Canada’s literary enterprise has passed through many stages. Discuss its journey and the impacts that have helped Canada to evolve its own literary traditions and identity.

Canada’s literary enterprise has passed through many stages. Discuss its journey and the impacts that have helped Canada to evolve its own literary traditions and identity.

The term “Canadian Literature in English” refers to that which is written in what is now territorially Canada or written by Canadians abroad.

Writers have described Canada in many ways;for example, as a French or English colony, a “fifty-first state,” a Pacific Rim country, an Arctic giant, a friendly territory or an uninhabitable wilderness. Canadian literature has often had to deal with such differences in attitude, not just because many Canadian authors were born elsewhere and brought outsiders’ expectations with them, but also because popular attitudes often perpetuated stereotypes of Canada.

Three pervasive stereotypes portray Canada as:

(1) A physical desert,

(2) A cultural wasteland and

(3) A raw land of investment opportunity and resource extraction.

These distortions have created an audience for stereotypes, which Canadian writers sometimes reinforced by writing romantic adventures of the frozen North, in which everything local was savage or hostile and “civilization” was imported. But over time, they sought to record local experience and to use literature to shape their own culture rather than to imitate or defer to the presumptions of another society.

Insofar as Canadian culture continues to be shaped by a range of languages in use and by wide variations in geography, social experience, Indigenous cultures, immigration patterns and proximity to Europe, Asia and the USA, the “Canadian voice” is not uniform. Nevertheless, however much their aesthetic practices and political commitments may differ, Canadian writers bring many shared perspectives to their representations of nature, civility and human interaction, whether at home or abroad. Some critical approaches to Canadian literature have attempted to identify national or regional characteristics in literature. Other criticism has fastened on language and formal strategies, theories of knowledge and meaning, ethics (variously defined) and the politics and psychology of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, identity and environment. “Canadian literature” does not therefore restrict itself to a particular set of topics, terms or even Canadian settings, nor does any set of topics and terms constitute a required ingredient in a Canadian book.

Motifs and Patterns

Although the national character is not always the subject of Canadian literature, the culture’s social attitudes and values can be seen in the language and forms it uses. For instance, communication is often achieved through tone as much as through direct statement. Irony is a dominant mode, litotes (the negative positive: not un appreciated) is a common speech pattern, trickster (rather than hero) figures recur, and a sense of humour (understatement, parody, mimicry, wry satire) punctuates much serious literary work. Some commentators have interpreted Canadian tendencies toward literary indirectness politically and psychologically, finding in it a sign of national insecurity and a group feeling of inferiority. Others argue that indirectness is a healthy demonstration of the culture’s ability to adapt an inherited tongue to its own purposes. Irony, for example, can undercut as much as apologize, and the quiet demeanour of an onlooker figure in a narrative can effectively undermine positions of ostensible power.

Several specific narrative patterns recur in Canadian writing, especially evident in fiction and life writing:

  • A community walls itself off from the wilderness (the “garrison mentality”);
  • A person leaves the homeland, adjusts to the new world, then finds the new “homeland” to be “alien”;
  • A person born in Canada feels like a permanent stranger in his or her own home;
  • people arrive in the new home only to find that they are excluded from power;
  • A person attempts to recover from the past the secret or suppressed life of a previous generation;
  • A woman struggles to come to terms with her own creativity and the inhibitions of her cultural upbringing (often told as conflict between colony and empire);
  • An apparently passive observer, surrounded by articulate tricksters and raconteurs, turns out to be able to tell both their story and his or her own, often ironically;
  • An adventurer turns failure into a form of grace;
  • A child grows up to inherit a world of promise, or a world of loss, frequently both at once;
  • A subjective historian meditates on place and memory;
  • characters celebrate space and wilderness, usually after a struggle to learn to accept that the wilderness provides spiritual therapy only on its own terms;
  • characters, adrift in a maze of words or a fog of ambiguity and anonymity, shape “acceptable fictions” into a workable life.

Writing about their society, many writers of short fiction, the novel, autobiography or memoir, biography, poetry and drama have recurrently portrayed particular historical figures, both to reveal their intrinsic interest and implicitly to suggest how they epitomize certain cultural attributes or qualities of character. Such figures include Samuel Hearne, Louis Riel, Susanna Moodie, Sir John A. Macdonald, Emily Carr and William Lyon Mackenzie. In the retelling, sometimes transposed from their own time into the present, each possesses a vision but remains an ordinary human being, one with frailties, not a conventional hero. Characteristically, Canadian writing resists the binaries associated with perfectionism (right-wrong, good-evil, hero-villain ), embracing notions of multiple alternatives, working pluralities, multivoicedness and negotiated or evolving resolution instead. In narrative, violence generally functions as an instigation of action and as a penultimate event rather than as a solution or act of closure. Repeatedly, individual rights balance against community responsibilities. In more recent drama, poetry, and prose—even in much popular genre writing—open endings predominate over conventional strategies of closure, inviting readers/listeners to participate in the play of alternatives and possibilities.

Settings often possess a symbolic dimension. Catholic Québec recurrently figures in anglophone writing as a land of mystery, attractive but enthralling and morally dangerous; Ontario as an enigmatic blend of moral uprightness and moral evasiveness; Atlantic Canada as a repository of old values; the North as a land of vision; the Prairies as a land of isolation and acquisition; and the West Coast as a dream of the future in which people often mistakenly believe. Europe often appears as the home of refinement, deceit, and discrimination; the United States as a land of crass achievement and tangible success; and Africa as the embodiment of all that seems “other” to Protestant rationalism. In recent writing, Latin America and Asia (both East and South) are frequently configured as sites of political entanglement, which is expressed through inheritance and family ties or embodied in the complexities of larger communities. Within Canada, the land itself is recurrently associated with power, whether as property, region, a hostile force, a godly gift, the basis for resource extraction, the site of communication, the contested territory of competing cultural claims, the border or the ecological medium in which human life integrates with all other living beings in Nature.

Although most Canadians live in cities, until recently writers used rural and small-town settings more frequently than urban ones, and to the degree that they adapted conventional adventure and pastoral formulas to Canadian settings, they seldom questioned unstated assumptions about status and race. From early on in Canadian literature, however, essayists and travel writers analyzed and challenged as well as celebrated Canadian political life. Often, women writers used fiction and autobiography to reveal social divisions within Canada that male adventure writers ignored or underplayed, and to suggest reforms. Recent writing by both women and men focuses more directly and fully on urban life as well as on social issues (ethnicity, gender, poverty, health, education) that transcend setting.

“Regional” writing also conveys political stances. The term is used in two ways: to refer to places ruled by a real or imagined centre, and to configure the variant parts that make up a collective unit or community. By rejecting a single definition of “Canada,” writing about regional distinctiveness sometimes declares separatist claims on identity and power and in other instances asserts the viability of a nation with a plural character. Increasingly, Indigenous writers and writers who draw on backgrounds other than western European ones have examined the political opportunities of Canadian pluralism, but also the social limitations of local convention.

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