On Nationalizing a Transnational Literature: A Case Study on Examining J. R. Carpenter’s Work Within a Canadian Context

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In our contemporary, increasingly transnational world, national literatures may seem increasingly arbitrary—even more so in the context of electronic literature, whose barriers of circulation tend to be marked by transnational, rather than national, groupings based on, for example, language or access to certain technologies. In contrast to the frequently (hyper-)nationalized literatures of mainstream literary study, electronic literature is often framed as an international or transnational literature. There are very good reasons for this: for example, the medium of electronic literature naturally lends itself to transnational dissemination and readership through the global reach of the internet. However, this transnational approach, which frequently exhibits an unacknowledged bias towards works produced in the US, also frequently ignores the ways in which an understanding of national contexts may enrich the understanding of a work. Through this paper, I hope to facilitate discussion regarding the relative merits and demerits of a transnational or national framing of electronic literature by using my own larger project, which focuses on works responding to Canadian contexts, and its sub-study of the decidedly transnational setting of J.R. Carpenter’s Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl as a case study. This paper begins by briefly describing my larger project, which examines works of electronic literature that consider how gendered, queer, racialized, and economicallydisenfranchised identities navigate physical, regionalized Canadian spaces of the past, present, and future. In this project, I examine e-lit that uses temporally- and spatially-dynamic techniques to explore how marginalized identities operate on the peripheries and navigate Canadian spaces and historical contexts, and how these works trouble the dominant narratives that these marginalized groups encounter and resist. As a part of this study, I look at J.R. Carpenter’s works of electronic literature, which transform the aesthetics of predominantly male-authored printbased forms into non-linear, female-narrated digital explorations of girlhood and the formation of gender identity. In this paper, I briefly consider the thematic trajectory of Carpenter’s works (from a focus on Nova Scotia and North American maritime settings, to Montreal and urban settings, to a transatlantic aesthetic) before diving into a short case study of her work Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl, set in a transatlantic space. The location of the work’s narrative in transatlantic waters means that this work is less obviously situated within a Canadian space, thus troubling my framing of her work within a Canadian context and making this work a perfect candidate for a study with a transnational approach. However, this work is also very much informed by the diasporas of the British Isles towards the now Atlantic Canadian shores, and the pre-digital communication networks that grew out of the transatlantic relationship between these two landforms. Thus, I argue that an understanding of both Canada’s history of colonization and exploration and its transnational underpinnings enriches our understanding of this work in which a girl’s appropriation and transformation of narratives of past colonialist endeavours is a subversive repurposing of those words in service of a feminist journey of personal discovery.

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Vian Rasheed