Is Canadian literature worth saving?

Looking at Canadian literature is something like watching the falls at Niagara suddenly change course and drown the honeymooners. It’s a paradox, a puzzle, an enigma that can’t and shouldn’t exist.

Yet it does. Canadian literature exists despite the impossibilities. Ask any publisher in the business and they’ll tell you something like this: there are 26 million people in Canada; geographically it’s the second largest country in the world. With thirty percent of them illiterate and much of the population spread around in small towns, the challenge of building a viable literary industry of Canadian writers is, to say the least, formidable.

Some say Canadian literature is thriving. Some say it is just barely hanging on. According to Paul Stuewe, editor of the magazine Books In Canada, it is like a ball teetering on the edge of a cliff. “Canadian literature,” he pointed out, “is always in a state of crisis. Even more so now, especially literary publishing which as to be state-supported if it’s going to exist.”

The book industry, which is hardly immune from economic vagaries, should be going through some hard times. Some point to the recent closing of Canadian publishing house Lester Orpen Dennys as an indication of the beginning of a serious financial crisis. As Director of the Literary Press Group, Marc Cote says, “Lester Orpen Dennys isn’t the only ship that floundered and sank in the last little while. They were an extremely important publisher and it’s horrible that they went under and there are other publishers on their way down.” Cote attributes much of this to government grants which have been flat-lined since 1986. But others will point to the GST.

Irene McQuire, owner of Toronto bookstore Writers & Co—one of the best literary bookstores in Toronto—says she sees no evidence of the GST slowing down sales. “We came out this year slightly ahead of last year. Who knows, maybe without the GST we would have made twenty percent more profit?” Deborah Barretto, who does promotion for the Women’s Press, a small publishing house in Toronto, agrees that sales are still going well. With the clear consensus that books, which some say are recession proof, are still selling, it becomes evident that Canadian publishing just cannot make money. Margaret Mclintock, publisher of Coach House Press, defends the industry, pointing out that they will sell 1,000 copies of a book of poetry, the equivalent in the U.S. of selling 12,000, which would be, as she puts it, “amazing.”

Nonetheless, Mcintock concedes that eighty percent of the books sold in Canada are from the U.S. or the U.K. But does this mean that Canadians have no interest in Canadian literature? Jean McNeil, a former editor at Lester Orpen Dennys says that she is “positive Canadians buy books because they are Canadian to an extent you don’t see in the U.S. or U.K. But Stuewe says that “people will often make the distinction between a Canadian and a non-Canadian book in a negative way. They won’t buy it because it is Canadian.”

“There is a very definite market,” Irene McQuire says, “for Canadian literature. But people who love literature won’t make distinctions, you read what catches your fancy and part of that is Canadian literature … If you want to read Michael Ondaatje’s Skin Of The Lion, you will want to read it because you’ve heard it’s a good book and because it’s Canadian, not just because you want to read a Canadian book.”

Almost everyone you talk to in the publishing business will praise the content and quality of Canadian literature. There are countless small presses and some very high quality larger publishers like Coach House. The problem remains that it is just not a money making business. Some people might suggest that if id doesn’t make money, it shouldn’t exist. But as Jean McNeil will tell you, it is Canadian literature that is finally shaping our national identity. “Canadian thought and Canadian anguish come through marvelously in Canadian writing. People say that this country has no national identity, but it clearly does.”

This view is echoed by Marc Cote. “If we want to have Canadian literature it needs tax dollars. People don’t understand what they would be getting rid of. It’s not as if we are talking about poets smoking too much pot and living off the government. The stupidity of commercial culture is that they think that if something can’t support itself it shouldn’t exist, but given the realities, Canada is never going to have a self-sufficient cultural industry, national industry or anything that spans the country. Do we bite the bullet or do we just give it up?”

The dedication of the people in this country’s publishing business is admirable. They are ready and willing to persevere; when talking to them, it is clear that Canada will continue to have an interesting and exciting literature of its own. For the population of Canada, there are a surprising number of publishers providing quality publishing and keeping the industry vibrant. Perhaps if Canada took to hear Paul Suewe’s words, we could all guarantee the future of literature in this country. “If you’re reading simply for pleasure,” he asks, “just something to read on the subway, a thriller maybe, then buy Canadian. The books are there, people just have to start reading them.”

