Happy Canada Day! Our country is 144 years young today, and the world is agog because the future King of England and his commoner bride are celebrating the occasion with us in Ottawa. But I digress, slightly.
As I think about what it means to be Canadian today, I also consider what makes me a Canadian writer. Literary critics used to proclaim that it was our fascination, nay obsession, with national identity that defined our writing. But then wouldn't half the world's writers be Canadian? It's a very popular theme in literature (think of Rushdie's Midnight's Children or even Hosseini's The Kite Runner), especially in the 20th Century.
So it must be more than our "two solitudes." Some recent Canadian bestsellers shine a light far from our shores: Secret Daughter, The Book of Negroes and Water for Elephants, to name a few on this week's Globe and Mail list.
It is perhaps our sensibility that makes us Canadian. Our world view. One of the reasons I love reading literature from other countries is the joy in discovering different takes on mores, customs and morality. The way they see and experience the world. How they react like and unlike me and the people I know.
Whereas I enjoy reading Canadian novels for the familiarity of place, sometimes, and sentiment. That isn't to say that I feel the same as every character or that I would react in an identical way. But there is a comfort level that I will understand where they're coming from.
However, more and more, thanks to technology, we are becoming comfortable in the global world. Our world view has been enlarged, our sensibilities broadened. This is reflected in our literature. Our settings are often split between Canada and abroad, or the entire novel takes place elsewhere. So what makes a book Canadian?
It's a question I have to ask myself because my most recent book is set entirely in the United States. What will I bring to the book as a Canadian writer? That's an extremely difficult question to answer.
Here are three characteristics attributed to Canadian literature:
Couldn't these traits just as easily be attributed to the Brits (Prince William laughed at himself for all of Canada to see yesterday) or Americans (The Great Gatsby is a classic book on failure and disappointment)?
My tools (words, phrasings, grammar and punctuation) are the same as any other writer's. It's in the application of these tools, the design and execution of my themes, that I will differentiate myself. Perhaps in some of the execution, I will employ Canadian methods; perhaps my preoccupation with certain themes will reveal my Canadian roots.
I guess that is for others to say. What it means to me to be a Canadian writer is intricately woven into what it means to be Canadian. Today that means taking pride in my country, my profession and my work. Another day I may grouse about the lack of Canadian publishers, the difficulty in finding an agent or the necessity of publishing abroad to make a living. But for now, I will concentrate on the proud legacy of Canadian writers who have come before me. Thank you, Margaret Attwood, Anne Michaels, Annabel Lyon, Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, M.G. Vassanji, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Misty...and many more.
I'd love to hear from you what you think it means to be a Canadian writer. Please share your comments below.