In-Between – Liminal Spaces in Canadian Literature and Cultures

by Stefan L. Brandt (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 260 Pages
Series: Canadiana, Volume 20


In the past few years, the concept of «liminality» has become a kind of pet theme within the discipline of Cultural Studies, lending itself to phenomena of transgression and systemic demarcation. This anthology employs theories of liminality to discuss Canada’s geographic and symbolic boundaries, taking its point of departure from the observation that «Canada» itself, as a cultural, political, and geographic entity, encapsulates elements of the «liminal.» The essays comprised in this volume deal with fragmented and contradictory practices in Canada, real and imagined borders, as well as contact zones, thresholds, and transitions in Anglo-Canadian and French-Canadian texts, discussing topics such as the U.S./Canadian border, migration, French-English relations, and encounters between First Nations and settlers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Canadian Cultural Imaginary and Its Liminal Aesthetics (Stefan L. Brandt)
  • I. Liminal Landscapes
  • Tripping on the Threshold; Groping in the Dark (Aritha van Herk)
  • II. Canadian ‘Thirdspace’ – Nation, Language, and Immigration
  • Inhabiting Trishanku in Canada: Threshold Experience in the Oeuvre of M.G. Vassanji (Shilpa Daithota Bhat)
  • ‘Exclaveness’ and Liminality: Materialities and Rhetorics of Place at the Canadian Border (Peter Goggin)
  • Subversion and Self-Definition in Montréal Novels by Dany Laferrière and Rawi Hage (Derek C. Maus)
  • III. Ambiguous Fictions – Liminality in the Canadian Novel
  • “… beyond the invisible barrier at Portage and Main”: Liminality in John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death (Bernhard Wenzl)
  • “not quite human, not quite wolf, but something in between”: Liminal Spaces in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (Patrizia Zanella)
  • IV. Hyphenated Canada? Indigenous Voices and Hybrid Identities
  • Painting (the) In-Between: Twentieth-Century Indigenous Border Art at Glacier/Waterton National Parks (Alexandra Ganser)
  • Narrative Dynamics of Liminality in Naomi Fontaine’s Kuessipan (2011) (Jeanette den Toonder)
  • Documenting Oral History and Lessons in Truth Telling in Nadia McLaren’s Muffins for Granny and Tim Wolochatiuk’s We Were Children (Sabrina Völz)
  • V. Blurry Visions – Canadian Arts and Liminality
  • Abstraction and Mysticism in Bertram Brooker’s Paintings and Novels (Katalin Kürtösi)
  • Diane Schoemperlen’s By the Book: Stories and Pictures – Fragments in Contrapuntal Unity (Nikola Tutek)
  • VI. Final Thresholds – Loss, Memory, and Dying
  • The Melancholy of Urban Childhood: Liminality in Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes (Martina Horakova)
  • The Politics of Memory and Longing in Kim Thúy’s Ru (Andreea Catrinela Lazăr)
  • The Intriguing Liminality of Dying in Keefer’s “Going Over the Bars” (Vesna Lopičić)
  • VII. Poetical Observations – Canada as Art
  • The Trading Post: Betwixt Wilderness and Civilization (Claire E. Smerdon)
  • Poems (George Elliott Clarke)
  • Contributors
  • Series Index

