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What Books Define Us?

In our diverse, evolving country, there is no simple answer.

By Charles Campbell 20 Jul 2006 |

Charles Campbell has worked as a writer and editor with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee, and teaches at Capilano University.

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What books define Canadian literature? What books advance it, particularly in light of the growing range of immigrant literature? Two weeks ago, we asked Tyee readers to give us their choices.

We asked because the questions are central to SFU's July 22 Symposium on the Novel, which will look at the increasing number of writers drawing on immigrant experience. The symposium's promotional summary notes that three of the five most recent finalists for Canada's Giller Prize were novels set outside Canada.

Certainly the many entries we received (not a single book was cited twice) reflects a Canadian literature that has come a long way from the days when the hapless, conflicted Canadian protagonist struggled against nature, or small-town mores, or both.

Those themes have persisted well beyond their usefulness. Blame Northrop Frye and his academic disciples. His often-invoked school of literary analysis, where our country's literature proceeds less from life than from the country's previous books, is only one fascinating, flawed frame -- one that had us forever climbing out of a snowdrift so that we could then freeze to death in a river.

That was a while ago, and east of here. Canada is a big, complicated, quickly evolving place.

What are today's defining Canadian novels? Canvas the recent list of 10 essential Canadian books offered by the Toronto Star, and you'll find only one -- Obasan -- mentioned by Tyee readers. Survey the Star's long list of 70 essential Canadian books and it's clear that defining Canadian literature in any coherent way is a very difficult parlour game.

That's one of the challenges faced by Noah Richler when he set out to create This Is My Country, What's Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada (McClelland & Stewart), a book due this fall and also a 10-part series now running on Sundays and available online at CBC's Ideas.

"I suppose I'm proposing...that the whole idea of Canada is, as Margaret Atwood said, a fiction, and yours to invent," Richler recently told the CBC's Words at Large.

Richler offers some central themes, but they're the themes of old books on old Canada. "One is of the importance of the company store, the company town, in our history," Richler said. "We are a nation founded on the back of a business, the Hudson's Bay [Company], and I think this has had an enormous effect on how we shop and how we expect to be dealt with by an authority that I describe as distant. For a long time the people who administered this country were the agents of the governors who sat in London, or then in a sense were executing the political wishes of Washington."

Richler acknowledges that our literature has evolved considerably, citing the treatment of Lord Franklin's fatal Arctic journey as an early example. He says that story began as a "heroic defeat in which the land is the hero" and now it's about the "condescending colonial attitude that led to his demise." That's progress for you.

Richler does acknowledge -- and who wouldn't? -- that the cultural and geographic diversity of Canada creates different literatures, and different attitudes toward literature. We must note that in this regard he cites the "almost smarty-pants atmosphere of Vancouver." However, he also says something a little less likely to irritate British Columbians, who for some reason despise being defined in a quip by an Easterner: "When I go to Vancouver I explore a terrain which I think encourages a sense of things going missing."

All of which is a longwinded way of introducing the thoughts of Tyee readers, some of which are condensed and reprinted below, on books that they feel are distinctly Canadian or advance our literary tradition. And while there is a healthy dose of small-town mores, there are also many books set outside Canada -- and just a couple of snow banks and icy rivers.

Three Day Road By Joseph Boyden (Penguin, 2006) Two young Cree men enlist in the Canadian Army at the outbreak of World War I. Xavier and Elijah excel at hunting and become highly effective snipers, operating on their own, crawling from one bomb crater to the next, picking off German soldiers. Only one will return from hell, addicted to morphine. Almost speechless from the horrors he's witnessed, the young man is paddled upriver by his aunt, who, knowing little of the white world, seeks to understand the source of his pain. Juxtaposing the young man's memories of the confusion of battle, where he hunts to survive, and his boyhood, where he forms an unbreakable bond, hunting with another orphaned Cree, Boyden shows us the real meaning of brave. There are too few books about native Canadians, even fewer in which the protagonists are true, if unsung, heroes. Michael Cox

According to Jake and the Kid By W.O. Mitchell (McClelland & Stewart, 1989) Set in the prairies during the '40s and '50s, this humorous Canadian classic captures the essence of life on the farm as well as in a small town. While the hired man is clearly a larger-than-life personality, thousands of men like Jake quietly contributed a great deal to our country; we shall not see their like again. This delightful book captures so clearly the strength of character and commitment to community and country that made that generation of Canadians so unique. Virginia Brucker

