Years ago, I talked to a friend about Salman Rushdie. We were fans of the way his word tapestry infuses India, a place neither of us had been, with magic and wonder linked to an ancient history and time-honoured fables. We were entranced, enriched with an appreciation of a place and its people.
“Beats reading about it on some dude’s travel blog,” my friend said.
Later, when I set half of my first novel in Indonesia and half in Toronto, several Atlantic publishers turned it down because it lacked a local connection beyond my roots and residence here. The reasoning frustrated me. Do we not live in a global village now? Has the internet and multinational corporate branding not made us all residents of Benjamin Barber’s McWorld? Isn’t the purpose of a book to take us beyond the world we know, the familiarity of home?
That last question demonstrates my flawed thinking. For one, each book has many purposes, all of which depend on the reader more than the writer. Rushdie’s work is an escape for my Canadian friend and me, but for Indian readers he is perhaps much more: an important voice of home. His writing is powerful because it is steeped in that mix of ancient stories and contemporary perspectives on what India is, its place in the world.
I believe this parallels Atlantic Canada’s obsession with local stories—by telling, retelling, reshaping and contemporizing our traditions in story, we define ourselves. We remind ourselves who we are, announce it with pride and dignity; important traits for a small “have-not” region at the northeast edge of North America.
My thinking has evolved. I think the mindset of publishing has shifted as well. The proud responsibility of identity-shaping remains, but we’ve broadened the definition. This isn’t only a question of adapting to new realities of more immigration and further globalization of culture. It’s also an acknowledgement of stories that have been excluded for too long.
Nova Scotia’s George Elliott Clarke addresses Canadian identity shaping through literature in The Quest for a “National” Nationalism. He considers the several failed attempts of Newfoundland-Toronto poet EJ Pratt to write a “national epic,” a poem to speak for Canada.
Take for example “Brébeuf and His Brethren,” written nearly a decade before Newfoundland joined Canada. The problems? Pratt takes the French perspective, leaving out the other solitude. It turns Indigenous Peoples into representatives of primitive barbarity.
“Frye imposes the standard reading of Canadian colonial history: Indigenous Canadians are doomed savages,” Clarke writes. In an effort to rally French-Canadian support for the Second World War, Pratt Nazified his Iroquois characters. He presented them as an infestation on the “Canadian” wilderness.
Pratt attempted another national epic with “Towards the Last Spike,” about the laying of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. He barely mentions the Chinese-Canadian labourers who did the work in appalling conditions, with hundreds dying, for half the pay.
“[Pratt’s] heroes ain’t labourers, anyway, but robber-baron capitalists,” Clarke writes. Especially white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, particularly Scots.
“So, Pratt’s national-poem project again falls victim to a racial blindness … where are the First Nations, whose territories are being invaded and annexed to assist the expansion of White European ‘Canadian’ power and capital?”
I asked Clarke if we need a national epic or text. He said no. But, “we do need a ‘national’ sensibility; i.e., a theme or modus operandi or dream that animates the vast majority of us.”
Previous literary attempts to galvanize us don’t animate the majority of us. They come from a singular “spokesman of his society,” white and colonial, male. How can Canada, with diverse and competing yet convergent histories, have an equivalent to the Finnish national text, the Kalevala?
Clarke’s advice? “Pitch your tale to the outcasts, and you are more likely to author a meaningful, national text.”
By considering the “outcasts,” a would-be writer of a national epic must think more broadly than the usual suspects, the ones with enough power and resources to have already recorded abundant pieces of their histories. Clarke tells me, “One is likely best off to take a region, province or city, and own and celebrate it—in the way that Leacock does in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which does seem to speak to rural or small-town Ontario, but in a manner that may apply to Cavendish, PEI, as much as it does to Niagara-on-the Lake, ON.”
All the diverse perspectives on Canadian history and contemporary issues can be found anywhere in Canada. As Clarke notes in Quest, there’s no sense criticizing Anne of Green Gables “for not being Anne of Red Deer, or Yellowknife, or Whitehorse.”
A worthy goal is diversifying any given region’s own literature, telling the tales of all its peoples. These stories, if honest, won’t always be positive or portray the nicest versions of Canada, or Atlantic Canada. They will speak for more of the people who live here, and their histories. Doing so connects us to a broader world.
Slavery, which connects us in the most inhumane fashion to Great Britain, the United States and the African continent, is one example of a subject that has been so taboo many Canadians hold the delusion it isn’t part of our history, other than that we served as a destination for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. We were, in fact, a British colony, which thus allowed slavery until 1834 (except in certain jurisdictions, like PEI, which abolished slavery in 1825). Being young enough a nation that slavery was abolished by our southern neighbours before we called ourselves Canada is no excuse.
Author Sharon Robart-Johnson, a 13th-generation Nova Scotian with heritage linked to early slaves brought to Digby County, was fascinated by the true story of Jude, “a young enslaved woman … in Raynardton, Shelburne County,” who was murdered in December, 1800, for stealing food. Her killers were the family that claimed ownership of her.
Jude was brought up from New Jersey, via Carolina. Her murder case was tried in court, providing a rare historical record of an individual slave, but still with sparse details of her life.
Robart-Johnson created—from this history, oral stories from the community, her extensive knowledge of Black history and her imagination—a novel, Jude & Diana, a vivid fictional account of life in colonial Nova Scotia, two-thirds of which is from the point of view of Jude and her sister, Diana.
The first part is set with Jude dying on the floor, remembering her life story: being sold in the US, again in Nova Scotia, coming to Nova Scotia by ship. “They would be travellin’ on a ship from a place called New York to a ‘nother place called Nova Scotia.”
