I admit to only being an occasional listener of the Canadaland podcast. But a blast of Twitter outrage sparked by something on the program this week caught my attention. The uproar was over something host Jesse Brown had said about Vancouver. Something like there had never been an inspiring novel written about the city.
What? Outrageous, indeed!
Long before I ever stepped foot in Vancouver, where I’ve now lived for 15 years, I was intrigued by it – thanks, in part, to novels: in particular Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, which remains an all-time favourite. On Twitter, I pointed to Choy’s 1995 masterpiece in the finger-wagging thread.
Then I listened to the actual podcast. The comments were worse than advertised.
Brown was talking to Marc Maron, the funny, smart U.S. comedian and actor who hosts WTF With Marc Maron – a podcast I do listen to regularly. Maron wants to move to Canada. He has applied for permanent residency, he told Brown. And he’s thinking about making Vancouver home.
Brown had concerns. “If you are a person who values extreme sports and the rugged wilderness; if you’re really into nutrition and wellness, spirituality, real estate speculation, I think Vancouver’s going to be great,” Brown, a Torontonian, told Maron. “If you value culture; if you like having conversations with artists and creators and authors and comedians; if you like talking to sharp, funny people who might be damaged but they’re very interesting, you may be going to the worst city in the world for that.”
“Nobody has ever, like, been inspired by Vancouver to, like, write a good novel,” Brown continued. “No one has ever written a kick-ass rock song about Vancouver. It’s a vacuum.”
As a former Torontonian and The Globe’s arts reporter in Vancouver for 15 years, and as a damaged person (who can occasionally be funny or even sharp), I say hogwash.
The old trope of Vancouver being all mountains, oceans and Gore-Tex and no culture is tired and pure fiction. This is a city with an impressive and exciting cultural output – novels, rock songs and beyond.
Off the top of my head:
Betroffenheit, the spectacular dance/theatre piece co-created by choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre artist Jonathon Young, won London’s Olivier Award for best new dance production in 2017.
Onegin, a crazily creative Pushkin-inspired musical co-created by Vancouver’s Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, was such a smash hit in Canada it secured a tour to Russia, back when that could happen.
Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, a pioneering contemporary Indigenous visual art exhibition, was conceived at an artist-run centre in Vancouver, expanded into a seminal show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, then travelled across Canada.
A slew of artists who have represented Canada at the Venice Biennale live or have lived here, including Stan Douglas, Rebecca Belmore, Steven Shearer and Geoffrey Farmer.
The New Pornographers formed here. Snotty Nose Rez Kids are based here. The brains and voice behind Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan, lives here. Jeff Wall, the internationally renowned photoconceptualist, lives here. Also in the Lower Mainland: Michael Bublé, Douglas Coupland, Robert Davidson, the great mezzo-soprano Judith Forst. Grimes is from here. William Gibson moved here and never left.
You want funny? Seth Rogen is from Vancouver (this was acknowledged on the podcast, along with Ryan Reynolds’s Vancouver roots). As is Nathan Fielder.
That’s one hell of a dinner party you’ve got there. The only vacuum in sight is the Dyson we’ll need to suck up the culinary detritus of a raucous evening spent in stimulating conversation.
In fact, the number one topic of conversation in my circles this week has been about culture: the cancellation of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival – cancelled not for lack of interest, but for financial reasons.
On music, Jesse Brown, tell me that you have never worked for the weekend or raised a little hell (thank you Loverboy and Trooper, both bands with Vancouver history). Have you never rocked out to Bryan Adams? Heart? Spirit of the West?
As for books, it’s impossible to include a comprehensive list of fiction inspired by the Lower Mainland, but a Vancouver 101 syllabus could include anything by Joy Kogawa, Jen Sookfong Lee or Caroline Adderson. Eden Robinson doesn’t live in Vancouver, but she set her celebrated Trickster trilogy here. Malcolm Lowry wrote Under the Volcano here! Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park might inspire you to explore our excellent city park and fine dining – not extreme sports.
“My comment, I feel, was taken, understandably, as a criticism of Vancouver literature, a topic about which I know almost nothing,” said Brown, when I connected with him. “It really was intended as an insult levied at Vancouver, not its authors.”
He told me he gets to Vancouver about once a year. “It never struck me as a city that could or would inspire someone to write a kick-ass rock song or write a great novel about it. It’s just not that kind of place.”
For anyone who perceived his comments as Toronto-centric: also wrong, Brown says. He doesn’t think there are great Toronto novels either.
“I feel very similarly about Toronto. It almost defies art. You know, there’s plenty of nice artists who’ve made art in Toronto. I guess there’s people who’ve made art about it. But these are both kind of beige places that don’t inspire.”
Dear Marc Maron: Please move to Vancouver. I promise provocative culture and interesting conversations with a sprinkling of damage-informed sharp humour.
And Jesse Brown: Come for another visit. There’s a lot you’ve missed. But maybe take a closer look at Toronto first.