Editing The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature (December 2009)

Photo credit: Michelle Mayne L – R: Coral Ann Howells, Laura Potter, Eva-Marie Kröller

by Manuela Costantino


This email interview, conducted in December 2009 by Manuela Costantino, invites Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kröller, co-editors of The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature (2009) to reflect on their experience of editing the volume. Also participating are Sarah Stanton (Editor, Cambridge University Press); Réjean Beaudoin and André Lamontagne (authors of the chapter on fiction in French); and Alfred Hornung (author of the chapter on transnational life-writing.


Manuela Costantino (MC): Why did Cambridge University Press decide to publish this book?

Sarah Stanton (SS): Cambridge decided to commission a History of Canadian Literature within its programme of Cambridge Histories (multi-author reference works) because we recognized that there was a clear library and institutional market for such a history, within Canada, but even more so within the USA (our largest single market for academic books of this kind) and Europe. That recognition was based on the self-evident distinction of Canadian writing, on the number of degree courses on the topic, and on the success of our recently publishedCambridge Companion to Canadian Literature, a very different book (in level and extent) but tackling essentially the same subject area in abbreviated and student-friendly form. Is it appropriate to add that I myself am a keen reader of Canadian fiction? That of course should be no part of a tough-minded commercial decision to go ahead, but it added impetus to the decision-making process!

MC: Why did Cambridge University Press approach Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kröller to edit this volume?

SS: Each is expert in the field, with somewhat different specialties—a good thing. Each had been highly efficient and successful volume editor of a previous Companion, Kröller on Canadian Literature and Howells on Margaret Atwood. They knew each other and thought they could work well together. They also represent different constituencies, Canada and the UK, and therefore markets, so would be likely to commission a wide range of contributors, which would appeal to readers globally. They are also lovely people to work with, with a keen sense of timetable and well connected within the field, therefore likely to attract the best authors and, eventually, reviewers.

MC: How did the fact that you are international and multilingual scholars affect your editing of the book?

Eva-Marie Kröller (EMK): As Sarah Stanton has already pointed out, we teach at British and Canadian universities respectively and so bring these two different perspectives into the picture. As well, we maintain strong professional and personal connections with our countries of origin, Australia and Germany, and were able to draw on a large network of international scholars of Canadian and Commonwealth literature. Finally, we are both francophiles, and one particularly enjoyable part of the collaboration was the ability to ruminate with a knowledgeable partner about the elusive meaning of a caption in Old French, for example.

Coral Ann Howells (CAH): I think our own international backgrounds as teachers and conference goers over many years have served us well as editors, because we have both gained a good working knowledge of who is doing what in Canadian and postcolonial studies. For a book like this dealing with such a mass of materials, we needed to be able to identify scholars with certain areas of expertise, and to find comparativists who are familiar with both anglophone and francophone literatures—something we have been able to do. We have contributors from Canada and the USA, also from Britain (both of whom are Australians), France, Germany, and Spain. To end on a trans-Canadian note, I might add that the chapter on fiction in French was written by two francophone scholars from Quebec, who teach at UBC, and the chapter on poetry in French by a scholar from Franco-Ontario, who teaches at the University of Ottawa.

MC: Did the fact that you are women play an important role in the editing of the volume?

CAH: Yes. We are women scholars and feminist scholars, and as a result we are naturally interested in writing by women. At the same time, this is a history of Canadian literature, not a specialized work, and we have made every effort to be inclusive. Inclusiveness seems to be the direction that literary studies are now taking, so that we find academic interest has shifted to gender studies and queer writing rather than being exclusively feminist-focused; also, there is a great deal of interest in Aboriginal writing, Black Canadian writing, diasporic and transnational writing. We could say that women’s writing is a significant component in any revisionist approach to history, but our book is not woman-centered, either in its content or in its contributors.

EMK: As the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature, it was interesting to me when several reviewers pointed out that a chapter entitled “Writing by Women” was no longer apropos. I am not sure I agree with the implication that such a chapter suggests a ghetto, but it was clear nevertheless that even feminist scholars perceived a shift toward broader questions of gender and sexuality. For the History, we ensured that previously neglected women writers were brought to the fore or that discussion about the ones who were already known was brought up to date. The chapters by Carole Gerson, Janice Fiamengo, and Irene Gammel are fine examples, along with these scholars’ exemplary ability to place their authors in broader aesthetic and ideological contexts.

