08 August 2023
Cold War Whiteness: Literature and Race between Canada and Czechoslovakia
Františka Schormová is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Hradec Králové and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
To be a scholar outside of US/Canadian studies outside of North America means a transcultural perspective is a part of what we do and who we are. It allows us to think about the culture and region afresh and to reflect on our positions as mediators as scholars, educators, and public intellectuals. To be a scholar of US/Canadian studies from Central Eastern Europe and other regions outside of the usual trajectories of prestige might also mean that sources for our research are more difficult to obtain. This is why I went to the British Library to research Czech immigration to Canada.
In my previous research project, Translation and the Global Fifties: When the African American Left Went to Prague, I looked at the transnational journeys, exchanges, and allegiances between the African American Leftist intellectuals and early Cold War Czechoslovakia. One of the translators and mediators of African American literature in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Czechoslovak writer Josef Škvorecký, later became one of the almost twelve thousand people who fled to Canada after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following Škvorecký and his wife, Zdena Škvorecká-Salivarová to Canada opened up a new set of questions for me some of which I tried to answer during my time in the British Library.
Škvorecký was awarded the Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction for The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel translated by Paul Wilson. This cultural moment became my entry point in the Canadian cultural field in the 1970s and 1980s. I explored magazines and journals I found out about in the United States and Canadian Newspaper Holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library (for example, Nový Domov: The New Homeland)1, conference proceedings from the time, fictional and autobiographical accounts of the Škvorecký’s and other Czechoslovak authors, diverse secondary sources on culture and politics of the era, multilingual sources published in various places. What I was looking for were interconnections between Canadian literature, quickly developing at this time as its own discipline tightly linked to the nation state, the official politics of multiculturalism, and the position of the so-called ethnic writers within this cultural field.
These interconnections support my broader project in the framework of which I look at how the notion of whiteness has operated within the Canadian cultural field in the late Cold War in connection to various immigrant groups coming to the country. It builds on critical whiteness studies but also asks whether these concepts can be applied and/or translated to Central Eastern European contexts. The ambiguous status of the Slavic and other groups in and from this region has been noticed by scholars such as Ivan Kalmar or Zoltán Ginelli; the historians of immigration have also noted the various ways racial discourses have transformed throughout the 20th century. The Cold War has introduced new challenges, trajectories, and allegiances, race refigurings, and vocabularies of whiteness that has shaped how both the immigrants and the domestic populations in Central Eastern Europe were perceived.
I found some of the answers I was looking for: yet I left with further questions. The British Library is its own little universe. In the weeks of the fellowship, one wanders in awe through the various reading rooms and the packed hallways. As a visiting researcher, one is not left to navigate this world on one’s own: the fellowship also gives one the opportunity to talk to the Eccles staff, people who work and research in the British Library and know many of its secrets. And while they are incredibly helpful, it is better to come prepared (the sheer quantity of the material at your fingertips can get intimidating!) but also keep one’s eyes open for surprising turns the research route might take.
Searching through my keywords one day, I found sheet music based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African American poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and social activist . It was a 1966 composition by the Czech composer Jiří Dvořáček with lyrics in Czech, English, and German, published in 1978 (Image 1, above). Despite having dealt with Hughes’s Czechoslovak connections extensively, I have never known this sheet music existed and I could not help but hum the melody (albeit very quietly). Hughes was one of the writers Josef Škvorecký also translated before emigrating to Canada. This multilingual, translational, transmedial cultural artifact reminded me that it is important that our scholarship can cross the linguistic, cultural, and national borders in a similar way.
Nový Domov: The New Homeland. Toronto. Vol. 9, no. 19 etc. (10 May 1958 - 21 March 1970). Imperfect. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection Microform MFM.MC271.D