The English Patient By Michael Ondaatje (McClelland & Stewart, 1992) Ondaatje described the underlying immigrant conflict perfectly when he wrote: "Born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get away from our homeland all our lives." Such writing provides comfort to the growing number of immigrants as well as offering insights to Canadian-born citizens about people they meet and work with on a daily basis. Authors of immigrant backgrounds define Canadian literature because they write about the pulse that is Canada, where for the most part people are allowed to retain the uniqueness of their culture while blending in with and enriching the mainstream Canadian culture. As an immigrant who has lived almost as many years in British Columbia as I did in my native Malta, books of the Canadian immigrant genre are exactly what speaks to me. Angela Malkowski

Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid By Evelyn Lau (HarperCollins, 1995) This harsh, honest and difficult book chronicles life on the streets of Vancouver in the late 1980s. [It] gives voice to a true Canadian who has not been often heard from, the young Asian Canadian who is caught in the hyphen of Canadian-Chinese and yet who must also deal with the typical Canadian teen issues of drugs, sex and peer pressure. You come to have a more rounded understanding of what it means to be Canadian beyond the rural settings and white or native identity portrayed in so much of our favourite Canadiana. Jennifer Coles

The Diviners By Margaret Laurence (McClelland & Stewart, 1974) Morag wants to escape her small town forever, but she can't. Unrequited love and dreams keep her in Manawaka. We can't go through life completely cut off like those folk in Manawaka, or can we? Canada and its literature must stand on its own like Morag. It must be cold and harsh, like a Manitoba winter. Canada must be ruthlessly introverted and keep its feelings to itself as Morag desperately holds on quietly to her feelings, including her one love. Introversion is a method of survival, a common theme in Canadian literature. Diana A. DiNatale

A Sweetness in the Belly By Camilla Gibb (Doubleday, 2005) Lily, the female protagonist, is orphaned and educated as a Muslim in Morocco before going on a pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where she meets the love of her life at the time just prior to the deposing of Haile Selassie…. I'm grateful that my knowledge of Africa and the Muslim religion has increased enough that I can now better understand and sympathize with the problems in Africa and the Middle East. My reading of Reza Aslan's book No god but God was inspired by Pamela Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly, which, by the way, refers to love rather than appetite. Carol Mason

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) This book is firmly rooted on an island in Lake Ontario, where it opens into the St. Lawrence; the characters are reserved and individualistic. The story connects the pioneers with today's urban landscape. It explores how our ancestors' mark on the land -- logging, farming, business -- reverberates for generations. Despite erosion and decay of home, the landscape holds memory and draws a man with Alzheimer's back to his ancestral roots. The author cleverly crosses the generation gap. A young urban artist who suffers detachment from home and family connects with an unusual woman who reveals the history of her dead lover, the man with Alzheimer's. The telling of the story brings Canadian history alive and allows the young man to accept the loss of his father and his sorrow, which has alienated him from himself, his creativity and his love. Christine Smart

The Tomorrow-Tamer By Margaret Laurence (McClelland & Stewart. 1963) As a Newfoundlander born in 1952 in St. John's, Canadian literature was something I had to "learn" at Memorial University while studying for my English Lit degree in the 1970s. I had never set foot on mainland Canada at the time.... In a paper on Margaret Laurence's short story, "The Voices of Adamo," from her collection The Tomorrow-Tamer, written in Africa in the 1950s, I wrote [that the story elicited] "understanding, love and a certain joining, sharing energy." I realized years later [that] the story also summed up the Canadian sensibility that made multiculturalism and present-day Canada possible. It was profoundly Canadian, written with the heart, not in that very cerebral, urbanely cold style favoured by critics. Pat Maher

Deafening By Frances Itani (HarperCollins, 2003) In 2006, every Canadian is face-to-face with the heightened challenges of integrating those who are "different." We cannot escape being confronted by those places in ourselves that are still more comfortable alienating others on the basis of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, race, world-view or personal capacities. We are still infants in learning that peace, love and compassion are conscious choices in our own minds first. We have not evolved much in our humanity in the last 100 years or so. Frances Itani shows us this with enough kindness in her showing and talent in her craft to hold us -- perhaps hold us long enough that we can find the courage we need for today. This is the grace of good literature. Diana Cawood

