Canada Reads … Hinterland Who’s Who

The unnamed protagonist in Pasha Malla’s short story, Being Like Bulls, works in his family’s Niagara Falls gift shop long after the falls have been devastated by environmental destruction and are now mere carrion for raiding American corporations. He is faced with a choice: preserve this mausoleum of Canada’s past, full of Skylon Tower erasers, Terry Fox wigs, Niagara Falls snow globes, and smiling beaver press-on tattoos, or sacrifice this inherited national chachka in the pursuit of a new identity in the present? Canadians today are faced with a similar choice.

When Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan stormed Canada’s literary awards this year, John Barber asked in The Globe & Mail if “Canadian Writers Are ‘Canadian’ Enough?” Barber joins a long list of critics who have rushed to their battle stations to defend Canada and Canadian Literature as soon as a novel that purports to be Canadian is not set in the Ottawa Valley, doesn’t describe the muted anxieties of a small town, or conclude with a staring competition between a Francophone farmer and Louis Riel, reincarnated in beaver form. From George Grant’s lament for Canada in 1965 to Douglas Coupland’s enshrinement of Canadian kitsch, to John Metcalf’s insistence that the only real Canadian books are scotch-inspired reflections on Anglo-Canadian malaise, Canada has a long list of those who would preserve the trinkets of our national heritage. The Leonard Cohen bobble-heads and Irving Layton urinal pucks are in good hands. Yet these critics and artists merely attempt to stem national and individual change, enshrining a notion of Canada that is no longer relevant to a growing number of Canadians.

Canada Reads

Our national media organ attempts to cling to bygone notions of Canadianness, as it determines The Greatest Canadian of All Time (great resume fodder!) and enshrines Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town in made-for-TV comedy glory alongside The Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story. It is not this struggle to preserve that past that determines Canadian identity, but instead it is in these debates over the meaning of who is Canadian, and what we mean when we talk about Canadian culture that keep Canadian identity and Canadian writing vital and evolving. A perceived lack of stability in the meaning of Canada or Canadian identity are not signs of the weakness of our national identity, but rather the life pulse of Canada’s continually-emerging identity.

This struggle over Canadian identity is particularly important given the novelty and daring vision of our multiculturalism policy. These struggles are not signs of “multicultural fatigue” or, worse, of multiculturalism’s failure. Instead, they are signs that the spirit and lived reality of multiculturalism overreaches the dried language of the Official Act. The act speaks of both “preserving” and “recognizing” the multiple, varied, conflicting, and emerging cultures that make up this nation. We do too much of the first and not enough of the second. There is a tension in Canadian Multiculturalism between these acts of preserving and recognizing and we need to see this tension as productive, as the very source of our creativity and identity, and not as a problem to be fixed or ignored. When our national literature and culture speaks in unknown voices and tells unfamiliar stories, this is a sign of its success, of its maturing, and of its development into a truly unique and Canadian literature.

Canadian Literature does include The Hockey Sweater, Two Solitudes, Roughing it in the Bush, and countless other instances of Ye Olde Canadiana. The challenge now is not to secure the place of these works in the Canadian canon. Instead, our current challenge is to identify how these new voices, how Edugyan’s Samuel Tyne and DeWitt’s Eli Sisters, speak in voices that are new, surprising, and Canadian. The challenge is to identify Canada in unexpected locations and unique forms. The examples are all around us. Russell Peters’ comedy speaks from the tension between “preserving” and “recognizing” the contradictions of Canadian multiculturalism. The graphic novels of Seth, Julie Doucette, and Jeff Lemire completely rethink Canada’s relationship to its landscape. Canadian author William Gibson’s invention of cyberspace is reimagined in two of the highest rated videogames of the year, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect 3, both created in Canada. Canadians should ask themselves how these stories and these new forms of storytelling reimagine notions of Canada and Canadian culture.

The protagonist of Pasha Malla’s story transforms his parent’s gift-shop into a space for transformation and change. He charges his willing customers a small fee to smash and destroy these relics of the past. The burden of history is offloaded through the cathartic act of swinging a bat and out of the destruction of this inherited national kitsch, these Canadians create something new and relevant to their times. This is not an act of forgetting but one of reinvention. The nation has changed, is constantly changing, and no author or story is “Canadian enough.” Our cultural openness, our capacity for transformation, and our ability to trash and reinvent this “greatest hotel on earth” (as Yann Martel refers to Canada) are what make Canadian culture and identity ever-changing and exciting. The challenge, then, is not to shore up and preserve these relics of the past but to see how new stories and voices are at once different and Canadian; beer companies and aged critics will tend to that. The challenge is to see how Canada’s ability to speak in multiple, disharmonious, clashing voices and to see our identity as constantly evolving are the most salient signs of who we are.

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