When Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize last week for her novel, Luminaries, right on cue, the Canadian literati attempted to claim her for our own.
I`m sorry to burst everyone`s bubble, but Ms. Catton is not, nor likely ever will be, part of the Canadian literary establishment. Yes, she was born in this country, but she moved to New Zealand when she was six years old. Do you know what six-year-olds write? Letters to Santa, not novels.
But the way the cultural media in this country is reporting her win, in those six years Ms Catton’s entire literary imagination was fully formed; her blip in Canada somehow significantly influenced her future as a writer; and we can see ourselves in her novel if we try hard enough.
It’s the same argument we had to endure the previous week when the media described Alice Munro as the first “Canadian living in Canada” to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
At first I was puzzled by this statement. But Facebook came to my rescue: in a posting about Ms. Munro’s win, one of my friends pointed out that Saul Bellow was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Really? Saul Bellow left Canada for the United States when he was 9 years old (that’s Grade 4, for anyone keeping track) and didn’t publish his first novel until twenty years later. He became a naturalized citizen in 1941, and spent his life living in either Europe or in cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and St. Paul, Minnesota. His writings have absolutely nothing to do with this country or its citizens or its culture or its psyche.
But that’s what our literary cultural elites do. It’s why Mavis Gallant, who hasn’t lived in Canada for more than fifty years and published only one discernibly Canadian collection of short stories way back in 1981, is hailed as one of our country’s literary masters. Or why Malcolm Gladwell is feted like a god every time he steps across the border.
Any port in a storm, it seems, when it comes to Canadian literary identity.
You see, in this country it’s not about whether the writer grew up here, or practices her craft here, or that her work is set in Canada or is obviously shaped by the country’s people or its landscapes. It’s about how much fame or success the writer has achieved and whether or not that fame can be appropriated for nation-building by our insecure cultural elites, however tenuous the link might be.
Case in point: almost all of our provincial book awards have fairly strict residency requirements when it comes to author eligibility for their award competitions. Ironically, though, most of our national awards have deemed residency an option; the Governor-General’s Literary Awards go so far as to state explicitly that the writer does “not need to be residing in Canada.” The net result is that many of the writers who live and practice their craft in our communities have fewer chances to be recognized for their contributions to this country’s narrative. It’s a telling statistic that our GGLAs are increasingly being won by ex-pats: almost every year since 2003 at least one ex-pat has won, sometimes two (coincidentally, Ms. Catton is a finalist for this year’s GG for English-language fiction).
Ironically, many scholars in this country have in recent years begun to describe Canada as a “post-national” state, that we have somehow moved beyond the need for such narrow parameters of identity. But I would argue the opposite is true for Canadian literature. There’s a reason some bestseller lists in this country include a separate “Canadian” category and it has nothing to do with cultural nationalism: it’s because we don’t know our own writers well enough to pick them out of a literary line-up.
Nor do we teach them in our schools: fewer than four provinces have mandated Canadian literature as an obligatory course for graduation from high school; in university English departments Canadian literature is ranked third behind British and American, with a correspondingly low number of course offerings in comparison to the other two national literatures.
We have spent far too many years reading and feting authors who practice their craft somewhere else. Alice Munro’s win isn’t simply a moment for Canadians to feel a collective sense of literary pride. It is a wake-up call to readers, educators and publishers that this country is a literary nation worth discovering and promoting within its own borders.
Thomas Hodd teaches Canadian Literature at Université de Moncton.