Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Postnational Coming of Age in Contemporary Anglo-Canadian Fiction

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Postnational Coming of Age in Contemporary Anglo-Canadian Fiction

Article excerpt

Each left home in the morning as if making a long journey, untangling themselves from the seaweed of other shores wrapped around their parents ... They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.

Dionne Brand

What We All Long For

So much has been made of the happy home-coming that it is time to do justice to the stories of non-return to the place one has never been.

Svetlana Boym

"On Diasporic Intimacy"

We must then bite the hand that feeds us, because what it feeds us is neither enough nor for our own good.

Himani Bannerji

Dark Side of the Nation

TWO CONTEMPORARY ANGLO-CANADIAN NOVELS, Dionne Brand's What We All Long For and David Chariandy's Soucouyant, are examples of how trans- or post-national sensibilities are being reimagined in stories about second-generation immigrant youth. These narratives explore their protagonist's ambivalent and conflicted ties to the past, to culture and language, and to place. Set in the multicultural city of Toronto, they point powerfully to the necessity of engaging with the entanglements of relational histories through a focus on transhistorical and translocal relationships and by evoking intergenerational transmissions of affect as a form of haunting. Exploring the tensions between disappointment and belonging for youth growing up in Toronto, the novels disrupt what Daniel Coleman has called the "trance of Canadian civility" ("From" 25) in spectral, indirect, and often non-narrative ways. Specifically, given their parents' disappointing experiences of migration, both novels can be read in light of what Marianne Hirsch has called "postmemory," a structuring dynamic of second-generation memories of cultural or collective trauma. The forms of unconscious and unwilled transmissions of affect signaled in these narratives are not limited to an engagement with family photographs, however, and also feature the recuperation of suppressed translocal histories, a haunting of dominant structures of language, and ethical acts of relational storytelling. I explore the narrative productivity, or afterlife, of these forms of intergenerational relationality for what it means to come of age in urban Canada and look at what modes of sociability emerge as a result. I suggest that What We All Long For and Soucoyant are novels about crafting a new relation to complex origins that, in turn, potentially generates new possibilities for social relations. The protagonists of these novels refuse to identify with simple narratives of (parental, diasporic) origins while at the same time being unable and unwilling to identify simply as "Canadian," allowing for the possibility of belonging as informed by planetary consciousness. (1)

Both novels feature young adult protagonists in their early twenties who are caught between adolescence and uncertain adult futures in the city. An aspiring artist, a university student, an entrepreneur, and others who are seemingly frozen with indecision, these protagonists reflect the anxious yet also cautiously hopeful attitude of contemporary youth. Joseph Slaughter argues that postcolonial coming-of-age stories have historically performed a double movement, signaling a tension between plotting oneself into normative values (and implicitly into citizenship status) while at the same time critiquing patterns of historical, economic, and cultural exclusion. If the Bildungsroman tradition has typically been about "education for citizenship" (Slaughter, "Enabling Fictions" 1410), I would suggest that the citizenship claims in these contemporary Anglo-Canadian coming-of-age stories are not necessarily recuperative but are in fact contestatory and critical. (2) In her critique of official multiculturalism as a way to co-opt and contain difference, Himani Bannerji suggests that "we must bite the hand that feeds us, because what it feeds us is neither enough nor for our own good" (118). Given that "biting the hand that feeds us" can be understood in a double sense, contradictorily referring to both the host nation and the parental hand, I argue that both of these novels perform just such a hand-biting. …

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