June 2018

Contents Related Letters

Re: “CanLit’s Comedy Problem,” by Pasha Malla

It was surprising to learn that the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour has never once been awarded to a person of colour. Modern comedy is the domain of the outsider, since it usually requires an outsider to identify the strange quirks that old-stock types take for granted. It was Eddie Murphy who helped white men develop self-awareness, just as it was Woody Allen who taught gentiles to look in Annie Hall’s mirror.

Yet many of the Stephen Leacock Medal-winning Canadian books that Malla lists reflect an older, obsolete cultural tradition imported from Britain—that of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie Wooster: gentle comedies of manners and misunderstandings, written by, about, and for insiders. These books reflect a spirit of upper class white collective solipsism that today’s readers find dull.

One uniquely Canadian problem is the structure of our book industry, which, unlike its U.S. counterpart, isn’t much driven by actual consumer demand. Instead, we rely on a system of grants and subsidies disbursed according to largely ideological criteria. The white Torontonians who run the Canadian book business are terrified of edgy (i.e. funny) humour, because real humour depends on saying the things that polite people aren’t allowed to say. To violate taboos in 2018 puts everyone at risk of being targeted on Twitter for wrongthink. In his hilarious 1975 book Side Effects, Woody Allen included a joke about a writer producing “yet another book on the Holocaust. This one with cutouts.” It’s hard to imagine many Canadian publishers allowing their writers to satirize our often-sanctimonious public statements about residential schools in similar fashion.

There are plenty of hilarious Indigenous and immigrant writers in this country. (The Walking Eagle web site is twice as funny as The Beaverton and CBC Comedy combined.) But the writers of colour who get published tend to be the easily blurbable ones who provide what the Rosedale book clubs expect: “luminous…deeply moving…mournful” tales of woe and suffering, resilience, and reconciliation.

The great enemy of humour is dogma. These days, woke trumps wacky and ire trumps irony. Until that changes, Canada won’t get funnier.

Jonathan Kay
Toronto, Ontario

Pasha Malla’s broadside against the staid and fusty strain of humour promoted and elevated by establishment voices and prizes such as the Stephen Leacock Medal is welcome and long overdue. This country has a wealth of piquant and subversive writers producing humorous work that not only pushes boundaries and calls into question accepted pieties, but also offers some of the most energetic and (not least important) entertaining writing available today. I found myself similarly nodding my head in appreciative agreement with Alicia Elliott, who addressed one of the pernicious (yet persistent) fallacies concerning humorous writing: that it somehow can’t also be serious in intent. Elliott’s comment reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that “all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

In fact, Malla’s essay was so strong and deftly argued that it was startling to note the comparison—once again—between Patrick deWitt’s Leacock Medal winner, The Sisters Brothers, and the work of Cormac McCarthy. Not merely in the context of an article about humour, a quality that does not, to put it mildly, loom large in the American author’s work. DeWitt’s novel and books such as Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses seem so fundamentally different—on the level of style, content, tone, and language—as to make the comparison fairly confounding.

And yet, like the refusal to admit that funny books can also be serious, the comparison persists. Name-checking McCarthy feels like shorthand for “someone who writes genre westerns”—a claim that is itself dubious. A much more appropriate comparison for The Sisters Brothers would be the work of Charles Portis, the author of True Grit, whose language is less Biblical and whose tone—notably in this context—is much more wryly humorous than that of McCarthy.

Given the evident strength of Malla’s piece, it seems almost churlish (in an old-man-yells-at-cloud kind of way) to levy such a picayune complaint. In any case, if Malla’s article manages to convince people that there are more interesting kinds of humour than the middle class, bougie elbow-nudging of Leacock and his acolytes, so much the better. Especially if some of those people go on to seek out the work of writers like Derek McCormack, Dany Laferrière, and Eden Robinson as an antidote.

Steven W. Beattie
Toronto, Ontario

Pasha Malla’s insightful critique of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour argues that this prize rewards anodyne humour, which is mostly white and male and reflects the received notion of mainstream CanLit’s idea of humour. Basically,
I agree with Pasha.

Except about me. (More on that in a moment.)

When my novel, Yiddish for Pirates, was nominated for the medal last year, I was delighted to share the shortlist with two brilliantly funny writers, Drew Hayden Taylor and Amy Jones. It was the three of us: one Jew, one Indigenous person, and one woman—like one bourbon, one Scotch, and one beer. You can decide who is which. I was honoured, and very grateful, to win the award that year.

