In recent decades, world has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested concepts in literary studies. The more narrowly defined stakes of the debates over world literature concern the disciplinary mandate of comparative literature. One way of grasping the world as a problematic is in terms of a dispute over the correct unit of literary analysis. Should comparative literature scholars seek to illuminate broad historical patterns in the global circulation of influence as reflected, for example, in the morphology of literary genres or the adoption of tropes across different literary cultures? Or should they seek instead to come to grips with the singularity of the world—the unique systems of thought and meaning—presented in individual texts, using the methodology of close reading that offers a model for the ethical relation to otherness? The issue of scale is equally at play in the multiculturalist imperative to expand the literary canon beyond its traditional emphasis on European and Anglo-American traditions. While the general consensus is that undoing comparative literature’s Eurocentrism is crucial to the discipline’s continued relevance, the practical question of how to go about it has been contentious. If scholars are required to draw from a diversified literary canon, how can they attain the linguistic competence required to treat the enlarged field of inquiry with adequate hermeneutic care? The danger, according to some critics, is that world literature will normalize the study of literary texts in English translation. Another critique of such globalizing initiatives regards the value of diversity itself. Some have argued that conceiving of literary works as representatives of specific cultures or regions is itself a legacy of Orientalist Eurocentrism and that, therefore, a multiculturalist approach inadvertently entrenches the very problem it seeks to rectify. A range of political and ethical concerns are thus at stake in the endeavor to globalize comparative literature. Indeed, the concept of world literature has historically been bound up with an assessment of globalization’s liberatory potential and, increasingly, its oppressive effects. The emergence of world literature as a project or goal is often, though not always, traced back to Goethe at the beginning of the 19th century. Reflecting the Enlightenment value of universalism, Goethe’s evocation of Weltliteratur projects a world united through free literary exchange across borders and intercultural understanding. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels situate Goethe’s cosmopolitan vision in a materialist framework, presenting it as derivative of the economic transformations entailed in the world market. They also radicalize Goethe’s model of cosmopolitanism. Instead of an autonomous sphere of communication among the national literary traditions of the world, for them Weltliteratur stands metonymically for a future in which both the nation and private property—as manifested in the idea of national patrimony—are superseded by an internationalist commonwealth. Fleshing out the tension between Goethe’s and Marx’s visions of the globalized world, recent debates on world literature have generated productive confrontations between liberal humanistic, Marxist, deconstructive, and postcolonial perspectives on the gap between the world one inhabits and the world one wants.
Jen Hui Bon Hoa
Christine Kim and Christopher Lee
Despite the supposed end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, its legacies remain unresolved in Asia and continue to shape Asian Canadian writing. The presence of what are now called Asian Canadians became increasingly visible in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, the federal government passed a new Immigration Act that abolished national quotas which had effectively excluded most immigrants from areas outside Euro-America and introduced new opportunities for students and skilled immigrants. In the late 1970s, 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia entered Canada, the first time that Canada had admitted a significant number of non-European refugees. This period also marked the height of postwar Canadian nationalism: in 1967, Canada celebrated its Centennial and tried to project an image of liberal inclusion; this would be further consolidated in 1971 with the adoption of state-sanctioned multiculturalism. However, this specific Canadian national identity failed to address racial discrimination, including those forms directed towards Asian immigrants from the mid-19th century until past the World War II. While Canada’s Cold War politics are informed by these unresolved historical traumas, the multiple intersections between Asian Canadian experience and the Cold War remain largely illegible when read through the frame of the Canadian nation. Alongside the tradition of Asian Canadian cultural activism, Asian Canadian writers, such as Joy Kogawa, Roy Miki, Paul Yee, SKY Lee, M. G. Vassanji, and others, produced texts that sought to address the erasure of Asian historical presence while exploring and depicting the psychic as well as social costs of racial exclusion and discrimination during the 1970s and 1980s. SKY Lee’s novel Disappearing Moon Café (1991) explores how issues such as Asian–Indigenous relations, gender hierarchies, class relations, racialization, queerness, and the politics of memory are shaped under the subtext of the Cold War. Laotian Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa’s second book of poetry, Found (2007), engages with the history of her parents’ migration from Laos to Canada via a refugee camp in Thailand, and in doing so, Thammavongsa challenges the Cold War representations of Southeast Asian countries. Kim Thuy’s Ru (2009) examines migration in relation to the narrator’s journey from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp and then to a small town in Quebec. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) raises questions about post-Cold War justice by drawing attention to Canada’s involvement in the conflicts in Cambodia and implicitly posing the question of Canada’s unacknowledged responsibilities. Thammavongsa, Thuy, and Thien’s texts can be read as post-Cold War literature as the Cold War created the conditions for these literary projects to emerge. Beyond a source of thematic or historical content, the Cold War remains embedded, if ambivalently, in the very construction of Asian Canadian literature.