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opinion

Thomas Hodd teaches Canadian Literature at Université de Moncton.

Two years ago I lamented the fact that the Governor-General's Literary Award for fiction was awarded to Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander who spent just the first six years of her life in Canada. Not surprisingly, my objections were dismissed by several book critics, who felt my championing of cultural nationalism was a form of xenophobia.

Not to be outdone, the judges of both the GGLA and the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize have seen fit to include in their short lists Rachel Cusk, a British-based writer who – wait for it – spent only the first few months of her life in Canada.

Good Lord, what next? If you were conceived in Canada, then you are eligible for a GGLA? Or better still, will we allow DNA tests in future to show that a writer has "Canadian" ancestors and is therefore eligible to submit to the Giller?

Such allowances by the Canada Council and the Giller Prize organizers to use only a citizenship card for eligibility has always puzzled me. We include a residency requirement for provincial literary awards, yet at the national level such a requirement disappears. Why?

Some may argue that residency as a requirement for literary awards is a barbaric cultural practice, that it undermines our social evolution as a civilization. What I think it speaks to is Canada's ongoing literary inferiority complex.

How else can one explain the need to allow and defend the increasing place of foreign writers like Ms. Catton and Ms. Cusk in our national literary prize decisions? Or our incessant compulsion to include international judges on national literary prize juries? Or the fact that many of the book reviews published in our newspapers are dedicated to writers who live, write, and publish in other countries? Or that Canadian literature isn't even mandatory in the vast majority of our schools or universities?

Sure, we produce literature in Canada. And have been doing so for hundreds of years. But as a nation we often refuse to celebrate or champion a homegrown "Canadian" literature. In fact, to declare such a thing even exists, let alone argue that it should be celebrated, defended and supported, is to be perceived as some kind of literary neo-Con, whose "old stock" ideas have no place in our apparent postnational state.

As for Ms. Catton, she was so gratified by her "homeland" win that she set up a grant to support New Zealand writers. How is that for national literary pride, eh?

Likewise, Ms. Cusk recently told Elle that "as much as I'd love to be a Canadian female novelist, that's a token piece of nationality, really." If the writer herself doesn't identify as being Canadian, then why are we treating her as such?

Until we acknowledge the truth – that Canadian literature is treated in this country by many of its readers, reviewers, critics and educators as an inferior literature – foreigners like Ms. Catton and Ms. Cusk will continue to dominate our literary prize lists.

Worse still, the championing of writers from elsewhere is hardly proof of our place on the international stage. On the contrary, other literary nations are quietly laughing at our absurd eligibility criterion.

It's also a slap in the face to all those Canadian authors who proudly hone their craft in this country, and who would give their left arm to be included on such award lists. To sell those extra copies of their book and be one step closer to eking out a living in the country they call home.

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