Astute readers of Canadian Writers Abroad may have noticed that Wayne Grady’s name is twined with Merilyn Simonds‘s. Indeed, they are together in their personal lives as well as their working lives – they co-authored the U.S. road-trip memoir, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe (Greystone Books 2010). Each has pursued a prolific writing career. Wayne Grady began with nonfiction publications from the 1990s onward, on dinosaurs, coyotes, vultures, deserts, technology, and the effects of global warming on the North Pole. The book he co-authored with David Suzuki, Tree: a life story (Greystone 2004) was revised to consider climate change, and reissued in 2018. He has also translated books by Antonine Maillet, Yves Beauchemin and Dany Laferrière, among others.
Since 2013, he has published three novels with Doubleday: Emancipation Day (winner of the 2013 Amazon First Novel Award), Up From Freedom (2018), and The Good Father (2021). His most recent book is Pandexicon: How the Language of the Pandemic Defined Our New Cultural Reality, which will be published this fall by Greystone Books.
Below is his essay on how life abroad, and all that that entails, has affected his work.
Learning to Listen: A Canadian writer in Mexico
By Wayne Grady
In 2012, my wife Merilyn Simonds and I first came to Mexico, when Merilyn was invited to a literary festival in San Miguel de Allende. We returned to San Miguel the next year and stayed for a month. The year after that we took a house for two months. We now live six months in San Miguel and six months in Canada, and are in the process of applying for permanent residency so we can stay longer if we wish.
For the previous thirty years, I had written only nonfiction. Then my first novel, Emancipation Day, was published in 2013, and it’s interesting to me that my switch from writing nonfiction to fiction coincided with my spending large stretches of time abroad. Are those two major changes in my life related? Is there something about living in a foreign land that steered my brain from nonfiction to fiction? Or something about Mexico that says fiction, and, by extension, something about Canada that says fact?
The idea would be that the climate in Canada keeps you tethered to reality, because if you wander about with your head in the clouds you’re liable to be found in the morning frozen into a snowbank. There was something of this idea in Northrop Frye’s contention that Canadians feared and distrusted Nature. They built garrisons to keep Nature out and them in. And it’s true that we still spend a great deal of time and energy defending ourselves against the elements, that is when we’re not busy trying to destroy the environment that harbours them.
But that would suggest that nonfiction is the predominant mode of writing in Canada, and it isn’t. Google “Top Five Canadian Writers” and you’ll find a pantheon of writers made up entirely of fiction writers: Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry. The climate may have something to do with the fact that Canadian fiction tends to realism; there aren’t a lot of experimental writers in Canada. Even those writers who left Canada – Sinclair Ross, Norman Levine, Isabel Huggan, to name a few – write fiction so realistic it’s often taken for memoir (Levine’s short stories actually were memoir).
Latin American writers, on the other hand, revel in experimentation. Latin America is the birthplace of magic realism: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño. Foreign writers who came to live in Mexico tended to the ethereal. Leanora Carrington, for example, though better known for her symbolist paintings and sculptures, while here wrote wonderfully bizarre short stories. Antonin Artaud, author of The Theatre and its Double, developed his theory of the Theatre of Cruelty while living in Mexico. And, of course, Malcolm Lowry wrote his hallucinatory novel Under the Volcano while living in Cuernavaca. The Mexico depicted by writers is real, but it’s a paradoxical reality, a fictional reality yoked to practicality. Many of Carrington’s most imaginative sculptures were conceived as furniture.
Moving to a country where the language isn’t your language, the climate isn’t your climate, the street sounds are different, the birds are strange, the food isn’t what you’re used to, and you don’t know which ATMs are safe, is unsettling. Writing a novel after thirty years of nonfiction, when you don’t know if a chronological structure will work, or if using the close-third distances the reader, or what’s going to happen next, or how it’s all going to end, is also unsettling. That the two unsettlements should coincide seems understandable to me. As the world has learned from COVID, you can’t shake up the body without rearranging the mind.
Graham Greene spent two months in Mexico in 1938 and wrote two books about it, one a work of nonfiction (The Lawless Roads) and the other a novel (The Power and the Glory). Both deal with the aftermath of the Cristero War, when the federal government outlawed religious practice and violently put down a populist rebellion in support of the Church. Greene, a convert to Catholicism, seems to have decided before coming here that a country that rejected religion was moving backwards into barbarism, and The Lawless Roads reflected this bias. He found the food inedible, the weather oppressive, even the trains were uncomfortable.
But The Power and the Glory is one of Greene’s best novels. Although criticized in England for being “paradoxical” – perhaps because the novel’s characters had little glory and less power – John Updike called it “Greene’s masterpiece.” The novel’s protagonist, an unnamed whisky priest, is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction, and there is about the novel an air of resigned sadness that is Greene’s trademark. Something about Mexico fuelled Greene’s fictional fire in way it did not when he wrote the travel book: in The Lawless Roads, when he couldn’t manipulate the facts, he simply ignored them. In The Power and the Glory, when conflicts arose, he confronted them.
For me, coming to Mexico was a risk. Writing a novel was also a risk. As Carlos Fuentes has observed, “without risk there is no art.” It may be that taking ourselves out of familiar surroundings reawakens our dormant survival instincts. Our brains wake up and begin asking important questions: Can I eat this? Is this a threat? None of the old rules apply. Everything looks like a risk. And our writerly selves glory in this newness.
I may be simplifying – or inventing – the process, but since coming to Mexico I have begun to see the world from a new perspective. COVID has intensified my experience of Mexico, rather than distracting me from it, and intensity seems to lend itself to a more interior exploration. Nature writing, science writing, travel writing, feel more ‘out there’ than ‘in here.’ To go back to Graham Greene, when he wrote The Lawless Roads, Mexico wasn’t talking to him, he was talking to Mexico. When he wrote The Power and the Glory, he was listening to Mexico.
The owner of the small grocery story on our street in San Miguel often has a green parrot perched on his right shoulder. As the man places my avocados on the weigh scales and punches in the price, the parrot steadies itself by worrying the top button of the man’s jacket with its beak. There was a time, when I was writing nonfiction, when I would have asked the man what he thought of the take-over by organized crime of the lucrative avocado industry in the neighbouring state of Michoacan. But now I’m more interested in the parrot.
- The Good Father is listed on CBC’s The Best Canadian Fiction of 2021.
- Grady’s essay on living in nature, “We Love the Wilderness. Do we wreck it when we move in?” at Cottage Life, 6 May 2021.
- Check out his series on dubious maxims at Wayne Grady.
- Find his novels at Doubleday’s author site (PenguinRandomhouse).
- Review of The Good Father, Toronto Star (25 April 2021).
- Review of Up From Freedom, Quill and Quire (Sept. 2018).
- Also by Wayne Grady: The Bone Museum (Viking, 2000), The Quiet Limit of the World (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1998), Bringing Back the Dodo (McClelland and Stewart, 2006) and Chasing the Chinook: on the trail of Canadian words and culture (Viking 1998).
Header photo and author photo by Merilyn Simonds.