MC: How did you approach collaborative work?

CAH: I think this is the first time that either of us has worked with a co-editor on such a large project, and we began as we have continued, with shared decision making and explicit divisions of work load between us, a plan we have followed at every stage, right up to the bibliography and index and the final proof checking. I can also recall working our way through several draft versions of our proposal, with many emails exchanged and sometimes anxious phone calls till we had got it into a state acceptable to CUP and their assessors. It has been very reassuring to have a collaborator as dedicated and knowledgeable as Professor Kröller with whom to debate difficult questions which have ranged from matters of content and arrangement to matters of orthography and punctuation—should we have a capital on a certain word or not? Should there be a comma in here? It has been hard work but very rewarding, and on the basis of our experience, I would strongly recommend editorial collaboration.

EMK: We met for intensive work sessions at UBC and in London, but above all we communicated by email and telephone: we exchanged approximately 3,500 emails over the course of four years between the two of us alone. The collaborative process of course also includes the contributors to the volume, and for particularly complex sections of the History, such as Aboriginal writing and literature in French, we worked in consultation with the authors—with some of them so frequently that they are also cited in the Acknowledgements in recognition of their exceptional collegiality. May I also say that Professor Howells and I began this process as colleagues who respected and liked each other. Through four sometimes enormously challenging years, we have now become the closest of friends.

MC: What is the purpose of the book?

CAH: Our purpose is to provide an up-to-date scholarly history of Canadian literature from its beginnings, and to include writing in both English and French. Any 21st century literary history is written in the context of changing discourses of nationhood, history, and even definitions of what “literature” means, and our history takes into account the new theoretical perspectives which have influenced critical methodology since the 1980s.

EMK: Bearing in mind that a literary history is both a story of the nation’s heritage and a stocktaking in the present, our challenge has been to strike a balance between 400 years of literary production in Canada and a nuanced assessment of writing in the last four decades, which have been crucial to changing definitions of Canadian literature and led to a restructuring of Canada’s literary traditions. And indeed we have devoted over half of our 31 chapters to this period with its proliferation of new writing and immensely diversified perspectives.

MC: How did this purpose affect your selection criteria, volume outline, sources used?

CAH: As for design, we wanted to incorporate both a historical narrative showing the distinctive patterns of a developing nation over time, and also literary challenges to the ideology of nation, for Canada’s literary history has always been a fractured discourse. Though at first glance our volume may look like a traditional literary history with its chronological base design and its treatment of canonical genres, a closer look reveals our revisionist approach. (We work subversively rather than confrontationally, which is maybe “a woman’s way.”)

We include discussion of many non-canonical genres, like the chapters on Victorian nature writing by Christopher Irmscher (which also connects with contemporary environmentalist writing) and David Staines on influential cultural criticism, also chapters on genre transgression like Ian Rae’s, or chapters and figures which transcend historical periodization—take Robert Thacker’s lengthy discussion of Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro for example, or Susan Fisher’s chapter on writings about the Great War. DMR Bentley and Michael Peterman, both of whom have intensively researched 19th century cultural liaisons between Canada and USA, discuss book history and cross-border and transatlantic publishing around the time of Confederation, suggesting that globalization in the industry has a long history in Canada. And then as I have said, we come to the profusion and diversity of the contemporary period, which marks the coming to prominence of Aboriginal writing, multicultural and transnational writing, necessitating a radical revision of what CanLit means.

EMK: Cambridge University Press was clear from the start that they wanted a reference work that met the scholarly standards of the Histories, a series that had its beginning more than 100 years ago. The typical audience of these volumes is users of a university library, but we also aimed for a level of discourse that avoided excessively specialized language in order to make the book more generally accessible. An impeccably researched scholarly apparatus such as a chronology, master bibliography, scholarly notes, and index along with illustrations and maps are an important part of the reference function of the volume. To assist us with the task of ensuring accuracy, we were fortunate to have two excellent research assistants, Laura Potter and Melanie Sanderson (Triemstra), both of whom had—not accidentally—been trained as editorial assistants atCanadian Literature.

