Warren Cariou Decodes Post-National Lit


Warren Cariou responded to these questions in April, 2012, by email.

1) Is Canadian writing post-national, and what does that mean for the kind of fiction and poetry we produce?

The production and reception of literature in Canada has now moved away from the nationalist questions that dominated the Canadian literary landscape from the 1960s until recently. Questions about Canadian identity, the great white north, and a singular national myth are no longer in vogue—and that’s a good thing for the most part. What we see in place of this fixation on national questions is a much greater fragmentation of literary areas and interests. This fragmentation first took place with the rise of regionalism in the seventies, but it has now shifted toward the exploration of cultural, racial and linguistic communities in the increasingly multicultural nation. Thus we have the explosion of interest in Aboriginal literature beginning in the nineties, along with extraordinary productivity in Black Canadian writing, Indo-Canadian writing, and many more. Generally, these movements in the literature are not particularly interested in the Canadian nation, or else the nation is portrayed as something that must be overcome or pushed aside in order for minority cultural identities to be asserted.  In that sense, I would say that much Canadian writing these days is indeed post-national. But this does not mean that the nation has been entirely left behind, or that it is something that no longer needs questioning.  Instead it means that the national is no longer the default mode for categorizing and creating literature in this place.  But it is still important for us to consider place, and the political realities that are attached to the histories of place. Being an Aboriginal person is different in Canada than in the US, for example.  Nation still plays a role, though not perhaps the dominant role that it was once considered to play.  I think our literature continues to address these questions in new ways.

So, in my definition, is the post-national simply a code for multicultural literature?  Possibly.  But to me it is more a reflection of the cultural complexity of this place. Should it even matter that this multicultural writing is being produced here, in this national space called Canada?  Possibly not.  But I do think it is a sign of the health and vibrancy of Canadian literary culture that there is not one dominant aesthetic or issue that is in ascendancy here right now. The decline of interest in a singular national narrative has allowed us to create more nuanced representations of what is really happening in this place, and what happened here in the past.

2) What difference does technology make, in all its forms, for literary culture in this country?

Of course, the Internet is another big factor in the development of post-national sensibilities, because it allows us to make connections to individuals and communities all over the world.  We can read book reviews from many nations,  and through e-publishing we also have unprecedented access to literature from beyond our borders.  This is generally a good thing for artists because we can learn from different literary traditions and innovations.  It also means that Canadian writers have more opportunity to reach readers from outside of the country.  The flipside of this is that Canadian writers then have to “compete” (I hate that word in the context of artistic practise) for readers with a much larger pool of writers than was the case before.  The new technologies of textual distribution and social networking are likely to exacerbate the movement away from “national literatures” toward literatures that are organized under different categories, such as cultural background, gender, sexuality, or theoretical issues.  Again, I don’t think this will negate the need for critical considerations of nationalism and national identities in literature, but the national will be only one among many organizational principles for thinking about literature, rather than the primary one.

3) Stephen Henighan, in a 2002 essay titled “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’ The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel,” says that

“Canada… was a dreary colonial country until the 1960s, when it finally began to find its way out from under a stifling second-hand Englishness. Literary light flickered, at varying degrees of intensity, for three decades before being extinguished by our economic assimilation into the United States, which has made us once again a dreary, colonized country whose culture of second-hand trends stymies artistic originality.” –p. 210, When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (Porcupine’s Quill)

Do you agree? Why or why not?

While colonial and economic realities are important aspects of Canadian literary history, I don’t think Henighan’s generalization here is very accurate.  When you take the nation as the primary literary category, as Henighan does, then you project a particular narrative onto the history, and I think in this case his narrative is quite misleading.  He suggests that in Canadian literary history since 1990, an economic process of national assimilation (aka NAFTA) has resulted in a stultified literary culture in Canada.  I think that is simply not true.  Some of the richest and most challenging works of literature in Canadian history have been written in the last twenty years, and much of that literature has been fiction.  Just because most of that work doesn’t directly address the question of nation does not mean it isn’t important.  Henighan seems to think that originality is directly correlated with the assertion of a national identity.  That was a very common idea in much of the twentieth century, but to me the idea of fiction embodying “national character” has been outdated for quite some time.

4) Some younger critics have drawn a sharp line between the nationalist writers of the 1970s and 80s and the more formalist, perhaps post-national writers of the 90s and oughts, especially in poetry where there is no commercial interest and hence people are occasionally honest in public. How would you apply this distinction to Canadian fiction? If not, how come?

