Last fall, before common sense or modesty could prevail, I agreed to act as a regional judge for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. This committed me to a conscientious sifting through of nearly one hundred novels and short story collections. For the next five months, my backpack morphed into a mobile library and I embarked on my commute with high seriousness. On the bus from Richmond Hill, I squinted at Margaret Atwood. As the subway rumbled towards Bloor, I pored over Anne Michaels. On the streetcars of Spadina, I wrestled with Pauline Melville. A Christmas getaway to Barbados offered no respite. While She Who Must Be Obeyed watched over the children on Accra Beach, I leafed my way through one book after the next, grumbling occasionally when I felt they were wasting my time.
We were judging books from Canada and the Caribbean. This put me in the unusual position of assessing fiction from my ancestral home alongside work that—if Atwood’s Survival is to be believed—emerges from the rigours of my new life in the True North. I was reading, as it were, my past in tandem with my future. Before I came to Canada, I’d read some of the usual suspects. Robertson Davies, initially, and quite a lot of Northrop Frye. Perhaps inescapably I also read some Atwood and Munro. I knew, after browsing through Douglas Adams’ A Love of Reading, that there was no shortage of immigrant writers here. I’d enjoyed Family Matters without realizing that Rohinton Mistry lived in Canada, I’d learned that Ondaatje and Selvadurai had grown up in Sri Lanka, and I’d heard high praise for M. G. Vassanji. I knew that West Indians like Austin Clarke, Shani Mootoo and Tessa McWatt had established themselves in Canada. But it was still hard to overcome my early preconceptions, and so I expected to find something closer to my idea of Australian writing—Robert Hughes, Clive James, Peter Carey, Les Murray—that is to say, British fiction transposed into a different landscape.
Books like The Bishop’s Man, or The Mistress of Nothing met these expectations. They unfolded within what might be called the middle-style of British literary fiction: tight phrasing and no-nonsense storylines (what James Joyce’s letters call “wideawake language, cutandry grammar and goahead plot”). But books like Galore and Daniel O’Thunder, full of stylistic quirks and self-delighting language, always ready to pursue some wild digression, clearly came from somewhere else. (I doubted that magical realism could do its work in a cold climate, but it can.) Shandi Mitchell’s Under This Unbroken Sky and Dragan Todorovic’s Diary of Interrupted Days both followed the travails of immigration from Eastern Europe, but otherwise they belonged to completely different literary traditions, and could easily have been written in different centuries. There were also practitioners of an unapologetic high style (Damian Tarnopolsky, Anne Michaels) and writers like Annabel Lyon, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood to whom Robert Graves’ Reader Over Your Shoulder would immediately give a seal of approval, for clarity and elegance. Had I met this range in American fiction, I would have raised no eyebrows, but, foolishly, I’d thought Canada would be more conventional, more predictable.
What know they of cricket who only cricket know? wrote the great West Indian Marxist CLR James. Meaning, among other things, that narrow analyses of cultural phenomena can never satisfy. Dwell on the surfaces of an experience—purely formal properties, like field placings, or variations of spin—and you miss the larger drama of the bowler’s assault on individual batsmen, or the batsman’s counter-pressure against fields that would contain him.1 For James, context was everything. The patterns of cricket, literature, music and art were all decipherable articulations of much deeper cultural forces. During my long odyssey from Guyana to Canada—I have lived in five other countries—I have often found that CLR’s reservation can also be applied usefully to entire cultural traditions.
With that in mind, I began to wonder about the general ambivalence which I’d sensed towards the concept of CanLit. In Survival, albeit with a certain amount of mischievous humour, Atwood sets out “Basic Victim Positions” (denial, explication, resistance, imaginative escape) into which Canadian writing can be placed. I’d transcribed these into my notebook and been quite persuaded of their explanatory force, so when I began to read through my pile of Canadian fiction, I half-expected to find everyone consumed by a Sisyphean struggle with the land. Failing that, I imagined they would opt for something closer to Alice Munro’s miniature worlds. What I found made a nonsense of these simplifications. After a few dozen books, I realized that the very idea of CanLit is a fairly shopworn critical convenience, and that it doesn’t even begin to suggest the actual variety of contemporary fiction. How else could one account for a single year of fiction producing Lisa Moore’s immersion in the long widowhood of a young bride, Anne Michaels’ poetic meditations on displacement, Ian Weir’s post-modern comedy of good versus evil (which read like Tom Robbins rewriting Fielding), Annabel Lyon’s potty-mouthed Aristotle—a fictional masterstroke, I thought—and thirty or forty other, completely dissimilar storylines. How could simple theses of a national literature explain Dragan Todorovic, who reportedly arrived in Canada during the 1990s with only a hundred words of English, but now could write like this:
There is no narrative of exile. There are poems of exile, long successions of short verses, plenty of metaphors, abbreviations, aberrations, abeyances. Exile is not transferable. It is a chipped-up existence. Exiles live their days as a series of small coloured stones whose final order is never fully revealed to them. The mosaic they create in the end will be visible only to their descendants.
