This is the second of two parts; if you missed the first column, read it here, at https://bibliolennlibrary.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/but-we-are-not-poor-writes-a-confused-young-ivy-when-the-rent-collector-came-on-fridays-we-could-nearly-always-pay/
“I knew it from the first time he opened his mouth,” said the doctor. “His English wasn’t right. It turned out his first language was some Sicilian dialect from Montreal North. Nobody in Italy could make it out, so he stayed with English. But it sounded funny.”
“Not to me,” said Mr. Fenton. “It was straight, plain Canadian.”
– From the Mavis Gallant short story, ‘The Fenton Child’
What, after all, makes a Canadian? Last week’s Good Reads column presented a collection of books, some about immigrants, some written by Canadian immigrant authors. You’d be hard-pressed to be able to come up with a definition of what makes a Canadian based on their work, however. Yet Canada, it is often said, is a nation of immigrants. Is that itself a definition of a Canadian?
Of course, there are also Canadian-born writers who leave this country. Eleanor Catton was born here but spent only a few years in Canada, growing up in New Zealand, where she still lives and writes. Her book The Luminaries (2013, filed in both English and French Adult Fiction) won a prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Canadian media went nuts over her incidental Canadian connection.
Can an accident of birth mean anything?
Apparently, it can. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand (and is – fair warning! – more than 800 pages long). But being born here made Catton’s The Luminaries eligible for the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award, which she received in 2013.
Not one to turn down an award, nor to be rude about it, Catton was quoted in a New Zealand newspaper saying, “I am excited that national literatures around the world are becoming more porous and more accepting of difference and on a personal level, it’s very nice to have more than one home.”
Or consider that Canadian icon, Mavis Gallant. She died just over a year ago, but had lived in Paris since 1950. She never applied for French citizenship, although we Canucks would likely not have cared: We decided that she was Canadian, as much as she had decided so: “She could no more stop being Canadian than she could change the colour of her eyes,” notes one of her book jackets – although the blurb was certainly written that way to boost sales here in Canada.
Gallant was a short story writer sans pareil. See, for example, Across The Bridge (1993, filed in Adult Fiction), which collects 11 stories, set in Montreal, Florida, Paris, and elsewhere. It is filled with sharp and thoughtful observation. Of a family considering a suitor for a daughter: “When he reached for another chocolate, they looked to see if his nails were clean. When he crossed his legs, they examined his socks.”
Gallant considers various fault lines – between languages, between religions, class, generations, nationalities. And of course, between people.
For novelist Nancy Huston, the Fault Lines are so important the phrase became the title of a 2007 book (filed in Adult Fiction).
Huston was born in Calgary, but has lived in Paris since the early 1970s. She even writes in French, then translates her books into English. Huston is in Montreal this week accepting a local award, the International Literary Grand Prix at the annual Blue Metropolis literary fest. And Huston too, maintains ties with Canada, having recently sold her papers to the National Archives in Ottawa.
As she told the Montreal Gazette: “One, being accepted in France is far easier for a cute young white female foreigner with a scholarship than for a swarthy middle-aged male one in need of a job. Two, as a writer I certainly feel warmer and more enthusiastic acceptance from France than from English Canada. Three, after 42 years in France, most of my friends are still foreigners and I like it that way. Being a foreigner is my strongest and most fully-accepted identity.”
Fault Lines is split into four narratives, each from the point of view of a six-year-old, each set in a different country, each from a different generation of one family, and moving in time from little Sol, speaking in 2004, backwards to the Second World War.
This is a disturbing book, filled with humour and horror. Be prepared for genuine horror.
“My poop is perfect,” announces Sol: “Missile-shaped.” But later, we understand that Sol is a budding psychopath: “For the time being, I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King.”
Huston and Gallant, by the by, have also both won Governor General’s awards for literature.
There is a large community of Canadian authors who live outside the country, both full time and part time (you can find some of them at the website CanadianWritersAbroad.com). Morley Callaghan, John Glassco, Sara Jenette Duncan, Debra Martens and Jeremy Mercer live or lived abroad. So do, or did, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Jane Urquhart, and Jane Christmas (all in Adult Fiction or in non-fiction at 928.21).
And so, last week in this space, immigrants to Canada. This week, Canadians who have become immigrants in different lands.
An immigrant’s new country often demands fealty, some sort of proof of loyalty. Yet we expect those writers who have left us to nonetheless hold on to some part of their Canadian-ness, to stubbornly cling to something of their birth-land.
Can we say that we expect, and want, the same of those writers who immigrate to Canada?
– Eleanor Brown, April 24, 2015