Changing the Face of Canadian Literature. Guernica Editions
Dane Swan opens this anthology of more than seventy poems and short prose pieces by bluntly reminding readers that—until very recently—in Canadian literature “the recognition of authors from non Anglo Saxon cultures (in more than a token manner) . . . has been abysmal.” He sets out to celebrate “diversity” rather than multiculturalism, using this term to embrace a wide range of writers from diverse places, and of diverse ethnicities, abilities, and genders. Swan makes a convincing case, in both the foreword and the rest of the collection, that diversity is not simply a nod to political correctness or inclusivity. As he confidently announces, “[t]he more diverse a nation’s writers are, the wider the breadth of people who feel they are part of that nation.”
Although this is not a collection of work from novice writers—the contributors all have previous publications to their credit—the pieces included are almost exclusively new to anthologies of Canadian writing. Using broad criteria for inclusion—the quality of writing, as well as how effectively the texts engage readers—Swan presents the work of thirty Canadian writers, most of whom (I suspect) will be unfamiliar to scholars, instructors, and readers. Outlining his process, he explains that fifty writers were invited to contribute to the anthology, many of whom “said yes, and most submitted work that was accepted”; however, Swan provides no clue as to the editorial process involved in narrowing so many submissions down to the work of only thirty writers.
The chosen pieces emphasize reflexive personal writing and first-person narratives, with more creative non-fiction than would appear in a traditional literary anthology. No doubt challenging a reader’s inclination to classify or categorize, Swan eschews any obvious or conventional organizational principle. Instead, writers are simply numbered from one to thirty, followed by the titles of the texts which follow. Biographical introductions remain short, typically identifying a place (or places) of residence, previous publications, a place of employment or study, hobbies, marital status, or the focus of an individual’s writing. No direct references are made to age or ethnicity.
Not surprisingly, many of the works explore issues of identity, often in the context of contemporary Canadian society. They sometimes predictably challenge concepts of belonging and the ubiquitous “where are you really from?”-type questions, though they also explore contradictions and more subtle fluidities of place and belonging. While I’m reluctant to identify favourites in a collection which challenges categories and hierarchies, here are a few entries I find especially compelling and memorable, followed by a brief quotation from each.
The persona in Adam Pottle’s evocative narrative poem, “School for the Deaf,” describes how
When you speak or try
to speak, it’s like laying an egg through your mouth,
like balancing a tire on your throat,
like lifting a barbell with your tongue,
hoping it doesn’t tip or catch on a corner.
The second of Sennah Yee’s “5 Haiku for/from Canada” declares: “you’re frightened that I’ve / flourished right in the hyphen / that you’ve slapped on me.” And Jennilee Austria’s “The Kayaking Lesson” explores racism, Canadian-style, in a deft and comical way. After Chris, a kayaking instructor, has proudly shown off his two sentences of Tagalog—“May-gan-da ka! May-hal ki-ta!” (“‘You’re beautiful’ and ‘I love you’”)—the narrator reflects: “I rested my paddle across the kayak, pretending to stretch my arms. My mom told me that if men ever said things like that to a Filipina, it was because they were trying to marry one.”
What lingers are the voices. As the best anthologies do, this one left me seeking more words from these writers; I found myself following up on websites and publications, noting names and titles, thinking about potential course readings. The entries are works which we, as scholars, critics, and instructors of Canadian literature and culture, should know and should teach. Swan closes the preface with this pronouncement: “Congratulations Canada, you finally have a literature that looks like the people who inhabit you. Do not take this moment for granted.” Buy this book, share it, and, if you have the opportunity, teach it!
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