New Brunswick

Artists tell our truths

"One doesn't care if Shakespeare is great when they are frightened or in pain," says George Orwell about our idea of culture.

Fifth in in a series of expert analyses on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election

David Adams Richards is a two-time winner of the Governor General's Award and a member of the Order of New Brunswick and the Order of Canada.

Richards is well-known for his trilogy of novels based on the northern New Brunswick city of Miramichi: Nights Below Station Street, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down.

He won the Governor General's Award in fiction for Nights Below Station Street and the Governor General's Award in non-fiction for Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi. He was the co-winner of the Giller Prize for Mercy Among the Children.

He is an alumnus of St. Thomas University and was a centenary co-chair for the Fredericton-based university.

"One doesn't care if Shakespeare is great when they are frightened or in pain," says George Orwell — true and defining, about our idea of culture.

Culture is a word that is often thought of as being once removed from our real world, that the world we live in is somehow independent of the culture we seek.

This is as true in New Brunswick as anywhere else. I've known writers and artists who've gone years close to starving — or at least living on a subsistent level. Some in Fredericton, some on the Miramichi. And the very word culture becomes something of a problem when we try to relate how necessary those artists and musicians are.

Alden Nowlan, our greatest poet, lived much of his life earning thousands a year less than the professors who taught his poems and called him a genius. They had months of leisure he'd never be able to afford.

(Nor, and this is the secret, did he ever ask for more than he got.)

And though he and a few others in our province are recognized far beyond our shores, most government agencies think of culture as a nebulous ideal always one step removed from who we actually are, that should be promoted, shown to be necessary, if only with lip service.

There are so many occasions I have noticed this.

Once a New Brunswick minister of education, meeting me, said happily: "Oh, you're the writer. Well you should know, I never read myself."

The fact is, he was lucky. I am a New Brunswick writer, and didn't expect him to.

If he had said the same thing to Margaret Atwood or Mordecai Richler, they would have had a field day lampooning him in various interviews and papers. That is, the poor fellow unknowingly relied upon a civility and kindness he himself did not register to me.

I am not bothered by this. If I was, I probably never would have written anything.

And let's make it clear, I know as well as you that New Brunswick is broke.

And any family with little to spare will give more to the son who can bring home wood for a fire than to the son or daughter who is busy painting a garden scene, even if that painting will be the most treasured thing in years to come.

Hindsight is the thing — blessing and curse — artists rely upon to tell them their lives were not in vain.

If they relied upon any premier or minister of education to do so, they'd have more than a good chance of being committed to a loony bin for folly.

Going without

Don't think artists don't understand that much of the world does not care, because they do, and most of them that I know have been extremely courageous in dealing with it here.

Most of them, myself included, have always been willing to go without. At one point in my long career, I could not afford milk for the kids.

I guarantee I have their understanding and love, if not my own complete forgiveness.

One of my friends, now 67 years old, still guides rich sports to keep himself alive.

To me, he is one of the top 10 writers in Canada.

Though the problems of living and writing in New Brunswick are not insurmountable, they are not painless. I suppose, to paraphrase Josef Pieper, there are two ways we think of life: work for the utilitarian good, and leisure for the common good.

And I know governments have to deal with utilitarian good; they must deal with the workaday world that keeps us alive, paves our roads (especially in an election year), sends out electricity through our wires. 

But you see artists work for the common good — they create so we can have leisure and see the world created.

And some I know have literally worked themselves to death for the common good.

Without this common good, no utilitarian world would matter much.

Search for funding

I know, at this moment, four New Brunswick writers who could use money, and are as good as most writers in the country.

The secret is this: They are not considered to be, because their pictures aren't often in the Globe and Mail, and they still live in New Brunswick.

So our problem is one of perception and perspective.

Our real fault is that we have always been told what is good by people who've never come here, who have on occasion fashionably denied that we even exist at all, that our concerns are not really universal concerns but local ones. Nothing, nothing is further from the truth.

Who to support is the unending problem utility faces with art. It becomes a clash of ideals more than ideas. Both groups have their points.

