Terry Fallis tackles the 'Canada' in Canada Reads

In recent weeks, including on CBC Radio's Q with our fearless Canada Reads leader, Jian Ghomeshi, the debate about what exactly constitutes the "Can" in CanLit has once again returned to centre stage.

I'm not sure it's ever been off the stage. The whole "Canadian-ness" question in our national literature has been a near-constant topic of discussion for as long as I can remember. I'm a native of Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world and home to many, many outstanding immigrant and first-generation Canadian writers, and it is quite possible that this debate has raged louder and longer here than in some other parts of the country. Over the years, the definition of Canadian literature has sparked thoughtful discussion, acrimonious argument, ardent arm-wrestling and occasionally pistols at dawn. Yet nothing seems to have been settled.

Some argue that the book should be set in Canada to be considered CanLit. Others suggest the mere presence of "Canadian themes," like ice and snow, mountains, large lakes or the vastness of the land, will suffice to earn the CanLit imprimatur. Throw in a lumberjack-shirted hockey player and a polite Mountie riding the CPR and you're in!

Forgive the levity. I know this question is important to many. But as far as I'm concerned, the "Can" in CanLit resides in the writer, not necessarily in the words written or the worlds created. If the writer is Canadian, whether for his or her entire life or for the last two weeks, their writing is Canadian. For me, it's a simple calculus. But I accept that for many others, my binary analysis is simply too rudimentary. So how will all of this play out in Canada Reads 2012?

Well, in the first 10 years of the annual battle of the books, most of the novels vying for the title and all of the winning novels have been set at least partially in Canada. But if you cast your eye over this year's final five, we see a departure from this set-in-Canada tradition. More than half of the stories unfold beyond our borders, including in Iran, Chile and Russia.

How will this affect those panelists looking to build alliances and advance their books to the finals and then victory? Will Alan Thicke try to argue that nothing is more "Canadian" than hockey? Will Stacey McKenzie tattoo the Canadian flag on a rock band travelling across the country? Perhaps Arlene Dickinson will posit that nothing is more "Canadian" than welcoming a newcomer from a distant land where she was unjustly persecuted? Shad can certainly put a Canadian stamp on the story of a young daughter thrust into political dissent in Chile. And to round out the field, Anne-France Goldwater may well note just how similar Canada's landscape is to the remote northern forests of Russia, the setting for the book she is defending. While most of these stories may not be set in Canada, I'm not sure they're any less Canadian than W.O. Mitchell or Robertson Davies.

But what about from the reader's perspective? After all, it's called Canada Reads. The program is intended to encourage Canadians to read. All of us readers, whether born here or elsewhere, read through our own personal prisms, yielding as many different views on what is "Canadian" as there are readers themselves. Could we ever reach a consensus on what we mean by "Canadian?" I doubt it very much. So perhaps the debate is moot. In fact, I think it is.

Storytelling is universal. I've come to believe that we homo sapiens, like our predecessors for that matter, are hardwired, perhaps in our DNA, to take in stories, to be captivated and transported by them. Ancient cave paintings are as much about storytelling as about art. So, arbitrary definitions that dictate whether a book can be called "Canadian literature" seem unhelpful, even irrelevant. If a Canadian has written a story that takes the reader to a neighbouring country, a different continent, or even another world, why would we judge it differently from a book set in the prairies or in Newfoundland? Storytelling is storytelling. Reading is reading. Canadians who write stories set anywhere from Melbourne to Berlin, Vancouver to Peggy's Cove, are all part of the richness and diversity of Canadian literature. Just ask the authors of the Canada Reads 2012 final five.


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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