Canada is burdened with a difficult history and a complicated present
You’ll forget. There’ll be lightning, then the sun will push out like an egg,
metallic and hard, before receding into redness. You won’t sleep long.
In the morning, the Battle River will sparkle nearly white,
a colour you recognize but it’s too much, your eyes can’t take that much brightness.
—Laurie D Graham, “Battleford Gravesite.”
“Activism” can be loosely defined as “using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” By this definition, not many Canadian writers could be considered activists. For the most part, writers are not “campaigners,” and their work is primarily done in service of story before politics. Perhaps one of the luxuries of living in a nation that upholds free speech as a core value, and where literary arts find (albeit diminishing) footholds in national funding, is that writers do not have to “be political.”
In many contexts, however, literature has proven a useful medium for speaking truth to power. In his “Editor’s Introduction” to the Alternatives: Global, Local, Political issue of Poetic World Politics journal, Roland Bleiker argues that poetry is political and thus functions as a charged representation of power dynamics:
Poetry is ideally suited for rethinking world politics because it revolves around a recognition that (aesthetic) form and (political) substance cannot be separated. The manner in which a text is written, a speech is uttered, a thought is thought, is integral to its content. There is no neutral way of representing the world, a form that is somehow detached from the linguistic and social practices in which the speaker or writer is embedded.
In Bleiker’s view, poetry is an attempt to transform the ineffable into the concrete. He continues, “a poetic rendering of an event or epoch is also able to deal more adequately with the gap that opens up between the event in question and its representation in language.”
Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak
Poems from Guantanamo is a slim volume containing a few potent lines of verse salvaged from Saudi Arabian, Afghani, Pakistani, Bahraini, Chadian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Jordanian and Zambian captives at Guantanamo by a team of lawyers and translators.
The poems in this collection do not make overtly nationalist statements; in a sense, they are paeans to placelessness, songs of mourning whose tenor strikes a global nerve. The poems are difficult to read; the lines are heavy with the pain of entrapment and the longing for home. In one sense, the book is about human suffering, plain and simple, the reality of which supersedes legal questions of guilt and innocence, and side steps habeus corpus. But these poems are politically important because their core message is about human suffering in a specific time and place.
In his poem “Humiliated in the Shackles,” the journalist Sami al Hajj writes,
They have monuments to liberty
And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.
But I explained to them that
Architecture is not justice.
Al Hajj was held at Guantanamo for over six years before being released without charge in 2008. When Poems from Guantanamo came out in 2007, Al Hajj was still at the prison camp.
In his introduction to the volume, editor Marc Falkoff notes, “Complacency is not of poetic temperament.” These poems are evidence that literature can be an ideal vehicle for political statements, because there is so much at stake in the stories of the world—past and present.
“Engaging with Painful History”
Stephen Lewis argues The Orenda was a lost opportunity
There’s a case to be made for literature as observational, however, and political only insofar as the writer is a person who exists in a particular community with a unique history. Laurie D. Graham’s 2015 Morton Prize winning poem offers a personal take on Canada’s difficult history. In her comments about the piece, judge Margaret Atwood writes that the poem offers “a tone-perfect elegiac meditation on the impossibility of engaging with painful history and the necessity of doing so.”
But does “Battleford Gravesite” truly address “the necessity” of “engaging with painful history?” The poem does draw the reader’s eye toward historical realities, but it doesn’t exert any particular demands on the reader beyond observation. It’s possible that saddling such a poem with a political duty—or any necessity—diverts its purpose away from essential human communication, and toward promotion of specific ideals, or specific renderings of the past.
If we concede that all works of art are inherently political because they engage with human life, can we also concede that artists have no specific duty to promote political ideals? If the artist’s primary duty is to their work—to observing and reflecting the world in its complexity, and avoiding prescriptive answers—that work will necessarily benefit the larger community. So need it be directed at specific issues?
Canada is not currently a war zone, and it has no ongoing Holocaust; we have no Guantanamo, unless we can consider Guantanamo a global problem—and there’s a case for that perspective. But no one could say Canada is an innocent nation. Our nation’s history is writ in scarlet, so the writer’s task in reflecting that history is laden with potential political motifs.
Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda delves into Canada’s formative years, offering a fictional reading of first contact between an Iroquois girl, a Huron warrior and a Jesuit priest in the mid-17th Century.
The Orenda is a battle story containing pages and pages of searing descriptions of torture and brutality perpetrated by all three of the nations under examination. These scenes are effective precisely because of their hyper-realism; Boyden doesn’t allow his readers to look away from intense suffering.
In a Canada Reads panel discussion between the Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis and broadcaster/rapper/writer/activist Wab Kinew, Lewis argues that The Orenda should have dealt more explicitly with key indigenous issues in Canada, and dwelt less on depictions of torture. “I wanted The Orenda to be a book that would rally Canada to aboriginal issues as never before,” says Lewis. On the list of issues he feels The Orenda should have addressed: “pipelines or residential schools or all of the land rights and land claims that we’re dealing with that governments one after another have paid no attention to.” Finally, he asserts, “The Orenda was an opportunity lost.”
The assumption behind Lewis’ claims is that books are overtly political. Thus, The Orenda, because it deals with indigenous people—and because Boyden is of Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe heritage—should be used as a tool for a kind of activism and awareness-building that could help unite Canadians.
Kinew takes Lewis to task for his condemnation of The Orenda’s torture scenes as “torturous pornography,” arguing that Boyden’s work offers insight into an important aspect of indigenous culture. “The violence is key to understanding the message of The Orenda,” Kinew argues, “We’re tossed into a very different worldview, one in which suffering is key to achieving something meaningful. It’s very easy for Canadians to get along with indigenous paradigms if they line up with our own … all of a sudden when indigenous people stand for something different, all bets are off.”
Kinew complicates Lewis’ argument by asking readers to withhold value judgments about the book’s difficult scenes, which offer readers a new paradigm, a new way of seeing. The torture scenes in The Orenda emphasize the dignity and valour—and personal agency—of the victims of torture. In other words, these “victims” are not simply victims, but something more dignified—even holy.
Against a Utilitarian View of Literature
Literature is political—in the sense that, done well, it connects us to other peoples’ experiences, and to the human condition expressed in specific times and places. Whether it should take up particular themes (“pipelines, residential schools, land rights”) in pursuit of specific political goals, I am less sure. And I am decidedly opposed to a politically utilitarian view of literature. As Bleiker notes in his essay, “activist poetry is not unproblematic. Most so-called war poems, for instance, are neither very political nor very poetic.”
Something is sacrificed when we assume that books “should” do anything. All the same, because books are inherently—as opposed to overtly—political, we cannot abandon the notion of literature as a bridge connecting disparate worldviews, powerful for its ability to open eyes and minds.
And for many Canadians, political healing, political change, can only be reached via iterations and re-iterations of our national story—past and present. Amnesty International’s website has an article devoted to “Indigenous Peoples in Canada.” It reads: “Amnesty International has long been concerned about violations of the human rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada.” Canada’s indigenous populations, it notes, are impoverished and marginalized, and exposed to terribly high levels of violence; reservations often suffer from a lack of access to clean drinking water, nutritious food, and adequate housing.
Canada carries the double burden of a difficult history and a complicated present. What is the role of the writer in opening eyes and minds to injustice? Or in offering hope for the future? It might be simply to look at the past and reflect the present, knowing we can never fully understand either, and to observe, with Graham, “In the morning, the Battle River will sparkle nearly white, / a colour you recognize but it’s too much, your eyes can’t take that much brightness.”