Pacific Rim Review of Books

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What Is Canadian Literature?

Mike Doyle

A piece by Ken McGoogan in a recent Globe and Mail (August 8), is the latest contribution to an old chestnut, the ‘What is Canadian Literature?’ debate. I wonder how many other ‘literatures’ have people hovering on the sidelines wondering ‘What’ they are? One thing, notice that the very phrase ‘Canadian literature’ has an academic whiff about it. What we are talking about is Canadian writing. By now, starting a list with, say, Margaret Atwood, Marie Clair Blais, Anne Hebert and Alice Munro, we can add the names of several score more topflight Canadian writers and these constitute what the academics call a ‘canon’ of Canadian literature. (It becomes ‘literature’ at this level of discourse!)

In debating his own rather nervous, perhaps redundant, question, McGoogan raises a further one: ‘When does an immigrant writer become a Canadian writer?’ Implicit in this is the correct notion that an individual may become a Canadian citizen and yet not necessarily become a Canadian writer. McGoogan suggests that a book whose content is Canadian might be considered Canadian and might qualify it as an item of Canadian literature. Maybe, but that is a stretch and still does not make its author a Canadian writer.

The crucial sentence in McGoogan’s piece reads: ‘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.’ That ‘only’ is vaguely problematic, but McGoogan has the main point. If your writing must belong somewhere then it belongs to the place where you were psychologically shaped. This does not entirely settle the question, as I discovered first hand. Born in England, I grew up there, left Europe very early in my twenties, psychologically shaped to that point by Irish ethnicity and the Irish mindset of the people around me. My destination was New Zealand where I began to realise my true vocation. My original shaping was English in circumstance, Irish by extended family ethos, thus partly European, even though back then there was no European Union.

I have lived in Canada over forty years, delighted to call Canada my home and that (certainly by McGoogan’s criterion) my children are Canadian. McGoogan begins to confuse the issue with lists of immigrants some of whom are acceptably Canadian because they live here and ‘produce some of its [i.e., Canadian literature’s] most exciting work.’. A case by case examination of the work and ‘psycho-logical shaping’ of some of the writers he mentions would really cloud the issue. Some important writers, Dionne Brand comes to mind, are bi-nationals, for a start.

I’ve spoken before of Pico Iyer’s perspective (mentioned by McGoogan), the one in which shaken loose you become a citizen of the world, and I see Iyer’s position but don’t really agree with it. As a writer, I write from what is within me and realise that I came to Canada when I was already psychologically shaped (albeit in two stages). I am glad to be a Canadian, glad to be in Canada, and glad to be a writer, but have never aspired to being a Canadian writer as such. In terms of this nationalist way of categor-izing things, I am a displaced person. In terms of my own perspective, I am here (in the world, in that part of it known as Canada) and now.

There are writers who come to a new country and set about making it their own (Frederick Philip Grove may be an example), but more common would be a James Joyce, who lived in several European countries whereas Ireland, his country of origin, always remained his focus. A more recent example would be Milan Kundera, who has lived in Paris for decades, but writes of his birth country Czechoslovakia. Then there is Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English, Anglicized his name, is undoubtedly part of English literature though he did not necessarily write about England, and was unmistakably Polish.
Canadian literature, in the first instance, is good writing published by people whose lives were shaped by Canada from an early age, say 14 at the latest (on this criterion I would call Michael Ondaatje Canadian even though some of his preoccupation stems from an ethnic bachground in Sri Lanka, in which sense he, too, is bi-national.) I am not trying to solve the question, ‘What is Canadian literature?', simply adding a thought or two to the debate, though I think one response to the question is: ‘Who wants to know?’

The Polish-Indian-Jewish writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala once (1979) lectured on ‘Disinheritance’, describing herself as a ‘writer without any ground of being out of which to write’ (see Guardian Review, 19 March 2005). Born in Germany in 1927, (though in old age she looks Indian), her father a Polish Jew victimised by the Nazis, she escaped to England in 1939 ; after the war she married an Indian and lived in India for ten years. For over forty years she worked on movie productions with James Ivory and Ismael Merchant. They all lived in Manhattan, but the Jhabvalas wintered in Delhi. Ruth Jhabvala sees herself as a refugee and, as such, says ‘you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place’ . Her status almost diminishes her to ‘nothing’, makes her feel a ‘chameleon’ or ‘cuckoo’, but she says, “I like it that way’. In her own view, Jhabvala writes in the mode of the country where she is living. In the movie Shakespeare Wallah (1965), an ‘end of the raj’ movie, she combined her love of English literature with her knowledge of India. So, as a writer, it’s possible to be without a national pigeonhole.

I have enjoyed for the most part the Merchant-Ivory productions I have seen, also the novels of Jhabvala I’ve read, and generally compare her condition with my own, that of the ‘rootless intellectual’ or ‘displaced person’, no less true in my case than in hers, though I feel I have roots in Ireland, some in New Zealand, and - a wry but unavoidable admission - some in England, and having spent half my life in Canada, some here, too. For me, the most significant of her remarks is that, ‘you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place’, though I believe that, if you settle in a place after a certain age, ‘don’t’ means ‘can’t’, at least as a writer. As an individual, it’s a different matter.

As for deciding whether individual works are Canadian, that is not a matter of principle but of judgment made on a case by case basis. It would be a ramshackle way of establishing the ‘canon’ of a national ‘literature’!

Mike Doyle has lived in Victoria since 1968. A poet, critic, biographer and editor, his most recent book is The Watchman's Dance: Poems 2004-2009.