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Edwards, Justin D. and Douglas Ivison, Eds.: Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities.

Edwards, Justin D. and Douglas Ivison, Eds.

Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

227 pp.

ISBN: 0-8020-8668-3

Downtown Canada gathers essays from established and emerging Canadian literary scholars to assert the centrality of urban life to Canadian literature, countering the wilderness theme that has dominated Canadian literary criticism (for instance, in Margaret Atwood's Survival and Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden). Arguing that Canadian literature, like its population, is mostly grounded and growing in urban centres, this volume poses a critical corrective to Canada's traditional modes of imagining its regional and national spaces, on the continent and in the world.

In their introduction, the editors critique the "wilderness" tradition in Canada's literary institution; they also write an epilogue that theorizes Canadian urbanity amidst the postmodern cultural and economic flows of globalization. Between these theoretical bookends, the collection spans a commendably representative range of Canadian cities. Steven Artelle reads Orientalist discourses of empire in the post-Confederation literati of Ottawa's civil service; Christopher J. Armstrong excavates similar cultural imperialism in the mid-twentieth-century Halifax of Hugh MacLennan and Thomas H. Raddall. Barbara Godard's reading of Jovette Marchessault, (like Domenic Beneventi's of Regine Robin and Robert Majzels), traces liminal and libidinal representations of Montreal. Peter Dickinson reflects on teaching Vancouver writing to Vancouver residents. Richard Cavell attends to different urban abstractions in Canadian modernists F. P. Grove, Sinclair Ross, and Ethel Wilson (significantly, writers made canonical by the wilderness-oriented critical tradition). Batia Boe Stolar contrasts images of Toronto's "immigrant city" in Michael Ondaatje and Austin Clarke, while Lisa Salem-Wiseman compares Russell Smith's Toronto to Michael Winter's St John's, and Paul Milton considers the abstractions of suburbia in Gerald Lynch and Joan Barfoot. Finally, John Clement Bali tracks the transnational traffic between Toronto and London in Catherine Bush's fiction.

Common concerns among these essays are tensions between urban and imperial centres, as well as those between global capital and local communities; the homogeneity and interchangeability of suburban spaces; and questions of deracination, disorientation, and difference in urban life.

Three of the ten essays examine literature written before the 1970s, substantiating the editors' claim that Canadian urban literature is not a new trend but a long tradition. However, the balanced attention to regional and historical studies is not matched by a similar diversity of perspectives on cultural difference. While four essays (by Stolar, Dickinson, Beneveti, and Ball) discuss the racialized politics of multiculturalism in "glocal" contexts, only the former two of these read racialized or ethnically minoritized writers. Given the multi-diasporic make-up of Canada's cities, and given the range and acclaim of writers speaking to this contested terrain, it seems strange that most of Downtown Canada's contemporary subjects remain predominantly white writers; conspicuously absent (or perhaps grounds for a sequel) are discussions of writers like Dionne Brand, Evelyn Lau, Rohinton Mistry, or Wayson Choy--to say nothing of urban First Nations writers like Daniel David Moses or Marie Clements.

That said, the very abundance of deserving writers excluded here credits the book's main argument about the centrality of city life to Canadian literature; and urban First Nations voices would perhaps be better served with an urban focus on Canadian theatre studies, given the concentration of First Nations production in that medium. The editors' epilogue recognizes the role of theatre in foregrounding Canadian urbanity, but this recognition posits urban themes as relatively new to Canadian drama--contrary to the book's historicizing argument (and Canadian theatre history). Still, several productive lines of urban cultural enquiry can draw much from this collection's engagements with major theorists in urban and cultural studies: Edward Soja, Jane Jacobs, Arjun Appadurai, and Doreen Massey, among others. (The editors and authors meticulously cross-reference the articles to each other, helpfully directing readers to related topics and common concerns).

Most of the essays pursue specific literary and textual problems, and such interdisciplinary frames of reference sometimes yield widely resonant insights about Canadian cities, cultural economics, and the politics of representation. Yet urgent social and contextual questions remain to be asked by these lights--about the urban bases of Canada's literary institution and modes of production, or about the negotiations of nationalist culture-industry policies with free trade and globalization. Downtown Canada's postcolonial tour de flanerie re-centres the city in the Canadian imagination, and charts a promising new contextual direction for Canadian literary and cultural studies.

Mark A. McCutcheon, Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies


Universitat Bonn
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Author:McCutcheon, Mark A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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