A cross-country canon: Richler's literary journey documents Canlit's strides.
It was inevitable that This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada would evoke memories of Margaret Atwood's Survival. Noah Richler's observations about the contemporary fabric of literary Canada are an impressive update on how far we have come since Survival's publication in 1972. Richler's quest to find Canada through its literary mythology could be described as epic, a form he talks about a great deal in this book. This important work should be read by everyone who has an interest in our literary heritage and in this country's history.
Other reviews have cited this book as political. In many respects they are right in as much as This Is My Country should certainly be put in the hands of the people who run faceless corporations so that they can gain some understanding of what happens when "the company town" goes global. Several of the writers who are interviewed in the book talk about that topic specifically. Alistair MacLeod's quote is very potent, about how a citizen once could go to the local company to buy an ad for the school yearbook, but now--"they say, 'Well, we have to contact Germany!' and they are never going to give seven dollars for the little school yearbook because the Company is a corporation." It is from the writers living in small communities across Canada who talked to Richler, some of them at length, that we hear more historical detail about this particular aspect of their regions. But I'm running ahead of myself.
This book's three-part structure makes it easy for the reader to grasp how Canada's authors are indeed representatives of this vast and diverse country. The divisions are The Age of Invention, The Age of Mapping and The Age of Argument. In a basically chronological but meandering way, these three parts take us through the history of storytelling to the development of an identity for ourselves and for Canada. As the author himself points out in his introductory chapter, "The power of story is not to be underestimated ... stories reflect the way we see the world back to ourselves." Many of the most exciting aspects of this book are the conversations Noah Richler has with the reader about his own thoughts and musings on who we are and how the country has grown through its literary canon.
Traversing the country from Iqaluit, Nunavut, the Atlantic provinces and Newfoundland, tiny communities in Saskatchewan to what he found to be, through some of his conversations, the edgy and tense West Coast (contrary to the belief that it is all laid back there), Richler stopped to talk with an extensive array of contemporary writers. The conversations are eclectic, some rather sad, some funny, but mostly they give us a current but historical take on Canada and especially on the specific area from which writers tell stories--how they see the world and tell it back to us. But it is not only the writers who are being interviewed in these conversations who have a voice here. Richler adds his own writing skills, which are lyrical, poetic and intelligent. His observations of place and character tend to be perceptive and kind. This is a writer who is fond of people and their quirks and one who cares deeply about our country. He is also unafraid of facing real though sometimes unspoken issues--"The rhetoric and storytelling that President George Bush Jr.'s government has used, as well as the Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservative extremists and now the Canadian government that supports him, is an instance of epic thinking being rallied against epic thinking. Muslim extremists list the novel alongside dance, nudity and movies as a corrupting Western influence--not without reason as the novel has always had repercussive social effects." What I understand him to be saying here is that the novel as polemic can be socially dangerous and certainly political. It has been ever thus--writers from time immemorial have been the observers and recorders of the times and even in this day are being oppressed and imprisoned for expressing their views.
There is an appealing combination of conversation, observation and literary selection in this book, although the conversations might have been shortened to prevent repetition. However, the repetition reflects Richler's respect for his fellow scribes. For example, the talks that take place between aboriginal writers and storytellers give a different spin on storytelling than the exchanges with writers from a basically Eurocentric culture. The creation myths and narratives that follow are poles apart in some ways--the indigenous cultures tell stories and think in circles that defend the rights of the group, whereas the individual takes precedence in the stories of the first settlers. Richler mulls this over on a drive to Saskatoon, wondering whether our national psyche would have been different if the country had been mapped in a loop rather than in a straight line. He returns to the circular concept when he ponders the thought "Without the holistic succour of the circle, in our geography, we do not feel even our history collectively, but rather as stops along a journey that leaves us stranded in one part of the country or another."
The geography and the metaphor of maps play a singular role in the book by virtue of Richler's well-developed and original concept of mapping the country through stories. Writers he spoke to expressed a great range of reaction to the concept. Robert Bringhurst, classicist, poet and translator of the Haida canon, in response to Richler's suggestion that maps were the first stories, said, "No, stories are the first maps."
This notion is further explored during talks with Robert Alexie, an aboriginal writer who lives in Inuvik. In a conversation about the land treaties signed in 1921 Alexie reminds us that since very few of the indigenous people could read and write, many of the promises that were made during these agreements with the English were oral. This had a huge effect on the culture of oral storytelling to the point that now there are several excellent Native writers who are successfully published but who in many ways miss the culture of oral storytelling. Eden Robinson, a Haisla from Kitamaat, is conflicted about being a writer. She points out that being a Native novelist means that the very act of writing is political. The challenge is how to respect the aboriginal circle in the modern era of the book.
