Rewriting our sense of self
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2003
Of all the elements of Canadian culture, literature may be the most definitive. Canadians are voracious readers of their own writers - from the founding "CanLit" boom featuring Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler to, more recently, Barbara Gowdy, Rohinton Mistry and Yann Martel - and Canadian writing tops bestseller lists and wins awards internationally. How is the next generation carrying on this legacy and how is their work affected by such factors as Canada's racial diversity, media saturation and changing values?
As part of the New Canada series on Canadians in their 20s, The Globe assembled a panel of four of the country's most prominent authors under 30, who all published their first books in the past couple of years. Naturally enough, they were already acquainted with each other, but their opinions were anything but uniform.
The Globe's assistant Books editor, Alison Gzowski, moderated the lively discussion, conducted by both conversation and e-mail. The following is the full transcript of the discussion and samples of the writers' work.
• Kevin Chong's The Longest Day of the Year
• Lee Henderson's Attempts at a Great Relationship
• Emily Schultz's Measurement Listings in the Catalogue of Memory
• Sheila Heti'sThe Fundamental Race
Alison Gzowski: If we were to do a blindfold test, of sorts, and line up different writing by different ages and by different nationalities, could you pick out which ones were by Canadians of your generation?
Emily Schultz: You can and you can't. For instance, I think that Lee's writing sounds like it could almost be American, but I think that there's definitely a big difference across the ocean. Canadian and American I think it's probably harder to tell apart. There's not a big difference between 20s and 30s, but maybe beyond that there starts to be.
Kevin Chong: A lot of American writing is concerned with the idea of America. They have this sort of grandeur in theme, because they are the big imperial power, that I don't think Canadian writers have, at all, ever.
Lee Henderson: That's true. You wouldn't see a Purple Canada, but you would see a book called Purple America [the novel by Rick Moody].
KC: There you go.
AG: Would you place yourselves anywhere in the "Can-Lit" lineage? Is there something Canadian about your writing you could address?
Sheila Heti: I don't think so, personally. It would only make sense if you only read Canadian writers. You're influenced by whatever you read in your most vulnerable moments. For me, in high school that was Kafka, writing The Middle Stories it was Jane Bowles; and last year it was Emmanuel Bové. Sometimes you read people in order to be influenced, and lately I have been trying not to not read people for fear of being influenced. I can't think of any Canadian writers that have directly influenced me, though there are Canadian writers who I think are very good.
LH: Unfortunately the way Canadian literature was taught into me during my formative high school years left a long-lasting scar on my palate for the stuff. How many times can a kid in the 1990s read Man vs. Nature stories, where for example a man trudges home through waist-high snow only to open the rickety cabin door and find his wife screwing another man, and then, without alerting the lovers to his presence, go back out in to the cold cold weather and commit suicide just by standing outside? This might be a great story but its relevance to my life felt very distant indeed so I hated it, loathed it to the point of an indelible memory laced with resentment. I grew up in cold weather, obviously, but unlike our early expat frontiersmen/literarymen, spoiled by the soggy weather of their waspy homelands, hellacious cold is all I ever knew, and so it didn't seem all that interesting a topic. It took me a very long time to accept the possibility that a Canadian had ever written a good book.
I'll thank Emily for saying she thought my book read more like something written by an American. Other than Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, the literary predecessors for what I want to accomplish don't seem to exist in Canada, not on my radar at least. Although there are Canadian writers I admire like crazy.
SH: But who knows why one thing and not another changes the way you think and see? If you grow up and you read writers from various different countries there's no reason why your writing should be particularly Canadian.
ES: Well, except that I think that we have a lot of Canadian geography in our writing.
LH: I think Canadians put a lot of context and kind of profound meaning in their landscape and in their geography.
ES: You have to set your story someplace. You might set it in an anonymous city or just a generic city, but a lot of times it is going to kind of sneak in, I think.
AG: But is it different than in the way that, say, Richler's novels are all set in one place, Munro in one place, even Nino Ricci's are in a certain area, Wayne Johnson . . . Is there a different thing that you guys are doing?
