November 14, 2011

Is Canadian writing Canadian?

With the recent list of Giller nominees still fresh in everyone's minds (and prominently displayed in many bookstores), discussions about what constitutes "Canadian writing" or who is a "Canadian author" have been posted in all media.  Is it Canadian writing if the author was not born in Canada?  Is it Canadian writing if the setting is outside of our nation's boundaries?  If the author is a landed immigrant, have they been here long enough to be identified as a Canadian author?

Throughout my years of selecting books to review for Canadian book awards, titles have been scrutinized carefully for eligibility, usually put to rest with two simple questions. First, was the author born or currently live in Canada?    Second question: is the publisher Canadian or one with a Canadian subsidiary or imprint? 

Frequent tree award (e.g., Silver Birch, Red Maple, Red Cedar, Snow Willow) nominee, Gordon Korman, is a Canadian by birth although he has lived in the US for decades.  Adam Gopnik, though American born and current resident of the USA, was raised in Montreal, including attending McGill, and is considered by some as a transplanted Canadian.  Governor General award winning author, Pamela Porter, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but emigrated to Canada with her husband.  Each has won awards for both Canadian and American authors.

With regards to the publishers, and not knowing all the logistics regarding publishers and their different imprints, we would often simply check a book's copyright page or ask the book distributor for advice.  If deemed Canadian or having a Canadian connection, the publisher was deemed eligible. Authorship and publication questions are relatively easy to answer but each award's requirements for "Canadian" must be articulated and transparent.

Often the discussions that are the most vague and problematic are those involving the settings.  I am a firm believer that the setting of a Canadian book need not be Canada.  Amongst recent award nominees and winners, I could see many discounting Rosa Jordan's Lost Goat Lane (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005) for its rural Florida setting; Martin Mordecai for Blue Mountain Trouble's (Scholastic Canada, 2009) Jamaican locale; and highly decorated The Shepherd's Granddaughter (Groundwood, 2008) by Anne Laurel Carter for its use of Palestine as a setting. (To those who will criticize my use of the term "Palestine" for the land depicted in this book, get over it. Not the point being made here.)

Though many may question the setting's singular importance in establishing the atmosphere of a story, I have often believed that a Canadian author's writing gives voice to the atmosphere, regardless of its location.  Adam Gopnik's children's fantasy, Steps Across the Water (Doubleday, 2010),  juxtaposes and connects by a crystalline staircase the characters' well-loved New York City with U Nork, its dismal twin city.  Probably written in U Nork, Gopnik's story is cumbersome, with its unwieldy plot and inconceivable characters.  Perhaps it is just too American for my reading tastes.

The Canadian-icity of a piece of writing is revealed in many ways: the voice of its characters, the craftsmanship of the writer; the expectations of the reader; and the nature of the plot.  This blanket of Canadianicity embraces the writing in more ways than a birth certificate, copyright or degree could ever do, warming the text to perfect degree. Just like a Hudson's Bay blanket.

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