Yes, there was a prairie story in Under This Unbroken Sky, but I read it with no ideological freight. Unburdened by a fear of CanLit archetypes, I could only marvel at Shandi Mitchell’s control of her material—her emotional restraint, even by this country’s exacting standards, is astonishing. She had a Tolstoyan eye for detail, noticing the way horses twitch around their owners and how children thrill at the squeak of new boots. I began the book with great skepticism—that gushy title, the dubious prospect of finding anything interesting about Ukrainians settling in Alberta; I’d also noticed a missing word in the first line and, apparently, an error with the dates—but twenty pages later I was hooked. Halfway in I began to worry about the characters while I was eating dinner. Admittedly the plot verges on melodrama, but the prose is so sharp that I hardly noticed. By the end I was emotionally drained, and completely disbelieving that a first-time novelist could have managed all this. A subsequent discussion with a Canadian reader brought home to me how differently I might have read the book, had I been more familiar with the long tradition of similar stories. True enough, I thought, but then again, What know they of prairies who only prairies know?
The Canadian books on our shortlist (eleven out of twelve, as it happened) seemed to emerge from a culture that had learned how to look past unanswerable questions about national identity—a subject that consumes so many West Indian writers—and to deal with subjects more amenable to fiction. Ironically these lowercased, alternative concerns—widowhood, farming, village stories, minor social comedies—often wound up offering partial answers to the very riddles they were avoiding. Collectively they gave the impression of a thriving literary culture. No barbaric yawps, certainly, but intimations of a vast land, containing multitudes.
It may be easier to explain this impression by a brief look at the lone West Indian book on our shortlists, The Island Quintet by Raymond Ramcharitar. I liked this book immediately, and found it bracingly honest about life in the Caribbean, at least as I have known it. Ramcharitar’s characters seethe with racial mistrust and self-loathing and there is lots of believable, oversexed social intrigue. His prose is taut and intelligent and it was hard not to be charmed by his Naipaulian, nay, Juvenalian contempt for the culture vultures I’d met in Port of Spain. Yet Ramcharitar himself seemed to acknowledge the perils of writing such vengeful, local fictions especially while they hanker after grand themes. (Apart from an awkward reference to “Porto Spano,” he never names the island of his title.) I knew his world well, very well, but after the humour faded and I’d forgotten the pleasures of his phrasing, I remembered little more than anger. No names or faces, no habits or expressions, no descriptions of the landscape. The characters, I felt, were little more than conduits into the book’s larger quarrels.
Take, for example, “New York Story” in which our narrator finds himself in a hotel room with a prostitute who has just turned out to be a transvestite. When he learns that the hooker is also an aspiring psychologist, our hero makes the best his situation by recounting his life story for psychoanalysis. We learn that he grew up on a “small piece of shit island in the Caribbean” but moved to “Crapola County, Long Island” after his father’s death. There he lived with the loathsome Colos, a family of “Po’Ass Coolies.” We are warned that “These people weren’t people the way you know people. Think of the mountain people in Deliverance. Back home they would have been whores, labourers, petty thieves, drug pushers, that kind of thing . . .” Living in their house is a cultural ordeal:
Loud, irritating Coolie music, imported from home, started up around 8 a.m. By noon there were fifty people in the house. I was mesmerized by the plaid, the cheap boots, the knock-off Levis, the polystyrene coats which would melt or burst into flame near a lit stove, the sallow brown faces which became more droopy and blank as the day progressed; the noise, the smoke, the music in the background. I’d never experienced anything like it, except for a few times when my father’s coolie family got married and we were forced to go to the wedding.
(Earlier on, when his fiancée asks, in her “Russian Bond-Chick” accent, “Vat is a coooleee?” our narrator answers, “Uhm an animal that likes to play in shit and eat it.”) This is raw, serious stuff. Underneath the comic surface there is plenty that is worth unpacking. In “Froude’s Arrow,” his final story, Ramcharitar explores West Indian self-contempt with even greater insight, but there again, I have forgotten all the human details. By contrast, Lisa Moore’s harrowing description in February, of the widowed Helen’s first blind date will stay with me to the grave. After years of lonely celibacy, Helens spruces herself up and enters a bar with a flower on her coat. A few hours later, realizing her beau has sized her up and left without an introduction, the nerves and humiliation are too much. As she vomits in the toilet stalls, weeping at the shame and futility of having tried to restart her vanished love life with this tawdry encounter, I felt like crying too. And who could forget the dialogue in Galore? To a man who says that he wants to get into her dress, a winsome young lady named Bride, replies, “Already got one asshole in there why would I want another?”
Part of my preferences are undoubtedly linguistic since Canadian English can be as exotic to my ear as island speech must be to a Newfoundlander, but I also felt that there might be a simpler explanation. While many West Indian writers strain to gloss their scenery, speech and character traits for foreign audiences—a necessary evil in a region with hardly any local publishing—the Canadians suffer less angst. They worry less about explaining, or justifying themselves. Even in exile, West Indians tend to chase big game, while the Canadians are happy to trap whatever appears in the landscape. In more literary terms, you might say that in the tradition of A House for Mr Biswas or In the Castle of My Skin, we want to build Middlemarch, while Canadians—stereotypes notwithstanding—are often content with Cranford.
When England used hostile fast bowling to overwhelm Don Bradman, the legendary Australian batsman, James correctly explained their strategy as the triumph of imperial ambition over a veneer of public school culture, with its supposed respect for fair play. Later on, when England’s batsmen relied too heavily on a forward defensive play, James dismissed them brilliantly with the immortal line “These are the Welfare Staters.” ↩