Author: Jonathan Kay

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other. If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.” In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on …

Racism, Anti-Racism, and Orientalism at LitHub

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the most influential works of our time, and one of the most ubiquitous: scan the bookshelves of any liberal-arts major, and you likely will find the 1978 book with pride of place alongside such contemporaneous post-colonial classics as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Even those who’ve never opened Orientalism will be familiar with some of its broad themes, especially the idea that Western scholars have systematically denigrated the cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with insulting stereotypes, depicting the Orient as an exotic “Other” full of backwards, mystical man-children. One sometimes even hears the word used as a verb or gerund — “othering” — as a means to attack arguments perceived to be Eurocentric. The idea of the Other has become a laugh line among conservatives over time. (“Stop Othering me!”) But even right-wing critics should acknowledge that Said’s book offered genuinely valid critiques of the condescending way in which Western writers …

“Canada Has Gone Mad”: Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou

Late last year, I wrote an essay for Quillette describing how the fight against cultural appropriation had suddenly gone viral in Canada—particularly regarding stories about indigenous peoples. The issue “has become the subject of full-blown social panic among the country’s intellectual class,” I argued, and would remain so until artists and authors of color themselves “eventually become exasperated by doctrines that limit the influence and reach of their [own] literature.” I’m not holding my breath. But a telling controversy involving a newly published novel by Athabasca University creative writing professor Angie Abdou does show us that even some First Nations intellectuals now are becoming infuriated by the campaign to control the permitted range of literary expression in my country. I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come. *     *     * Abdou is one of those progressive, conscientious, sensitive white writers who dedicate themselves to all the penitent literary rituals of our age. She seems to have done everything humanly possible to make sure her new book, In Case I Go, would offend no one, …

Making a Stand for Cultural Universalism

Earlier this year, I spoke at a panel discussion in New York City to mark the unveiling of Quebec—an enormous 9’ by 10’ painting that aspires to capture the full sweep of French Canadian history on one canvas, from Samuel de Champlain to the modern age of indigenous activism. The American artist, Adam Miller, grew up in the Pacific northwest, and studied the great masters in Florence. The evening’s featured speaker was Donald Kuspit, an eminent Jewish art critic who briefly lived in Quebec, but otherwise has little connection to the largely Catholic society of French Canada. He described Quebec as a luminous postmodern take on the Baroque—a style that took definitive expression in the works of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens—and praised Miller for channelling influences adapted from the book of Genesis, imagery of the dead Christ, and Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, Adoration of the Magi. Which is to say, Quebec is very much part of that great cultural mash-up we call Western culture. And if Miller—who does not speak French—had engaged in …