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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Wiebke Sievers and Sandra Vlasta, eds. Immigrant and Ethnic- Minority Writers since 1945: Fourteen National Contexts in Europe and Beyond. Leiden: Brill / Rodopi, 2018. Pp. 542. ISBN: 9789004363236. (Jopi Nyman)

Wiebke Sievers and Sandra Vlasta, eds. Immigrant and Ethnic-Minority Writers since 1945: Fourteen National Contexts in Europe and Beyond. Leiden: Brill / Rodopi, 2018. Pp. 542. ISBN: 9789004363236.

Jopi Nyman

University of Eastern Finland

Based on an international joint project, this ambitious volume consists of 14 case studies by international contributors, and aims to provide an overview of the development of writing by immigrants and, in many instances, by ethnic minorities. These writers are examined within a variety of national contexts – which often turn out to be transnational – including European countries (Austria, Belgium [with reference to writing in Flemish], France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), as well as five significant non-European countries, namely Australia, Canada, Brazil, Japan, and the United States. The task is not an easy one, as these nations are marked by different histories of immigration and local characteristics; some of these countries have long histories of immigration, while this phenomenon is more recent in others. Furthermore, the heterogeneous national, and often transnational, contexts of the literatures examined are often politically contested and pose challenges not only to the definition and development of these literary traditions, but also to their critical study. The geographical selection is reasonably well justified, although including the perspectives of the Nordic countries (especially Sweden) and Russia in Europe as well as those of South Africa and Israel would have been useful in view of their interesting immigration histories. Editors Wiebke Sievers and Sandra Vlasta do mention that it was not possible to find contributors working in the domains of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, ←333 | 334→and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the volume at hand remains a useful and highly informative tool for scholars in the field, thanks to its emphasis on explicating the analysis of research trends and the academic treatment of immigrant literatures.

Indeed, as the editors clarify in their introduction, this collection focuses on the ways in which diverse literatures by immigrants and ethnic minorities “have fought for recognition, have challenged the understanding of national literatures and have markedly changed these in some contexts” (3). In so doing, they have transformed what was considered by some commentators as a less significant type of minority writing into parts of national canons, as for instance works by such writers as Michael Ondaatje in Canada or Salman Rushdie in Britain. Yet, this is a long and still ongoing process because of the slow response to revise established national and cultural identities in many countries. This is clearly shown in several cases in which national contexts, ideologies, and institutions may oppose such challenges and promote strategies of containment, such as equating national and cultural identity with language. In these situations, as in France, for instance, this kind of strategy may undervalue the significance of multilingualism and multiculturalism and favor fixed national canons and rigid conceptions thereof. Importantly, rather than providing new readings of individual texts and authors, or developing new theoretical concepts, the collection addresses the development of writing by immigrants in a systematic manner that allows for comparative reading across the chapters. This structure leads to the development of a provisional model in the conclusion, which surveys the accelerating change of these literatures during the recent decades of increasing global mobility.

Presented in the editors’ introduction, this systematic approach is based, first of all, on a shared definition of “the immigrant”: it derives from the United Nation’s understanding of “a long-term immigrant” as an individual to whom a move abroad for more than a year provides a new country of residence. While a definition of this kind can be challenged, and such immigrants have been referred to through other terms – the editors mention “hybrid,” “transnational,” “cosmopolitan,” and “nomadic” –, this shared definition avoids the problems related to the various ways in which different national contexts and legislations define immigration and the immigrant. For example, ethnic Germans from Russia are not officially regarded as immigrants in Russia, whereas the UN definition grants them this status. In the same vein, the editors ←334 | 335→remark on the negative connotation of the term “immigrant” in some contexts as well as in literary studies. Nevertheless, they argue for its relevance because the literatures examined are rooted in immigration as a social process and because the UN definition conveys a sense of neutrality. Also, addressing the 14 cases selected through the terms “hybrid” or “cosmopolitan” would have proved highly problematic, generalizing and misleading, as the editors point out (4–5). The critique of established and often problematic terms recurs several times in the volume. Finally, this shared definition aims to distinguish immigrants from Indigenous peoples (e.g. in Australia, Canada, the United States) and autochthonous minorities in several European countries. Yet the editors acknowledge that the division is not always clear, as the existing scholarship often brings these different groups together.

