“Assuming as Little as Possible”: An Introduction to Bridging the Literary Border, Part II: Spring 2014 Svpplement

What do we assume? A great many things, as we must. We cannot live in the chaos of reality, so our senses create a lie of order within which we can reasonably assume certain governing principles. We do a similar thing at our higher levels of thinking. When you say “national border” to me, you call up a number of basic shared assumptions, granting us a common position. But when is it appropriate to challenge such assumptions? And what is the danger of not doing so?

The first and most obvious danger is boredom. If we accept, for instance, that the U.S. and Canada are separate entities holding distinct cultural values—or if we assume the opposite is true—we are missing out on all the subtleties that emerge when those assumptions are challenged. “Bridging the Literary Border, Part I” addressed a great many assumptions regarding the U.S., Canada, and the relations between them. Ira Wells picks up on this in his frank discussion of the myths, or lack thereof, that supposedly define the two nations, as well as the need to accept those myths as serious jokes. The interview with Molly Peacock, Jason Guriel, and Robert McGill continues that work, the writers never settling on certainties regarding the matter at hand. While they have their own unique perspectives and opinions, all are more interested in the complications, or “slippages,” that arise when discussing either nations as a whole, or the relationships between them.

They also all express an interest in Canada as an “outward-looking” place. Canada, for better or worse, defines itself in no small part through its relationship to the world—a relationship borne out largely through its connection to America and Europe and the diversity within the country itself. It is fitting, then, that shortly after the interview was conducted, “Bridging the Literary Border, Part II” took an outward-looking turn.

Andrew Blackman kicks off our limited global tour with a review of Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which explores the Atlantic Ocean as a border between nations as well as historical interpretations. But while we looked out, our contributors continued to push back on assumptions. Oona Patrick reviews the sad history of negative assumptions levelled at the Portuguese by English-language writers, while in the process challenging the claims made in a controversial article on Portuguese Canadian attitudes toward education. She also points out a recent positive turn with regard to Portuguese representation in North American literature. Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen likewise welcomes the arrival of Canada’s first anthology devoted to Portuguese Canadian writers—noting that the existence of the book itself alters the assumed position of Portuguese descendants in Canadian literature.

We leave the U.S.-Canadian border behind, however, as Matthew R. Loney takes us on a tour of European Absurdity to explain his take on the Portuguese novel The True Actor—which itself challenges a great many assumptions. The Lusophone focus continues with Dean Thomas Ellis’s translations of, and introductions to, the work of the Portuguese poet Maria Theresa Horta, as well as the Brazilian poets Adelia Prado, Cecilia Meireles, and Lucila Godoi.

The New World, as it exists today, was built by conquests and migrations that began in the Old World(s). Our focus on Lusophone authors—in the U.S. and Canada, in Brazil, and in Portugal—sheds some light on one peoples’ existence across both borders and oceans. In the process, it sheds light on all peoples who have made such journeys, but it also leaves many peoples out. I’m fine with that: this supplement was not meant to be complete, but to wander and to open up discussion.

Having now finished the project, however, I must admit that the border that haunts me now is not the one I crossed to become a permanent resident in Canada. Instead, it’s the kind created by our assumptions. I’ve thought a lot about those like Ms. Horta, for whom women’s rights, individual rights, and the freedom of expression are true gifts, because they were explicitly denied to her in the not-so-distant past. As the North American literary world wrestles with its own lingering gender-equity demons, I wonder how we might allow Ms. Horta’s example to give us perspective.

Our struggles with these issues, I believe, stem from our assumptions that they have been solved, when obviously they have not. Ms. Horta, meanwhile, is far too close to inequality to ever make such assumptions. So what constitutes the border between Ms. Horta and us with regard to women’s equality? Does the difference in our history mean she is simply coming at the issue from a more immediate perspective? Or might it be that we aren’t really that far apart on the issue, and that the misogyny she has fought in Portuguese culture is not different from what lingers here, but just more severe? If so, then there’s value in moving our assumptions on the matter closer to Ms. Horta’s—and that goes for freedom of expression and individual rights as well. If we stop presupposing freedoms and equalities that may not exist, we will see more clearly the transgressions that actually do.

That is to say, never take a border for granted.


E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.