MC: How did you approach Aboriginal writing?

EMK: As it should, the History deals with Aboriginal writing from chapter one onwards, where Barbara Belyea, who is also an expert in the study of Indigenous maps, discusses the complications of spoken and written language in the first contacts between Aboriginal societies and the French. Discussions of Indigenous writing are threaded throughout the volume, in addition to specialized chapters.  Both of the chapters on contemporary Aboriginal writing were produced in collaboration with Indigenous authors. Lally Grauer and Armand Ruffo co-authored the chapter on poetry and prose, drawing extensively on their network among Aboriginal writers, as did Helen Gilbert, a specialist in Pacific Aboriginal drama, who worked in close consultation with Daniel David Moses. We are particularly grateful to the Healthy Aboriginal Network for making images from one of their comic books available to us for inclusion in Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s chapter on comics and graphic novels.

CAH: Our contributors all pay attention to the survival of Indigenous oral traditions and to the political and social agendas coded into so much contemporary Aboriginal writing. Interestingly, they raise also questions about the different inflections that Aboriginal writers give to Western theoretical discourses around feminism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism, an area in which a lot more research needs to be done.

MC: Can you explain how you handled writing from francophone Canada? Why did you place the “Writing in French” section at the end of the volume? And why was the section written and/or translated into English?

EMK: The chronologies of Canadian writing in English and French are not identical. Simply alternating the two narratives was not an option because during extended periods the two had little, if anything, to do with each other, and the result would have been two parallel histories which would have been better served in separate volumes. On the other hand, it is impossible to tell the story of writing in English without the story of writing in French, and vice versa. We have addressed these and other complications by offering a variety of approaches (1) a side-by-side chronology of historical and literary events at the beginning of the volume, providing an overview; (2) a concentration on writing in French in the introductory chapters dealing with la Nouvelle-France; (3) chapters—by E. D. Blodgett, for example—discussing the sporadic but sometimes intense interaction between the two literatures; and (4) a three-chapter section—authored by Robert Yergeau, Jane Moss, and Réjean Beaudoin/André Lamontagne—discussing the major genres of writing in French on its own terms. This section appears at the end because it once more runs through the literary history of Canada from the beginning to the end, this time with an exclusive emphasis on production in French. The section is not an afterthought to the remainder of the volume.

The volume as a whole targets the anglophone reader. Citations are in the original, but translations are provided throughout. Two of the chapters were originally written in French, and they too were translated. Where available, published (and, in the case of drama, unpublished) translations into English are also cited.

CAH: We spent a great deal of time discussing the best way to deal with this significant component of Canadian literature in a volume addressed mainly to anglophone readers. Professor Kröller has described the choices we made and we have our francophone colleagues’ views in the following answers. I would just add that there are a few works which make their appearance in both anglophone and francophone contexts; I’m thinking here of Gabrielle Roy’sBonheur d’occasion translated into English as The Tin Flute, and of Roger Lemelin’s Les Plouffe/The Plouffe Family which was broadcast in the 1950s as a popular television series in both English and French on alternate evenings. And then more recently there are Robert Lepage’s polyphonic theatrical productions discussed by both Anne Nothof and Jane Moss in their chapters on drama.

Because Canada is officially a bilingual country, we tend to forget that there are some writers who write in neither English nor French, a topic which is touched on by Professor Kröller with her discussion of writing in Yiddish around the time of the Centennial and also by Neil ten Kortenaar in his chapter on multicultural writing.

MC: Comment concevez-vous la place et le role de la littérature francophone dans le contexte plus large de la littérature canadienne? Comment la section “Writing in French” reflète-t-elle ces idées?

[What place and purpose(s) does francophone literature have in the wider context of Canadian Literature? How are these reflected in the section on “Writing in French”?]

