CanLit lives! Analyze books, not authors. . .

Our Hero turns up in Globe and Mail Books (Aug. 8/09) arguing that when we think about Canadian literature, we should analyze books, not authors. The electronic version at the other end of the link comes complete with a little known photo of Malcolm Lowry . . .

By Ken McGoogan

The literary mavens are at it again: demanding to know how we define “a Canadian author.” This time, the inspiration is the just-released long list for the Man Booker Prize – a list apparently devoid of Canadians.

Or no, wait: turns out Ed O’Loughlin, the Dublin-based, 42-year-old author of Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was born in Toronto. O’Loughlin spent his first six years in Edmonton, and his next thirty-six in other countries, mostly Ireland. No matter: one writer calls him Canada’s “torchbearer,” while a headline declares him “the only Canadian long-listed” for the prestigious Man Booker.

At that point, the literati begin to agonize – and not for the first time. What makes an author Canadian? Place of birth? Current residence? When does an immigrant author become a Canadian? What happens when a Canadian-born writer turns American? Confusion, angst, disgruntlement: this is what comes of investigating authors instead of books.

A couple of years ago, here in the Globe and Mail, I reviewed an historical novel that recreated the harrowing true story of the final expedition of Sir John Franklin. As most readers know, Franklin disappeared into the Arctic in 1845 with two ships and 128 men, leaving behind a welter of questions.

Because the Franklin tragedy stands at the heart of Canadian history, it has attracted the attention of authors as diverse as Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, John Geiger, Rudy Wiebe, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Mordecai Richler.

The novel I reviewed, The Terror, transformed the Franklin saga into a supernatural, hell-bent narrative. I declared the book a tour de force and added: “The author’s nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come autumn, we will see short-listed for this country’s most prestigious literary prizes.”

This prediction was a no-brainer. Despite its manifest relevance to Canadian readers, The Terror was not even eligible for most of this country’s literary awards. Why not? Well, because it was written by Dan Simmons — an American.

At that point, I began to wonder. When we talk about a work of Canadian literature, wouldn’t we be wiser to look at the book and not at the nationality of its author? Wouldn’t it be wiser to ask: Does a given work speak specifically to Canadians as distinct from Albanians, Bolivians, Belgians or Americans? If it does, then isn’t that enough to make it a Canadian work?

Take a novel written by a native Canadian and set in Canada. Obviously, it’s Canadian. But of course a work can be Canadian without being set here. If a novel is written by someone who came of age in this country, and so was psychologically shaped by this place, his or her creations can only be Canadian. Attitude and sensibility inform a literary work no matter what the setting, which is why Mavis Gallant will forever speak to Canadians.

English literature offers an illustration: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. That trilogy is set not in England but in Middle Earth – yet it remains as jolly-old-English as a pint of bitter. If anyone disputed this, I believe I could demonstrate the Englishness of that epic.

Giving priority to the work over the author is no revolutionary idea. When scholars hunt the first Canadian novel, they invariably turn up The History of Emily Montague. Set in eighteenth-century Quebec, it was written by Frances Brooke, an Englishwoman who spent a year in the colonial wilds. She wrote numerous other books that have nothing to do with Canada, and scholars rightly claim none of them for this country.

Consider Malcolm Lowry, also born and raised in England. He is best-known for Under the Volcano, a modernist masterpiece set in Mexico. He wrote much of it in British Columbia, but the book shows no evidence of that. And I don’t see that we can claim it for Canadian literature. Lowry’s October Ferry to Gabriola, however, is set in the Gulf Islands. Clearly it belongs to Canadian literature, as well as to British. It illustrates the point that a work can belong to two or more national literatures.

The same is true of certain works of Brian Moore. His novel Judith Hearne, set in his native Ireland, can not be considered Canadian. But his Luck of Ginger Coffey is set in Montreal, speaks directly to Canadians, and so belongs to the literature of this country, as well as to that of Ireland.

In 2010, Richard Ford, the celebrated American author, will publish “a novel of revenge and violent retribution set on the Saskatchewan prairie.” This work, entitled Canada, will rightly be recognized as an American novel. Because of its subject matter, however, it will speak specifically to Canadians. So, yes, it will also belong to Canadian literature. It will have dual nationality.

What about The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny? That mystery is set in Canada in the 1860s. The author is a Scot who never visited this country – but clearly, that is irrelevant. Thanks to geography and history, the novel speaks specifically to Canadians. It belongs to Canadian literature. And the same is true of certain works by American Howard Norman and Scotland’s Margaret Elphinstone.

So much for books produced by foreign writers. Situating works by Canadian immigrant authors is equally entertaining. But here I would observe that if we accept to look at literature through the prism of nationality, rather than through genre, for example, then the words “Canadian literature” have to mean something.

To my mind, Canadian literature is variously bilingual, multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, post-colonial, post-modern, and even multi-national. By it is not post-national. At this final fork in our argument, then, we take the nationalist path identified by Rudyard Griffiths (Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto) rather than the internationalist one highlighted by Pico Iyer, who has suggested that Canada has a post-national literature.

I would say no, it does not. Canadians contribute to international literature, certainly. But this country, Canada, has a Canadian literature. And immigrant authors — among them Austin Clark, Michael Ondaatje, Dionne Brand, Neil Bissoondath, Nalo Hopkinson, and Rawi Hage – are producing some of its most exciting works.

Immigrant Canadian authors face extra choices. They can speak to Canadians, to readers of a native land, to a particular diaspora, or they can go international and address Americans and Belgians as directly as Canadians. This last is the Pico Iyer option, and both M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry have chosen it.

A Fine Balance, set in India, shows what can result. Critics have argued that Mistry could not have written this shining novel while living in India, and probably they are correct. But the novel reflects nothing of Canada, speaks equally to Canadians and Norwegians, and could have been written in England, Ireland, France, the United States, or you name it.

Whenever he chooses, Mistry can write a Canadian novel — and probably a towering one. To call A Fine Balance a Canadian work, however, is like laying claim to Under The Volcano. It’s wishful thinking.

And that leaves only Ed O’Loughlin and his Man Booker contender, Not Untrue and Not Unkind. The product of a sensibility shaped elsewhere, the novel focuses on an Irish foreign correspondent who shuttles between Dublin and Africa. To see it claimed as Canadian is embarrassing.

Toronto author Ken McGoogan spent two decades as a book reviewer and literary columnist. He sails as a historian with Adventure Canada and writes Canadian narratives, the latest of which is Race to the Polar Sea.

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