Diana Brydon: Language is a Technology


Diana Brydon responded to the TWR questions by email in late April, 2012.

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

I don’t find the label post-national helpful for describing the transitions through which nation-states or national imaginaries are going right now.  Ideas about what a nation is or ought to be and the roles of a national literature change through time. Sometimes nationalism is seen as necessary for the survival of the nation-state and at other times, a more cosmopolitan outlook is encouraged. Literature never just reflects such views but it usually engages them in ways we cannot always predict. The idea of post-nationalism arose when many thought that globalization threatened or hollowed out the traditional nation-state, leading to a borderless world. Now we realize the world is not flat and nations remain important players on the global scene. That said, the category of a national literature is a fiction that is useful for literary critics but less useful for creative writers, who have always interacted with the work of other writers, wherever it was produced. Perhaps most literature nowadays is more usefully considered transnational in that it is produced in a world of global connectivities in which there are no firewalls erected around the imagination. Fiction and poetry can be intensely local and global simultaneously, since local and global are co-produced in symbiotic relation. Where the nation fits in this mix is an interesting question. Sometimes it recedes and at other times, it looms large. When I went to university, there were no courses in Canadian literature and I wanted one.  Now I have students complaining that Canadian literature is compulsory. I think every Canadian needs to learn about our country but there are many ways we can teach Canadian texts. The national frame is just one among many.

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

A big question. To the extent that language is a technology, language is the heart of all literary culture in this country. The book will survive but it is being joined by other modes of publication and distribution. Digital platforms make writing more available, in more forms, than ever before, and are shaping the forms that literature, literary criticism, and literary scholarship can take and the ways they are understood. These technologies are changing how we create, and how we read, enabling not just close reading but also what some call distant reading. I have always read a lot, but with the availability of e-books, I am reading more. With e-journals, because of the university subscriptions, I am reading more widely. Nonetheless, the control of those digital platforms going forward and access to them will be an issue. I think electronic media can encourage more cosmopolitan and multilingual engagements but the desire for these still needs to be there.

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?

I don’t agree. This is a simplistic view of a complex literary history that is much more diverse and interesting than Henighan suggests. Colonialism is an important part of our heritage that all elements of the country are still working through. Part of that colonial heritage may be smugness and ethnocentrism, but it has also given rise to many thought-provoking and exciting literary texts that are far from dreary or second-hand. The relation between economy and culture cannot be mapped so easily. Nonetheless, there is always a place for provocative manifestos and Henighan’s provocation is welcome. It deserves a much longer answer than I can venture here.

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?

Nationalism is currently out of fashion for critics and creative writers alike. But each of these eras is characterized by a diversity of views rather than a monological consensus. I would not apply this distinction to either poetry or fiction. We have always had our formalists and our nationalists, in prose and in poetry, and still do. I find it more interesting to think about the ways in which form always makes meaning and about how the meanings we make at any given time are both limited and enabled by the circumstances out of which we create. My time and place have made me a kind of cosmopolitan nationalist who is now interested in how globalizing processes are reshaping national autonomy and culture. These interests shape the questions I ask of literary texts but not in any ways that conform to this framing of the issues.

As a small side note, although poetry may not be commercially viable, poetry still carries considerable cultural capital, which should not be ignored.

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.

I do not see any book of fiction or poetry making a definitive statement. The pleasure they provide is a different kind of pleasure, often a difficult and challenging one, which can be as painful to contemplate as it is pleasurable, and not always easy to pin down into a statement of any kind. There are many, many texts I would recommend to readers here and elsewhere. Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen repays multiple re-readings. Each time I read the book, I find more to think about. The book challenges Canadians to address our history and our current social conditions, and to confront any complacency we might feel about our nation but it does much more than that too, encouraging everyone to think through what it means to be alive and live on this earth today. Dionne Brand’s Inventory also issues a multi-levelled challenge to all readers to think through what it means to be alive today, to remember terrible histories, witness current atrocities on a daily basis through the media, and seek inadequate solace through the beauty of the world and the art we create in response to these things.  These books have become touchstones for me in the ways they dramatize the histories and choices individuals and collectivities are facing today. Out of many other books I love, I would pick Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers for its audacious engagement of so many of the questions that still consume us today and Suzette Mayr’s MoonHoney for its playful Ovidian imagination. Each of these books reveals much about Canada while refusing any definitive statement about this country.

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

It is true that book reviews of serious fiction and poetry have disappeared from our national and local newspapers. This makes me sad. I miss them. That disappearance makes it harder for the average person to gain access to information about new writing. I often encounter people who are eager for this information but do not know where to look to find it. Book clubs and book prizes help a little. So do university course reading lists. As a professional critic, I read a lot of book reviews, more than ever, and I read them on the Internet. If you know where to look, there is more information than ever.  But knowing where to look remains an issue.

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.

Students should be reading and writing in the public school system but texts should be chosen with care. Some of the compulsory texts taught in high school have not been suitable for the high school demographic and so have done more harm than good. I have met many students coming into university who hated Margaret Laurence (and by extension the very idea of Canadian Literature) because they were compelled to read The Stone Angel in high school. However much many people may appreciate this novel, this is not the right text for high school. The right texts will change over time, and an enthusiastic teacher can make a difference. I like the idea of offering students at least a small degree of choice among several texts and taking it from there. In the 1980s, I took part in some seminar discussions with a Vancouver high school class who had read Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. Somewhat to my surprise (although I have always enjoyed this book myself), these students, male and female, loved the book and found many connections to their own lives in it. Their teacher had chosen the text himself. I suspect it will be the teachers who know their own students best. But many teachers and their students seem to be afraid of poetry. We need to do a better job of encouraging our students at university to explore more poetry in ways that enable them to enjoy it rather than fear it, for their own sake, and so that if they become teachers themselves they can help their own students discover it too. If it is true that our public schools (and perhaps our universities too?) are not producing readers, then that is certainly a problem for the wider dissemination of Canadian literature and for our culture as a whole. I think we need more research to determine what is happening, who is reading, and what they are reading. My own experience leads me to feel optimistic about the continued vitality of literature and the kind of thinking it encourages.

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Diana Brydon

Diana Brydon is Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies and director of the Research Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies at the University of Manitoba.