I was very tempted to call this entry “The Martels” because in explaining why Yann Martel should be included in Canadian Writers Abroad, I must mention his parents, Émile and Nicole (née Perron). Yann Martel hardly needs the help of Canadian Writers Abroad to promote his work, made famous as he was by Life of Pi and its film adaptation by Ang Lee. Yet he is very much one of our subjects.
Yann Martel’s father, Émile Martel, is a poet and short story writer whose book, Pour orchestre et poète seul, won the Governor General’s Award for French-language poetry in 1995. Émile and Nicole were pursuing post-graduate studies in Salamanca, Spain, when Yann Martel was born in 1963. About a month after his birth they moved to Coimbra, Portugal, where his father took Portuguese language lessons for five or six weeks. From 1963 to 1965 the family lived in Alaska, where his father taught French and Spanish literature. First his father then his mother joined what was then the Department of Foreign Affairs and is now Global Affairs Canada. The Martels lived in Costa Rica (1969-1971) and France (1972-1975). For employees of Global Affairs Canada worrying about what will become of their dip brats growing up neither here nor there, Yann is a good news story.
Yann Martel returned to France (1987-1991), lived there again for a year some time later, and lived in Mexico from 1985-1986. Otherwise, he lived in Canada or was travelling abroad. These travels included year-long stints in India and Germany (where he also taught). Some of his travels are referred to in his book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? (Vintage Canada 2009), when he writes from Bath, from London, England and from a “small Polish town” better known by its German name Auschwitz. The full version of his attempt to humanize Harper is: 101 Letters to a Prime Minister: The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper (2012). One of the books he gave has since been republished with a Foreword by Martel: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (London: Fourth Estate 2015).
In a BBC Radio 5 In Short clip of 15 February 2016, Yann talked about the letters to Harper, explaining that one of his motives is that reading and travel are “unsettling.” Mentioning that he got a letter from President Obama (but never from Harper) he said, “I’m Canadian — that’s the only passport I have. I’m Canadian.”
Martel’s previous novels were Beatrice & Virgil (2010), which caused some controversy by examining the holocaust through animals, and Self (1996), which questions sexual identity. Both were preceded by the story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993). Another collection of short stories came out in 2004: We Ate the Children Last. Martel wrote in favour of zoos in his Foreword to a reprint of A General History of Quadrupeds by Thomas Bewick (The University of Chicago Press facsimile of the 1885 memorial edition, 2009). Bestselling Life of Pi (2001) won the 2002 Man Booker prize and the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.
Émile and Nicole Martel are Yann’s translators, having translated Life of Pi into French (L’Histoire de Pi, Montréal-London: XYZ éditeur, 2003), Béatrice et Virgile (Montréal: XYZ éditeur, 2010), and the letters sent to Harper. In the Introduction to What is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann thanks his parents: “They are true citizens of the arts, and to them I owe not only love but gratitude. If I love to read and write, it is because they showed me by example.” (p. 11)