I don’t think this observation fits Canadian fiction.  Some of the fiction I would classify as post-national is not particularly formally inventive while other work in this category is very inventive. To me, in fiction, the post-national is not so much about questioning referentiality or about postmodern approaches to subjectivity, but rather about the fragmentation of literary categorization along lines of culture, language and race.  I think it’s quite different in poetry, where the avant-garde in a sense leads the charge against the notion of a National Literature.

5) What do you think are three books of Canadian fiction or poetry that make a definitive statement about this country to the world? Please defend your choice.

Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water shows the world that Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are not stuck in the past; that they are vibrant, creative, disruptive and innovative people.  The book is about stereotype in some ways, but it also explodes stereotypes in a productive way.

Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On takes apart the idealistic notion of Canada as the benign place that is friendly and polite to everyone, especially immigrants.  This book is a gorgeous and unsettling work that unravels the myths of Canadian congeniality and civility.

Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night makes a statement about Canada by giving the nation only the smallest bit-part in the narrative.  This novel is not “about” Canada in any obvious way, but it is about how borders and boundaries enforce particular codes of behaviour, and it is about how individuals must almost always transgress those boundaries in order to find an authentic expression of their identities. Canada is represented in the novel as a place of escape, but we are left to wonder whether that representation is at all accurate.

6) What is the impact of the death of the book review and the professional critic having on Canadian writing?

Quite simply, these developments mean that fewer people are going to read Canadian books, and fewer Canadians are going to read books generally.  Book reviews not only bring attention to books, but at their best they also give a nuanced approach to those books.  A well-written review is an appreciation of the book that goes far beyond what a prize nomination can give, for example.  The recent trend toward the reality television model of book reviewing (i.e., Canada Reads) brings attention but it is quite often attention that is empty of nuance and intellectual content.  Making a spectacle is not the same thing as talking meaningfully about our experience of a book.

I remain hopeful that new electronic publishing venues such as blogs and literary review sites such as TWR will be the places where that kind of meaningful discussion continues. But the economic realities of the Internet suggest that book reviewers in the future will not be earning much, if anything, for their work. Reviewing will become an amateur pursuit, and really it already is. This doesn’t have to be a problem if we can find a way to build and retain venues in which thoughtful book reviews can be brought to the public. Maybe the book review as a genre and as a cultural institution can still be revived.

7)  How does the death of reading and writing in the public school system affect Canadian literature? Feel free to disagree with the premise here, but please deal with the fact that in the 80s the kids were reading a few Canadian novels.

I don’t have much experience of the school system as it is right now so I can’t speak to this in a specific way. The canonization process that occurs in teaching situations does have important implications for literary culture because it lends a kind of legitimacy to particular works, genres and writers. If Canadian works are not being taught in our schools, then I have to wonder why that is happening, and what is being taught in their place. I imagine that the curriculum has not shifted back to the “dead British males” model that existed earlier in the twentieth century. I would hope that our teachers and educational administrators are trying to present a variety of literature in the classroom that will give students some idea of the immense variety of literary production that is happening all over the world. At the same time I hope there is a continued commitment to representing local writers and local literary traditions in the classroom.  One of the reasons that Niigaanwewidam Sinclair and I spent years editing the anthology Manitowapow:  Aboriginal Writing from the Land of Water is that we hoped the book would be an important resource for teachers and students in Manitoba. We wanted to present the richness of Manitoba’s Aboriginal writing in a format that would be accessible to school-age students because they are the readers of the future.

One thing that has improved since I was in school in the eighties is that there is much more openness to the idea of creative writing as a legitimate activity.  We have youth writing workshops in our schools, and we have resources that enable a few teachers to bring writers and other artists into the classroom.  This is very important in developing the next generation of artists, but I think it’s also important for the many kids who will never become artists. It shows the kids that being creative is valuable, and that one can be creative anywhere. It also encourages kids to think of writing as an activity that can be fun and empowering, rather than as homework or drudgery.

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Warren Cariou

Warren Cariou is a writer, documentary filmmaker, and director of the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture at the University of Manitoba. He also holds a Canada Research Chair in Narrative, Community and Indigenous Cultures at the university. Cariou’s films include "Overburden" and "Land of Oil and Water," and his 2002 memoir, Lake of the Prairies, won the Drainie-Taylor Prize for Biography.