Candida Rifkind: There is no Pure Canuck


Candida Rifkind answered our questions by email in early June 2012.

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

I’m going to take issue with the question because it is a contradiction-in-terms, and like asking if women’s writing is post-gender or Manitoba writing is post-regional. Instead, I think we need to ask how and why the category of the nation has been so closely tethered to the production of writing in this country and why we still use it, albeit with a “post” prefix.

I prefer to see Canadian literature as having always been characterized by a tension between nationalism and internationalism, at least since the end of the nineteenth century. As much as writers, publishers, and critics have wanted to assert a unique Canadian literature in response to both British and American cultural domination, the work itself is rarely limited by national borders.

Canadian writers have always travelled, physically and imaginatively, around the world and interacted with writers, artists, and ideas from other countries, communities, and cultures. Some of these writers went elsewhere because of few publishing opportunities in Canada. Nick Mount has written persuasively of Canadian literature’s migration to New York in the 1890s , even though these expatriate writers (Bliss Carman, Ernest Thompson Seton) continued to write Canada into literature history. In the 1920s, Morley Callaghan famously went to Paris and in 1950 Mavis Gallant went to France and stayed there; likewise, Mordecai Richler lived in England from 1954-72 and today Michel Tremblay does most of his writing from his snowbird home in Key West. Yet, all of these writers continued to represent Canadian lives, places, and experiences and are celebrated within the national canon.

Writers who’ve stayed in Canada have often travelled intellectually, aesthetically, and ideologically. In addition to bringing imagism to Canadian poetry in the late 1920s, in the 1930s Winnipeg-born Dorothy Livesay brought Soviet-style agitprop to Canadian theatre and modernist documentary to Canadian poetry. In the 1960s, the Montreal Automatistes invented a Canadian form of surrealism in writing, painting, and dance, while in the 1970s Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard were among a group of feminists working through French theories of écriture féminine. Today, the quintessentially Toronto writer Dionne Brand identifies with diasporic writers of the Black Atlantic, while Larissa Lai is often studied under the category of Asian North American writing.

So, while much of the discussion around Canadian writing today looks to recent immigrant and diasporic writers as the source of our “post-nationalism,” I believe we need to have a longer picture of the field to understand that there has never been a purely “Canadian” writer; ultimately, the category itself has more to do with anti-colonial nationalisms, the pressures of government funding, and the structures of educational institutions than with the creative output itself.

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

Technology has always mattered to literary culture in this country, if we understand it simply as the tools used to disseminate that culture. Newspapers used to print a poem a day in syndication, and so until a couple of generations ago the average person experienced poetry as part of their everyday lives. Radio has always been important in both bringing writers to audiences and commissioning new works. Once the CBC launched in its modern version in 1936, writers had a venue to read and discuss their works, while critics and other taste-makers had a forum in which to cultivate a national literature and encourage Canadians to expand their literary horizons – a process continued by CBC Canada Reads today. Likewise, television brought Canadian writers into living rooms in the 1950s and 60s, perhaps even more so than it does today.  And, of course, as each of these new technologies launched there was some anxiety about whether the new medium would be the death knell of that older technology, writing, but in practice these technologies enhanced writers’ visibility and accessibility.

Today, electronic media have opened up all kinds of possibilities for Canadian writing, from on-line publishing, to podcasts, blogs, mobile apps, and exciting experiments in sound and video collaborations, such as the dub and hip hop recordings by poets Wayde Compton and Kaie Kellough. Most importantly, online technologies allow both writers and readers to move across borders – whether that border is the printed page or the nation.

3)  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.

Many of the writers I read and teach identify much more with their local communities, towns, and cities than they do with the abstract idea of the nation. And yet they are also acutely aware of the world at large, so their sense of place is fundamentally about the interactions between the local and global. Here are three engaging, entertaining books that don’t say anything definitive about Canada, but that do play with words, ideas, histories, and mythologies that might get readers thinking about Canadian writing differently:

Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner is a recent Québecois novel that has not get the attention it deserves in English Canada, perhaps because it does not fit with any neat tradition in our writing: it is part road novel and part historical novel, part realism and magical realism. It’s about three young Montrealers but also cartography and compasses, eighteenth century female pirates and twenty-first century cyber pirates, fishmongering and dumpster diving, and much more.

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson is a novel set in the Haisla community of Kitamat on BC’s northwest coast. It is a coming-of-age story informed by gothic and horror fiction, Aboriginal history and storytelling, satire and popular culture. It is a story about searching for lost people and recovering lost traditions, and it is the best novel about Sasquatches I’ve read in a long time.

George Sprott (1894-1975) by the cartoonist Seth is an extraordinary “picture novella” that pushes the boundaries of biography by telling the story in comics of a largely unlikeable man by a narrator who cannot know all the details of his life. Seth’s exquisite drawings recall early twentieth century architecture and design, while his story of Sprott’s life as a “gentleman adventurer” making silent films about Inuit people in the 1920s, and who then tries to hang onto these glory days through a local cable TV show into the 1970s, is an ironic, ambivalent portrait of a man both very much of his time and stuck in it. It is also as much a biography of Canadian broadcasting, and the death of amateur local TV, as it is of the man.

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

I don’t think book reviews and professional critics have a relationship with writers as much as they do with readers. The book review is at the distribution end of the process, not the creation end, and so if it is dying then that means some books may not get that form of publicity as much as they used to.

Perhaps the traditional form of the lengthy book review is disappearing in print, but I think it’s a good thing if more readers (including those who aren’t “professional” reviewers) are online posting, blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting about books because these media do allow lesser-known, emerging, and experimental writers to find their audiences. We also shouldn’t under-estimate the power of book clubs, which continue to thrive and grow among all kinds of demographics and online too. These reading communities naturally take on some of the critical and publicity work of the book review.

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Candida Rifkind

Candida Rifkind teaches English at the University of Winnipeg. She is a scholar of early twentieth century Canadian literature and pop culture, and the author of Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2009).