As Canadians, we’re proud of our national literature. Coast to coast to coast, writers are cherished and celebrated. We give countless awards to ourselves, and toast the finest in English- and French-language fiction endlessly. But what are we missing, as a result? Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival, currently in full swing, brings more than 100 writers from around the world, giving us a glimpse of what we might have overlooked.
Authors from places as diverse as Tunisia, Italy, Taiwan and Angola have descended on Montreal in the last week to do readings, teach workshops, speak on panels and – in the case of a lucky few – win prizes, the largest of which, the International Literary Grand Prix, will go, this year, to Richard Ford.
For all our pride, CanLit still has its own uphill battle on the world stage, competing against the mighty tides of titles from America and England and everywhere else.
To find out how we’re faring abroad (and highlight some of Blue Met’s excellent programming), we asked three guests of the festival what they think about when they think about Canadian literature.
Luis Alberto Urrea, Mexican-American author of The Devil’s Highway
Canadian lit! I have to say, my first response is: I must tip my hat to the women. Good Lord. If all you Great Northerners had to offer the world was Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, I would kneel forever in the temple and give praise. Perhaps, though, it wouldn’t seem too flippant to admit that my earliest exposure to Canadian literature was in the grooves of Leonard Cohen’s records. Each one was, for me, a novel and a book of psalms. I was certainly sitting around in a dim bedroom in my underwear singing along to songs I had no hope of fully comprehending. And that music dragged me to the bookstores where I found his poems. And then The Beautiful Losers. This was my first Canadian novel. It caused me to grow up quickly.
My favourite Canadian novel, and one that had a deep impact on me as a writer, and which haunted the back pages of The Hummingbird’s Daughter/Queen of America like a troubling wraith, was Greg Hollingshead’s The Healer. I had ridden my Cohen inspirations into a small literary career of my own. And as these jobs sometimes do, it had surprised me with my first visit to Paris.
I was trolling the Left Bank, looking for some English to read, and stumbled upon this dark wonder of a book.
A thriller? A spiritual handbook? A nature reverie? A horror story? All of these.
Carolina De Robertis, Uruguayan-American author of Perla and The Invisible Mountain
The term “Canadian literature” fills me immediately with a sense of welcome, as if into a vast house full of warm, intricate rooms. There are entire hallways of luminous rooms created by giants – Munro rooms, Atwood rooms, Ondaatje rooms, enough inspiration for a lifetime. There's a room of Ruth Ozeki's where I recently experienced the brilliant wonder of her novel A Tale for the Time Being, which connects Tokyo and Zen monasteries to Proust and World War II kamikaze pilots and the complexities of climate change, all in the gentle haven of a rural Canadian island. Because while these rooms are Canadian, they are also, paradoxically, global: in their particularity, they reflect the universe; and, in their potent beauty, they carry gifts for the entire reading world.
Kevin Barry, Irish author of City of Bohane and Dark Lies the Island
When I think of Canada, I think of vast spaces and short stories. And it’s impossible, at this time, not to think of Alistair MacLeod. I first read his stories about 20 years ago and there are scenes from them that remain whole and perfectly clear in my mind ever since.
His prose has a kind of hard diamond gleam on the page, I think. It’s so careful and so graceful and it allows him into very tricky emotional territories. I got to say hello to him briefly at the Frank O’Connor short story festival in Cork city, in Ireland, last September, and everybody there just adored him – you could feel the sweetness of his nature from about 50 yards off.
When I think about Canada, I also think about Saul Bellow, son of Lachine, son of Quebec, and I think you lot are still a little too shy about claiming him as one of your own. No writer was more important to me in my 20s – the nuclear fission of his glorious sentences was such an excitement – and if ever I feel tired or weary in my own writing, I just reach for the nearest Bellow on the shelf and I’m refreshed.
Naturally, I’ve got to mention Margaret Atwood, too – her mad variety is wonderful, and I especially love her forays into the dark woods of speculative fiction.
Late last year, I read with Douglas Glover at an event in Toronto, and I was thrilled by his stuff. His story collection, Savage Love, contains so many registers and techniques and moods. He seems to me a writer who can pretty much do everything.
I’ve also got to mention Craig Davidson’s Cataract City – a mean and funny and tender and gnarly and really splendid novel that’s thumping with energy all the way through.
Having spent the last eight months in Montreal, I've been exposed to a great deal of Canadian writing that's new to me and I like it - it seems to me as various and wild and weird as the nation itself.