Lord of the Hamsters
I wish to convey a minor note to the readers of BiC. It has more to do with arithmetic than Michael Coren's vexatious use of hyperbole, although in this case, the two are joined at the metaphysical navel. In the May issue ("White Mischief") Mr. Coren, in contrasting the political botulisms of the former racist apartheid system in South Africa to an equally odious pathogen, Stalinism, goes on a hysterical bender. In attacking the hypocrisy of those who served that great proletarian psychopath, Stalin, he loses his cerebral marbles: "From Lenin in 1919 and 1920 to the murderer Stalin, through to the bitter 1960s, the Soviet empire killed tens, possibly hundreds of millions of people in its rabid efforts to create a monolithic state." Now given that the population of the USSR since its inception hovered somewhere over two hundred million (and here I'm not taking into account the loss of millions of its citizens fighting German fascism), if hundreds of millions were indeed lost to Stalinist barbarity, then all there would be left would be some Siberian hamsters. Mr. Coren give it a rest!
Qualicum Beach, B.C.
Swerve & Avoid Norm
The piece on Quebec's "French-Speaking `Ethnics' " in your June issue provides English-speaking readers with a rare glimpse of Quebec writing today.
However, I was surprised by the article's failure to mention Régine Robin, a prominent writer of both fiction and non-fiction (she won the Governor General's award for non-fiction in 1987), whose novel The Wanderer has just appeared in English (translated by myself and published by Alter Ego Editions). Robin's absence is all the more puzzling because she directly addresses the central question dealt with in this piece: whether it is possible for an immigrant, an "ethnic", to become Québécois, and more specifically (in an afterword to The Wanderer), whether an immigrant writer can become a Québécois writer. Robin says,
"A new term has been created to designate writing by immigrant novelists, poets, or playwrights: neo-Québécois literature. The literature is not relegated to the margins of the literary establishment, but the designation neo-Québécois is a way of marking immigrant writers, and it indicates that there is a problem..Neo-Québécois writers have been forcing open the doors of the literary establishment in their striving to renew the forms of writing, narrative structures, existential questions, and the social imaginary of Quebec. This hybrid writing, which is profoundly North American, Québécois, and francophone-and eminently cross-cultural-belongs to the postmodern evolution of societies that today, more than ever, are destined to be culturally plural."
Culturally plural! How refreshing this view is in comparison with the one expressed in Soderstrom's piece, in which "writers from other places"-except, of course, those who "proclaim [their] differentness for religious reasons"-unproblematically become Québécois "when the writer's experience approaches the norm for the culture." Leaving aside the thorny questions of just what that norm might be, who determines it, and who measures writers' conformity to or deviance from it (we do not in Quebec have any body regulating this matter-a shocking oversight), I would like to think one of the things some, if not all, writers do-including those mentioned by Soderstrom-is challenge norms, not merely conform to them or serve as mouthpieces for them.
Did Émile Nelligan "approach the norm for the culture"? Does Anne Hébert? Michel Tremblay? With its implicit vision of a homogeneous society, Soderstrom's piece manages to avoid dealing with the very issue it purports to raise, that of cultural diversity. You'd never know it from her article, but this is an issue that is being hotly discussed in Quebec right now. Much of the controversy revolves around an essay by Monique LaRue, in which she frames the problem in these terms:
"Up to now our literature has been the expression of a relatively homogeneous shared world and common experience, and we have not asked ourselves what a Québécois writer is. If we are now able to think politically in terms of a heterogeneous, plural, diverse, and cosmopolitan Quebec, then.what will the literature of this Quebec be? Will we still be able to speak of a national literature? How do we think about the fusion of Quebec literature as it has existed up to now with literature as others see it.? With such a diversity of perspectives, will it still be possible to speak of `a' literature.or will there be as many literatures as there are ethnic groups?" (L'Arpenteur et le Navigateur, Fidès and Cétuq, 1996; my translation)
This, it seems to me, is an appropriate place to start-with questions, not assumptions of cosy conformity.
It is perversely flattering to read, in Professor Joseph Knippenberg's review of my book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (February), that "Keefer poses as great a threat to the independence of the university as the corporate interests against which he inveighs." Since Knippenberg believes that corporate interests ("rug merchants", he calls them) indeed threaten the independence of universities, this is a serious charge. But even in the climate of paranoia created by the PC controversy, and analysed by my book, it sounds just a bit silly. This is one book, after all, and there are big-time rug merchants out there.
Although he doesn't acknowledge the fact, the habits of mind Knippenberg reveals in his review are studied at some length in my book. These include a tendency (widespread among contemporary conservatives) to understand cultural debate in Manichaean terms, as a no-holds-barred struggle between the children of light and the servants of darkness; and a related tendency to substitute abusive labelling and paranoid distortion for responsible analysis.
Knippenberg's sense of what precisely he is opposing may seem confused. At one point he identifies my position as a "liberal or social democratic egalitarianism"; at another he finds my arguments "reminiscent of the worst kind of Marxist reductionism." Is he genuinely unable to distinguish among positions any distance to the left of his own, or is it his habit to paste a "Marxist" label on any argument that makes a dent in conservative dogmas? He is in any case persuaded that a book which exposes the fatuities and the falsehoods of recent conservative attacks on humanities curricula, and which argues that feminist, materialist, and postcolonialist scholarship, far from being antithetical to our humanist traditions, can bring young people to an enhanced and humane appreciation of western literary and philosophical traditions, must be wicked indeed.
One of the rhetorical postures that Lunar Perspectives dismantles (here following Northrop Frye) is the pretence that the university is an ivory tower, divorced from social concerns. From this Knippenberg deduces that I believe in power politics of the most brutal kind. Setting aside my repeated insistence upon civilized dialogue and my hope that, given good faith and interpretive patience, even people with the most radically divergent opinions might be able to arrive at a common understanding, Knippenberg tries to pin on me a view of the university as simply "a ground to be fought over and captured, either by the oppressed or by their oppressors." This particular donkey's tail is his, not mine: if he thinks it will keep the flies from settling, let him wear it himself.
"Keefer's university," Knippenberg declares, "is not one that I can respect or defend." I'm sorry to hear that. For if I did have a university all of my own, his opinions would be welcome there, as part of the free and lively exchange that I see as one of a university's defining features. And who knows, perhaps at "Keefer's university" he might learn to be a more careful reader, and a less blinkered interpreter of what he reads.
Stad aan't Haringvliet
Books in Canada provides one of the most nourishing general accounts of what is being published here for a wide range of interests, and of some resulting opinions or reactions. The informed or eloquent usually well outweigh the wrong-headed, the rude, or the irrelevant. Tone, range, and length are engaging, as in April's. Echoes of the Idler's voice, and the present format (including the paper itself), are also welcome features.