I am a Canadian writer currently living in… Is that the way to start?
I’ve lived in the UK for seven years now, and I always mention in my query letters that I am a Canadian writer current living in… London or Edinburgh or Cardiff. I suppose part of why I do this is to tell my story better. To declare my Unique Selling Point. That’s how to get those words in print, isn’t it? But being an expat Canadian is hardly unique. There are about 90,000 of us on this small, grey island, though what proportion of that population are writers is hard to guess. Any way you do the math, there must be busloads of us.
I’m a Canadian writer currently living in Cardiff, and not often able to attend CanLit events. So I was delighted when a local publisher posted news of a celebration of Canadian Literature. Just in time for the 150th, I thought. How perfect. But when I arrived at what turned out to be a rather sparsely-peopled book launch, it seemed no one had even heard of Canada Day, let alone the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation And the writer in question? Well, he had been living in Wales since he was four years old.
Which raised the question: what does it mean to be a Canadian writer? From my current vantage point, flogging my manuscript, I wonder how flying the maple leaf in my query letters comes across to British literary agents. Does “currently living in…” mark me as transient? Disconnected? Uncommitted? I could write “originally from” or “Canadian-born”, but my Canadian identity goes deeper than the address of the hospital where my mother pushed me out. To say that birth establishes identity undercuts plenty of bona fide Canadian writers who were not born in Canada. Birth doesn’t make a Canadian writer. So, what does?
Michael Ondaatje, himself a Sri Lankan-born, British-educated, Canadian poet and novelist, faced this question twenty-seven years ago when he edited From Ink Lake, a collection of Canadian short stories published by Vintage Canada. He aimed to produce a book that would introduce Canadian writers to a new audience abroad, while also interpreting the Canadian literary scene for the Canadians. He didn’t seek to create or edit a canon of Canadian writers – rather he chose stories that, as he put it in the collection’s introduction, “mapped the geographical, emotional, and literary range of the country.”
The image of mapping most beautifully evades the question of identity. On any map or chart, there remains the space in between, the blank spaces which contain far more than we could list or delineate.
Maybe a Canadian writer is simply someone who thinks they should be considered a Canadian writer and then sits down and writes. Which sounds easy, but it isn’t. In such a multicultural and cross-pollinating context, it can be hard to know which stories are ours to tell. Recent debates about appropriation and indigeneity push at the boundaries of the imagined territory one can claim. Is it as simple as Justin Trudeau suggests, that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”?
When I finished writing my novel, I wondered where to send it. Should I send it home? (And what does that mean?) Or find a home for it here in the UK? I liked the idea of being present where my work might be published, but I also wondered how audiences out of my context would read it. Was it too Canadian for a UK publisher? Too weird? Or, worse, too clichéd? There were trees in it – and a lake. Likely, these were typical worries of a first-time novelist, especially one suffering from homesickness.
You can only worry so much, and then you need to do something. So, I wrote up my query letter, complete with that worried-over line about being a Canadian writer, bundled it together with my manuscript and sent it out into the world.
Canadian writer feels like the maple leaf I stitched to my backpack: a symbol for how I wanted to be perceived. A hope for kindness.
The CanLit book launched in Cardiff was for Tristan Hughes’ Hummingbird. It’s a compact and haunting coming-of-age story set in Northern Ontario. Lakes feature, as do trees, antler carvings, caribou and petroglyphs. I can see why the publisher pushed the Canadian angle. Hughes’ story is pervaded by Margaret Atwood’s strong image of survival, creating a sense of place that is both lonely and threatening. Yet Hughes weaves a tale not of victimhood but of metamorphosis. One thing turns into another. Hidden parallels emerge from the shadows. Unspoken similes surface.
This is my Canada.
Growing up in Ontario, the cereal boxes were bilingual and balanced with precise parallel columns in French and English. Even the cartoon mascots were bilingual – their hats labelled Snap-Cric, Crackle-Crac and Pop-Croc. The hyphens were unwieldy, inelegant, and crucial. When we’d visit far-flung cousins in unilingual places, the elves only had one name which made me feel nervous. I leaned in close, as my mother poured the milk, to see if they sounded different, too. Would they snap, crackle, and pop in a different accent? My older sisters scoffed and I sulked. Then my dad wrote in the bilingual names and I felt better.
Later, I learned that these elves wore different names in different countries. In Finland, they were Riks, Raks and Poks. In Germany, Knisper, Knasper and Knusper. If I’d known this as a child, I would have wondered about my own name. Was it the same everywhere? Or were there more versions I could try on?
Doublings made me feel at home. There was always another way to put things.
Living in Wales, I’ve returned to a bilingual context. My children are learning Welsh in school and they come home singing strange, new songs. All around the city, street signs and notices come doubled. As do the Fs. And the Ds and the Ls. During my Ontario childhood, I was taught how to decipher both columns, but here in Wales, I need to ask for help. I noticed this recently in the local hospital. My three-year-old had split his lip open climbing the stairs at the library. Tears and loud bellowing, then plenty of blood and swelling and a chipped tooth to boot. Charming. At the hospital, I perched on a plastic chair in the waiting room, holding him tightly. Any wait is long at a hospital, and we rocked him back and forth, ignoring the gore and hoping there would soon be help. And then I noticed the sign for coffee. Or, at least, that’s what was pictured. A steaming mug of coffee in the very best, most inviting clipart style possible. Exactly what I needed. The Welsh read Peidiwch yfed diodydd poeth. Which my daughter informed me meant please do not consume hot beverages. Oh. Well, great, I thought. She’s getting fluent.
She was four years old when we moved to the UK – the same age that Tristan Hughes was when he left Canada. She is eleven now and a voracious reader and writer. Last spring, she won her primary school’s Eisteddfod, a traditional poetry writing competition that sees the winner enthroned and celebrated. I think she might be on her way.
And, like Canadian writers before her, she, too, is developing a sense that no one language is complete. One language underpins another. One story sits alongside another. Sometimes this works out amicably, sometimes not. Columns are set in parallel, and there are gaps and blank spaces in between. Perhaps the gaps remind us that ours is not the only way of seeing. We need to work things through.
As we spend more time listening to each others’ stories, we learn how stories should be told. When I did my English degree at the turn of the century, there was a palpable effort in the department to reconsider the Canadian canon, pushing past the habitual English-French divide to include the work of new Canadians and Indigenous writers. Now, the website of that English department includes the declaration that the university is situated on traditional Anishnaabe and Haudenasaunee Territory.
In the English department at Cardiff University, Tristan Hughes’ reading led to talk about the processes of crafting and recrafting narrative. Asked about what draws him into a story, Hughes discussed landscape, character and the way a symbol can insinuate itself into your mind. Then he stopped, starting again from a different angle. All these were important, he said, but they didn’t answer the question of where the power lies in a story and why the writer needs to write. This was simpler.
“No story,” he said “is ever finished. You can always tell it again.”
For me, this makes for Canadian writing. There are many ways to say this.
Cover photo by Flickr user Mario Sánchez Prada