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
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.
Crossing frontiers, such dissimilar writers as R?an Ducharme, Jacques Poulin and Victor-L? Beaulieu transformed Quebec into a fragment-even if distinct-of a vast continent. Quebec was no longer just a crossroads between Europe and the US; it was a land which absorbed both continents. Beaulieu wrote books on Melville and Victor Hugo. He even attempted to reclaim Jack Kerouac (who was born to French Canadian expatriates in Massachussetts) as a Quebec writer.
Compared to Quebec writers, English Canadian writers were latecomers to nationalism. Dispersed in a land as large as a continent, marginal both to London and New York, they started to discover their distinct, specific territory through the question: what does Quebec want? They responded with another question: who are we? In the late 1960s, Alfred Purdy, a poet from Ontario, asked a number of Canadian writers to define their attitude towards the US. Entitled The New Romans, the book was not only an overwhelming condemnation of the American way of life, it was an affirmation-albeit expressed as a negative-of belonging to Canada. We are not Americans, was their motto.
Northrop Frye is important here. Best known for his Anatomy of Criticism, Frye laid the ground for a specifically Canadian literature. His disciples included Margaret Atwood, whose essay Survival became a literary manifesto. Canadians shun success, she argued. In American terms, they are losers.
An exception was Marshall McLuhan, from Edmonton, who became attracted to the new media technologies. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, was about advertising. Then came The Gutenberg Galaxy, an historical analysis of the impact of print on western civilisation. It was followed by Understanding Media, which brought him celebrity. His descriptions of radio and television as hot and cold media, as well as his idea of “the medium as the message” became catch-phrases. Recognised abroad, mainly in the US, McLuhan became a successful bestselling author-as “un-Canadian” as could be.
The frontiers which French and English Canadian writers had fought hard to build were broken down by two forces: feminism and the coming of age of immigrants.
A characteristic of women’s writing is the freedom with which it crosses language, geographical and historical boundaries. In French Canada, Laure Conan was followed by a host of influential poets and fiction writers-among them, Anne H?rt and Germaine Gu?re-mont. Today, Nicole Brossard, Madeleine Gagnon and Denise Desautels are leading the new generation of writers. English Canada, too, had its famous women writers: Sheila Watson, Margaret Laurence; today, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Audrey Thomas.
In her novel, The Double Hook, Sheila Watson writes about the oppressive nature of religion. Likewise, Margaret Laurence was concerned with the destiny of women in a puritanical society. In her novel, The Diviners, her heroine goes back to her Scottish roots, looking in Britain for the forces behind the restricted life in which she had been brought up. Mavis Gallant left Montreal in the 1950s and settled in Paris where she still lives. She writes stories for the New Yorker, exploring the ambiguities of the relations between the English and the French in her native Montreal.
In finely chiselled narratives, Alice Munro brought to life Ontario’s small town men and women. At first they seem blank. But Munro shares their fears and uncertainties. Avoiding grandiose schemes, Munro nevertheless transforms the Ontarion small town into a universal microcosm. In Quebec, women writers touch on similar themes. Anne H?rt, whose novel, Kamouraska has been compared to Wuthering Heights, also explores the anguish of a restricted life.
During the 1950s, immigrant writers in English Canada-slightly behind those of the US-entered the literary scene through large doors. At first, they were mostly Jewish: AM Klein, Irving Layton, Adele Wiseman and Miriam Waddington. Beyond their Jewishness, however, they opened the way for English Canada’s freedom from its British heritage. Later, Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen (the song writer) built the foundation of a Canadian literature which, although it draws its sources from both English and American traditions, did not defer to them. Their place was Canada-a land which did not have to pay dues to empire and church.
The last decade has seen the presence of “ethnic” writers everywhere. These “ethnics” were for the most part born to immigrant families in Canada. George Ryga’s family is from Ukraine; Robert Kroetsch’s from Germany; Rudy Wiebe is a Mennonite; Michael Ondaatje is of British-Dutch-Sri Lankan origin; Bharatee Mukerjee comes from India and Nino Ricci from Italy.
Feeling themselves a threatened minority, Quebeckers were until recently more reluctant than English Canadians to welcome immigrant cultural contributions-even francophone. For generations, the church had warned against corrupting foreign influences. Today a more self-confident Quebec no longer sees immigrant writers as a threat. On the contrary, they contribute to the enrichment of Quebec’s francophone culture. In the last few years, Quebec literary prizes have gone to the Brazilian Sergio Kokis, the Chinese Ying Chen and the Haitian Emile Ollivier-all writing in French.
Twenty-five years ago, attempts were made by the Canada Council (similar to the British Arts Council) to acquaint the French and English cultures with one another. The council set up a translation programme which was used extensively by Canadian publishers. In English Canada, books were selected to explain to Anglo-Saxon readers what Quebec wanted. Meanwhile, Montreal publishers tried to offer translations of English books to their French-speaking readers who did not respond with much enthusiasm. In the last few years, however, Parisian publishers have become interested in English Canadian novels. Works by Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro have been translated. Since then, these writers have been discovered in Quebec (translations of Robertson Davies and Margaret Laurence had gone unnoticed when published in Montreal 20 years ago).
Another example is Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It was first translated in Paris some 20 years before it was retranslated in Montreal. Several of his other books (which had been published in Quebec) did not reach a large public until he wrote an article against Quebec nationalism in the New Yorker which made him instantly (if negatively) famous.
It has been said that English Canada is too strong to be absorbed by the US, too weak to develop a national literary vision. Not formulated from within, its character is defined from the outside. But for the newcomer Canada offers a fertile ground for participation. It is an open culture.
Literature in Canada is an expression of the country’s dilemma. Torn between loyalty to its European roots and the power of American culture, its two languages, a sparsely populated continent, its literature is a mosaic of east and west, Atlantic and Pacific, Europe and the US. An immense, fertile garden-but one which has yet to produce its own fruits.
So is there a Canadian literature? Yes, if we accept multiplicity in language, history and origin. Perhaps this is a model for the kind of literature which is going to evolve elsewhere-Anglophones and Francophones, but also Germans, Italians, Chinese, Arabs, Latin Americans. A literature which, by accepting its diversity, strives to resist dissolution into a universal anonymity.