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Russell Smith

Why do we struggle with what makes Canadian literature? Add to ...

Who is Canadian? You’d think it would be a simple enough answer. You have a birth certificate or a passport or a certificate of citizenship. Voila. End of discussion.

Apparently not in literature, where tortured discussions of the definition of Canadianness have been going on since the idea was first floated that we might actually have a national literature. Academics have been scrambling to find some kind of official criterion for inclusion in this canon since at least the 1950s – Is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes? – and they have always been curiously hidebound about it, always trying to find ways to restrict membership in this club rather than to open it up.

The hoary arguments have just popped up again due to two recent events. First, the Nobel Prize went to a Canadian, raising the question of whether Alice Munro was the first Canadian to win this prize, given that Saul Bellow was born in Canada. Then the Governor-General’s Award for English-language fiction went to Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander who lives in New Zealand and speaks with a New Zealand accent, for a book about the history of New Zealand.

The latter event prompted a bizarre screed in the Toronto Star by Thomas Hodd, an academic who claimed that awarding the prize to Catton was a “scandal” because she does not reside in the country (she was born here, and moved away as a child). Hodd had published a previous, more moderate article in The Globe and Mail on the same subject. Hodd argues that the inclusion of a non-resident in this nationalistic competition is somehow connected to a “dearth of Canadian literature taught in our schools.” What the connection might be, he does not attempt to explain.

But emotion has always been the primary driver of any attempt to define Canadianness. Even when Pierre Berton half-jokingly said, in 1973, that a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe, the idea was out of date – the cities were already filling with Indo-Canadians and Chinese Canadians and Jamaican Canadians and nightclub owners and proto punk rockers who had never and would never see the inside of a canoe.

Hodd’s article brought out a lot of discussion on social media. In response to this, Canadian writer Ken McGoogan (author of works of Canadian history such as Fatal Passage) republished on his blog an astounding article from a few years ago. This piece, which first appeared in The Globe and Mail in 2009, argues that we should decide which book is Canadian not based on the citizenship of its author but on its themes and subject matter, and on what he calls “attitude and sensibility.” Thus a book about Canada by an American – such as Richard Ford’s novel Canada – would be called Canadian; and a book by a Canadian about India – such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance – would not. “To call A Fine Balance a Canadian work,” writes McGoogan, “is like laying claim to Under the Volcano. It’s wishful thinking.”

This is an alarming exclusion, and not just because Mistry has won every major Canadian award. It poses the obviously slippery question of who gets to define, in a nation of immigrants, what a Canadian “sensibility” is. As far as sensibilities go, Canadianness is uniquely international.

I myself made a catty jab about Catton’s non-Canadianness in a previous column, which I regret, because I since learned that Catton does indeed have a Canadian passport. This can, of course, be the only useful definition, for literary-award purposes, of Canadianness. The eligibility requirements for the Governor-General’s Award for fiction are admirably simple and clear: You must be a citizen or a permanent resident of Canada. Where you currently reside is irrelevant. Catton is just as eligible as McGoogan or Hodd.

Bellow, by the way, would not have been. In 1941, when he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, the United States was generally opposed to the idea of dual citizenship (this was to change through a number of 20th-century legal challenges). He would have had to relinquish any foreign citizenship at that point. So he would not have been eligible for the Governor-General’s Award. As a corollary of this fact, we must also recognize that Munro is definitely the first Canadian Nobel literature laureate.

Publishers don’t actually have to provide proof of citizenship in the case of a foreign resident’s submission to the Governor-General’s Award; they just have to tick a box. It’s an honour system. If the Canada Council has any suspicions, they can demand documentation. My humble suggestion for avoiding this dreary debate – in which a troublingly white-bread nationalism always seems to raise its head – is that the publishers of foreign residents be required to submit, along with their chosen books, a piece of paper proving citizenship. Those Canadian-born foreign residents who don’t yet have one will have to jump through a harmless bureaucratic hoop and apply for one; it’s the least they can do to prove they feel some affinity to the place. The strict legalistic definition is actually more progressive and inclusive than any vague thematic one.

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