The CanLit conundrum

Canadian literature celebrates and reflects our country’s diversity, but defining the genre is cumbersome when the only thing that characterizes us is that we’re undefinable

All of these books are classified as Canadian, but Camilla Gibb was not born in Canada and Sweetness in the Belly, The Book of Negroes and Nikolski don’t take place entirely in Canada.
All of these books are classified as Canadian, but Camilla Gibb was not born in Canada and Sweetness in the Belly, The Book of Negroes and Nikolski don’t take place entirely in Canada.

In the 1970s, CBC Radio held a competition for listeners to complete the phrase “As Canadian as…”. The winning result read: “As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.” Ironically, this acknowledgement of a lacking national identity is something, if not the only thing, that defines Canadian-ness.

It’s often debated whether it’s possible to define a Canadian literary identity. Canadian novels, short stories and poetry are often categorized by their content, setting and their respective author’s ethnicity. Whether a given writer was born in Canada and how long a writer has lived in Canada are common factors determining how “Canadian” a literary work is.

But with all these factors and stipulations in effect, why is it still so difficult to categorize Canadian literature?

English professor Sylvia Söderlind said this question assumes many things.

“The word ‘Canadian’ adds some complication,” she said.

In When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing, published in 2002, author Stephen Henighan discusses the difficulty Canadian authors face trying to write from a Canadian viewpoint. He argues that because English Canada adopted its language from the United Kingdom, and its culture from the United States, that it’s unable to establish an English literary language that is distinctly Canadian. French Canada, on the other hand, already has claims to a distinct literary culture. The French-English divide further discourages the possibility of finding a national literary coherency.

Along with regional idiosyncrasies, Canadian culture is also largely shaped by its multiculturalism. Yann Martel, the Spanish-born Canadian author of Life of Pi has said, “Canada is the world’s largest hotel.” If that’s true, how can we expect to achieve a national coherency in our literature? Söderlind said we don’t necessarily have to. “Canadian literature is on the forefront of the dissolution of the idea of national literature. It is a post-modern nation and it is not a cohesive nation-state,” she said.

There were attempts to facilitate a nationalist sentiment in Canadian literature, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Henighan writes the surge in Canadian nationalism at this time was largely due to an increasing anti-American sentiment stemming from the Vietnam War. Furthermore, Canadians were also undergoing a cultural revolution in response to the possibility of Quebec separatism. At this time, Canadian writers tried to establish a set of themes and characteristics that were believed to define CanLit. Most notable of these attempts was Margaret Atwood’s 1972 book entitled Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, where she famously asserted that “the central symbol of Canada is undoubtedly survival.”

But Söderlind said Atwood’s theories, along with other Canadian writers’ attempts to assert a literary identity, no longer carry much weight. During the literary revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, Canada suffered from what she calls “nation envy” and was attempting to achieve a sense of identity it simply didn’t have.

“The distinction between Canadian and American literature is that there is a literary history in America that is very long, and begins before the country existed,” Söderlind said. “You can see coherent strands of canonized themes and preoccupations that are very different to what is seen in Canada.”

Contrary to our neighbours, who have a cultural and literary identity that predates the formation of their country, this peak in Canadian nationalism came at a time when Canada hadn’t clearly defined itself.

“Even though we attempted to be nationalistic, what defines the country turns out to be multiculturalism,” she said.

Söderlind said multiculturalism entered Canadian literature because of its influences on the English language.“

There are different versions of dialects of English spoken now because of multiculturalism, and this has made English more elastic, fun, and diverse in order to reflect a multicultural Canada,” she said.

Söderlind said the Canadian literary identity is synonymous with our cultural one.

“The best thing about Canadian literature is that it can’t be identified as embodying ‘one people, one history,’ but it is defined by the fact that much of it has its roots elsewhere.”

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