I’m glad that this year’s Leacock medal shortlist comprised three women. However, historically, the lists were predominantly white and male (and I’d add non-disabled and non-queer) and the humour was more Horatian than Juvenalian. That is, gentle satire about the quirks of mostly white Canadians.

But I do hope that recent nominees indicate the prize is moving toward a reflection of contemporary Canada and away from the narrow world that Leacock himself might have considered. (I found an interview where Drew Hayden Taylor, in a brilliantly ironic and pointed move, quotes Leacock saying that Indigenous people were entirely humourless.) The very notion of prizes is fraught, but a prize becomes entirely meaningless if it doesn’t notice or reflect its world.

Now if we may put aside the niggling issue of representation, let me talk about me. Pasha writes that Yiddish for Pirates “stray[s] from the Leacock formula in some respects.” I hope that my novel does more than “stray” from a Leacockian model. It was intended to be a satire on post-colonialism and an examination of genocide—on both the Inquisition and then the imperialist genocide of Indigenous people.

I was most interested in the idea that humour helps with both physical and spiritual survival—that in fact humour is one of the great human technologies of survival. I wanted the novel to reflect the optimistic pessimism and pessimistic optimism of Jewish humour specifically. While it’s true that Jews often can and do assume the social privilege of whiteness in the dominant culture, that privilege is very contingent on the place and time. Jewish humour is a distinct manifestation of our culture and social and historical position. Humour can unpack, can discomfit. I hoped for that.

What’s worse than finding half a worm in your apple?

The Holocaust.

I deliberately parodied tropes and stereotypes—of Jews, of heterosexuality, and of Indigenous people. I also hoped to explore PTSD, despair, the horrors of racialized murder, and questions of responsibility and complicity. (A Jew escaping pogroms and the Inquisition finds himself witness to the atrocities of colonialism. What is his moral responsibility?)

Why don’t Jews drink?

It dulls the pain.

Pasha argues that my novel exemplifies “Leacock’s tendency to centralize masculine nostalgia, here for the swashbuckling…of boyhood fantasies.” I’m not sure I understand this. The entire premise of the novel is that it may be an elaborate yarn told by a possibly immortal gay pirate. Made as it is from a patchwork of plundered texts and tropes, it means to challenge the very notions of truth, nostalgia, and authenticity.

Pasha also writes that the book takes place in a world “so predominantly male that the homosociality borders on parodic.” When writing the novel, I was extremely aware of the maleness implicit in traditional pirate narratives. I worked to ensure that the powerful women active in that time period were represented, like Doña Gracia and Queen Isabella. At the same time, my gay African grey parrot parrots heterosexual macho tropes of pirate stories as he tries to be part of the human world. He jokes about his testicles. Eventually, he navigates through to a more authentic notion of his own identity.

I do feel we are at a fruitful and exciting moment for CanLit. There are brilliant, exciting and—yes—humorous books being published, books that reflect our complex and polyphonic place and time. I look forward to seeing such remarkable books recognized by this award and others.

Gary Barwin
Hamilton, Ontario

Re: “'Temporary spaces of joy and freedom',” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Dionne Brand

In this delightful conversation, Simpson says, “Liberation. That’s what I’m writing towards.” She echoes a talk Brand delivered at Barnard College in 2017, where she said she writes against tyranny and toward liberation. I am drawn to the possibilities of this, and of writing across difference, facing similar and, at times, the same, monsters.

I am also drawn to how Simpson and Brand discuss anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity as an ongoing colonial project. This is familiar: Kenya’s most famous liberation army in the 1950s was called the Land and Freedom Army. It has survived into history as “Mau Mau,” a nonsense word that loses the specificity of freedom claims. Restoring the name of the Land and Freedom Army provides a suture between (ongoing) Kenyan and indigenous activism for liberation.

From Nairobi, I have been thinking about black diaspora frequencies, what it means to be situated as a scholar of the black diaspora, pursuing freedom and writing toward other scholars of the black diaspora, who are also pursuing freedom; to listen to and write in those lower and minor frequencies. Often those lower and minor frequencies are interrupted, impeded, distorted, and damaged, and therefore the work of diaspora transmission must include not simply listening for, but coding and decoding and repairing and inventing different (ephemeral) frequencies.

I hear these frequencies—being invented and repaired—when Simpson and Brand talk about the role of art in working toward liberation. Simpson says, “I’m drawn to the world building and visioning capabilities of artistic practice. Historically Indigenous and Black artists have been visionaries in our struggles and movements.” Brand mentions a “commitment to art as liberation.” And I think about what those of us working toward freedom, across geohistorial difference, must keep inventing so that we can keep listening to each other.

Keguro Macharia
Nairobi, Kenya

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