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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.

My best books of 2008

December 31, 2008 2 comments

As this is my first end-of-year posting, I thought I would discuss the books I’ve read in 2008 and pass on a few gleanings from what I’ve learned.

I’m always amused when I see politicians being asked what books they’ve been reading. Most of them stumble around before naming whatever might be the most popular current title. It makes me think they’ve just bluffing and have actually read nothing.

My book choices fall into three categories: The first is old works that I’m either re-reading or, because I missed them when they first came out, books that I’ve finally decided to get to. One in this category was Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown, about a pennliless young man trying to make his way through Depression-era Toronto.

Cabbagetown contains a lot of social commentary that is as relevant today as when it was written (the 50s) or the period in which it was set (the 30s). As we may be heading into a similarly distressing era, I recommend this book to everyone out there who has not lived through hard times.

My second category is books I read for research on whatever writing project I’m working on. Of this kind, I’ve read too many to mention them all. A couple:

Secret River, and Searching for the Secret River, a tantalizing pair by the Australian writer, Kate Grenville.  Secret River is a novel about a convict who is transported to Australia and carves out a life for himself in a wild river valley. It  was inspired by the life of her great grandfather. The sequel, Searching, is a factual account of her research and the challenges she encountered along the way.

For anyone writing a historical novel that draws on family memoirs, as I am, Searching contains some fabulous lessons. It’s always reassuring to find that other writers have faced the same problems you have. One of the main things I got out of Searching is that just because it happened, you don’t have to put it in! Grenville’s research also led her to give a fictional name to her protagonist. This freed her to create more dramatic scenes than would have been possible if she had kept strictly to her ancestor’s life.

One of the last titles I read as I was finishing work on my book on Scott Joplin and Ragtime was Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution, by Eve Golden. The story of these two WWI era dancers intrigued me because my book focuses on the cultural and social changes that grew out of the Ragtime music of the period. McFarland Publishing (North Carolina) will bring it out in the Spring under the title, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime.

My third category is all the new books I read,  either for information or pleasure. These include Annie Proulx’ new short story collection, Fine Just the Way It Is, and A.B. McKillop’s biography of Canadian author Pierre Berton. This one encouraged me to pick up several of Berton’s works that I’d not yet read, such as Worth Repeating.

 annie-oroulx

I drew particular satisfaction from the Exile Edition release of Morley Callagan: A Literary Life. It’s made up of several score essays, commentaries and short articles that Callaghan turned out through his long and productive life. These pieces are so conversational and companionable that it seems you’re sitting with Callgahan at one of his favorite bistros and sharing an intimate conversation, mostly about great writers and writing.

The fact I was privileged to know Morley — as I do his two sons — made the read all the more enjoyable.

In 2009, I will keep a list of all the books I read. I probably average of one or two a week. First on my list (I’ll start it tonight as we sit around the fireplace awaiting Midnight)  is Joseph Boydon’s Through Black Spruce, which won Canada’s Giller Prize. I immensely enjoyed Boydon’s Three Day Road, the story of a WWI Canadian Indian’s misfortunes in and out of the fighting. I hope it keeps me as wild about reading as I am about writing.

Finally, let me put in a plug for your Public Library. I buy a lot of books, but I’m also a  big user of the Toronto Public Library. I have a country place near Orillia, Ontario, and I’m delighted to see the town council has approved the spending of $20 million on a new library. Use and support your local library!

Remembering Pierre Berton

November 14, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m at the Bright Pearl Restaurant on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, helping celebrate the memory of Pierre Berton at the sixth annual fund-raiser for the Berton Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City, Yukon.

This is a  fine event for anyone with an appreciation of Pierre Berton’s iconic role as Canada’s great popular historian. More than that, it’s an opportunity to signal the importance of keeoing alive an  appreciation for Canada’s past and the people who have contributed to making our country what it is today.

Last night’s dinner did just this, with the presentation of the Pierre Berton Award for contributions to the popularizing of Canadian history. It’s a prestigious award presented by the National History Society, publishers of The Beaver magazine (for which I’ve written a few articles).

This year’s prize went to the organizers of an online project for students, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. It has web sites posing clues and questions about mysteries of the Canadian past, challenging students to figure out who or what was involved.

Elsa Franklin, longtime manager for Pierre Berton, organizes these dinners under the aegis of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The Bright Pearl was one of Pierre’s favorite restaurants and there were lots of literary celebrities among the 250 guests. I suspect the evening may have set a fund-raising record for the Berton Writers’ Retreat. The Retreat is Berton’s boyhood home, which he donated to a public trust.

For me, the highlight of the evening is the video of Pierre reciting the great Robert Service poem, the Shooting of Dan McGrew.

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.

But there was more last night. A.B. McKillop, chair of the Department of History at Carleton University, was there to autograph copies of his new Berton biography.

pierre-bereton1

McKillop’s book is the first definitive take on the life of the man who was a dominant figure in Canadian media and writing for half a century. I knew Pierre only casually, but I think I’ve read every one of his books and I’m looking forward to seeing how McKillop treats Berton in this one.

Last night was also a fun evening. We were treated to performances by two of the brightest stars of the Canadian entertainment firmament of the 70s and 80s, Dinah Christie and Catherine McKinnon.  Ron James gave one of the funniest (and longest) comedic monologues I’ve ever heard. He was incredibly amusing.

And we left with a Krups Espresso machine and a 750ml bottle of Remy Martin Champagne Cognac. A good evening!