Discussion of the circle and mythology continues when Noah meets with Tomson Highway, a Cree writer who divides his time between France and Northern Ontario. Tomson's quest, as he puts it, "is fundamentally a comparative study of the three mythologies that I believe have come closest to informing Canadian society: Christian mythology, Classical mythology, and aboriginal mythology. In order to understand the Trickster fully, you must keep in mind the fundamentals of all these three mythologies, and the first thing that must be remembered is that the Christian mythology is a monotheistic system, the Classical mythology is a polytheistic one, and the aboriginal one a pantheistic system--which means God is in everything." The mythology motif continues in a discussion with Antonine Maillet, the Acadian writer, who states "Myths are universal because they answer the great philosophical questions of humankind. Where are we going? Where we coming from? What are we doing here? Who are we?"
In the chapter titled "Our Myths of Disappointment," Richler takes a look at how our Canadian mythology can be interpreted as that of disappointment and often resentment. He looks to "The American Dream" as a national mythology that even today, when the country is on an obvious downward trend, can be used to blindside the poor. He proposes that Canadians have no such binding story and that we are in need of such a myth. Richler brings to bear his wide reading when he describes how American writers write about America (or USAmerica, to use George Bowering's term). He also believes, and quite rightly, that "Canadians have looked to their poets and novelists for myths that might explain the country because business and government were for so long patrician and intertwined and therefore disqualified from providing them."
We move on from myths of disappointment to the animated and amusing conversations Richler has with the contemporary Newfoundland writers Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore and others. Much is made in this next chapter of the ethics of fiction. This sounds as if it could be a rather deadly discussion, but in the hands of these dynamic young writers it is one of the chapters in the book with the lightest touch. Their true Newfoundland sense of humour comes through in spades. Michael Winter's zany illustrations are certainly an indicator of how he relates to the way Richler sees some of this country, and they do add a wonderful whimsy to the observations contained within its pages.
No literary atlas of Canada would be complete without an examination of the part that Quebec plays in the cultural make-up of Canada. Here the author meets with Victor-Levy Beaulieu (VLB in the Quebec writing community), a staunch separatist and dogmatist. An intense conversation ensues about sovereignty wherein VLB expresses his outrage that some of the other Quebec cultural icons (Michel Tremblay, Robert Lepage and Francis Chalifour among them) have had the audacity to state publicly that they do not believe in the cause any more. But in the talk with VLB we return again to discussion of place, geography and mapping. Beaulieu cites Jacques Ferron as saying "When I write, I draw the geography of my country," meaning that to write about your country you need to know it first, by living it through the experiences of people who know it already.
The conversations with the younger Quebec writers demonstrate quite a different viewpoint. They have a much more outward-looking attitude to the world and to being Quebeckers in it. The focus is still political and touches on the earlier discussions with others about mythology, but these contemporary writers, unlike the old guard, are much more connected with global politics if they have an interest at all. The tone of the Quebec conversations is more intellectual, more laissez-faire and less intense than the exchanges Richler has in other regions. Not that the writers themselves are lacking passion. But in true French fashion, they are just more stylish, or at least so it appears to this francophile reviewer.
Full circle--the author has travelled the length and breadth of this land (not in a loop as he fantasized) from his home in Toronto and back. Here he converses with a very urban and erudite group of writers where the talk turns to issues of colonialism: how it affects the national psyche and how we are growing out of it. Several illuminating conversations take place with some of Canada's immigrant writers who are bringing another set of stories to us, stories that are exotic and unfamiliar. On a walk returning from yet one more meeting with a storyteller, Richler ruminates on how dramatically the city has changed in the 30 years since the days of Toronto the Good and since the nascency of CanLit as we have come to know it. His observations about the changing environment, both social and visual, are imbued with intelligence and an attention to detail that gives the reader a real sense of the history of these changes.
If I had one problem with this book it is that it could have been shorter. Yet how difficult it must have been to leave out some of the delightful conversations and what a tremendous act of discipline it must have been to edit them. The ideas and inventiveness that come across from our writers, including the author himself, make this book an illuminating and thought-provoking commentary and history lesson. Descriptions of place are detailed, observant and often create a sense of longing to go and see for oneself. That is one of the reasons this book is so engaging. One can be an armchair traveller through the eyes and words of Richler and our storytellers, poets and novelists. Whether the stories are real or invented, they all give us a greater sense of our country and ourselves.
So after reading this new literary benchmark, it is time to ask: have we "survived"? Are we still victims at the mercy of "bad Mommy nature"? As Richler himself points out, "Atwood's celebrated text epitomized Canada's Age of Invention. The task of envisioning the country and wishing it into existence, in the 1970s, had not yet been completed." After reading This Is My Country, What's Yours? I firmly believe that we have survived and our contemporary writers have brought us into The Age of Argument. Many of them have also taken their place on the world stage, in itself an indicator of a major shift in our literary abilities. The landscape still plays a major role in many of our current writers' stories, as it did in the works of the writers discussed by Atwood, but there is more pride and realization of just how exotic and romantic this country's nowhere is. Noah Richler has brought us up to date. He documents the fact that we have not only survived--we have thrived.
Alma Lee is a founder and former artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival.
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|Title Annotation:||This Is My Country, What Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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