Reviewed by Rohit K. Dasgupta
Eds. Aloys Fleischmann, Nancy Van Styvendale and Cody McCarroll
Narratives of Citizenship: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples Unsettle the Nation-State. The University of Alberta Press, 2011
Narratives of Citizenship: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples Unsettle the Nation-State showcases the work of several diasporic scholars and seeks to understand how the “Canadian nation” has been imagined through its immigrants. Most of the essays in this volume, like other work by diasporic scholars, exhibit a penchant for situating the idea of the “nation” both in the writer’s country of origin and in Canada. The essays interrogate the discourse of nationalism and the myths that give Canada an aura of the sacrosanct and of homogeneity. As the editors explain in the introduction, “the essays highlight the assimilative demands of the nation state” and “sketch diasporic and indigenous strategies for “unsettling” these assimilative demands” (xii).
Exile and displacement form important themes in most of the essays in this volume. The essays look at ways in which “citizenship is both reasoned through and represented” (xiv). Centrally, they ask us to think about “narratives of citizenship, the title of this collection” (xiii). The collection as a whole offers a fractured reading by investigating the relationship between the preoccupation with the nation state and the location of the scholars theorizing “displaced” life. Citizenship scholarship argues that it both alienates and assimilates. The editors of the collection draw on both Benedict Anderson and R Miles to clearly point out the “divisive and integrative” appeal that citizenship forces on people. They argue that “with the rise of the nation state and the emergence of the idea that those who lived within its boundaries were members of an imagined community... (xxi)”
The emphasis on boundaries signifies how important the spatial and socio-economic borders of the subject are in relation to citizenship and community, thus making it imperative for citizenship studies to interrogate the “invented nature” of these cartographic boundaries. Lily Cho, in her essay, “Affecting Citizenship: The Materiality of Melancholia,” clearly explains that citizenship is not a homogenous identity, and for diasporic subjects, “melancholia and racial melancholia in particular is the condition of entry into citizenship” (108). I concur with her that displacement, dispossession and the forcible bringing together of disparate societies is one of the effects of the painful process of nation-building. This “forcing together” of disparate communities to create a nation is echoed in Jennifer Delisle”s essay “A Citizen of Story,” where she studies the “Newfoundland Diaspora” (149). She argues that “Newfoundlanders often regard Canadian citizenship as merely a legal condition rather than a defining aspect of identity” (152). Thus Newfoundland is not “a lost nation relegated to the past, but an imagined community with an ongoing sense of nationhood” (168).
The essays in this collection textualize the various nationalisms that Canada has to negotiate because of its contradictory existence as a state that tries to simultaneously draw from and erase the specificities, the differences between the various diasporas that constitute it. In her essay, “Some of Course Married Them, which was Better,” Aloys Fleischmann explores the mixed blood child who became a site of anxiety as it struck at the very root of class hierarchy. The child figure here maps the absurdities of and slippages within the nation-building process. Fleischmann “situates[s] the child as a mis/recognised sign of what lies beyond that limit” (53). The child here becomes a figure of the subaltern “other” who is difficult to place within the discourse of a homogenous nationhood. Multiculturalism and the “other” is a relationship further explored by Linda Ledohowski in her essay “I am Enchanted”, which traces the development of ethnic writing in Canada. Ledohowski suggests that “Canadian ethnic identities had entered a new era, one marked by money, cultural support, and access to mainstream means of production for so called ethnic writing” (130). She too, like Fleischmann and Delisle, stresses how the rhetoric of nationhood is played through anxiety and subsequent rejection of the “other”.
The collection also goes beyond Canada. Sydney Iaukea’s essay, “Camera Ready: Nation Through Photography in Hawaii” analyses early American photographs of Hawaii and challenges the visual representation of Hawaii, which once characterized by disorder, under-populated spaces and unhygienic conditions, was transformed in to a sanitary, orderly space populated by American tourists. One of the grand narratives of colonialism has always been the mythology of progress and Iaukea questions this manifestation of a mythologised representation of colonial power. One strand that the collection seriously lacks is the South Asian narrative. South Asian nationalism is characterized by the idea of monstrosity, one which focuses on the fractures rather than the commonalities. Displaced South Asian writers and scholars such as Shyam Selvadurai and Himani Bannerji are sadly missing from the collection and that would be my only protest against this otherwise imaginative and well researched collection.
The essays in this collection dislocate both home and the nation by theorizing the commonalities and differences which create communities and subsequently citizenship and nationhood. The various scholars have conceptualized national politics wholly in terms of what was happening at the levels of nationalism and communalism, two major strands of study of nationhood and citizenship. What remains untold is what happens in the interstices of the national and communal as is the story of the provincial and the regional, characterized variously throughout this collection as Newfoundland, Hawaii, Six Nations and of course the exiled diasporic subjects themselves who inhabit these spaces. It is this tenacity and vibrancy of the “regional” in the face of the emergence of the nation that this collection undertakes to study.The reader is asked to envision the nation state as a product of constant tension between coercive practices of exclusion and assimilation. What then remains is who to assimilate and who to exclude. Diasporic subjects belong to a fluid category that challenges the evaluation criteria for citizenship whose exceptional position of “belonging” to more than the nation state challenges the process of nation building.
At press time: Rohit K Dasgupta is an associate lecturer and doctoral student at University of the Arts London. His research aims to study digital queer spaces in India and seeing how they play an integral part in identity formation and also challenge contemporary Indian nationalism. He has recently co-edited Masculinity and its Challenges in India (Mcfarland, forthcoming).
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