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.