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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Rewriting our sense of self

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

AG: Do you feel any obligation to get involved in writers' politics? I was thinking of PEN and the Writers Trust and all that. Because a lot of writers in Canada have been very active politically.

SH: I don't get involved in writers' organizations.

AG: Would you?

LH: How do you get involved in them?

SH: I don't know. I think you have to pay dues, yearly dues.

LH: I'd like to help pick the Nobel Prize winner.

KC: That'd be great. You'd have to be Swedish.

LH: Give them a call, maybe.

KC: I volunteered for PEN America, and I just abused their postal meter. I sent a lot of stuff out on their meter. I used their photocopiers. It's really great.

SH: That's repulsive, Kevin. PEN!

LH: Politics is a dastardly game. I don't want anything to do with it.

SH: "Politics is a dastardly game!" That should be the name of your next book.

KC: You sure picked the wrong profession for that, then! Writing's all about the politics.

AG: Do you guys write at all self-consciously — we're talking about identity politics, now — as women, or Kevin as a Chinese-Canadian, or Lee as a straight white guy?

ES: I would say that writing is self-conscious to begin with. I don't know that it has anything to do with gender, or...

SH: Yeah, absolutely not. I don't think, "I'm a woman" when I'm writing.

ES: No, half the time I'm thinking, "I'm a guy! I'm a guy! I have to get his male character right!"

KC: I definitely don't think it should be the main concern. I know for some writers it is.

LH: Well, this maybe draws us back to that whole conversation about generational differences. There was definitely something going on in the seventies and such where feminism became an incredibly important thing for a certain kind of writer to speak about. And that's kind of cool, but it dates the work, that's clear enough, that you read some of even Atwood's early stuff and it feels like Seventies books. It feels like Seventies writing.

SH: You're not very easily going to create a fictional character or a fictional world if you're holding on so tightly to yourself and your own identity.

AG: Yes, but perhaps because the world is a little more diverse, or Canada is so much more diverse, that maybe you see more of that tension in the country reflected in your writing?

KC: I think there's ideology in a lot of novels. Like Dostoevsky, he writes about positivism, and with Turgenev there's nihilism, and with Tolstoy there's the whole idea of being Christian. And somehow I think they've survived because those ideologies have just been set in a human sort of story. Some writers like to deal with the big issues of their day. At the same time, the human condition will always be the biggest issue, and sometimes the ideology works because it's subservient to writing about consciousness and how we think and how we live, and how the world feels and smells.

SH: But being a Chinese-Canadian is not an ideology, or being a woman is not an ideology. I think that's the difference. We all have our ideas about the world — of course that's going to get into our fiction — but being a woman is not an idea about the world.

KC: Feminism is an ideology, and there's some ideas behind it, and I would say there's the whole idea about critiquing media, the media reality, I think is a big theme that a lot of writers are dealing with — or the whole story of the blurred distinction between private consciousness and public consciousness. And dealing with ethnic identity is an ideology, starting with writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, because some people believe that you're not allowed to assert your ethnic identity because it's too "otherly." You can make it an ideology, I'm saying.

SH: But it's not a given that just because you're a Chinese-Canadian you're going to have a certain beef, or because Emily and I are women that we're going to want to advance the feminist cause in our writing.

LH: It's not part and parcel, yeah. I agree, but I think the thing that maybe that Sheila is talking about is this feeling that at your very essence you're human before anything.

ES: Here's something I've always wanted to know, is what does the human condition mean? We're human, we're here, we feel — what is it?

SH: That's what it is, we're human, we're here, we feel.

ES: So that's what all writing comes down to.

SH: I think so.

ES: Here we are.

SH: Yeah, and this is how we feel.

ES: It's like we're writing in a bathroom stall. "Hi, Emily Schultz was here."

SH: In some ways. The whole identity issue, to me, it's a way of talking about the writer, which is much easier than talking about the book. I mean, it's difficult to talk about literature, it's difficult to talk about painting, it's difficult to talk about art. It's much easier to talk about, "Kevin Chong is a Chinese-Canadian, he's in his 20s, isn't he sexy," or whatever. But that doesn't tell us anything about what he's writing.

ES: As far as politics go, I mean, I think that you can look for them in any work and see what you want to see. Because, I mean, the characters are there for you to interpret them, so I mean you can say this is a strong female character, the novel is driven by this underlying working-lass issue, but you can do that with any book, you can take any number of political issues and then try to find them.

LH: It seems like a great ideal battle is to drive a wedge between the critic and the artist in putting out a book. Like, I really have absolutely no interest in supporting any kind of ideology for more than, like, a sentence, and if there's a sense of anarchism in the book — I don't like these platforms and I find them very inhuman, and it's not necessarily fair to talk about them.

AG: I want to know about the question of regionalism, because here we have two in Toronto and two in Vancouver. Are there not a lot of young writers in smaller towns across the country that are as prominent as you guys? Do you have to be in a big centre to get known?

SH: Well, Emily did this anthology of writing from small towns.

ES: Yeah, I did, but most of the writing in it wasn't young. It was kind of wide-ranging. I came to Toronto to work in book publishing and through that experience I was able to develop my writing into something less self-indulgent, or I like to think so. Writing in Toronto has been easier because I have access to book launches and independent bookstores — I can buy pretty much any literary magazine just by walking out of my door. But moving to Toronto carried a high price, and that's the rent. I think if I'd had the Internet resources available today when I was a student, and if I had been very disciplined, I might have made an earlier entrance. I might not have felt like I had to be in a major city to publish. When I edited Outskirts: Women Writing from Small Places, most of the writers had developed thriving communities for themselves. I hope that if I choose to leave Toronto, Toronto won't forget me.

KC: Toronto is where all the free cheese and crackers can be found and the University of British Columbia is the only Master of Fine Arts program in Canada. But I think there are any number of young Canadian writers in the Maritimes, Quebec, the Prairies. It's hard to find authors under 30. Most are just over or under that age when their first book comes out and you're liable to be catching them at the moving-and-shaking point of their lives.

LH: I was born in Saskatoon and it fucking sucks. The weather is awful, it's boring, it's isolated, it's peppered by rednecks, everyone is depressed and broke. I lived in Calgary and it fucking sucks. It's crammed full of rednecks, everyone is an asshole and rich off oil and cows, and it's spoiled rotten by an illiterate, alcoholic premier. Can I expect better from anywhere else? No. Canada is an awful country. The two things I love about it most, health care and education, are being sold out and cut back. The third thing I love about it, that little oasis of culture in Alberta, Banff, is becoming ever more a beaver-and-moose theme park like a Disney vacation package in the mountains. How sad is that?

SH: Only in Canada would a newspaper feel obliged to ask, "Why are most of the prominent writers living in the major cultural centres?"

ES: At the same time I went out to Halifax and they had a fantastic writing community. Everyone out there was so friendly, they seemed so supportive of one another. Of course, Halifax isn't exactly tiny, but it's not Toronto or Vancouver.

LH: I'm also melting a little in my hate-on for Canada. I look around me here in Vancouver and see such a seriously amazing culture of artists. I mean, I live in the same city as artists Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas, as the band Destroyer and singer Veda Hille, the renowned architects the Patkaus and furniture designer Niels Bendtsen. The circle of writers is also incredible. I just went for lunch with Michael Turner! I almost moved in to Lynn Coady's old apartment! I play shuffleboard with Kevin Chong and Steven Galloway! This is the life, I tell you.

4 / 5 ROBTv Workopolis