Embracing the Global, Celebrating the Local: On Balancing the Multitudes in Canadian Fiction

By Kerry Clare

Part of the problem is how the debate is framed. “Are Canadian writers ‘Canadian’ enough?” asks the headline of John Barber’s article in the Globe and Mail last fall, and so the reader responds reflexively (and not reflectively). She’ll be thinking about how Canadian-ness is not a yardstick, about its broadened definition in our multicultural society, about how much richer we are as a people and is our literature for the stories of Canadians who have come here from other places.

All of which is true, not merely lines from a PC script, and is also to miss the point entirely. Though while the less sensational headline “Is Canadian writing ‘Canadian’ enough?” might have better served the argument, it would be a question no less difficult to answer. Even beyond the headlines, the issue tends to be ridiculously simplified: either our writers and publishers are so desperate for success beyond the Canadian market that they’re insisting on situating their stories in generic hinterlands, or else our critics are declaring immigrant stories un-Canadian. But actually neither of these possibilities is completely true or false, and each is more nuanced than it first appears to be.

Another part of the problem is that we’re talking about too many different things at once, and some of us are being hysterical. It’s true that a minority of books shortlisted for major Canadian literary prizes last year were “identifiably Canadian,” or largely set in Canada, but in 2010, Canadian-identified stories represented 100% of Giller shortlisted books, and 80% of GG-shortlisted and Rogers Writers’ Trust (the last two short of a full deck because Emma Donoghue’s Room was set in a soundproof bunker in some strange mid-Atlantic nowhere). In 2009, international stories were celebrated, but we got back to our roots in 2008. So these things have ebbed and flowed in recent years, though Canadian writing consistently refuses to be confined by geography, or by culture either—the all-Canadian 2008 Giller shortlist included books about Portuguese-Canadian, Lebanese-Canadian and Aboriginal-Canadian experiences.

One’s definition of “Canadian writing” has a lot to do with point of view. If you happened to grow up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley and are fluently bilingual, it seems you want your Canadian fiction to reflect that reality. And that reality is going to be different from that of a Canadian whose formative years were spent in a suburb of Saskatoon during the 1990s, watching American sitcoms and reading Sassy. Going back to that 2008 Giller shortlist, Anthony de Sa, Rawi Hage and Joseph Boyden would probably all attest to their own particular versions of Canadian-ness as well.

Which is to say that for some writers, it would be artificial to do what Caroline Adderson managed to pull off in her 2010 novel The Sky is Falling, where in an effort to “preserve our diminishing Canadian lexicon” she dared to take back the chesterfield. The Canadian lexicon is indeed so diminished that “chesterfield” has never belonged to my vernacular, but I’m not convinced it’s the responsibility of our fiction or even within its scope to remedy this problem.

Stephen Henighan overstates his case when he begins his essay “Reshaping the Canadian Novel” with “No one will know how we lived.” Especially because he then proceeds to write off Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries for reasons apparently aesthetic and related to NAFTA. Early Russell Smith gets points for confronting “the tensions between the local and the global” and situating his work in an identifiable Canadian city, but even he’s doomed as his “obsession with the local minutiae of Toronto artistic life has so far blocked his own entry to the foreign rights business.” Bonnie Burnard writes about Canada, but her work is nostalgic; Alistair MacLeod is not an innovative novelist; Matt Cohen’s work is melodramatic, and so on. By this point, we’ve gone far from the “No one will ever know…” problem, which seems to exist primarily as a springboard to other concerns.

Which is unfortunate because it’s important, the question of whether or not our literature should exist in order for future readers to know how we lived. Dare we write our books for chesterfield-preservation purposes? Does it matter more what a book says, or the way it says it? And what would a national literature possibly look like whose books all did one thing only?

To say that the definition of “Canadian writing” depends on one’s point of view is not to say that Canadian writing is an abstraction, but rather that it’s impossible to put your finger on it, that you can’t bottle it. Sometimes we tell stories of ancient Greece and Weimar Germany, and sometimes we write about Vancouver’s Chinatown or about getting drunk at Alexander Keith’s gravestone.

But I understand why critics start railing whenever it starts looking like proper literature as a pre-requisite must be set abroad and possess the historic sweep of The English Patient. Our local stories are important, not just because if we don’t write them, no one will know how we lived, but because if we don’t write them, no one else is going to.

When he’s not taking pot-shots, Stephen Henighan is inspiring. In “Writing in Canadian,” he addresses the tendency of Canadian writers to resist specificity in an attempt at universality, and notes the hollow results of these efforts. He writes, “Only by acknowledging our own existence in its full historical richness and complexity will we ever be able to create a distinctive literary language—and by this I do not necessarily mean a particular dialect of the English language, but a mythology that expresses our historical experience, expresses the kinds of people we have been and are becoming.”

And there are writers doing this. Rebecca Rosenblum is doing it, Lynn Coady is doing it, Zsuzsi Gartner is doing it, and so are Heather Jessup, Jessica Westhead, Daniel Griffin, Farzana Doctor, Brian Francis, Dionne Brand, Elise Moser, Alexander MacLeod, Heather Birrell, Sarah Selecky, Rabindranath Maharaj, Stephens Gerard Malone, Amy Jones, D.W. Wilson, Laura Boudreau, and Suzette Mayr. This list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s true that these writers haven’t all been nominated for the Giller Prize, but quite a few of them have, and most of those who haven’t are still at the start of their careers.

So I have to question the need for such hysteria, for the hyperbole and misleading headlines, all of which only serve to alienate readers who don’t understand why local Canadian stories matter in the first place. Especially when in order to make these readers understand, our best hope is to use the examples of the writers mentioned above. To talk about these writers’ work instead of deriding that of others, to celebrate what these writers are doing, conveying why it really is so important that Canadians keep writing stories from home.

It’s probably too late for the chesterfield, but the literary horizon shows every sign of new Canadian mythologies still being born.

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