Réjean Beaudoin and André Lamontagne (RB and AL): Les littératures canadiennes de langue française et de langue anglaise ne sont pas naturellement intégrées dans la même institution littéraire. Les travaux de E. D. Blodgett, Clément Moisan et Philip Stratford ont souligné les écueils du comparatisme canadien. Cette distance historique tend toutefois à se réaménager et à se relativiser depuis quelques années. La récente Histoire de la littérature québécoise de Michel Biron, François Dumont et Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge va aussi dans ce sens en tenant compte des écrivains anglophones montréalais, ce qui est une innovation par rapport aux histoires littéraires précédentes. On pourrait citer aussi l’importante somme de La Vie littéraire au Québec qui fait place largement au contexte mondial et, bien sûr, nord-américain. Quant à notre chapitre du CHCL, les 19e et début du 20e s iècles reflètent la traditionnelle étanchéité des “deux solitudes” de naguère, mais l’évolution des corpus plus récents à la grandeur de la francophonie canadienne (Acadie et Ontario français, francophonie de l’Ouest) laissent entrevoir la dynamique canadienne actuelle dans sa complexe diversité.

[Francophone and anglophone Canadian literatures have not typically been integrated within the same literary tradition. E. D. Blodgett, Clément Moisan, and Philip Stratford have, in fact, highlighted the pitfalls of the comparative approach to Canadian literatures in both languages. Over the past few years, however, scholars have been re-examining and re-mapping the historical distance between these two literary traditions. The inclusion of Montreal anglophone writers in the Histoire de la littérature québécoise by Michel Biron, François Dumont and Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge indicates a rapprochement between the two literatures and innovatively adds to previous literary histories. We could also mention the important contribution of La vie littéraire au Québec, which acknowledges the significant role of the international but also North American contexts.

As for our chapter in the Cambridge History of Canadian Literature, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflect the traditional separation between the “two solitudes” of the past, but increasing interest in more recent texts from the vast francophone regions of Acadia, Ontario, and the west illustrates the current dynamics of Canadian literature and its complex diversity.]

Dans la composition de votre chapitre sur la fiction franco-canadienne, avez-vous pris des décisions d’écriture particulières pour accommoder un auditoire qui allait sans doute être en grande partie anglophone? Lesquelles et pourquoi?

[How did the fact that you were addressing a mostly anglophone audience affect the writing of your chapter on Franco-Canadian fiction?]

RB and AL: Pour nous, le principal défi consistait à trouver, dans le choix des auteurs retenus, un équilibre entre les canons anglophone et québécois de la fiction franco-canadienne, à reconnaître l’horizon d’attente d’un lectorat très majoritairement anglo-américain tout en tenant un discours critique enraciné dans l’institution littéraire québécoise. Le traitement de l’œuvre de Roch Carrier, si populaire au Canada anglais, est emblématique de cette problématique de la réception. Il fallait également adopter le ton juste entre une mise en contexte historique nécessaire pour comprendre la fiction franco-canadienne et une analyse suffisamment fine pour tenir compte des nouvelles orientations de la critique. Nous étions conscients de ce genre d’adaptation à la suite de notre enseignement de la littérature québécoise en milieu anglophone depuis plusieurs années. Enfin, après avoir lu dans sa traduction anglaise un texte que nous avions écrit en français, nous avons rectifié plusieurs passages pouvant prêter à confusion pour des raisons surtout d’écarts culturels ou de méconnaissance de spécificités historiques. 

[The principal challenge for us was two-fold: We had to select authors that would reflect the balance between the anglophone and Québécois canons of French-Canadian fiction and we needed to recognize the expectations of a mostly anglophone audience while engaging with the established critical discourse of theQuébécois literary institution. The treatment of Roch Carrier’s work, so popular in anglophone Canada, symbolizes the problems that reception elicits. We also needed to find the right balance between the historical contextualization necessary to understand French-Canadian fiction and a sufficiently sophisticated analysis that took into account the latest developments of scholarship in the field. Our years of teaching literature from Quebec in anglophone classrooms had made us aware of this kind of adaptation. Finally, after reading the English translation of our original text, we revised several passages that could be misinterpreted mostly because of cultural gaps or unfamiliarity with specific historical elements.]

MC: What will your audience find particularly useful in comparison with other literary histories?