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This book is the result of both a life-long preoccupation with themes of liminality and in-betweenness (articulated in previous writings on ‘astronautic subjects’ and ‘transgendered aesthetics’) and a more recent fascination with Canadian literature and culture (which can be traced back to a 2009 research stay at McGill University, York University, the University of Toronto, and Wilfrid Laurier University, financed by the Canadian Government’s ‘Faculty Enrichment Program’). I am indebted to a number of persons and institutions that have made this anthology possible. I would like to thank, in particular, Kay Armatage, Alan Bewell, Nathalie Cooke, Tamas Dobozy, Klaus-Dieter Ertler, Seth Feldman, Philippa Gates, Marlene Goldman, Sherrill E. Grace, Linda Hutcheon, Penelope Ironstone-Catterall, Ed Jewinski, Kenneth Little, Scott MacKenzie, Roswitha Mayer, Reingard M. Nischik, Will Straw, Eleanor Ty, and Jim Weldon, who have encouraged me, at various stages of the project, to keep going (either through their ideas and writings, their letters of invitation, or their words in personal conversations). Moreover, this book could not have come to life without the commitment and passion of numerous scholars whose enthusiasm has inspired me to become—and remain—involved in Canadian Studies. I am very grateful to a number of people and institutions who have supported the conference that preceded this volume: First of all, the University of Graz bears mentioning, and especially the Dean’s Office, the Office of International Relations, as well as the two Research Core Areas ‘Heterogeneity and Cohesion’ and ‘Cultural History and Interpretation of Europe.’ I would also like to thank wholeheartedly the City of Graz and the State of Styria as well as the Association of Canadian Studies in German-Speaking Countries (GKS), and the ÖH (the official representative body of university students at the University of Graz), for supporting the event. The volume In-Between: Liminal Spaces in Canadian Literature and Culture could not have been published without the generous support from the State of Styria. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dimitri Kaufmann, Manuela Neuwirth, and David Weber for helping with the post-conference work and preparation of this volume. Special thanks go to Ky Kessler and Viola Moisesbichler who conducted much of the proofreading and formatting for the book. It has been a long road, but, as one dear colleague keeps reminding me, the result is certainly worth it. Thank you all! ← 9 | 10 →

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Stefan L. Brandt

Introduction: The Canadian Cultural Imaginary and Its Liminal Aesthetics

Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.

Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (1973), 97.1

Borderlines […] are a form of political ‘ecumenism,’ the meeting place of diverse worlds and conditions. […] Borderlines [give] cosmopolitan character to Canada.

Marshall McLuhan, “Canada as Counter-Environment” (2009 [1989]), 55.

[H]as everything become interval, intermezzo?

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1987 [1980]), 479.

In the past few years, the concept of ‘liminality’ has become a kind of pet theme within the discipline of Cultural Studies, lending itself to interpretations of phenomena connected to transgression and systemic demarcation.2 The notion of the ‘liminal’ graphically illustrates the principal state of postmodernity in which the borders between formerly fixed and stable units of a given system seem permeable, enabling a “[d]issolution of ego boundaries” (Graff 57)3 and the creation of “contact zones” that facilitate a dynamic exchange within social and cultural ← 11 | 12 → practice (Pratt 34).4 More and more diverging from its original meaning in ethnography (being the middle part in a three-phase process of separation, threshold, and reintegration; see Turner FS 94), ‘liminality’ has come to serve as a universal metaphor for a variety of cultural and individual processes that are experienced as demarcating and transitional at the same time (cf. Achilles & Bergmann 3–4).5

This anthology aims at remapping the field, focusing on the circulation of liminality and the liminal in Canada. It takes its point of departure from the observation that ‘Canada’ itself, as a cultural, political, and geographic entity, encapsulates elements which qualify as ‘liminal.’ The essays comprised in the volume figure as proof for the postulate that the Canadian ‘cultural imaginary’6 is indeed permeated by an array of visual and literary representations that mark ‘Canada’ as a fundamentally polysemic and ambiguous conception. In a recent guest commentary ← 12 | 13 → for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, on occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary, Ursula Lehmkuhl and Laurence McFalls have made the following observation:

The 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, also known as ‘Canada Day,’ is the occasion for numerous celebrations in Canada and worldwide. But what is celebrated? The founding of the state? Not likely! The birth of a nation? Even less! The emancipation from colonial status? Perhaps – but whose decolonization and whose political independence and emancipation? It is not easy to give an answer to these questions. Perhaps Canada is unconsciously celebrating these ambiguities and ambivalences. For ambiguity seems to be the central element of a formula of happiness that has secured Canada’s survival as a neighbor of the overpowering United States for 150 years and as an ‘objet politique non identifié’ […] avant la lettre. (“Canada 150,” my translation)

The genealogy of the Canadian ‘self’ is, without a doubt, highly complex, oftentimes contradictory, and based on multiple functionalities, depending on the respective historical timeframe. It defies common assumptions regarding processes of cultural self-fashioning as being homogenous and clearcut. In the past few decades, Canada has been associated with both a collective “victim position” (Atwood 36–39)7 and the status of an “invisible empire” carrying in it components of “mayhem” and “rebellion” (Clarke 19–32).8 The nation’s narrative forms of expression reveal a diverse and multifaceted body of texts, articulated most evidently in “the multicultural scope of literature in Canada” (Nischik, “Introduction” 2).9 ← 13 | 14 →

It is the aim of this collection to examine how this multidimensionality is narrativized, represented, and circulated in Canadian literature and culture. In other words, which aesthetic strategies and mechanisms are at work in such texts to negotiate key concerns and sensitivities pertaining to Canada as a liminal experience? A chief emphasis lies on the “poetics of liminality” (Achilles 37) or, as I call it, the ‘liminal aesthetics’10 of the Canadian collective imaginary, its tendency to imitate and reproduce a complex set of cultural situations through techniques that aesthetically mirror the very same patterns underlying these practices.