The aim at comparability is also built into the structure of the individual chapters which follows the same organizational principles, albeit with some inevitable variation. Thus, each chapter opens with a general introduction outlining the national context and its particularities (e.g. national ideologies, legislation, language policy, the relationship of the country’s literary field to that of other countries) that may promote or contain the development of immigrant writing. Follows a section addressing the history of immigrant literature and its study with particular reference to significant anthologies, literary prizes, and possible new institutions and conferences. A third part discusses systematic data collection in the field (e.g. archives), before a fourth one analyzes the major research trends in the study of texts written by immigrants and the following generation. In this process, this section takes into account the various approaches and conceptual frameworks employed, as well as their change over time. Finally, each essay provides an evaluation of the impact of immigrant literature and its study on the development of the literary and / or political field in the relevant country. This very methodical approach serves as the backbone of the remarks presented in Sievers’s conclusion, as I shall show below.

Although it is impossible to review here all 14 enlightening and sometimes meticulously researched case studies, some of them deserve detailed commentary. I found particularly interesting those chapters that not only highlight the differences between the European smaller nations (e.g. Austria, Switzerland, Greece) and the larger ones (e.g. France, Germany, Italy), but also examine how the latter often influence smaller countries sharing the same language.

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The case of Austria, investigated by Sievers and Vlasta in a collaborative article, in a number of ways provides a fitting example of the response to immigrant writing in a small nation, which shows strong linguistic and academic links with Germany. Because the literary phenomenon has attracted attention only since the 1990s, research in Austria was mostly determined by Germany’s debates around immigrant writing which tended to regard such writing as a “small or minor literature” (51). At the same time, the influence of British cultural studies, often exemplified in the work of Homi Bhabha, has also motivated many scholars to problematize the fixedness of identities and their dissolution as a result of cultural encounters. However, in contrast to Germany, the number of immigrant writers remains limited in Austria, although labor immigration had brought at least 300,000 Turkish and Yugoslavian workers to the region by the 1970s. Since the late 1990s, the situation has changed, partially for the worst due to the emergence of racist and xenophobic discourses in the country, partially for the best, as testified by the creation of the significant literary prize “schreiben zwischen den kulturen (writing between cultures)” (511) for any non-Native German-speaking writer living in Austria and writing about intercultural issues. While the prize increased the visibility of immigrant writing and the number of literary publications, the study of its impact properly emerged in the 2000s only. As Sievers and Vlasta report, a number of recent studies focus on writers associated with the above-mentioned prize and on eastern European writers relocated to Austria. They also strive to uncover earlier immigrant writers. In practice, research has often addressed the ways in which immigrant writing deals with issues of social exclusion and discrimination, as in the work of Bulgarian-born Dimitré Dinev, for instance. The prominence of such thematic issues, in Austria and many other countries as well, especially Germany, has promoted a tendency to examine immigrant writing as a primarily sociological, rather than aesthetic, phenomenon. This conception suggests that writers from the “developing” world are often viewed as speaking for their cultures and tend to be read through the prism of the realistic genre. In this chapter, Sievers and Vlasta refer to this ongoing development and suggest that the reconstruction of “Austrianness,” which critics such as Hannes Schweiger trace in contemporary immigrant writing in the country, is linked with globalization on one hand and the need to address the nation’s problematic past on the other. Bicultural and transnational understandings of immigrant writing, as well as of the trauma of migration, are also seen ←336 | 337→as ways of promoting the inclusion of these works in the literary and academic fields. In recent years, immigrant writing has gained in visibility and its study has grown in quantity and quality thanks to the critical use of postcolonial theory and the problematization of “Austrian” literature and “Austrianness.” Nevertheless, as Sievers and Vlasta point out, the lack of bibliographies on the subject and the limited attention to writing in languages other than German reveal that several gaps remain.

While the histories of immigration vary from one nation to another, other small nations face many similar issues as in Austria. In her essay, Sarah De Mul alludes to the short history of immigrant writing before focusing on Flemish writing in Belgium and the prominent role of second-generation Moroccan writers in the country. In the Greek context, Maria Oikonomou explains that immigrant literature primarily deals with post-1989 works by Albanian writers, which were anthologized and published mainly in the 2000s. In the case of Italy, as Marie Orton’s analysis shows, the limited number of texts by immigrants available in the 1990s has developed into a significant body of work by more than 600 writers, often published by non-commercial associazioni and small publishers. In Italy, this literature is well-documented and archived and much of it can also be accessed online. In the United Kingdom, Sandra Vlasta and Dave Gunning suggest that immigrant writing appears to have had the most significant impact, as it is not necessarily seen as minority writing: it is rather “understood as part of the mainstream of contemporary British writing” (456).

