Tomson Highway cover

“Where we did spend time was out on the land, a remarkable land, a beautiful land, a land not seen to this day by the most adventurous of Europeans, whether fur trader, missionary, prospector, cartographer, or Avon saleswoman.”
—Tomson Highway, p. 6.

“Speaking only one language is like wearing the same grey coat day in and day out. It’s boring. You’re boring.”
—Tomson Highway, p. 34.

The Canadian Literature Centre (CLC) at the University of Alberta hosts the CLC Kreisal Lecture series. Named after author and professor Henry Kreisel. With the University of Alberta Press, they publish them individually as little books — monographs? chapbooks? I have selected two, both of which are very entertaining and pertinent to Canadian Writers Abroad.

I’ll begin with Tomson Highway’s A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance; Imagining Multilingualism, because I heard him give the Margaret Laurence lecture at Harbourfront, and could hear him as I read, talking fast. He begins with his birth [in 1951] at four corners, in a snowbank. On learning Latin at the Jesuit boarding school, where he sang in the choir, he writes playfully, “back in my days as a boy soprano—I loved wrapping my hot little tongue around some good, hot Latin.” (p. 22)

Tomson Highway‘s 2014 Kreisal talk, some of which he repeated last June (especially nice to have the Cree in print), is a brief life story with a point to make: learn languages. He himself began life with Dene and Cree, picked up some Inuktituk, went on to learn Latin and French at boarding school, then English at highschool in Winnipeg, then more French and some Spanish while living in France with his partner for 13 years. And music. With words that range from professorial (“entailed”) to mundane (“butt-freezing”), he sets a lively tone to make his case.

Speaking one language, I submit, is like living in a house with one window only; all you see is that one perspective when, in point of fact, dozens, hundreds, of other perspectives exist and one must, at the very least, heed them, see them, hear them. —Tomson Highway, p. 20.
In fact, I would even venture to say that forcing your own one language down another person’s throat is not entirely unlike breaking into his house and stealing his spirit.
—Tomson Highway, p. 34.

And how is one to come by these perspectives, these languages, if one is not so fortunate as to be born in a snow bank? “The school is called world travel. Go spend a year in Ecuador and pick up Spanish….” (p. 34)

Atwood coverWhich is exactly what young Canadian writers were told to do, according to Margaret Atwood in her informal talk two years later — The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s.

The writers and books we admired were likely to come from elsewhere. Thus we young writers in 1960 thought—and indeed were told by older writers, should we be lucky enough to encounter any—that if we wanted to amount to anything we would have to leave Canada for larger places where there was actually some culture, such as New York or London. Many writers a decade older than us had done just that: Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant, and Margaret Laurence were all living abroad at this time—not that any of us had heard of them as yet.
—Margaret Atwood, p.33.

Did Atwood leave? She doesn’t say in this talk, which ranges from ladies’ undergarments to the All-Star Eclectic Typewriter Revue, from schooling in the bible and Shakespeare and comics to starting a publishing company. Atwood’s talk is, as Atwood ever is, dryly amusing.

But her bio note on the cover tells us: “She has lived, studied, and worked in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, Alliston, and Boston, as well as England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Germany.” And I thought I was a jet-setter! Dates are given on the website of Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s talk tries to sum up a decade from various angles, finally coming to the question: “What did we think we were doing, we young writers of that decade?” (p. 42) Experimenting. Describing the landscape in new ways.
She concludes, like Highway, with an exhortation for her audience: “Make new life forms! Create new fossils for future generations to unearth. Plunge in.” (p.43)

There you go, the advantages of the perspectives of time and place.



  • Tomson Highway (Gatineau, Quebec) was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in the Governor General’s 2021 list, “for his sustained and distinguished contributions to theatre and Canadian culture as one of our foremost playwrights and novelists.”
  • Margaret Atwood became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1973 and then Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981. Her most recent award: she is on the Canadian stamp.
  • You can listen to Tomson Highway‘s 2018 Margaret Laurence Lecture at the Writer’s Trust of Canada.

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor


  1. These two are among my favourites in this series. Highway’s I read when it was new and I just discovered the Atwood volume this month (while scouring the library catalogue for Margaret Atwood Reading Month). Eden Robinson’s was very interesting too!


    1. I’ll have to look out for the Robinson one.


  2. I think you’re doing your bit, Debra!


Comments are closed.