Originally developed by cultural anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his seminal study from 1909, and rediscovered by Victor Turner in the 1970s, the metaphor of ‘liminality’ has become a keyword in contemporary cultural criticism to refer to phenomena of social transgression. In particular, the concept has been used in connection with terms such as ‘border,’ ‘frontier,’ and ‘threshold,’ and in opposition to the equally metaphorical concept of ‘marginality.’ While marginality connotes ‘periphery,’ and thus mainly focuses on exclusion from and by dominant discourses, liminality is rather concerned with the space of the borderline itself, and especially with the connected experiences of ambiguity and ambivalence. “Liminal entities,” Turner argues, “are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial” (RP 95). In Jochen Achilles’s words, liminality

tries to capture the permanent inescapability of transitions and the existential as well as cultural consequences of such destabilizations. In other words, liminality tries to explain change by dense descriptions of boundary crossings. (35)

Given its deeply performative and discursive dimension, liminality is “not simply another term for transitions and border crossings,” as Jochen Achilles cautions (ibid.). More than that, liminality helps reconstruct, through aesthetic strategies of representation, the emotional experience of the threshold, imbuing it with a ← 14 | 15 → recognizably visceral appearance and structure. As such, liminality encapsulates, in Bjørn Thomassen’s words, the “human experiences of freedom and anxiety” which are “condensed in liminal moments” (Liminality and the Modern 1). Along these lines, the liminal experience can be both empowering and disconcerting. Thomassen explains this double-edged nature of liminality as follows:

On the one hand, liminality involves a potentially unlimited freedom from any kind of structure. This sparks creativity and innovation, peaking in transfiguring moments of sublimity. […] On the other hand, liminality also involves a peculiar kind of unsettling situation in which nothing really matters, in which hierarchies and standing norms disappear, in which sacred symbols are mocked and ridiculed, in which authority in any form is questioned, taken apart and subverted […]. (ibid.)

Herein, liminality bears resemblance to a number of other concepts developed in psychology and sociology that accentuate the fluidity and openness of transitional experiences. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari identify “the intermezzo” (380) as the essential expression of nomadic experience. Rejecting the static lines of boundary maintenance defined by the dominant system, the nomad sets out to literally explore new ground. Following Deleuze and Guattari, the ‘intermezzo’ epitomizes a condition of constant movement, which, by repeating itself in a series of performative acts, can become a firm marker of nomadic identity. The main function of the ‘intermezzo’ lies in the discarding of the traditional logic of binary structures (here/there, now/then, etc.). By dwelling upon the ‘in-between’—the ‘intermezzo’—, we become detached from the vicious circle of ‘either/or.’ It allows us to live in the moment and overcome the Manichaean constraints dictated by a dichotomous kind of thinking. “The only way to get outside the dualisms is to be in-between, to pass between, the intermezzo” (Deleuze & Guattari 277). Conceived in this manner, the idea of the ‘intermezzo’ seems linked to another ‘fluid’ concept—that of the ‘rhizome.’ Originally referring, in botany, to a horizontal, subterranean root-like system with leaves at its top (“Rhizome”), the term is applied in human geography to a connective relationship typical of many postmodern discourses. Unlike trees or their roots,

the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play various regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor to the multiple. […] It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. (Deleuze, “Rhizome vs. Tree” 33)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
Kanadistik Liminalität Kulturwissenschaft Literaturwissenschaft Raumtheorie Kanada
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 260 pp., 3 ill.

Biographical notes

Stefan L. Brandt (Volume editor)

Stefan L. Brandt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Graz and former President of the Austrian Association for American Studies. Brandt has lectured and published on a wide range of topics within the interdisciplinary fields of American Popular Culture, Gender & Urban Theory as well as Transnational Studies.


Title: In-Between – Liminal Spaces in Canadian Literature and Cultures