books

Canada Reads Day Three

Sigh. How can I do this in a timely fashion when I have to work during the day?

So far I’ve been giving mostly just my thoughts on the Canada Reads discussions, and now that I’m back to work and can’t blog till later in the day, I’ll keep doing that, since by now you’ve heard or watched the debates and read all the other blogs that have been documenting the Canada Reads process, such as Keepin’ It Real, Inklings, That Shakespearean Rag, and Roughing it in the Books.

To start: I don’t think too many people are surprised that Gen X has been voted off, though I thought that might be the second to go and Good to a Fault would be first, only because I’m starting to wonder if everyone read it, it’s so little mentioned. Interestingly, the same thing happened on Civilians Read: Gen X was voted off first.

I really liked the first question of the day: Which book other than your own had the strongest sense of time and place for you? I can see that answer becoming an entire paper because of how much those two concepts affect not only a story in general but also particularly the characters in different ways. Not surprisingly (because it often does seem to get left out), Good to a Fault wasn’t mentioned, though once Jian brought that up, the discussion was full of incite, didn’t you think?

For me, Nikolski comes first to my mind because of the theme of geography, because of the nomadic experiences, of travel, and how each character quite significantly passes through space and time and explores his or her life, location (even in guessing the locations of others), and history. When I think of each character’s upbringing and history, which takes up quite a chunk of the book as a whole, I think people would be hard-pressed to say Nikolski didn’t explore those strongly enough to give them a sense of where we were, even if we were being pulled from place to place. I especially got a very good, concrete sense of Montreal in general, but also of each character’s various residences and places of work. I think Dickner was actually quite aware of space and time as important elements of a story, and I would say that these are two major themes of the book.

I enjoyed Sam’s answer to this question, too, especially when she pulled out specifics from Fall on Your Knees, like Rose telling Kathryn she smells like the sea, to give a sense of placement. I was hoping for more of this, actually, a bit more specifics, in order to better appreciate the authors’ writing and prove the arguments. Sam’s comments in general on this third day are quite good; it feels as though she’s ready to pull out the stops. In general, as the debates progress, the arguments have become so much better than when they first started that I felt myself pulled in every panelist’s direction! The comments are well articulated for the most part and more in-depth and reflect careful consideration.

The second question was: How much does the Canadianness matter to you and which would you say was the most Canadian book? As you know by now, this raised the temperature in the room and I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar, but mostly from frustration. I think this is a very difficult question because, as Simi Sara said, how one defines Canada and Canadianness is mainly based on personal experience and is subjective. Books have been written on this topic.

But I keep wondering every time this question arises: Is there nothing that we can all agree is generally Canadian? Can we really not define Canadianness? My friend says that the definition of Canadian often ends up being “some form of white, middle-class Anglophone mainstream notion,” and I’m not sure I agree with that, since, first, one of the initial things people bring up is our multiculturalism. And regardless of whether or not they feel particularly caring about Tim Hortons or the Montreal Canadiens, at one point or another immigrants do tend to participate in “Canadian” culture, whether they’re choosing Molson Canadian or attending hockey games or joining the Mounties.

In the same breath as we say Canadianness is an elusive thing we generalize that Canadians are polite, or that Canada is multicultural and thus the fabric of the country is made up of many different fibres. Canadianness is diversity—which Perdita was quick to pick up on and try to use to her advantage. Though I’m not convinced that her points, like that of transgender, illustrate Canadianness so much as the human condition.

Personally, I feel I have a grasp on Canadian literature, its special and specific tone, what makes it different and discernible from the writing of non-Canadian authors, but would others agree with me? Do I even agree with myself? Would we have all sorts of definitions of Canadian literature depending on who was asked? What about the way we can get a sense of regional fiction—how different prairie writing is from maritime writing, from west coast texts and Ontarian fiction? And within those regions are another layer, that composed of Canadian immigrant authors. Because all writers are human and we first and foremost write about the human experience, can there really be such thing as Canadian writing, leaving out, if we can, the authors’ heritage and the location of the stories?

So then, how does one answer the second half of the question: Which book was most Canadian? Initially I had thought Nikolski, once again, for various reasons (the various nationalities in the book, the nomadic experience, the immigrant experience, the sense of Canadian cities and landscape), but Sam gave such a good argument that, not for the first time, I was rooting for The Jade Peony—enough to say I think it’s the best example of Canadianness, of the common Canadian experience. At the same time, I’m asking myself, how are Canadian immigrant experiences and examples of writing different from American or other ones, leaving city aside, if we can? What makes the immigrant experience especially Canadian? (Has anyone read A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xiaolu? It tells the story of a young Chinese woman who moves to London. It’s brilliant.)

The next question was: Which book sends the message of class division the most? I was unsure about the point of this question, except that the issue did arise more than once from the discussions. Though it’s a universal thing and I’m still not sure how the answer would actually make one book better than the next in terms of the book Canada should read, it’s not an entirely invalid question, since the question is something that seems a common thread in many Can lit. novels, particularly ones written by immigrants.

And then, already, it was time to vote! Does anyone else feel each day as though it’s too soon to vote? I want more discussion beforehand! I’m enjoying myself and feel there is so much more each person could contribute but can’t because of time constraints and giving everyone a chance to express their answers. I wish the program could be an hour instead of just half. The whole thing feels as though it’s going way too fast! Am I the only one who feels that way?

Tune in again tomorrow for Day Four of the debates, and to find out which was the next book to be voted off. My guess is Good to a Fault. (Sigh. I feel so badly for the authors! Are they listening to this? Are they on tenterhooks? Do they think this fun? Do they sit there wishing they could say something or cheering on certain panelists?)

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4 Comments

  1. JK

    Ah, yes, old can of worms that is national identity. I totally agree with your frustration, Steph. Surely there must be some commonalities among Canadians? And I think there are when it comes to values – things like multiculturalism, open-mindedness, and accessible health care. Which is actually why I was happy to hear Jian mention health care. Good to a Fault would have been a completely different story in the U.S.

    But really as I was listening to the debates today, I rephrased it in my mind to “Which book would you consider a faithful representation of Canada?” Like if you wanted to give a foreign guest a book that represented Canada and CanLit, what would it be? And I think that has less to do with hockey or geography than with its values and sensibilities.

    And, yep the program definitely goes by too fast. It’s only about 22 minutes anyway, and take out all the intros and the theme music and there’s not a lot of time for debate.

    Reply
  2. Jen,

    I like how you rephrased that question. I’ve been thinking far too superficially; I’m seeing this more and more as I talk with people. At the same time as Can lit does tend to feature Canadian landscape/cityscape as a prominent character in many books, I think you’re right that Canadianness or any other country’s essence has more to do with values and sensibilities than with more tangible things.

    And I actually don’t have an immediate answer, then, in terms of which book best represents that. What do you think?

    Reply
  3. JK

    Eeee. See, tough question. All of them? None of them? My knee jerk is Nikolski, but I do see the argument in Good to a Fault in terms of Canadian qualities. And then there’s Jade Peony…

    Reply

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