KC: Actually, Mordecai Richler is an interesting case in point. I think he once said something to the effect that, well, he was writing in London at that time and he decided to write about Montreal because it seemed like this exotic place compared to a place like London, which has been written about so many times. I wrote my first novel when I was in grad school in New York, and I remember just walking in the street and feeling as though I was in a Woody Allen movie or in Goodfellas it was always Goodfellas in my mind. But Vancouver, back home, was sort of less described, for me. There was more fresh ground, I thought.
LH: I think a lot of people like Nino Ricci write great stories in those settings. For me, if I'm writing about Vancouver or Saskatoon, it's because of a deep-seated hatred for the place, and I have no sort of romantic feelings about it. I've hated almost every place that I've lived, and I hate Vancouver I hate everything about it. So that comes out in the writing, and it's definitely coming out in the novel. I don't really like these cities, and I think western Canada is embarrassing in a lot of ways, and that's something I want to address, even subliminally.
KC: "We write about this world because this is where our scores are settled." That's what I heard somebody say once.
SH: You have scores?
LH: We have scores and scores of scores.
KC: Read my next book. It's all in there.
SH: I don't think you feel an obligation to write about Vancouver in order to make Canada a place that exists in literature, though.
All: Oh, God, no. No, definitely not.
AG: But maybe that wasn't what they were doing either, the other generations.
SH: I have no idea what they were doing. It's hard for us to really say, I think.
LH: They were doing good stuff. I like Alice Munro's stories.
SH: I love Alice Munro.
KC: It's nice to read about Vancouver in The New Yorker and have her write about it.
SH: But don't you feel sheepish when, like, a reference to Toronto comes up, or Vancouver, and you feel sort of proud? That kind of is an embarrassing feeling.
KC: Well, it's like in the rock show I remember in Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet there's a little part where he yells out all the cities, and at the end there's, like, "Vancouvaaaah!" and that was pretty cool. I really liked that.
LH: That Bon Jovi record is dedicated to a strip joint in Vancouver called The Number 5 Orange where Courtney Love used to strip.
AG: Do you guys think you're urban writers? I remember Russell Smith writing about that, how his generation, the ones who are about ten years older than you, were more urban than those who came before them. Or is it more suburban, even?
ES: I'm small-town. Definitely not urban. I've only lived in Toronto for the past five years.
SH: I don't set my stories in any particular place, because a geography reveals itself to me as soon as I begin writing something. I can see where a scene or a story takes place so vividly, and it never is a real place I've been to. When I started writing the novel I'm working on, which is based on two real people, they actually lived in Boston and so I set it in Boston. That I had never been there was even better, because I could imagine it. It doesn't matter if a certain street I see in my mind does not exist, because the reader will be making up their own street anyway.
KC: I don't think of myself as an urban writer, or a suburban writer, or a rural writer. Those are just categories that just . . .
LH: . . . make you sick.
KC: I wouldn't say they make me sick, I just don't feel any particular allegiance to any of those categories.
LH: I probably have a rural mentality, but that doesn't have anything to do with my writing.
AG: What did you think when Russell and that generation got into sort of a feud with the older generation over that very issue?
LH: I feel like I can't wait to be an old writer, and so I wouldn't have any bad feelings towards the old writers that exist today. I think that if somebody is upset because they're not winning awards, then that's just really tacky.
SH: You're not out of touch with things just because you're an old writer. You're probably a little bit more in touch, so I don't have anything against them in a kind of rivalry, young writer-versus-old writer sort of way. If they're good, then they're good.
LH: There's so many different professions that you, by the time you're 65, you're basically out to pasture. You think of people like José Saramago or Philip Roth or so many writers who've written their best work in those older years. God, I hope that that's when I'm writing my best books. I hope that this first one wasn't my best one, or I'll shoot myself!
KC: I'm wrapping up. I'm a slow-burn kind of guy.
LH: Because there's nowhere to go after Baroque-a-Nova.
KC: Right. It's all silence after that. I'm like Beckett.2 / 3 / 4 / 5