski's material, as Jars Balan notes, is "real" people speaking in historical time (120-22); the characters who speak in his poetry are those who currently live or have lived in Wood Mountain, a polyethnic and multiracial community located in southern Saskatchewan.(1) In Suknaski's Wood Mountain texts, the historical process of multiculturalism is worked out discursively -- that is, through the changes in language and literary conventions that are required to accommodate changing social realities. The process involves the jostling and adjusting of all fixed categories of identity that results when ethnically and/or racially identified persons speak. No one is unaffected by this process, for accommodation means the re-placement of all identities within a hierarchy where positioning is relational and perpetually contested, and therefore fixed only more or less.
Suknaski's Wood Mountain texts provide a model of a civil polity that is balanced, however precariously, "between balkanization and assimilation," to borrow the terms used by Robert F. Harney in his discussion of immigration dynamics. Harney prefers such a state of affairs to "the full realization of anyone's dream of multiculturalism" (92-93) and Suknaski's poetry demonstrates how it works. Suknaski's practice also challenges Charles Taylor's assumption of an independent position from which to adjudicate claims to cultural value and equality (69), and by insisting that discourse proceeds through the incorporation and re-evaluation of the words of others, it confounds protests about "appropriation of voice" made by critics like Dionne Brand (13-20).
My concern here, however, is not to take up these specific debates but rather to show how Suknaski's poetry puts pressure on established literary conventions and raises questions about how they come into being in the first place. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's theories about how literary conventions and genres arise from social realities and relations, I wish to demonstrate the way that Suknaski's Wood Mountain texts function to articulate -- in both senses of enunciating and joining together -- history as lived, language as uttered, and identity as posited. The advantage that such a text/world approach to multiculturalism has over those which stress economic, legal and political events and determinants lies in the way that it engages the interplay of a wide range and various kinds of subjectivities and shows how the subjects of multiculturalism come to know themselves and become known through language. …