Ein Semester konzentrierte Canadian Literature: Winfried Siemerling zu Gast am JFKI

Winfried Siemerling was invited by the Abteilung Literatur as the visiting professor in Canadian Studies for the summer term 2008. He is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada, and affiliated with the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal. Much of his teaching and writing explores perspectives on comparative North American Literatures and Cultures (United States, Canada, Quebec). His most recent book, for instance, The New North American Studies: Culture, Writing, and the Politics of Re/Cognition (Routledge 2005; French trans. Presses de U Laval 2009), discusses cultural emergence, recognition, and cultural difference across North American borders but keeps national difference in full view.

This is the second time Winfried Siemerling was a visiting professor at the JFKI, after a first stint in 2000. Even then he was already familiar with the Institute, having participated as a postdoc in the 1991-93 JFKI Graduiertenkolleg “Die USA und das Problem der Demokratie.” Earlier academic stages include an M.A. thesis in Freiburg on William Faulkner and a doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto, published as Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard (U of Toronto P, 1994, digital reissue in 2009; part of a chapter on Michael Ondaatje was republished).

This summer, Winfried Siemerling gave several talks in Berlin and offered two courses at the JFKI. The first was a survey “Vorlesung” entitled “Canadian Literatures and the Postcolonial: An Introduction,” which ranges from Canadian exploration and settler texts to the present and also comprises aspects of francophone writing. The second was a Hauptseminar on “Black Canadian Literature in English,” designed to critique Canadian complacencies about slavery and race but also to highlight the tremendous acceleration of Canadian black cultural production in the last decades. It takes students from slavery in what is now Canada through the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery, the Underground railroad, Canadian slave narratives and other black writing in the nineteenth century, to the rich contemporary production by writers such as - to name a few - Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Lorena Gale, Lawrence Hill, Mairuth Sarsfield, Maxine Tynes, Fred Ward, and Marie-Célie Agnant (in translation). Black Canadian music like Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite and Joe Sealy et al.’s Africville Suite are sampled in this context.

Both courses flowed from - and fed - research and writing that Winfried Siemerling completed or under way, such as articles on Agnant and Hill (and a review of Hill’s most recent novel, The Book of Negroes), a chapter for the Cambridge History of the Postcolonial Novel, a four-year project on transculturalism and double consciousness in African and Asian Canadian writing (funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada - SSHRC), and collaboration in an international Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) on Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (funded with 2.5 million dollars by SSHRC and matched by several universities).

The latter project animated his first talk during his stay in Europe, an hour-long co-presentation on jazz, improvisation, literature, and social practice at the Sorbonne with project director Ajay Heble. This intervention was followed by the talk “The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Canadian Neo-Slave Narratives” at Humboldt Universität and “Beyond North American Borders: Canada and Transnational Literary Studies” at the JFKI. This last talk demonstrated the advantages and even necessity of transnational perspectives in the study of Canadian literature and culture, yet at the same time warned against the risks of abolishing national fields of study and an all-too-facile dismissal of the category “nation,” the enthusiasm for such directions voiced in various fields of study notwithstanding. The talk advocated instead a “contrapuntal” approach that considers the nation as both “effect” of transnational forces and itself effective material and discursive reality.Such issues are also at stake in a volume Winfried Siemerling is currently co-editing for McGill-Queen’s UP, Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations. His earlier collaborative and edited volumes include the Bibliography of Comparative Studies in Canadian, Québec, and Foreign Literatures (2001 hardcopy and ongoing web edition, co-author,), Cultural Difference and the Literary Text: Pluralism and the Limits of Authenticity in North American Literatures. (dual ed. 1996/97, co-ed.), and Writing Ethnicity: Cross-Cultural Consciousness in Canadian and Québécois Literature (1996, ed.).