Archive

Posts Tagged ‘J.B. MacKinnon’

The new world of Canadian writing

March 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Not so long ago, Canadians who were feeling inundated by American culture were constantly being reminded of the importance of “telling our own stories.”

The message became a key tool in the kit of Canadian film and literary organizations. The media picked up on it, and the theme has since been showing up in newspaper columns and broadcast talks.

Typical was the campaign of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an outfit that is strong for the CBC and other public broadcasting. It launched an Internet campaign  more than ten years ago – TellCanadianStories.ca – to push the idea that Canadian stories were being neglected on our airwaves.

The message evolved as Canadian film and literature matured, but never really went away. A London Free Press columnist, Greg van Morsel, recently summed it up this way:

“It took tireless authors who knew they had the write stuff, from the late Robertson Davies to the legendary Margaret Atwood. It took trailblazing Canadian publishers, like the late Jack McCLelland, willing to take chances on homegrown talent. Academics, too, had to be willing to teach CanLit and governments willing to invest in telling our own stories.”

A half century ago, the number of successful Canadian novelists could be counted on one hand, such as Morley Callaghan and Mazo de la Roche. Both won international reputations. La Roche, in fact, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 novel of the year award for Jalna in 1928 — a huge sum for the time. A bit of a 1920s Downton Abbey, it tells the story of a Canadian family, the Whiteoaks, in plot and narrative that had universal appeal.

51SoJzJLuQL._AA160_After WWII, Canadians began to learn the real history of the country in books by writers such as Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

Since their time, television spawned a People’s History and today, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle  and Saving Hope are regular fixtures on major networks and abroad. In France, I was told that “Inspect-air Murdoch” is a favourite even if he “never knows what to say to Julia.”

Today, despite cutbacks at the CBC and an uncertain book publishing industry trying to adjust to the switch from print to online reading, we’ve never been stronger at telling our own stories.

What’s changed is that Canadian writers are no longer constrained to write about only Canadian things. We’re free to cast our interests around the world.

A crop of immigrant novelists has blended experiences of their native countries with Canadian life, ranging from Yann Martel to Rawi Hage. We’re seeing the same trend in non-fiction.  Three of the five short-listed titles in this year’s RBC Taylor Prize built on content from outside Canada.

Thomas King won the Taylor Prize and the B..C.  Non-Fiction prize for his widely-acclaimed The Inconvenient Indian, which casts a North American context for his look at what has happened to the aboriginal population of this continent since the arrival of Europeans.

Graeme Smith won a major prize for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a searing examination of what’s gone right and wrong in Afghanistan. Margaret Macmillan, in The War That Ended Peace, has produced yet another page-turning account of the First World War, its causes and its outcomes. J.B. MacKinnon gives us a global picture of the stresses facing our environment in The Once and Future World.

Modris Ecksteins added further lustre to his reputation with Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. John Valiant used a Siberian setting for his suspenseful examination of man vs. nature in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

In recent new fiction , J.L. Witterick has written a compelling (and controversial) novel on the Holocaust, My Mother’s Secret, about a Catholic Polish woman who saved Jews from the concentration camps.

The appearance of more Canadian books on global subjects – reflecting the willingness of Canadian publishers to go to subjects beyond our borders – is one of the brighter signs of Canada’s newly found maturity. We’ve told our own stories to ourselves. Now we’re telling the world’s stories to both ourselves and the world.

Advertisements