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Reading a nation’s soul

Can non-Canadians write a Canadian novel?

By Lisa Van de Ven

I’d like to think there’s a place for Canadians on the world stage,” Toronto-based science fiction writer Terence M. Green once said in an interview. Asked why his first novel, Barking Dogs, was set in Toronto with a Canadian cast of characters, he answered, “Canada is an interesting place. The rest of the world thinks so, even if Canadians themselves don’t.”

For patriotic Canadians, Green’s words make a nice sentiment, but are they necessarily true? Many Canadians find Canada an interesting enough place, after all; if they didn’t, authors as different and far removed as Hugh MacLennan and Michael Ondaatje wouldn’t have wanted, or had the chance, to explore Canada and Canadian identity in books as diverse as Two Solitudes and In the Skin of a Lion. But there are also those who don’t seem as compelled by homegrown content, maybe because they don’t find Canada marketable enough, or perhaps because their stories just don’t take them there; writers who turn their eyes outward, in popular novels such as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and, more recently, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, both of which have little to no Canadian content. 

What’s harder to find is the other side of Green’s fictional coin: the “rest of the world,” so to speak. Not, in this case, the many non-Canadians who want to read lauded Canadian authors like Margaret Atwood and Ondaatje. Rather, non-Canadian writers who find Canada so compelling they want to write about it. 

The newly released Canada, by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford, is one such find. Set, at least in part, in rural Saskatchewan in the 1960s, the novel follows the teenager Dell as he flees from Montana after his parents are arrested for bank theft. “We don’t discriminate carefully enough, you know, between things that seem alike but are different. You should always do that,” Dell’s mother advises, and the teen traverses the differences between his new and old homes. 

While Canada the country plays a central part in Canada the book, does the novel — and books like it — shed new light on the Canadian soul? Can non-Canadians, in other words, write Canadian literature? 

Perhaps the answer isn’t quite yes, but it isn’t completely no either.

It’s clear from the outset that Ford, for one, isn’t interested in exploring Canadian identity in the way that Canadian novelists do. His protagonist and most of his major characters are American, and half the book is set in the United States. Described as “comical” but at the same time “mysterious and romantic” by the American hunters Dell encounters, Canada is, for the most part, defined by what it’s not: the United States. For the teen protagonist and the man who takes him in, it’s also a place of escape and survival — a rough-and-tumble country that requires a certain amount of resolve to inhabit. And while the Canadians Dell encounters may sometimes be rougher around the edges than the Americans he knows, they aren’t as brash or impulsive either, and ultimately they’re the ones who strive to help him, setting his path right. 

Survival and escape — along with ultimate rescue — are themes that run through Canada, and they’re themes that emerge in other novels with American authors and Canadian settings. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, the narrator John Wheelwright — having fled from the United States — teaches in Toronto in the novel’s present day. Though he’s escaped his home country, Wheelwright still rages against it from his position across the border. “But don’t you see how your . .  opinions can be disturbing? It’s very American — to have opinions . . . as strong as your opinions. It’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions,” he’s told. 

Like Ford, Irving (who later revisits Canada in his novel Last Night in Twisted River) looks at Canada as a seat on the sidelines, away from the action but with a front-row view. He’s more interested in exploring America’s faults than what it means to be Canadian. 

Of course, immigrants finding new purchase in a strange land is a familiar theme in Canadian literature too, and from MacLennan to Atwood, Canadian authors are just as obsessed with the differences between the United States and Canada. What’s unique is the American perspective and voice that Irving and Ford bring — ultimately, for their characters, Canada is a location worthy of the challenges it produces, largely because these challenges are more acceptable than those found south of the border.

But escape can be double-edged. Take The Shipping News, for instance. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx sees the American Quoyle returning to his family’s ancestral home in Newfoundland to make a go of things in this cold, rocky wasteland after the dramatic death of his cheating wife. The Newfoundland of the novel is insular, even incestuous, and often stuck in the past, though still a far cry from the more violent, vicious America that Quoyle encounters. For some in the novel, then, Newfoundland is a prison — something to be escaped from. For others, like Quoyle, it is the escape. In that way, it’s like Canada’s place in CanLit itself: a refuge for some writers, but not so much for others. 

“It is the writers who convey the inner truth about a nation, despite themselves, yes?” Margaret Atwood wrote in a recent essay in the New York Times. And while authors like Ford, Irving and Proulx may be celebrated for helping to make Canada more “interesting” to their international readers, they ultimately offer more than that too: despite themselves, they provide some insight into the Canadian experience. 

Does that mean that Canada and books like it can be considered Canadian literature, though? Maybe not. But for Canucks with a penchant for CanLit, they certainly make good companions to the Atwoods and Ondaatjes already on their shelves. For those who need it, they’re also proof, perhaps, that Canada is truly an interesting place — even to those who don’t live here.  

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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