Alison Calder: Writers Gonna Write…


Alison Calder responded to the question set by email in April, 2012.

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

Whether you consider Canadian writing to be post-national depends, of course, on what you think post-nationalism looks like.  Traditionally, ideas of post-national literatures have been aligned with ideas of globalization, the concept being that if you are talking about one nation, in this case Canada, then you are writing national literature, but if you are talking about more than one nation, then you are doing something else.  The idea of the “post-national” is also often used in a vaguely derogatory way, to imply that authors in Canada, who may be receiving funding or other support from Canadian agencies, are somehow shirking their duties towards the national reading public.  We can see a perfect example of this thinking in the discussions about which book was “the most Canadian” in the latest CBC Canada Reads debacle.  Why is this still a discussion?  Can we not move on to something more interesting, like… anything?

A book like Dionne Brand’s Inventory, or Erin Moure’s The Unmemntioable, is not “national literature” if we define that category fairly narrowly as “literature that is located within Canada.”  But these books are both very concerned with ideas of nation (by which I mean the emotion associated with nationalism and patriotism) and with ideas of the nation-state, especially as power is exercised in violent, militaristic ways through different times and places.  One way that I read these books is as attempting to think through the responsibilities inherent in being citizens:  what are my responsibilities, as a Canadian citizen, to witness and/or intervene in events occurring elsewhere?  I occupy a position of voyeuristic privilege, but I am also implicated in and affected by these events, in both positive and negative ways.  Defining a work as “post-national” often seems to imply that it is disconnected from Canada in some way, but in fact I think that these works are intimately engaged with the minute ways that life in Canada is experienced on a daily basis.

In terms of what ideas of national or post-national writing means for the actual writing going on in Canada, that is, what writers are putting on the page, I think it means little.  Writers gonna write.  Whether they get funded, published, or talked about on the CBC might be something different.

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?

Someone’s always despairing about the state of Canadian literature, aren’t they?  And yet, the writing keeps being produced.  I had occasion recently to read a bunch of essays, manifestos, reviews, and opinion pieces about Canadian literature, written from 1752 onwards, and the Americanization of Canadian literature is a recurring complaint.  We are either too American or too British, and sometimes both at once.  We’ve been repeatedly declared dead, with multiple and contradictory medications prescribed for our literary ailments.  I find this kind of encouraging:  it seems that we are always about to sell out, but apparently we never actually do.  It’s a little perverse to take pride in this – what would the T-shirts look like?  “Canadian literature:  still on its last legs” – but really, rumours of our death are greatly etc etc.

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 am too distracted by the word “younger” in the first sentence to answer, being now obsessed with figuring out whether I might fit into that category, whether it might be desirable to do so, and whether I should deal with my own narcissism or just move on.

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.

There’s no such thing as a definitive statement, but if you want to see how power works in Canada, look to Aboriginal authors to tell us the hard truths.

City Treaty by Marvin Francis

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Manitowapow edited by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Warren Cariou

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

I’m not sure what the effects of the death of the professional critic are, but what I do think is a problem is the rise of the ignorant critic.  Just because someone can read a book does not mean that he or she has anything interesting to say about it, just as the mere fact that someone has had an emotion does not mean that he or she should write a poem.  Returning to CBC’s Canada Reads, which prides itself on having “real” people talk about books – well, we’ve seen how that works out.  Why is national airspace being taken up with what are basically “man on the street” interviews, instead of with informed discussions by people who read, aimed at people who read?  Why should writers now have to aim to reach the lowest common denominator?  I don’t want to hear what celebrities have to say about my writing – I want to hear what readers have to say about it, and if they happen to be celebrities, that’s fine too.  Maybe it’s good that poetry increasingly happens in small and secret places.

7)  How does the large-scale disappearance 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.

Having kids read Canadian literature is a good thing, but it also depends what that literature is and why you want them to read it.  Many of the students in my university-level Canadian literature course do have some exposure to Canadian writing, but it is through reading The Stone Angel in high school.  Nothing against Margaret Laurence, but if you want to engage teenagers and get them interested in reading more things by Canadian authors, is this really the best novel to start with?  The most resistance I encounter to students taking a Canadian literature class is that they think it’s going to be boring – where does such a patently false idea come from?


  1. Maurice Mierau
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Not all contributors chose to respond to every question (see Steven Heighton’s interview, for example). –the editor

  2. John Stintzi
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    What happened to question 2?

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Alison Calder

Alison Calder is the author of Wolf Tree (Coteau), which won the 2008 Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. She teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Manitoba.