Governments are unknowing and reticent to be seen wasting money on anything so frivolous as a painting or a play. Or as that minister of education would tell you, a book.

They have to be told who is good and who is not, and they many times rely on people from away to tell them this.

In fact, one premier once asked me to sit on a board, with a focus group from New York City, hired to tell us who we were and how to promote that we, too, were modern. I declined.

But it shows something of the effort faced by those telling our story. That is our real story.

Defining N.B. culture

11 years ago
David Adams Richards explains to CBC's Harry Forestell why the issue of culture funding should be discussed in the N.B. election campaign 8:47

But worse than neglect, and probably the worst-case scenario, is if governments decide to control the cultural dialogue.

We all know that in the 20th century this was done in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, so much so that only what was thought of as mirroring the political principles of the regime was considered good art.

But all governments in small ways or large ones actually want this, even if they say they do not. This has happened in Canada in a minor way for at least 40 years.

And academia has played a large and constant role in trying to hold some writers aloft and diminishing others. Most who are diminished are far outside the mainstream of academia and what is considered "relevant."

Not given credit

So naturally New Brunswick writers don't get the credit they should.

Also, government bureaucracy and academic twiddling are often hand-in-glove.

Though government and academic aims are often different, their views toward the struggling artist are often the same, arrogant without knowing, and dismissive without cause.

This was brought home to me very early in my career, when I was denied a very small grant by an academic judge working for the Canada Council, who, when the novel he rebuffed as unrefined and unworthy of support became well known two years later, sent his own stories my way, hoping I might influence my publisher on his behalf.

Writers still go through this, especially those who do not reflect the contemporary ideologies stridently enough.

You may think I am exaggerating. I am not, and we only have to look at publishing in New Brunswick to realize this.

Besides, there is only a finite amount of money, so some of the best artists go without. That is only natural.

We have very little funding with which to play favourites. I think the highest literary award offered in New Brunswick is $20,000 — notable, yes, but not overly so. And it is given to one person a year.

So we are at a disadvantage in continuous ways.

One aspect of this neglect is that our main New Brunswick book publisher, which does get grants from our government, rarely reflects the provincial genius, perhaps believing it must find writers outside the provincial boundary in order to prove itself to a national audience.

So those here who are marginalized are truly so, even at times with our own nationally recognized publishing house. It seems our culture does not warrant much attention.

'Culture is people'

It would be good if we only realized that another word for culture is people.

That is, we do not have culture or share culture; we are culture. What we do is culture, and we are never ourselves outside of it. And only we can really know the intricate beauty of our own.

And so many people who have authority to say what is good culture and what is not simply do not know or remember this fact.

Our culture is ourselves. That is all it can be. It is as much songs from our childhood as it is ice in the bay, the memories of our teenaged years, and our family life. No one else can experience it like we do, therefore we are the only ones who can and must share it with the world.

No one from New York can decide for us if we are worthy of attention. We have to do that by ourselves, and when we do, it is always recognized not as local, but as universal.

And if we do not care whether Nowlan is good when we are in pain, we are forever grateful that he helps show us how to endure pain when we are not.

Oh yes, we can adopt things too, but in the way we adopt them, not unlike adopting a child, they become ours, and part of ourselves.

I heard an electric guitar for the first time when I was 13, walking home through the derelict back streets of Newcastle on a winter night, with one small light shining out onto the snow.

The electric guitar was not made here, but as I told a cultural study group in Argentina a few years back, that moment was. 

And it was forever. I heard the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, in the same way — the same songs a child somewhere else did — but with the ground I grew up and walked on, forever and ever my own, to share in my own way with the world.

Our truths

It is imperative to support our writers and artists. They are the only ones who can tell the truth about us. And there is a terrible and essential and poignant reason why we must seek to tell this truth.

In telling the truth about ourselves, we alone can give justice to our people and our province, to the work that we do and the lives that we live.

If only one of our artists is sanctified enough to show this once every 30 years, I give you my solemn promise New Brunswick will never, ever have anything to fear.