Report on Waterloo Conference

Report on CACLALS 2012 Conference Crossroads: Scholarship and Teaching for an Uncertain World” University of Waterloo

Susan Gingell, University of Saskatchewan

As a scholarly organization devoted to the advancement of the study of Commonwealth literatures, oratures, and other cultural production, CACLALS’ most important activity every year is our annual conference at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. This year our conference was held at the University of Waterloo (principally) and Wilfrid Laurier University (administratively), in Waterloo Ontario, May 26-28, 2012. Our theme, “Crossroads: Scholarship and Teaching for an Uncertain World” was an expansion of the general Congress theme. We had 80 registered participants, but many more people attended our joint sessions with the Association of Canadian and Quebec Literatures, including two sessions on “Articulating Bourgeois Hegemony in Canada and Québec,” organized by David Leahy; a reading and live interview by Veronica Austen and Phanuel Antwi of Trinbagonian Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip; and the 12th Annual Aboriginal Roundtable, organized by Michele Lacombe, and this year on the theme of Aboriginal Languages and Aboriginal Literatures. We had participant-presenters from central and Western Canada; as far away as Australia, India, and South Africa; and from England, Spain, and the United States.

Our program included the keynote address by Indian scholar Dr. Leela Gandhi, “Why Literature Departments Should Speak in Ordinary Language”; the plenary address by Maori scholar Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville, “‘Reach across an ocean to find the right words’: Maori-Aboriginal Literary Connections”; papers arising from the research of 41 of our members; a panel of truly outstanding graduate student presentation prize winners’ papers from Tania Aguila-Way, Kasim Husain, Jennifer Hardwick, and L. Camille van der Marel; a Special Roundtable on “Stepping Forward, Looking Back: Post-colonial, Global, Transnational, and Diasporic Studies in the 21st Century,” organized by three of our graduate student members, Libe Garcia Zarranz, L. Camille van der Marel, and Melissa Stephens; and a celebration session in which Jennifer Hardwick was announced the winner of the Graduate student Presentation Prize for her “”’A Space of Not Knowing’: Settler Ignorance and the Study of Indigenous Literatures” and members’ newly published books were launched.

Dr. Leela Gandhi’s keynote address, “Why Literature Departments Should Speak in Ordinary Language” considered a particular kind of philosophical traffic at the crossroads of two world wars and the emergence of postcolonial studies. In order to argue that literature departments should speak in ordinary language, Dr. Gandhi discussed the anti-essentialism of the mid-twentieth-century ordinary language philosophy of Gilbert Ryle, John Searle, Stanley Cavell, and J.L. Austin. This philosophy is linked to the emergence of postcolonial thought because of ordinary language philosophy’s critique of the concept of a universal Truth, or truth as thing. Because postcolonial thought recognizes different epistemologies as contextually valid, the ordinary language philosophical position that there is no one essential truth acted and continues to act as crucial grounding for postcolonial thought.

However, Dr. Gandhi’s account of the traffic between West and non-West was principally focused on what she called affective cosmopolitanism, which she characterized as an art of becoming common. Working from an understanding of fiction as a form of politics, she argued that in the context of the counterhegemonic cultural practices of postcolonial fiction, such an art opens the possibility of an ahimsaic (non-harming) historiography. Such a historiography is more likely to proceed from an examination of social history, the history of the everyday, than from official history. To explore the art of the possible, she used the concepts of counterfictionality and counterfactuality that can “unmake” the world, expropriating the version that imperialism produced and overcoming the constraint of agency in reading that positivism produces. She invited her audience to think of counterfictionality as fiction recast as a swerving away from the given to create an anti-realist art of the possible while counterfactuality she defined as arising from the subjunctive “What if?” Working in this manner, the ambiguities of the (neo)colonial record can be productively exacerbated and the potential for non-violent relationship enhanced. Moreover, the positive side of the open temporality of the speech act, its operation beyond the condensed historicity of the moment of utterance can be liberated.

Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville’s plenary address, “‘Reach across an ocean to find the right words’: Maori-Aboriginal Literary Connections,” was a paradigm shifting talk that modeled a moving away from the habitual focus on relations between Indigenous peoples and their colonizers to focus on Indigenous connections to other Indigenous people. She used the idea of the Indigenous-held camera on the shore looking out at the world as a symbolic image of a reversal of the usual line of sight and to suggest a new internationally-focussed vision among Indigenous peoples. Similarly, her moving rendering of Anishaanabe writer-publisher Kateri Akiwenzie Damm’s poem “from turtle island to aotearoa” acted as a touchstone for a rich exploration of connections between Maori and other Indigenous writers, publishers, visual artists, scholars, and ordinary people. Her organizing questions were “How do we articulate what we share, when our closest point of connection is our respective insistence on our uniqueness?” and “What might this situation mean for reading nationally, transnationally, and – perhaps – ‘Indigenously’?” rather than focusing on histories of oppression, she offered many examples of both connection to land as sacred and sustaining place to identify a key part of what Indigenous peoples do share, and of interactions between Indigenous peoples that have in the past been misread. She thus signaled and enacted that when Indigenous scholars are the ones telling the stories, more than interpretation of already written histories changes; the sense of what needs to be focused on undergoes a dramatic shift.

M. NourbeSe Philip’s own evocative reading from Zong! was memorably followed by a communal reading of a passage enabled by the distribution of a section of the poem to willing audience members. Philip thus enacted the communal nature of African and Afra/osporic poetry in the most unlikely of locales: an academic conference. She directed readers to proceed at their own pace, with the effect that the voices of the readers created a cacophony that evoked the babble of the drowned slaves jettisoned into the Atlantic by the Zong’s captain in an attempt to provide the ship’s owners with the basis for an insurance claim on lost “cargo.” Sitting in the audience, I experienced the sense of floating in a sea of sound as the voices of the slaves rose through the water around me. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

The 12th Annual Aboriginal Roundtable: Indigenous Languages and Indigenous Literatures featured planned contributions by four Aboriginal scholars (Kim Anderson, Jonathan Dewar, Jo-Ann Episkenew, and Rick Monture), one local Elder (Rene Meshake) who has published bilingual books and website materials in English and Anishinaabe, and one non-Aboriginal scholar (Heather Macfarlane). Monture opened the session by performing an abbreviated version of a Haudenosaunee welcome address in Oneida, the Indigenous language he had learned as a young person. It was not, however, his Indigenous mother tongue, a language he never learned because of the circumstances of his upbringing. The performance and Monture’s following commentary on the traditional orature thus showed one kind of complexity to the Indigenous language situation even when the Indigenous person has learned a fair amount of an Indigenous language. Each of the Aboriginal scholars positioned themselves in relation to the language of their Indigenous ancestral heritage and explained it as part of the context from which they work and teach, and Macfarlane spoke about the Anishinaabe language in the literature she teaches and studies. Other contributors to the subsequent discussion shared their experience of such matters as 1) how the use of an Indigenous language in the literature prompted study of the language and why, and how their language learning was then reinforced by the reading and teaching of the literature, and 2) whether learning at least one Indigenous language was necessary for teachers or scholars of Indigenous literatures in English.

As always, CACLALS is grateful to our major funders, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.