Starlight Tour: The Last Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild By Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud (Random House, 2005) Two CBC investigative journalists wrote this ugly chapter of Canadian history in the genre of a crime drama, to expose the ongoing hostility of police felt by Native people, and to recount the racism, lax investigation and cover-ups surrounding the death of Neil Stonechild [who froze after being dumped by police on the edge of town] and others in Saskatoon. We also experience the struggle of Stonechild's mom to see justice, the determination and acumen of the brilliant native lawyer who helped launch a public inquiry, and the integrity of a few good men in the RCMP who did what they could to untangle the police cover-up. It is rare to find non-native Canadian writers who can deal with native experience without appropriating, stereotyping or dismissing. I hope this book will provide a model for other non-native Canadian writers. Seema Ahluwalia

Wild Dogs By Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins, 2004) The "Broadway to Burrard" test refers to my daily seven-minute SkyTrain commute in which I start a new book and decide whether or not to continue. I acknowledge that this may be unfair, but there are so many good books waiting to be read! By Main Street/Science World I was enraptured. I don't know that I'm able to argue that Wild Dogs defines or advances Canadian literature, but there is a scene in a pub near the beginning of the story that evokes an Ontario fall so vividly to me that I can hear the Tragically Hip ("Bobcaygeon" to be specific) playing in the background. I also know that I loved its premise, beautiful writing, characters (human and canine) and powerful images. Karen Spears

A Fine Balance By Rohinton Mistry (McClelland & Stewart, 1995) People have travelled from far and wide to gather and create a country as diverse as Canada. To me, what defines our story are these people's stories. In A Fine Balance, set during India's state of emergency in the mid-'70s, we journey with four characters struggling to survive in the midst of political strife, chaos and poverty. What prevails are not solutions or happy endings but the resilience of the human spirit. In our comparatively quiet Canadian cities and towns we witness this strength all around us in the multicultural dynamic we have today. To appreciate this country we need only to look to the struggle of our own parents or grandparents who may have fled all that they knew in search for a better future. We need not know why Rohinton Mistry now lives in Toronto and not in Bombay, but accept gratefully the gift of what he brings with him. Shannon Melnyk

Running By Keith Maillard (Brindle & Glass, 2005) A wonderful and charming coming of age story that demonstrates some of the best characteristics of Canadian literature. Maillard's brilliant rendition of a young man's adolescent awakenings includes daring jaunts across socio-economic borders, brave excursions into unknown cultures, and an earnest study of the threads that mysteriously weave together to form the fabric of our society. Colleen Loguisto

Life of Pi By Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2001) The Old Man and the Sea it isn't, and that's the point. Life of Pi creates a modern narrative to rival Hemingway's classic sea tale. Martel's vision lifts the man-against-nature allegorical form beyond a nautical romance with purely Christian overtones to embrace the mix of religious, symbolic and political traditions that is the essence of the Canadian cultural mosaic. In the mind of Pi -- whose sensibility represents archetypical Canadian diversity and tolerance -- there is no more incongruity in trying to (simultaneously) live according to Muslim, Christian and Hindu ideals than there is in sharing one's tenuous existence for 227 days in the open sea with a 450-pound tiger named Richard Parker. Terrance Bogyo

Obasan By Joy Kogawa (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981) Few have indicted Canada as artfully as Joy Kogawa. Obasan's Aunt Emily cautions her niece, the protagonist, "You are your history. If you cut it off you're an amputee." If Emily is right, then Canada is a land of amputees; the self-congratulatory exaltation of "multiculturalism" only masks a powerful and long-standing prescription for quiet homogeneity. Emily, like Kogawa, is Canadian and demands to be recognized as such. But unlike many "Canadians," especially "white" Canadians (from where?), she refuses to amputate her history, despite all its pain and horror. That would let other Canadians -- including the ones who bore responsibility for (and inherited the spoils of) the Japanese internment -- off far too easily. I think it is several generations too soon for anyone to indulge in the luxury of imagining that we live in a vindicated Canada. But if such a vision is deemed worth pursuing, Kogawa's book may be our best compass. Ryan Andrew Murphy

Thanks to all those who contributed. As an enticement to all, we offered two tickets to the symposium, and two sets of five books by participating authors. Ryan Andrew Murphy and Carol Mason are the winners. The Symposium on the Novel, which runs Saturday, July 22, from 10 to 3:30 at SFU's Segal Centre, 555 West Hastings, is $75 including the five books. For registration details, click here. It may be possible to register at the door.  [Tyee]