After about five minutes on this blog, you’ll figure out I’m Canadian. And then maybe about five minutes after that, you’ll get the sense that I’m in love with Canadian literature. There’s something so special about literature that’s written by people that live in the nation you call home and plots and story lines that take place in cities you’ve visited or live in. Many times you’ll hear people say Canadian literature and your mind will automatically take you back to your high school English class where they made you read books set in the prairies and they made you read books by the notable Canadian figures that we’ve all come to associate with the term CanLit. It use to happen to me too. Okay Mrs. Gannon, I’ll read Mordecai Richler, but only because you’re making me.
Then I left school and I had the opportunity to read anything I wanted to read and something really funny happened… I continued to gravitate towards Canadian Literature. And it wasn’t because I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing (I do) and it wasn’t because I wanted to look patriotic by reading Alice Munro (I do), the books I was picking up were historical fiction that took place in Nova Scotia and stories of the uncertainty of immigrating, set in Toronto. There was such a variety of looking at Canada in the form of different genres that I just couldn’t stop experiencing our country in the form of literature.
When researching and starting to write this post, I looked up the definition of Canadian Literature and Wikipedia stated the obvious definition, which was, ” Canadian literature is literature originating from Canada”. But as you scrolled down through the page, there were lots of layers to its definition, my favourite being the list of traits that are commonly found in Canadian Literature.
- Failure as a theme: Failure and futility feature heavily as themes in many notable works; for instance, Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley or Kamouraska by Anne Hebert.
- Humour: Serious subject matter is often laced with humour. See also: Canadian humour.
- Mild anti-Americanism: There is marked sentiment of anti-American often in the form of gentle satire. While it is sometimes perceived as malicious, it often presents a friendly rivalry between the two nations
- Multiculturalism: Since World War Two, multiculturalism has been an important theme. Writers using this theme include Mordecai Richler(author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), Margaret Laurence (author of The Stone Angel), Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje(author of The English Patient) and Chinese Canadian writer Wayson Choy.
- Nature (and a “human vs. nature” tension): Reference to nature is common in Canada’s literature. Nature is sometimes portrayed like an enemy, and sometimes like a divine force.
- Satire and irony: Satire is probably one of the main elements of Canadian literature.
- Self-deprecation: Another common theme in Canadian literature.
- Self-evaluation by the reader
- Canadian writer Robertson Davies, author of The Deptford Trilogy which included the famous book, Fifth Business.
- Search for Self-Identity: Some Canadian novels revolve around the theme of the search for one’s identity and the need to justify one’s existence. A good example is Robertson Davies‘s Fifth Business, in which the main character Dunstan Ramsay searches for a new identity by leaving his old town of Deptford.
- Southern Ontario Gothic: A subgenre which critiques the stereotypical Protestant mentality of Southern Ontario; many of Canada’s most internationally famous authors write in this style.
- The underdog hero: The most common hero of Canadian literature, an ordinary person who must overcome challenges from a large corporation, a bank, a rich tycoon, a government, a natural disaster, and so on.
- Urban vs. rural: A variant of the underdog theme which involves a conflict between urban culture and rural culture, usually portraying the rural characters as morally superior. Often, as in Stephen Leacock‘s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or Alistair MacLeod‘s No Great Mischief, the simplicity of rural living is lost in the city.
These traits are all accurate and I couldn’t try to define them better if I tried. What Wikipedia won’t be able to convey is that Canadian Literature is celebrated and appreciated in a way that not only makes me proud to be a Canadian, but makes me feel honoured to work for a publisher that publishes such great Canadian talent. Forget searching for definitions of CanLit on google, head over to Facebook and Twitter to see what Canadians are saying about #CanLit.
— Writers’ Trust (@writerstrust) January 29, 2015
— Random House Canada (@RandomHouseCA) January 27, 2015
— Justine Lewkowicz (@JustineLewkowic) January 23, 2015
CanLit fans are loud, proud and always helping to spread the word beyond the confinements of the literature we’re taught in school. They’ll help you stretch your imagination beyond what you might think CanLit is or was. If you haven’t already, I urge you to give it a chance, whether your Canadian or not, the themes, traits and ideas will continuously surprise you. I’d also suggest really challenging yourself to take the Random House of Canada’s Reading Bingo Challenge!
I’d also love it if you took the time to let me know what Canadian Literature means to you in the comments below. Share with me the moment you knew CanLit was so much more the term “books about Canada”.