Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review: Sisters or Strangers?

[Marlene Epp, Franca Iacovetta, Frances Swyripa, editors. Sisters or Strangers? Immigrant, Ethnic, and Racialized Women in Canadian History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.]

After a stressful parenting day and some (admittedly therapeutic) collective vegetable chopping in preparation for tomorrow's action, with brain running at only about 20% and a glass of whiskey in hand, he will attempt to write...

Collections of academic essays are always difficult to review. Usually the theme uniting the works is fairly diffuse, with no clear narrative thread tying them all together, and you have to be an expert to really appreciate such a volume as a deliberate intervention with a particular agenda to shift or disturb an existing field of knowledge.

In addition, academic disciplines tend to have their own rules about constructing texts. These rules are often not particularly concerned with enhancing the experiences of the reader, and are rather focused on accruing legitimacy to the writer by transforming or presenting knowledge in ways that will meet with approval from fellow specialists. Certainly there are exceptions to this, but by the strange logic of academic professionalism, enchanting writing in spaces in which the discipline of the discipline is operating is often either a calculated risk by someone low in the hierarchy or an indulgence by someone with high status within the field.

Many of the books I review on this site I have read with a particular end in mind, and so I frequently review them in light of their usefulness towards accomplishing that end, as well as how I think other people interested in this general area might respond to the book.

And with all of that in mind...

This was an important book for me to read. It isn't one that provides me with much in the way of concrete information for a concrete chapter in the book I am attempting to write, however. There were perhaps three or four of the essays that will translate into small points scattered throughout what I'm writing. I can imagine making referece to the essay on the role of Methodist missionaries in colonialism in Upper Canada, the one about the radical consumer movement of the late '40s, the one that talks a lot about the role of separate educational institutions in a larger discussion of Japanese Canadians' resistance to racism in the early twentieth century, and the one that talks about Black immigrant nurses in Canada.

But the book was more important to me as a source of general context. My work is focusing on aspects of resistance that are most likely to include collective and public elements -- social movements -- but it is a serious mistake to treat that as the sum total of what "struggle" and "resistance" mean. The central identities for these essays were all women who were oppressed because of their skin colour or their ethnicity or their citizenship status or some combination of those things, and basic social history focusing on those identities is also inevitably history of resistance. In my work I may not have direct use for, for example, a history of intermarriage in Armenian Canadian and Armenian American communities in the twentieth century, but in learning about that I learned about the ways in which genocide and diaspora can impact a nation and can impact individuals even multiple generations later. And, however fascinating I found this essay, I probably will not have occasion to talk about the negotiations around food-related practices among newcomers to Canada, white anglo Canadians already living here, and the Canadian state in the middle of the twentieth century -- but dynamics of adaptation, cultural appropriation, state meddling in cultural practices, and the impact of the physical and social infrastructure that is inescapable in North America are important to have a clue about in doing the writing I'm doing.

This book was a slow read, and the unpleasant imprint of the demands of the academic discipline of history left its mark on at least some of the essays. But you will learn if you read it.

And you will also probably have moments of shaking your head and thinking, "Yep. This sure is Canadian." For me that moment came in the essay about the race riot in Linday, Ontario, in 1919. Yes, Lindsay, a town that even today has fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, had a race riot. The situation was complex, with important dynamics related to racist Canadian immigration law and gender within racialized communities and gender within white Canadian society and wife abuse and mental illness and white Canadian (notably including a few of the first-wave feminists in the town) racism, and the essay does a good job (as far as I can tell) in teasing out the nuance. But it ended up with several hundred white people destroying the handful of Chinese-owned businesses in the town.

The Candianness? Well, first of all there was the involvement of the hockey fans:

At 11 P.M., a tide of several hundred Lindsay hockey fans, rejoicing in victory over the rival Peterborough team, bolstered the angry crowd. Shouting racial taunts, five hundred men and boys shattered the windows of the Chuong Sun Laundry with a barrage of bricks, stones and ice. They demanded that Lee come out so the crowd could rough him up... When the rioters heard that Lee had escaped, about four hundred went home, satisfied that their mesage was heard. The remaining seventy-five to one hundred rioters avenged their loss by attacking two other Chinese businesses, starting with a cafe where Lee's co-workers from the laundry had taken refuge. The rioters smashed fixtures, looted, and threw Chinese personal possessions into the street. At daybreak Lindsay newspapers evoked images of war-torn Belgium to describe the property damage. ["The Tale of Lin Tee: Madness, Family Violence, and Lindsay's Anti-Chinese Riot of 1919" by Lisa R. Mar, pp. 108-109 in the above volume.]

The other particularly Canadian aspect was that the author went to Lindsay to investigate, and extensive interaction with current inhabitants of the town showed the complete erasure of the disgusting violence described above from the local historical memory.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Red Jenny said...

Interesting. Scott, I have an opportunity to take a course with Franca Iacovetta ("Canada in comparative contexts: gender, labour, migration") but am not sure yet if I will choose it.

Scott said...

Hey Jenny...interesting opportunity. She has written some quite interesting looking stuff over the years, so I'm sure it would be worthwhile.

I look forwarding to reading on your site what you have to say about your upcoming experiences with grad school!