Almost as important as Marathon

If you look up Canadian literature on Wikipedia, you get what at first seems to be a sardonic little truism: “Canadian literature is literature originating from Canada.” Of course it is, you think—what else would it be? Scratch the surface even a little, though, and this truism turns up a whole mess of questions. Let’s bracket out the obvious (and obviously pedantic) ones like, “what is literature” (fashion magazines? Diaries? Recipe books?), “what does originating mean” (written by nationals? Composed within Canadian borders? About Canada?Published by Canadian houses?) and “what is Canada” (does pre-Confederation literature count? What of Mohawk, Cree, Anishinaabe, Blackfoot, Stó:lō, Mi’kmaq, and other Indigenous literatures?), and focus instead on a more blog-friendly one: what is the relationship between Canadian literature, so simply defined, and its moody, neurotic, historically-fixated favoured child, CanLit?

The relationship between the two terms is particularly noteworthy in connection to the theme of “place” we’re exploring this month; while Canadian literature can be about anything and be set anywhere, CanLit is usually marked not only by a particular kind of obsession with place, but by the self-consciousness with which that place is referenced.

My favourite example of this is in a hilariously sad sentence from Hugh MacLennan’s (not very good) 1951 novel Each Man’s Son. The well-educated, but ennui-stricken Doctor Ainslie is visiting the ruined fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island with his young friend Alan when he describes the lonely museum as “a nearly empty building in this empty place where a battle had been fought which was almost as important as Marathon.” This sentence, breath-taking in its naiveté, captures the hand-wringing insistence on the value, the reality of Canadian experiences, histories, and places, and then immediately betrays that value by placing it in unfavourable competition with other experiences and histories and places. Louisbourg cannot just be Louisbourg, an important place in Maritime history, it has to be “almost as important as Marathon”—which is in about the same ballpark, hubristically-speaking, as saying that John A. Macdonald was almost as important as Darius the Great.

This is essentially a colonial problem: CanLit (as opposed to Canadian literature) is marked by a particular kind of reactionary nationalism. It began as a much-needed attempt to precisely assert the importance of Canada in relationship to itself, as opposed to Canada as a gangly appendage to the imperial body—it was a project, in a way, of decolonization, and decolonizing (particularly the nationalist kind) is a necessarily self-conscious endeavour. Self-consciousness, in turn, tends to breed proscriptive insularity. In response to writers like MacLennan and Robertson Davies, who couldn’t stop looking over their shoulders at Great Britain and the United States, Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Carol Shields, and the younger generation focussed on the village, on local history, on the family unit.


“Burn St. Boniface to the ground!”

This is, of course, a broad-strokes view of things. There were always writers like Margaret Laurence, who spent plenty of time and energy travelling abroad and writing about it, there were always mavericks like Mavis Gallant who left Canada permanently and wrote extensively about life in other countries, and there were always envelope-pushers like Margaret Atwood who never stayed put when it came to genre. But my point is simply that if Canadian Literature is broadly a categorical term based on the origins of a piece or writing, CanLit is a proscriptive one works to create a sense of identity—and it is one that many feel has become stifling and sterile.

In the afterword to the latest issue of Little Brother, Emily Keeler writes of her own frustrations with CanLit: “How can our best, our most gifted writers make literature fit for the world, if we as a country remain so small minded in our support, if we compress our boosterism into a vitamin in the shape of a hashtag?” Keeler goes on to explain that she envisioned Little Brother as being a “magazine in the world,” one that champions the interesting things produced in Canada while also engaging with the world beyond its borders, borders that she argues are unimportant. While Keeler’s critiques of CanLit are right on the nose, they still don’t completely avoid the old habit of judging Canada in contrast to some great imperial elsewhere. Earlier in the afterword she notes that her colleagues at a couple of Brooklyn-based publications “weren’t self-conscious about their national literature in a way that made them feel the need to boost it with a cutesy nickname,”and elsewhere argued that “there is enough talent on this patch of grass to make something great, twice or even 365, times a year, for the rest of my life and beyond.” Little Brother is a breath of fresh air on the Canadian literary scene, but in its self-consciousness it does carry the echo of McLennan and Marathon.

Is there a way past the “calcified genre” (Keeler’s term) of CanLit, past the colonial mindset that created it? There must be, and I can’t help but wonder if it lies in listening to the writers who have arrived in Canada from elsewhere, who are Canadian (or agonistically-Canadian) by choice rather than by accident of birth. In the sinister cosmopolitanism of Rawi Hage’s Montreal, or Dionne Brand’s vibrant and dangerous Toronto, in the erotic philosophy of Marianne Apostolides’ Sophrosyne, which defines itself by ideas rather than place, and the thoughtful, generous internationalism of Dimitri Nasrallah, CanLit is shaken out of its formal and thematic complacencies and reminded that it is a place connected to the wider world in millions of complicated ways.

I wonder, also, if the way forward doesn’t in part involve throwing away the old measuring sticks of New York and Paris and London and acknowledging that Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal have always been at the extremity of empire rather than its centre, and as such are closer in kin, psychologically, to Cape Town, Mumbai, Sydney, and the exploding post-colonial cities of Latin America, to metropolises that have to negotiate their identities and explore their places in the 21st century world of arts, culture, and politics without easy recourse to founding myths or superpower programmes.


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