Graeme Gibson, himself a renowned and prolific writer, has interviewed eleven Canadian novelists. A wide array of authors have stated their opinion on matters of identity and the writing process in general. Gibson acknowledges that in the 1960s and 1970s experimental Canadian writing came into forefront. This was supported by the appearance of numerous independent publishers who were often helped by writers as editors. Among them, Anansi Press stands out, bravely giving a voice to writers dealing with challenging topics. Even today, Anansi is determined to bring Canadian writing into spotlight. The latest of these attempts is the reissuing of classic titles with stunning cover art made by Canadian illustrators marking the forty-fifth anniversary of the Press. One of them is the book of the abovementioned interviews, which was a great starting point for this article.
Now, a reader can fall into the trap of thinking that it is easy to find one trait that denominates the book he or she is reading as Canadian. When getting the feel of books produced by one nation’s authors, you should not identify stereotypes and think that you’re any closer to defining the traits of a particular people. What weaves identity has nothing to do with that which is visible on the surface. One must dig a lot deeper and read voraciously and widely so as to be able to talk about identity in any particular writing.
“You can write a mythology about your country which is completely fraudulent, like we could write about Mounties and huskies and living in igloos and things, and that would be pretty fake right now for Canada.”
– M. Atwood
Having been fascinated with Canadian culture and literature for years, I’ve tried to find an answer to numerous questions. Yet, what I have realized is that the beauty of all things Canadian lies in the fact that there is so much that is uncertain and not defined. It is the all-present and constant raising of questions posed by authors and artists that makes me go out and buy Canadian literature, read it closely and mark all that speaks to me. We come here to an important role of any piece of literary work, which is its ability to speak to its readers and I think that Canadian art goes a long way. Whether you found yourself in the stunning lyrics of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen or Neil Young (just to state a few classics) or in the prose of giants such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro you’re still a long way from finding one characteristic trait that binds it all together. Instead of torturing yourself with all that uncertainty, learn to enjoy it.
Now to get back to the role of publishing houses, Atwood has stated that the growth of publishing houses in Canada was followed by an increase in the number of Canadian novels. There was now the possibility of reading ‘home’ authors instead of being bombarded by American or British writers. She herself enjoys being a poet and has said that she learned to write poems from people in her country. Learning to find what’s usable in a tradition and using it is key when it comes to writing in a state where the publishing industry is younger than in let’s say the UK or the States and is still steadily developing.
In addition, it would also be dangerous to omit mentioning writers such as Austin Clarke or Matt Cohen, both of whom deal with topics that are far removed from that top layer of Canadian writing. For example, Austin Clarke, who was born in Barbados, was heavily influences by T.S. Eliot, but he then changed the course of his writing process to producing short stories, which he has gathered as he lives, by steadily observing the world and the people surrounding him. He is also famous for finding music the natural sort of analogy for prose and was very much influenced by the jazz musician John Coltrane in his novel The Meeting Point. There is also tremendous musical quality in his use of dialect.
“You have your own dialects like Rosedale and things like this, but in itself that way of speaking is very musical. That way of speaking is actually like Shakespeare, you see. Now I don’t know if anybody has ever said this before, but that West Indian way of speaking, particularly Jamaican and Barbadian, the way they handle words, is very much like Shakespeare.”
– A. Clarke
When Gibson interviewed Marian Engel she made an excellent point when it comes to writing in her country. People have finally pulled themselves together when it comes to the question of identity and they have started turning to writers to help them with their identity crisis. Writing is a sort of refuge both for the author and the reader, a place where one can find support in times of existential despair. She was born in Toronto and the Puritan work ethics is very much strong in her work. She was also influenced by Canadian authors, such as Camus, as well as by the existence of Virginia Woolf and the diaries she produced.
There is also the myth of all Canadian writers being conservative, which is definitely not the case. For example, Matt Cohen comes from the Ottawa Valley and considers himself a regional writer. He does perceive that there is conservatism (not the closedness to change sort of thing), but he is not part of it. Writers are regular people but their critical apparatus is sharp and they are used to being interested in all that is happening around them, but that does not mean that they all belong under the same roof. I just love Timothy Findley’s take on this matter:
“But the tradition, you know, let’s get right into that right off the bat, what do we mean by tradition? And then surely the only tradition you have to worry about is the tradition of the novel and the tradition of the theatre, and not the tradition of the Canadian novel or the Canadian theatre. I think you really have to put yourself constantly in that wider picture. I’m engaged in the art of literature. I’m engaged in the art of playwriting. That is all that matters.”
This wonderful quote speaks volumes and brings me wonderfully to the fact that writers write because they must, and readers read because they crave to do so. And I think that it would be very dangerous to find out why we simply must write or read. This is where it becomes clear that there is so much happening in the tradition of writing in general and that authors worldwide have contributed to its works.
Readers should steer clear from myths surrounding a nation’s oeuvre but be aware that there is so much diversity in let’s say Canada, which conquers all the stereotypes about the existence of a single thread of identity in all its novels, poetry books or song lyrics. Artists create so as to contribute to a wider picture and try to be part of a writing tradition in general, not of a Canadian one. Still, if you crave a taste of a contemporary Canadiana, dip your toes in the Essex County Trilogy created by the wonderful Jeff Lemire bringing the visual experience of hokey as it is played in Canada and tied to its people to a whole other level in this stunning graphic novel series.
You see, there’s so much diversity to reveal if one just takes the time to scratch beneath the surface of The Famous Blue Raincoat, probably the first lyrical oeuvre that comes to mind when one mentions Canada.
And certainly one of the best…
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