Native Truth

Sojourner’s Truth

Lee Maracle

Press Gang

The stories in Sojourner’s Truth are funny and painful and relentlessly honest. Lee Maracle’s talents as an orator and her ability to relate universals from the perspective of a First Nations woman give her collection of 13 stories an unmistakable cohesiveness.

In a short preface to the collection, Maracle explains that she tries to integrate the European short story and Native oratory media. She warns that most “conclusions” have to be drawn by the readers themselves because in Native oratory, “the reader is as much a part of the story as the teller.” She warns that “this is most disturbing for European readers/listeners. Much of their condition of life hinges on instructive learning.” She’s right.

And so we have “Maggie” and “Charlie,” stories about children for whom the one-way instruction in the European schools they have to attend is completely irrelevant. Maggie mouths off to her teachers about “this boring shit” and Charlie feigns dullness to avoid being punished for not doing his schoolwork.

But Maggie keeps a journal, “painting with words whatever pictures of the world she wanted,” and Charlie daydreams of romps with his dog through the forest near his home.

It is ironic that these children’s escape from a system they have no part in lies in shutting themselves off from it altogether. It is the rigid and self-righteous European system of instruction which lies behind the children’s tragedy.

Maracle’s readers, who are probably very adapted to this system, can react to her stories in two ways. They can breeze through them, extract what they think is the writer’s message, and put the book back on the shelf. Or they can try Maracle’s suggestion. A story’s message is only one which the readers themselves draw — “not necessarily the lessons we wish them to draw, but all conclusions are considered valid.

“The listeners are drawn into the dilemma and are expected at some point in their lives to work themselves out of it.” The book may not return to the shelf for years.

The stories’ subjects are honest and hard-hitting. Maracle does not shy away from the woman who dies of alcoholism, the victim of incest, urban poverty, spirituality, sexism within the Native community, or tensions between Vancouver’s Asian and Native populations (which vanish when both groups get together and make fun of white people).

It has clearly been a struggle to publish stories about such issues. In one story Maracle hints that a previous story was rejected by the publisher who wanted her to remove the drinking. “It is kind of hard to take the drinking out of a story about a woman who dies of alcoholism,” she comments.

“Sojourner’s Truth” deals particularly with the issue of truth. The protagonist has just died, and is realizing that he knows what hell is.

“Hell just might be seeing all the ugly shit people put each other through from the clean and honest perspective of the spirit that no longer knows how to lie and twist the truth.”

This man’s hell is realizing that when he was alive and could actually have done something to prevent wife and child abuse, racial harassment and environmental infractions, not to mention his own wife abuse, he did nothing.

“On the wings of a snow white dove, my truth sails across the vast expanse of weeping earth and choking fauna and my soul mutters helplessly to the wreckage below: Jesus, I didn’t know.”

And Jesus appears, starting a funny and painful dialogue which lasts throughout the story each time the man swears, “Jesus.” No one appears when he mutters, “God,” and he realizes that “the whole notion of lords in heaven is ridiculous. It could not have been contrived by ethereal souls.”

But this experience is not hell; it is heaven, where all one can feel is pleasure or pain. Hell, the Jesus character explains, is guilt, “an intellectual contrivance that reduces the pain the spirit needs to experience if it is to alter the actions of the body.”

The stories are also political. But for Maracle, political does not mean civil disobedience and meetings. It’s clear what “political” means in “Who’s political here?” The wife of a man who has been arrested for postering muses, “I do all the laundry, cook and clean after that man, type all his leaflets after midnight and mother his two children so that he can risk postering downtown. Who is in prison here?”

In “Eunice,” the protagonist woman writer sits in a political meeting thinking, “I recall my efforts to get here, running about readying my four kids for my departure, giving last minute instructions about their care to my husband and finally robbing my change bank of loonies so that I can buy gas on the way — that’s political.”

Sojourner’s Truth is a collection of stories that anyone can draw truths from, with a little effort to participate in the oratory. It also deals frankly with First Nations issues in a way that any Canadian should have a chance to experience.