There are times when Canadian Writers Abroad seems quaint. Do people stay at home most of their lives and then undergo a great upheaval by moving abroad? This is the age of travel. In Canada and in London, England, people have come from somewhere and are going somewhere. It shouldn’t surprise me, therefore, that the Canadian prize shortlists include several writers who don’t stay “at home” (in Canada). For example, one of the finalists for the Governor General’s Literary Awards in the fiction category is Joseph Boyden. Nominated for The Orenda, Boyden lives in New Orleans, where he teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing. In a Quill and Quire interview about his WWI prize-winning novel, the Three-Day Road, he says leaving benefitted his work: “I needed that psychic and geographical space in order to be able to step back and look at my country. Not as an American by any means, but as a Canadian – almost an expatriate, even though I love this country and did not leave it for any negative reasons. This country is such a part of who I am – I couldn’t live in the States and not be back all the time.” – See more. Part of who he is also comes from his mixed heritage: “Part of me is native,” he says, “and it’s a very important part. But I also identify strongly with my Irish roots and with my Scottish roots.” … “More and more over the last many years – really, all my life – I’ve had an Anishnabe vision of the world.” The Orenda is part history, part myth, taking up the story of a Huron elder, Bird, and the kidnapped Iroquois girl, Snow Falls. And the Jesuits.
Then there is Dennis Bock, who wrote about the after effects of the use of the nuclear bomb in The Ash Garden, and is being nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Going Home Again. The son of German immigrants, Bock grew up in Oakville. He interrupted his university education to go to Spain. In his Quill and Quire interview, he says, “I wanted to experience what half the population of Toronto has experienced: dislocation, immigration. To break down my elements.” He lived in Spain for five years, teaching English and writing, then returned to Canada. In Going Home, two brothers who haven’t met for a while don’t get on.
Canadian writers have been writing about the world outside of Canada for decades now (random examples being MacLennan, Ondaatje, Vassanji, Birdsell, Mistry, Bergen). This year sees Shyam Selvadurai (who lives in both Toronto and Sri Lanka) with The Hungry Ghosts partly set in Colombo nominated for the GG, and Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid, set in post-war Vienna, nominated for the Giller. Living away and looking home (Laurence, Richler, Wilson, for example), or living at home and looking away.
But what do we say about Eleanor Catton, nominated for the GG for fiction for The Luminaries? Yes, the same book that just won the Man Booker Prize, the announcement for which includes that Catton is the second New Zealander and the youngest writer to have done so. Wait, what? New Zealander? Both her publisher (Granta) and the Man Booker prize website begin her biography with “born in Canada and raised in New Zealand.” More specifically, she was born in 1985 in London, Ontario, and left before starting school. Her New Zealand education finished up with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she also held an adjunct professorship, and an MA in fiction writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in New Zealand. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand. In a lovely piece in this weekend’s Guardian, Catton writes about growing up in New Zealand, describing family outings to view nature and landscape. Landscape — that’s a Canadian theme! We learn that her father is an expat American and that they didn’t have a car or a TV. Ok, maybe the content of her book is Canadian? Although I read and loved her first novel, The Rehearsal, of her second I have read only summaries, which say it is about the gold rush in New Zealand, and structured by horoscopes. Touring Canada to promote her book, Catton said (in the Toronto Star): “The connection with Canada has been alive my whole life…”
The issue of whether a writer is Canadian is not new to Canlit; in its nationalistic heyday there were differences of opinion over Saul Bellow (American despite his birthplace), Malcolm Lowry, Brian Moore, Mavis Gallant (redeemed by Home Truths) and Sara Jeannette Duncan (defended splendidly by Misao Dean, who argues in A Different Point of View that what counts is not residency but themes and identity). Off track for a moment, I would like to mention that the Man Booker Prize expanded eligibility for entry for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of their author. (Before that it was restricted to the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe.) The inclusion of the United States has upset some English writers (check out this Guardian report). But some among the young crowd are ok with that change, such as Eleanor Catton, who says in the Weekly Roundup of the Man Booker site, “I think it’s a really great thing that finally we’ve got a prize that is an English-language prize that doesn’t make a distinction for writers who are writing from a particular country.”
The Canada Council’s guidelines for book publishers define submission eligibility: “Publishers should note that the award is for literary and artistic excellence; they should submit only books that they deem to be outstanding in these regards. • Books must be first foreign or first Canadian edition trade books that have been written, translated or illustrated by Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada (they do not need to be residing in Canada).”
So I have to ask the question: should Eleanor Catton’s publisher have submitted her book? Given that prizes and awards boost book sales, and if the book is excellent, then the answer might seem obvious. What do you think?
- Catton wins the Governor General’s Award for Literature (canadacouncil.ca)
- Ms. Catton spoke of her affinity for Canada (globeandmail.com)
- Man Booker announcement (manbookerprize.com)
- Governor General’s Literary awards announced November 13 (canadacouncil.ca)
- Scotiabank Giller Prize announced November 5 (scotiabank.com)