Reuben Jentink


How do we become familiar with a place? Asked another way, what makes a place familiar to us? Places are “as much a part of us as we are of them,” affirms Keith Basso.[1] I completed my undergraduate work in English studies at the University of British Columbia. If English studies is concerned primarily with interpretive practice, my turn toward geography anticipates analysis of the blurred borders between critical literary theory and geography. My interests lie at the material-discursive intersection of place and narrative: places are not only built but “told”—places are storied. How, through narrativization, do places come to be?

The narrativization of place implicates bodies such that some are cast as bodies out-of-place; for example, female, queer, trans*, or racialized bodies are often rendered as occupying the wrong space or as occupying a space wrongly. Assessing place as narrative unsettles the myriad valences of geography such that the sedimentation of “place” (including the built forms of its institutions, infrastructure, and green spaces) becomes—by way of disruption—interpretable. Historian of architecture, André Corboz, suggests that land be read as palimpsest. Land is the “object of a relation of appropriation,” maintains Corboz, “which is not solely physical in nature, but which involves a variety of mythological or political intentions as well.”[2] Corboz’ configuration, while insufficient, offers rich provocations: how might figuring the city or nation as palimpsest inform our theoretical understandings of what it means to live on unceded and traditional lands? What are our obligations and responsibilities to lands and peoples?

My work is guided by methods set out in settler-colonial studies, as well as critical feminist, race, and queer theories. Learning from place might be construed as a practice of respect—a concept that continually emerges in my studies, in my work, and in my activism. A theory of respect might serve a geographical analysis attuned to the poetics and politics of unceded land and foster relations between native and non-native peoples. Without a concomitant ethical framework, Corboz’ inquiry runs the risk of depoliticizing the active and historic layers of a place. Places hold diverse meanings for various peoples—who hold more or less power—and are organized according to divergent epistemological traditions. The narrativization of place is unequal. Interpretation, rather than flattening difference, must attend to these “systemic mismatches”[3]—taking place in what Willie Ermine calls the “ethical space of engagement.”[4] In contrast to apolitical interpretations underwritten by philosophical realism, respect offers a critical heuristic to not only engage the social and political stories that emerge from and shape place but to contest, contend with, or make sense of the multiple meanings of place.

[1] Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), xiv.

[2] Andre? Corboz, “The Land as Palimpsest,” trans. R. Scott Walker, Diogenes 31, no. 121 (1983): 17.

[3] Daniel Coleman, “Grappling with Respect: Copway and Traill in a Conversation That Never Took Place,” English Studies in Canada 39, no. 2/3 (2013): 67.

[4] Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement,” Indigenous Law Journal 6, no. 1 (2007): 193.