Throughout this century, Canadian literature has struggled to establish its own identity. Now, says Naim Kattan, its multiple identities are a model for the futureby Naïm Kattan / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Is there a Canadian literature? Throughout this century, Canadian writers have failed to make a clear choice between Europe and the US. Those who wrote in English considered themselves part of an empire, with London their metropolis. French-speaking Canadians, too, remained loyal to an empire. They entrenched themselves in religion-Catholics who used their language as a safeguard against Protestant materialism.
This loyalty was not always reciprocated: for Canadian writers, the road to London or Paris was one way. They were the neglected, forgotten children. And if Canadians of both languages remained loyal to their countries of origin, they also came to realise that they could not resist the onslaught of American culture.
For who is Canadian? An American belonging to the other America. Yet neither Montreal nor Toronto resolved fully to break their family ties with Europe. While you can rarely see a Shakespeare play in New York or Los Angeles, the main theatrical event in English Canada is the Stratford festival.
During the second world war, Montreal became a publishing haven for French writers who opposed the P?in regime. But once the war was over, the Montreal publishing houses which had made small fortunes by printing French writers went bankrupt.
French-speaking Canadian writers were forerunners of Quebec nationalism. Their country was neither France nor the US. It was not even Canada. Gaston Miron became Quebec’s national bard; his only poetry collection, L’Homme Rapaill?1970) (rapaill?s a Quebecois word for cobbled together), became a bestseller. Quebec’s fiction writers were equally active. Hubert Aquin transformed the quest for liberation into a myth-Quebec was not an extension of France. Dramatists, novelists and poets began to write in joual, a spoken Quebecois language which included both archaisms and anglicisms. This phase did not last: many writers saw joual as the broken language of a dominated nation. They set out to recapture the French language. It did not belong only to France. It was a universal language, that of diverse peoples in Africa, Europe and the US.