In the 1970s, it was called the brain drain, but as early as 1890, when Wilfrid Laurier was Oppostion Leader, he spoke of “the cancer of emigration” to the United States. In this century, Hollywood seems to be the biggest draw, taking actors and comedians in order for them to have successful careers. The perpetual question for artistic types in Canada has been: do you need to leave the country in order to succeed? That may have been the case for writers in the 20th Century, but these days the question is: do you need to leave the country in order to make a living related to writing? Canadian Writers Abroad has come across several authors who live in the United States: Patrick deWitt, who is now a US citizen in Portland, Oregon, where Omar El Akkad also lives; Jack Wang (teaching in Ithaca, New York), Steven Hayward (teaching in Colorado), Madeleine Thien (teaching at Brooklyn College CUNY), Clark Blaise (New York), Magie Dominic (New York); and of course, Naomi Guttman, who teaches in the Literature and Creative Writing Department at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY (The Jane D. And Ellis E. Bradford ’45 Distinguished Writing Chair). Readers of Canadian Writers Abroad first met Guttman in May 2015, but I met her well before that, in Montreal. Nor can the lives these writers lead outside of Canada be considered a loss, neither drain nor cancer: they continue to write and publish in Canada and to garner awards. Naomi Guttman’s book, Reasons for Winter, won the 1992 A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. Wet Apples, White Blood, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), was co-winner of the Adirondack Center for Writers’ Best Book of Poems for 2007. Her novella-in-verse, The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera, (Brick Books, 2015) received the 2015 Central New York Book Award in Poetry. Guttman, who has also reviewed books for Canadian Writers Abroad, answers three questions for the tenth anniversary.
CWA: Where were you and what were you doing ten years ago?
Guttman: The miracle of Google calendar tells me that exactly ten years ago I was on a semester’s sabbatical. This allowed me to work on the manuscript of The Banquet of Donny & Ari, a novella in verse, that came out in the spring of 2015 with Brick Books. I took a figure drawing class from a colleague, and I produced a little foldy—a comic strip book—about my father’s father and the funny words he liked to make up. I had a few weeks of residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but mostly I was at home, reading and writing. I still had teenagers at home with me, so I guess I have slightly more time to myself now.
CWA: How do you balance work, life, writing?
Guttman: Not very well. Life seems to trump everything. Then I read Alice Munro and I say to myself—how does she do that?—and I want to turn life into art again.
CWA: What are you working on now?
Guttman: For the past few years, which have included a lot of “life” in the form of parental illness and death, I’ve been working on a personal documentary about my parents’ marriage, titled More Than You Can Know. Any time I see a movie, I watch the credits and think, “that’s why I could never make a movie.” All those people. And all those decisions. But now I’m in the middle of it, and the middle is taking forever. I’m constantly revising the script which means revising the film. It’s thrilling and humbling, but I persevere. I’m learning German as well — also humbling. Learning new things and teaching young people—my hope is that it all keeps me young.
- Wilfrid Laurier’s speech on “the cancer of emigration,” accessed via Wikipedia 25 Nov. 2022.
- The Writers’ Union of Canada 2015 Survey on income for writers.
- Quebec Writers Federation author’s page.
- Academic and author Adam Crymble explains why he is still teaching in the UK in “Canada’s Accidental Brain Drain,” University Affairs.
- Steven Hayward, “Proving Canada”: A Canadian Writer in the American Academy, in The Construction of Canadian Identity from Abroad, eds. Christopher Kirkey and Richard Nimijean, Springer International Publishing, 2022.
- Naomi Guttman’s website.