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February 26, 2013

DisPossession by Marlene Goldman

Print“…the act of rereading–of doubling back and engaging with the spectre–is integral to the process of coming at the self, community, and nation-state creatively. Indeed, the power and attraction of the ghost lie in its transitional status–the fact that it hovers elusively between life and death, past and present, self and other. Ultimately, our encounters with ghosts–whether as terrifying shadows or as benevolent ancestral spirits–signal to us that we have entered the complex territory of home.”

Marlene Goldman’s course “The Politics and Poetics of Haunting in Canadian Literature” was one of my favourite parts of graduate school, and so when I discovered that the course had turned into a book, DisPossession: Haunting in Canadian Fiction, I was excited to read it. Canada is a land without ghosts, so has been declared by writers Catherine Parr Traill and Earle Birney, but Goldman shows that contemporary Canadian fiction is in fact rife with spectres. She politicizes and historicizes the trope of haunting by focussing on a few key texts: The Double Hook by Sheila Watson, The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, Jane Urquhart’s Away, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, various works by Dionne Brand, and Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water.

Goldman shows that in Canadian Gothic fiction (fiction in which the present is thought to have something more sinister and complicated lurking behind it than just the past), ghosts come about due to acts of possession, namely colonial atrocities against Indigenous peoples and land taken from them. (She links this idea with Freud’s definition of the uncanny, of something being both home and also not home.)  This is demonstrated also in The Afterlife of George Cartwright, but Goldman takes the further step of noting that laws of primogeniture, which delivered Cartwright and others like him to the “New World”, were also an act of possession, rendering English sons homeless spectres in their own country, and dispossessed. She complicates the reading of Away by showing how its magic-realism sanitizes and romanticizes actual history. In both Away, Alias Grace, and works of Brand, Goldman portrays the female body as a site of possession and that possession as the effect of various trauma–possibly also as an assertion of control in a society in which women were powerless over their bodies and their destinies. And then with Truth and Bright Water, she demonstrates that ghosts exist not only to stir up histories that should not be forgotten, but also to help make sense of the present and offer hope for the future.

DisPossession is unabashedly academic, which represents a challenge for those of us who are common readers, and I would have also appreciated a broader, less specific approach to the nature of ghosts in Canadian literature beyond these texts. But this is only because I am greedy, and because my appreciation and understanding of the books in questions here have so been deepened by Goldman’s treatment. She shows that Canadian literature is more complex and relevant to the world beyond the page than many would have us believe.

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