Oh Canada.

Last night was Giller night. I was startled to realize one year had already passed, and as many of you know last year’s winner (Through Black Spruce) is one of my all time favorites. Tough competition in my eyes. I have not read this year’s winner, The Bishop’s Man, I actually haven’t read any on the short list (shame on me!), but I certainly will. I admit I did not watch the awards last night, but I pvrd it.

I did catch part of a pre-Giller show on Arts & Minds (bravo tv) which had the short list authors as its panel.

A clip caught my attention: Margaret Atwood, recalling her first book launch in the men’s department of the Hudson’s Bay Co. She said, in the 60s in Canada, if my memory serves me, a grand total of 7 novels were pressed by a Canadian Publisher.

Yet, what has been on my mind today is the whole Can Lit phenomena. The Pre-Giller show was discussing this when I tuned to it, questioning one of the authors if she felt her literature was Canadian enough. Well, this startled me. Canadian enough? Had she betrayed her Canadian heritage? She patiently replied no. The hostess then asked if the authors thought about their Canadian identity when writing. Another curve ball to me. Have I ever sat down and thought, ok, I am Canadian, now I write?

I was happy when two authors announced that if a writer were to ever do so, the novel would be horrible.

One of the judges had made a statement that in the long list there were some fabulous novels, yet at the same time there was some horrible Canadian lit. You can read her thoughts here, should you desire. She mentions that most characters are tuque wearing country bumpkins, ok I added in the bumpkins part. I am certain this is true, and I am certain that a lot of Canadian literature is horrible. It makes me giggle that we had to point this out – are Canadians supposes to be above horribleness?

Anyway, all of this to say, that when I write, the fact that I am Canadian has never consciously risen. Aside from the fact that Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal are entirely different cities. Perhaps we should add in this distinction now as well. I do know that my environment plays a part in shaping me, which turns dictates my writing.  For some reason the British author, Louis de Bernieres comes to mind. He can take on the voice of any ethnicity accurately, at least he convinces me.  Perhaps there is such a thing as Can Lit, and I just don’t see it.  Yet, I think I Colin McAdam voiced it perfectly on the panel last night when he said, Can Lit? What’s that?

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19 thoughts on “Oh Canada.

  1. Hi Jennifer. I think the best writers transcend their culture, race and gender while nevertheless producing work that is grounded in their unique experiences. I agree with you about Louis de B., who lives in London, but adopts diverse cultural personas. I think this cultural openness comes quite naturally to many Londoners since we rub shoulders, quite literally, with hundreds of different ethnicities every morning on our way to work and then again on our way home. Just the other day, a slum landlord said to me, “I love London. It’s so culturally diverse and you can easily find tenants who never complain. When my boiler broke down last winter I had an Ethiopian tenant. I was a bit worried about him but he only said, ‘Just let me have a fleece and I’ll be OK.’ ” As for your reading, I am impressed by it since you seem to read many worthy contemporary titles with an open mind and appreciate quality when you find it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joseph! (They are especially wonderful to read when I am going on 7 days with two house bound miserable kiddies 🙂 )
      Your description sounds very much like Montreal. It’s wonderful to have such diversity. I think it would be quite boring otherwise. I spent half a year in Quebec City when I was younger, and found it very monotonous for this very reason. As you say, it leaves one open and receptive. Which is of course, a wonderful thing for our writing!

  2. I would certainly not fare well with having to write with a label. Nor do I, as a reader, pay particular attention to whether my story is American enough or not.

    Open mind is more important than homage to a label.

  3. I was born in British Columbia, but I didn’t really understand the flavour of Canada until I lived for a few years in Scotland. Then I got it. It’s like we’re a country that enjoys pretending we have no culture at all except what we’ve held onto from the Old World or borrowed from New Age religions. But that isn’t true.

    Anyone who is Canadian is writing Canadian literature, and it’ll show in little ways whether they think about it or not (and whether they’re writing about a porch in Manitoba, or not!) I think the authors are right to not bother considering it when they sit down to write. I don’t, and I still see how it creeps in. We can trust that our writing voices will inevitably reflect our heritage.

    • “It’s like we’re a country that enjoys pretending we have no culture at all except what we’ve held onto from the Old World or borrowed from New Age religions. But that isn’t true.”
      Yes – Canada has a culture! And this is part of my thoughts – why is this a surprise? I think many writers that live in Canada do not fall into the supposed “Canadian flavour” and I think it is a shame that this label can be so exclusive. Yet, of course, I can say the same about so many things…

  4. I’m ashamed to admit I know so little about Canada — despite living near by! (Such a typically ignorant American, right? ;-D)

    I think the idea of any national literature is something that others place on a book after the fact. Joseph put it perfectly. In many American high schools, students take a year of “American” lit, and Twain’s Huck Finn is often a part of the curriculum. Looking at some of the obvious elements of the story — the dialect, the issue of slavery, the importance of setting and geography — it is unique to the U.S. But deep down, the story is about friendship and dignity and freedom, and these (as much as we like to claim here in the States) aren’t American values. They’re universal, which is why I think Huck Finn could appeal to people all over the world, not just Americans.

    As usual, interesting topic! Thanks!

    • We also had to study American Lit in high school, Christina. Funny, I can’t remember studying Canadian Lit…
      I think the only way to get to know a place is by spending time there. As for the US, I know NY and South Carolina quite well, otherwise I have created an illussion about many other cities from lit and tv and films. Funny, I never realized that until now. I have also only written about other cities in the world that I either know quite well by spending time there, or because I feel so kind of connection to – I can only hope I have not been too off base.

  5. CanLIt.—.I remember the first time I heard an editor use this term. She said that CanLit was usually too dark and depressing for her. Does that mean we Canadians write about dark, depressing subjects? I guess according to her..

    It was all new to me. I just write. That’s all I can do.

  6. Interesting question with lots of layers. I’m a writer who lives in the South, and I’m sure little tidbits of my Southern background leak into my fiction as one part of it. But as Laura wrote, “I just write.”

  7. Why should we think about been Canadian or Quebecois when we write??? This is non sense to me…

    I don’t make politic when I write. I just try to create a story. Characters may be American or Canadian or from the planet mars… The identity of the writer will always be between the lines. But as a quebecois, I don’t feel like I have to put some «clichés» to illustrate my background.

    Writing is my country.

    Thank fort his post.

  8. vanyieck says:

    This is an interesting question. Sometimes (most of the time) I think Canadians obsess about being Canadian. I think it has to do with the time when I was growing up and most Canadians were afraid of losing their identity to the monoculture down south. Instead of bringing out the best of Canadians, it created a neurotic obsession with being something that has never properly been defined.

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