Jude is a fighter, a resister, constantly punished for her determination to find some inclination of freedom. “I wanted readers to understand the unjust pain in Jude’s life,” Robart-Johnson notes. “But there is also love in their stories.”
Jude and her family resist in humour and fierce loyalty, risking their own bodies for one another. In the novel and the real-life archives, Jude’s father took his master (a respected Major) to court, challenging his ownership of them on the grounds that he had no papers. “[The judge] telled us we has to stay with the Major till he bringed [him] a paper sayin’ that he buyed us.” He didn’t. The judge never came looking.
The middle section, told from the perspective of a neighbour and fiancé of the Major’s daughter, shows another side of Canadian history: there were many who opposed slavery long before it was abolished. Israel Hibbert is sympathetic to Jude and Diana, whom he calls friends. He struggles with the acceptance of slavery as a way to build the “new country,” and notes that, “Some people did own slaves, but there was also a consensus in his town that what you don’t speak of isn’t really there.”
Hibbert initiates the coroner’s inquiry into Jude’s murder. His fiancée, the daughter of slave owners, is appalled by her father’s, mother’s and brothers’ abuses of the slaves. But the fate of the killers is decided by other slave owners.
Robart-Johnson includes a hopeful epilogue on Diana’s daughter, a reminder that not all stories from history are as painful. Jude and Diana and their parents illuminate an important truth about us. Hiding from that is a denial of our past, and of their contemporary descendants. We cannot hope to find Clarke’s “national sensibility” without stories that connect our history to larger, often ugly events, including the transatlantic slave trade.
As important as looking inward at our divergent and convergent histories, is looking outward, at our place in the world. Let’s appreciate Atlantic writers who set their stories elsewhere. St. John’s author Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody comes to mind. It’s set in Spain, England and Russia at the height of Stalin’s purge in 1937—with a couple of fun Newfoundland references, worldly characters in impossible circumstances fantasizing about starting a language school in the most remote place they can name.
Nobody is a spy novel and love story, with a plot that imprisons its characters—Temerity, a British spy with a fake passport, and her kidnapper and saviour from a possibly worse fate, Kostya, a Soviet internal affairs man—in a small Moscow apartment surrounded by more tattletale eyes than 1984.
“We existed on that knife-edge of expecting nukes in the air at any moment,” Butler Hallett says of growing up in the Cold War era, part of the inspiration for writing Nobody. “All surrounded by espionage, military exercises, and even the occasional air raid siren test, and I kept asking myself, how did we get here?”
She studied Russian and Soviet history and literature in university, was further influenced by an international cabal of writers including Anna Akhmatova, Franz Kafka, John LeCarré, Varlam Shalamov, Vladimir Sorokin, Evgeny Zamyatin and George Orwell; as well as folkloric work like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the epic poem Beowulf. It’s a delight to see international influences on our literature. It is only through story, and especially the immersion of literature, that our imaginations can so fully occupy another time and place. In this way, literature connects us.
Temerity and Kostya’s story is beautifully framed by the Russian fairy tales they share when they meet, imparting a sense of the universality of story and the human condition. The tales also set up a sense of intrigue and intimacy, as captor and captured fall for one another in the stickiest, most complex and tense way possible. A prominent figure of the fairy tales is the crone Baba Yaga, but as Temerity notes they share tropes with ancient stories worldwide. The characters return to a phrase from “The Maiden Tsar,” spoken by a merchant’s son when asked why he has come to see Baba Yaga. “Largely by my own free will, and twice as much by compulsion.”
The phrase becomes a mantra for taking responsibility for choices and actions, despite the impossibility of circumstance, facing the harshest of consequences for the slightest miscalculation. Their situation will find universal resonance with all us shut-ins during this global pandemic.
From taut claustrophobia, Butler Hallett creates an entertaining treatise on the shifting nature of power. Kostya’s mentor explains it well. “The steppe gives up in patches to forest, and forest gives up in patches to tundra, yet in places where you see no change, all the differences blend. Power works like that.”
In Constant Nobody’s top-down bureaucratized world a lowly clerk whose signature you need holds immense power. A street bully becomes a victim. A high-ranking internal affairs man who has been forced to murder hundreds finds himself in perpetual proximity with betrayal and death, afraid of every footstep. Even the executioners are entrapped. Butler Hallett’s talent for creating sympathy for villains is profound.
It is thrilling to read an Atlantic book reminiscent of James Clavell’s Asian saga in its ability to inhabit the many worlds—and variant cultural and political perspectives—of our shrinking but still diverse planet. “We all come from somewhere,” Butler Hallett says. “Our homeland influences how we see the world.” Her tale is more introspective, more complex, than the typical overseas historical adventure novel like the kind Clavell popularized. It provides a more sophisticated feminist perspective, giving proper due especially to Butler Hallett’s main female character’s dilemma, as well as her strengths, flaws and perspectives on global events portrayed. It is a novel of its shrinking-world time, from the mind of one of Newfoundland’s best contemporary writers.
If she can do that, surely a single writer is capable of bridging cultural divides and creating a piece of literature that speaks for Canada. It takes careful research, with an open mind and empathetic heart, and a willingness to champion, rather than sweep aside, the underdog.
As Clarke says, writing an epic that represents Canada may involve championing a more specific place, its local complexities. It may involve themes that weren’t considered in Pratt’s time (when forests were enemies to be conquered), like, as Clarke adds, “environmental degradation and our desperate attempt to stop poisoning the planet.”
Regardless of whatever themes serve us at any given time and “animate the vast majority of us,” it’s a pleasure to see Atlantic authors and publishers embrace identities and perspectives, local and overseas, that have historically been overlooked.