The study of immigrant literatures has proved to be institutionally different in many conservative academic cultures. While in Germany it has been tackled since the 1970s, the initiative did not come from “Germanistik” but from the new discipline referred to as “German as a Foreign Language” (222), which foregrounded intercultural issues to a greater extent. Similarly, although immigrant writing has a long and important tradition in France following the emergence of “beur writing” in the 1980s, its critical examination has remained limited and has been mainly performed in non-French universities, as Laura Reeck points out. This is due to the French academe’s conservative emphasis on French rather than postcolonial literature. The situation is similar in Italian institutions, although Maria Orton notes that the earlier rejection of migration literature is morphing into “conflicted and sporadic acceptance” (300). With regard to Switzerland, Daniel Rothenbühler, Bettina Spoerri, and Martina Kamm state that only very little research on ←337 | 338→immigrant writing, regardless of its language, is carried out by university departments, a phenomenon they attribute to institutional hiring policies and the low prestige associated with this activity in the Swiss academia.

In contrast to this process of gradual recognition in Europe, the essays devoted to non-European countries offer stimulating alternative narratives influenced by these nations’ more extensive histories of immigration. Indeed, Sandra Regina Goulart Almeida and Maria Zilda Ferreira Cury argue that immigrant writers in Brazil are part of the national literature and enjoy “a fundamental presence” (77). In Canada, Christl Verduyn shows that immigrant and ethnic-minority writers are involved in the definition of Canadian identity, so that they are no longer relegated to the margins. Concentrating on the United States and its long history of immigrant (or ethnic) writing, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials pays attention to the major role which mid-twentieth-century social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement played in raising awareness about ethnicity and in creating an ethnic literary canon. Promoted today by the MELUS society (Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States) and key critics’ work (e.g. Werner Sollors, Lisa Lowe), the research on different ethnic American literatures is thriving and makes use of various theoretical and transnational models. At the same time, it may appear as somewhat dispersed, as scholars specialize in particular literary traditions with their specific foci, such as the theme of the difficulty of assimilation characterizing Asian American literature. Moreover, the influence of immigrant writing in higher education remains constrained, since literature degrees still prioritize more traditional forms of Anglophone literature. Similarly, the American literary canon seems divided into “American literature” and “ethnic American literature” categories which do not necessarily involve the same authors. The lack of a large-scale recognition of ethnic literary traditions can also be detected in the fact that the nationally most significant literary prizes rarely reward an ethnic author, as Schlund-Vials contends. Finally, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt’s intriguing chapter unveils the markedly different context of Japan. Because there are only few immigrant authors writing in Japanese, critical debates have centred upon Korean writing in Japan. The history of this literature is tightly connected with colonialism and class politics, which impact its criticism and terminology: one of the issues researchers struggle with regards the question whether to define this literature as “Korean” or “Japanese.”

The concluding chapter penned by Wiebke Sievers addresses the multiple concerns of the whole volume in a comparative manner so ←338 | 339→as to present an interesting interpretation of immigrant writing as an international phenomenon. The 14 case studies, Sievers summarizes, reveal that these literatures are progressively shifting from the margins of their home nations to the forefront of cultural change. This development has occurred in waves, starting in the Anglophone countries and gradually reaching European literatures. At the core of this gradual recognition, the scholar suggests, is a reinforced discourse of equality and human rights, especially in the period following the Second World War. This is an important argument in the face of current nationalistic discourses in Europe that seem to negate any promotion of equality. Sievers also identifies nationalism and its role in literary and academic institutions as contributing to marginalize immigrants as well as their writing; the scholar submits that in many cases this marginalization was based on aesthetic arguments, as immigrant writings were often read as if they were ethnographic studies. In my view, this reveals that inclusion-based multicultural policies facilitate integration in the literary field as well, by conceiving immigrant writing not as a separate category but as a part of reconstituted national literatures. In time, we are likely to see more diverse and renewed national canons, an exciting prospect of which the insightful contributions to this volume offer a glimpse. The national surveys presented in this volume are essential reading for all scholars in the field of ethnic and minority literatures.

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