Canadian Culture & Imperialism
by Arnold Itwaru, Natasha Ksonzek,
Readings from a Hyphenated Space
by Arun Mukherjee,
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|Imperialism and Its Discontents
by George Elliott Clarke
IN HIS ANALYSIS OF THE impact of European colonialism on African racial identity, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), the Algerian psychologist Frantz Fanon formulated a precept that applies to all centre-margin relations:
Every colonized people -- in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality -- finds itself face to face with the language of the civilising nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country.
As with Africans, so too with South Asian and Caribbean nationals and their Canadian "hyphens." Indeed, two recent collections of post-colonialist prose feature the struggle of two Indo-Canadian writers and thinkers to resist Canadian eurocentricity and to preserve their "cultural originality," that is, this shadowy Canada that metonymizes the phantasmal remains of the British Empire. In Closed Entrances: Canadian Culture and Imperialism, Arnold Harrichand Itwaru, a Toronto writer and cultural theorist, and Natasha Ksonzek, a writer and artist, mount a polemical assault on white media reviews and museum exhibitions. Likewise, in Oppositional Aesthetics: Readings from a Hyphenated Space -a revised and expanded version of her 1988 collection Towards an Aesthetics of Opposition (Williams-Wallace) -- Arun Mukherjee, a York University English professor, insists that the Western aesthetic tradition, especially notions of universality, serves to silence or distort texts by non-Western writers, to value the apolitical over the engage, and to produce exoticized and often repugnant images of "Third World" cultures.
In his book, Itwaru condemns the caricatures to which he is affixed by "the Empire Dream":
I am Caliban, an inferior sordid enslaved savage evil thing.... I am Friday, Crusoe's subordinate, I am Gunga-subaltern-din for the British Raj's Jewel and Crown, I am a coolie, an embarrassing primitivity who should be only too ready to serve the Light Bearers of Europe and Britain and America and Canada, their panoply of saints and sages whose domination of me is necessary so that my Heart of Darkness can be illuminated to better aid my exploitation.
Wielding satire and sarcasm, Itwaru attacks several Fanonian "sins": "the colonization of consciousness," "Sadistic empire ecstasy," and "Harmonious infantilism," ideas that would seduce colonials into glorying in their own oppression. Examining Canada, Itwaru finds a nation that practises racism, accepts a foreign monarch as its ruler, and has
as its closest friend and ally that Empire State which has named itself America, whose Emperor-King-President is the Commander-in-Chief of the largest and most terrifying armed imperialist military force in the world.
Itwaru reads, at times, like George Grant on steroids.
Both Itwaru and Ksonzek (in an unremarkable contribution) impugn the Royal Ontario Museum as well as its controversial 1991 exhibit Into the Heart of Africa, but neither essay displaces the far more cogent critiques deployed by M. Nourbese Philip in Looking.for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991) and Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1992). Moreover, Itwaru's "Shakespeare, wallah," which excoriates the Bard's elitism and racism, is unconvincing. For instance, Itwaru suggests that Ophelia's ascription of majestic qualities to Hamlet, in III.i, represents pro-imperium "delusional thinking." Maybe. But don't lovers often assign nobleness to each other'? And is it news that "Shaky" abhors "mobocracy"? Nor do Itwaru and Ksonzek recognize the delights of contradiction. Yes, the Empire sought to educate its colonial middle classes into submission, but its teachings fostered the independantistes who wrought its dissolution ....
is a partisan j'accuse.
It quickens thought, but its hypertensive style and one-fell-swoop denunciations detract from its gravitas.
Arun Mukherjee's work is more scholarly. Her essays strive to enact a resistant aesthetics by foregrounding the race, gender, and class positions at play in texts and in cultural debates. She notes that, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "large dinners are eaten in feudal homes with not a servant in sight," while in Neil Bissoondath's Digging Up the Mountains, "the Blacks are shown as terrorizing and masochistic figures."
Even the sacrosanct Earle Birney does not evade Mukherjee's forensic art. In a succinct, tenderly argued essay, she deems his much-anthologized poem "The Bear on the Delhi Road" to be, not a "profound, `universal' statement about 'myth' and `reality,'" but rather "a failure of imagination," which does not render the lived reality of the animal. Mukherjee provides a context, asserting that she "grew up seeing dancing bears and dancing monkeys ... , all performed for the sake of putting food in some humans' bellies." The article demonstrates nicely that culture determines vision.
This same insight animates Mukherjee's strong critique of the films A Passage to India, The Gods Must Be Crazy, and Out of Africa. They fail, she says "to sort out the mess of history." Instead, they depict "cultural recolonization, an attempt to go back to the place of one's past crime and recreate the past in a way that the crime is displaced, muffled, washed out." The films "lead to heartache and anguish and a long chain of misunderstandings."
One revels in the slings and arrows of Mukherjee's Trudeauesque barbs: "The poem is supposedly made and unmade in front of one's eyes. And it does not need the real world at all"; "No severer attack could have been made on the Third World intellectuals who so unashamedly live off the crumbs of Western learning while remaining totally oblivious to their own heritage." Furthermore, her habilitating readings of marginalized South Asian writers like Rienzi Crusz are meritorious, while her study of Michael Ondaatje as a deracialized and deracinated poet is both problematic and provocative.
Oppositional Aesthetics is
a worthy work, but it also has its moments of cultural blindness. If Third World novels attempt "to project a vision of the individual within the community, the individual under the sway of large movements of history," so too do the works of Hugh MacLennan, Antonine Maillet, and other authors. Mukherjee's text would have been more rounded had she noticed correspondences as well as differences between eurocentric Canadian and Other writing.