CANadian literature, Or CAN’Tadian literature?

Today, the shelf monkey goes all flag-waving and whatnot to answer an age-old question that has tormented Canadian bibliophiles since we first learned to write; what the hell are we reading, anyway?

There has been a lot of talk/complaining/buzz/whining/questioning/whinging/probing/babbling/hand-wringing/soul-searching/teeth-knashing by persons much smarter than myself lately, as there usually is around award season, as to what exactly constitutes what we refer to as ‘Canadian literature’ (best exemplified in this Globe and Mail article). Patrick deWitt‘s The Sisters Brothers, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and Esi Edugyan‘s Giller-winning Half Blood Blues have earned some backhanded criticism for winning Canadian awards with stories set in 1800’s California and Nazi Germany, respectively.

As I see it, the major questions are:

  1. Is its being written by a Canadian enough to qualify a book as an example of ‘Canadian’ literature?
  2. Are Canadian writers being appropriately Canadian in their published works?
  3. Should ‘Canadian’ literature have a strictly Canadian setting to qualify as such?
  4. How much ‘Canadian’ content should a book have to qualify as ‘Canadian’?
  5. What is the proper ratio of beavers and moose per page? Is six enough?
  6.  I may have made that last one up.

There are seemingly no easy answers to this conundrum. What constitutes American literature, or English, or Greek, Polish, Lithuanian, Narnian? Does everything Irish have to come tinged with authentic Roddy Doyle wit? Should American author Annie Proulx‘s The Shipping News, with its Newfoundland setting, qualify as Canadian despite the author’s nationality? Does Clive Barker‘s setting of his horror novel Cabal in Alberta disqualify it as an English product? Should we try and convince Howard Norman to accept Canadian citizenship, since most of his novels are set here anyway?

For me, the answer is deceptively simple, as befits my deceptively simple mind: Canadian literature is something written by a Canadian citizen. It matters not its setting, nor subject, nor genre. If you’re Canadian, and you’ve written a novel, short, story, or poem, hey, you’re in. Whether or not your work is any good is another matter, best left to wizened reviewers lurking behind their keyboards like trolls beneath a bridge, but as one who harbours an instinctive distrust of those who differentiate between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’, I feel that if we settle on citizenship as a baseline, we’ll all be a lot happier.

For some perspective, let’s quickly look at some Canadian novels of note:

  • The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje – A novel set in wartime Europe, written by a Canadian of Sri Lankan origin. Only a few Canadian characters in a novel rife with many nationalities. Won the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.
  • The Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel – A novel involving an Indian child trapped at sea with a tiger. The author hails from Saskatchewan. No major Canadian characters of note. Won the Booker and The Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood – A dystopian tale of religious patriarchal tyranny set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, located within the borders of the U.S. No Canadians. Written by a Canadian from Ontario. Won the Governor General’s Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, shortlisted for the Booker.
  • A Complicated Kindness (2004) by Miriam Toews –  Set in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, a young woman struggles to reconcile her yearnings for more with the regimented religious structure of the township. Written by a Manitoban. Won the Governor General’s Award.
  • A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry – A story set in India, examining changes in Indian society. No Canadians. Written by an India-born Canadian. Won the Giller, shortlisted for the Booker, and was an Oprah Bookclub Pick.

Do you see a connecting theme, other than the awards and acclaim that accompanied each novel? Yeah, me neither. I do know that these all are accepted examples of Canadian Literature, and that, last time I checked, no one was accusing Margaret Atwood of not being Canadian enough (like anyone’d have the balls). And while this ain’t near an exhaustive list, I hereby, in my accepted roll as legally accepted arbitrator of all things Canadian (it’s true, don’t dispute me!), claim that there is no single accepted definition of a ‘Canadian’ novel. And excepting only the caveat that the author must have some sort of Canadian citizenship, nor should there be (gasps from the gallery!).

Look, anyone who wants to write about Canada will write about Canada, that has never been a problem. Whether it be a tale of the immigrant experience (The Amazing Absorbing Boy), a trip backwards through time to uncover new facets of our shared history (The Time We All Went Marching), a legal thriller (Old City Hall), or an africentric sci-fi/fantasy adventure (The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad), Canadian authors will always set novels in Canada, covering themes and genres both classic and modern. I don’t think we’ll have to worry if, one year, we don’t get enough novels about Canadian settlers braving the elements and/or frostbite. Somehow, we will survive as a culture.

But if we start (or continue) to argue that classifiable CanLit must adhere to certain standards, we risk alienating the artists we rely upon to create things for us to argue over. It is a well-worn trope that ‘Canadian Literature’ is viewed as being about history, and the prairies, and hard-scrabble lives, and fighting the elements. Indeed, it is precisely that form of literature (as fine as some of its novels may be) that drive people scarred from middle-school attempts to form them into functioning Canadians by having them read Who Has Seen the Wind? and The Stone Angel to make sweeping statements such as, “I never read Canadian fiction.” This has been uttered to me by many people over the years, and none of my attempts to remind them of the works of Robert Sawyer, Will Ferguson, Timothy Findley, Minister Faust, Nalo Hopkinson, Thomas King, W.P. Kinsella, Timothy Taylor, Lynn Coady, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Michael Winter, or Spider Robinson will dissuade them from their opinion. And if they somehow have read these authors, or countless others, they will wave they hands dismissively and comment that these authors do not count as Canadian Literature, because they are entertaining, which is a state of being anathema to ‘true’ Canadian literature.

I have shouted myself hoarse at these people to no effect save restraining orders. I ain’t proud of making a public spectacle of myself, but I would bristle and scream to the heavens and tear down walls with the force of my umbrage if anyone dared say to me that my work isn’t Canadian Literature. You can call it sloppy, call it juvenile, call it a left-wing screed, call it just plain bad, but don’t you dare question its nationality.

So I applaud this year’s multiple awards for The Sisters Brothers and Half Blood Blues, for continuing the tradition (as evidenced above) of Canadian citizens writing about whatever pleases them and letting the awards fall where they may. Because for me, this is proof of a prime Canadian trait: accepting and rewarding others for who and what they are, rather than what we may wish they were.