New Zealander’s G-G shows why we should focus on books, not authors

By winning the governor-general’s award for fiction, novelist Eleanor Catton reopened an old debate. Catton was born in Canada but left with her parents while still a child. Is she a Canadian novelist? Is she not? One academic called her victory a scandal. Others defended the decision to give her the prize. The sound and the fury brought me back a few years, to August 2009, when I published a piece in the Globe and Mail arguing that
when we think about Canadian literature, we should analyze books, not
authors. To me, it seems relevant . . . and convincing. 


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. But 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.

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