Given the sometimes narrow scope of experience it contains, it’s not unusual for many Canadians to feel like their own histories are not represented within the CanLit canon. In fact, that absence has inspired some of Canada’s best authors to write stories about people like them, their families and the communities they grew up in. So who better to share their recommendations for an alternate reading list, filled with works – either of historical fiction, non-fiction or writing from the past – that tell us about a part of our collective history that wasn’t on the school syllabus? Here, five Canadian authors share their picks:
“Cheryl Foggo’s Pourin' Down Rain, which was just reissued for its 30th anniversary, is an essential memoir of growing up Black in 1960s Calgary, with all its trials and pleasures, and also touches more generally upon the history of Black migration in Alberta at the turn of the century. An enlightening read.” - Esi Edugyan, Giller Prize winning author of Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues
"I’m really excited to get to recommend Daze Jefferies’s work. She’s a poet and musician who writes beautifully about growing up as a trans-woman in a very rural part of Newfoundland. Her newest poetry collection, We Hold a Body of Water Together, is forthcoming from Breakwater Books and explores the ‘… hidden histories and fishy futures of trans women and sex workers in Atlantic Canada.’ [Additionally,] Xaiver Campbell is a St. John’s based-writer who writes about being young, Black and gay in Newfoundland. His work is lyrical, sexy, full of humour and threaded through with powerful descriptions of landscapes and love. He recently published an incredible short story in The Malahat [Review] titled, Unda di Naseberry Tree.” - Eva Crocker, Giller Prize nominated author of All I Ask
“As a half-Jewish, half-French Canadian woman from Montreal and now Toronto, there’s no shortage of CanLit that reflects aspects of my life. I remember reading Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute in high school and recognizing so much of my mother’s life story in the protagonist, Florentine Lacasse. Like Florentine, my mother had waitressed in an East-End Montreal diner to help support her family. The world of the St.-Henri slums was just down hill from where I lived. One of my favourite novels of all time, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, tells the story of Rose and Pierrot, two orphans growing up in the seedy underbelly of Montreal during the depression. The city depicted in O’Neill’s masterpiece is nothing like the Montreal where I grew up. Sure, I recognized the street names and the neighbourhoods – St Laurent, Westmount, Chinatown, the Red-Light District – but what a magical, ethereal history lesson O’Neill offers about Montreal’s prostitutes, drug addicts and mobsters of that era.” - Joanna Goodman, The Forgotten Daughter
“I’m just finishing Ken McGoogan’s recent work, Dead Reckoning. It may well be the 20th book I’ve read about Arctic exploration, and you’d think the ground of those who tried to find a Northwest Passage has been well trodden with nothing left to say. Wrongo, buckwheat! There’s always more, especially when you can write like McGoogan. The power of this book is that it goes so far beyond the lengthy list of European explorers like Frobisher, Hudson, Parry, Franklin, Ross, Rae and the rest. It brings you the homegrown explorers who made discovery possible, like [Chipewyan Dënesųłı̨ne guide] Thanadelthur, [Chipewyan leader and guide] Matonabbee and [Inuk interpreter] Tattannoeuck. If you solely believed old history, you’d think Canada wouldn’t have happened without a parade of mainly British naval officers who named everything they saw in our Arctic after their kings and queens or admirals and generals. Maybe it’s time for a little renaming, and McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning is a good place to start.” - Peter Mansbridge, broadcaster and author of Extraordinary Canadians: Stories From the Heart of Our Nation
“As an immigrant from England, I related to books that captured the common themes in immigrant memoirs and novels. The writings of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, who arrived in Upper Canada in the 1830s, struck a chord with me, even though I did not have to hack down forests, build a cabin and learn how to make maple syrup. There are other books that captured the isolation of European immigrants, and the grim challenges of survival, that I admire greatly, such as the 1925 novel Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso, set in Manitoba. A Norwegian family is torn apart by the cruel arrogance of Caleb, the husband, but his wife has nowhere to turn in this cold, windswept land. The isolation of newcomers, far from their own communities, is always hard.
But I realize that the domestic and interior challenges of European immigrants, whose arrival here was welcomed, are only half the story. The Boat People by Sharon Bala, described an arrival here that had no personal resonance for me – although nostalgia for the country of the Sri Lankan refugees is an emotion most immigrants will recognize. Every time I or my family complain of bureaucratic runaround – changing our addresses on driving licences, or applying for grants – I flinch at our smugness as I think of the red tape, obstacles and prejudices faced today.” - Charlotte Gray, Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise
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