The Backwards Sobriquet

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Growing up in the Saint John River Valley meant a few things: (1) school would be reliably closed for at least one snow day a winter; (2) country music was pretty much inescapable; and (3) you’d have a higher-than-usual chance of somehow crossing paths with a poet. In what is atypical for Canadian public school education, the New Brunswick Ministry of Education seemed to publicize the Confederation Poets a lot in the curriculum, and perhaps that program made me more inclined to notice when actual poets appeared in the schools. Sheree Fitch came to Hubbard Avenue Elementary one time. So did a lesser-known figure, Michael O. Nowlan. And to anyone who cares, I tell you this: I first encountered the work of Travis Lane in 1993 on a bulletin board in the University of New Brunswick’s English Department. It took another fifteen years to meet her in person, but I remember being cheered that there were poets nearby who made the local news.

A lot of time has passed since I left the province in 1996 because I married an Ontarian. But I keep going back every year even though both my parents are dead, and one of the reasons is to stay close to poetry itself. For me, there’s something about being there that helps. It’s a secret some know, but too few. The skeptical among you might call this phenomenon a simple one, that of home upon the perpetual child in all of us, but I am not so certain. New Brunswick punches far above its weight when it comes to literary talent—if you cared to even discover this fact in the first place.

This review is less a skeptical analysis of a text and more a love letter, one penned after long pining. Moreover, New Brunswick at the Crossroads is a book that I welcome heartily as a platform upon which to conduct my own projects designed to assist and examine Maritimers generally and the writers of New Brunswick specifically. Though New Brunswick did a fair job within its borders of cherishing its notables, in my opinion, the same can’t be said outside the confines of the Picture Province. Scholarly journals do their best to cover literature in this country, but somehow the writers of and from New Brunswick don’t make the same impressions upon national stages. Editor Tony Tremblay in his preface and introduction characterizes the lack of serious attention paid to writers from the province as a “paucity of scholarly work on the province”: “To put the matter bluntly, New Brunswick has been characterized by a paucity of venues for, and scholarly personnel committed to, critical explorations of provincial culture and heritage.” New Brunswick literature is an “understudied” and “neglected field.” If that doesn’t emphasize the point enough, we encounter the strongest signal here: “Both as signifier and site of production, then, New Brunswick continues to be the least studied province in the country.” For some, this repetition might seem a little much, especially when the point is rebroadcast again in the book’s foreword and afterword; but for a poet like me who comes from the province, one who has watched, baffled, as the nation fails to clothe its designated literary emperors from BC and Ontario, the point can’t be emphasized enough. To overcome the sobriquet of backwardness that still afflicts writers from this place, one has to know how far back such stigma goes and how far back it falsely places us. To redress this matter, Tremblay has edited a scholarly text that uses as organizing metaphor and theory a “literary ferment” model that borrows from the fields of cultural geography and spatial theory. I report with great pleasure that the text is strong scholarship and adds much to the multi-aforementioned “paucity.” A foreword by Christl Verduyn surveys the crowded field of Canadian/regional literary histories and multidisciplinarity, placing New Brunswick at the Crossroads in a similarly fermenting national context. From there, Gwendolyn Davies covers Loyalist literature, Chantal Richard covers the first Acadian Renaissance, Thomas Hodd considers Fredericton as a living place among its (Confederation) writers, Tremblay refreshingly moves into a more recent context with his take on the emergent modernism of the mid-twentieth century, and Marie-Linda Lord updates Acadian literature using the similar frame of modernism, albeit up to the end of the twentieth century. At the end, David Creelman summarizes the various threads. The result is a magnificent, if necessarily episodic and partial, analysis of two of New Brunswick’s literatures, and I encourage the rest of the nation to peek at how the book’s blend of multidisciplinarity can be used for wider application. Even if a reader isn’t interested in reading another study of historical writers (albeit with the rarity of being from the backward place I was born to), there is much to recommend this book in terms of methodology.

I mention a single—but important—criticism in brief to balance the analysis of this long-overdue text. To begin with, New Brunswick needs more analysis of contemporary writing, especially in the English case, and to stop in the middle of the twentieth century is to remain in the realm of that academic cliché—the safely dead. English-language writers still drawing breath could benefit from the attention of Tremblay’s research team, too. (Full disclosure: my main critical activity is to cover these very writers.) Furthermore, there is more to New Brunswick than English and French, a fact acknowledged by Tremblay in his introduction when he mentions the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik peoples. The lack of investigation of Indigenous writing in New Brunswick at the Crossroads is explained by Tremblay as a temporal problem:

Had we extended our treatment of ferment forward, however, or had we undertaken this work twenty-five years into the future, we would have included the cultural moments fermenting today, foremost among those the excitation in First Nations communities. New Brunswick’s First Nations artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers are mobilizing currently, as are First Nations artists in other parts of Canada; however, that mobilization is current and thus out of our (admittedly historical) purview.

Although there is a basis for the claim, it’s too easy a claim for me and one that costs the people who, again, are alive now, not only Indigenous writers but also settler and diasporic populations who aren’t just writing in French and English. To truly escape the backwards sobriquet, there needs to be more scholarly attention placed on matters anterior to the distant past while acknowledging the present pastness inherent to any supposed new idea, technique, or vantage point.

I conclude by expressing my delight at having a place to start, to stand on, to build past and beyond while also acknowledging the present pastness of Herb Wyile, someone who I sorely missed in the text due to his untimely death a few years ago. I like to think how Wyile himself would review this book that renders backwardness as a boomerang.

This review “The Backwards Sobriquet” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 170-172.

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