CAH: Firstly I’d like to say that every new literary history has something distinctive to offer in updating our understanding of the nation’s literary traditions. Our volume attempts something new, but it also builds on the work of our predecessors: Carl F. Klinck’s pioneering Literary History first published in the 1960s which represents the beginning of the institutionalization of Canadian Literature, and most notably W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature (1989; 2ndedition 2003). His revisionist approach has been a major influence on our project, and his presence in our book with his kaleidoscopic chapter on the contemporary short story (paired with Gerald Lynch’s on earlier short fiction) eloquently expresses the connectivity between our work and what has come before.

We hope readers will find our in-depth representation of the contemporary period and our inclusion of francophone writing particularly useful, and also we hope they will appreciate the way that chapters interrelate across historical periods; I’m thinking not only of chapters which deal with historical fiction like E.D. Blodgett’s or Teresa Gibert’s or Neil ten Kortenaar’s analysis of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, but also the chapters on Canada’s poetic tradition by D.M. Bentley, Adrian Fowler and Kevin McNeilly.

EMK: In addition to features already discussed in response to previous questions, an important distinguishing feature of this volume is its length. At over 800 pages, it is larger than any other literary history of Canada currently available, and it contains the most detailed discussion currently on the market of writing from the post-sixties onwards. With the recent publication of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature and the planned publication of the Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, we also see this volume as a useful part of the current renaissance in the literary history of postcolonial countries. This renaissance with its emphasis on pluralism includes, perhaps surprisingly, the literary history of the United States, as Harvard UP’s recent A New Literary History of America illustrates. Among other innovations, this experimental volume pays closer attention to multiculturalism in the United States than previous publications on the subject.

MC: In his chapter on ‘multiculturalism and globalization,’ Neil ten Kortenaar claims that écriture migrante has become the dominant mode of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, in what way can Canadian literature be said to have always been écriture migrante?

EMK: As, for example, Bruce Greenfield’s chapter on explorers’ narratives and Marta Dvorák’s discussion of writing related to migrations and multiple allegiances from Frances Brooke to Thomas Chandler Haliburton make clear, global mobilities have always affected Canadian literature to some extent. We found particularly interesting the case of the Black United Empire Loyalists, because of the bestselling success of Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes and because of George Elliott Clarke’s role as educator in keeping the public memory of this particular migration alive. Mobility, as imperialist quest or as enforced exile, is a key theme in Canadian writing that deserves to be studied further.

CAH: This is a very interesting question in the way that it uncouples literature from nation and discourses of nationhood, making space for the multiple and often competing narratives that have been a feature of Canadian literature. By projecting the contemporary emphasis on diasporic and transnational writing backwards, your question points to a way of understanding the relation between the present and the past differently—and thathighlights the need for a book like ours that offers a reappraisal of Canadian literary history!

MC: What makes Canadian literature a special case?

EMK: Canadian literature shares its multilingualism and multiculturalism with a number of other literatures, especially those within the former Commonwealth: see, for example, the even more complicated case of writing of South Africa. However, Canada was the first country to implement an official policy of multiculturalism and the cultural production motivated and protected by it can be said to provide a model for other cultures with similar features and challenges. We have paid close attention to the cultural institution throughout to illustrate some of the developments involved. For example, our own chapters use the Governor General’s Literary Awards and the Centennial as organizing principles.

CAH: Taking up Professor Kröller’s point about multiculturalism, I think one of the features that makes Canadian literature a special case is its ability to respond imaginatively to cultural change. We could find examples from any period, but this characteristic is most remarkable in the changes since the 1960s, from Klinck and Frye’s eurocentric emphasis on the “garrison mentality” and “wilderness” to the emergence of a multicultural society which has generated an increasingly diversified literary production. Canadian literature has reinvented itself in the postcolonial globalized context.

MC: Your chapter, “Transcultural Life-Writing,” speaks directly to my own area of research in life-writing. I was particularly interested in the fact that your contribution illustrates how globalization and increased migration have brought to the foreground the work of transcultural life-writers and the ways in which it “challenge[s] beliefs in national allegiance and geographical boundaries” (537). Can you explain how, in your view, these life-writers and their texts alter our understanding of what constitutes a Canadian writer?

Alfred Hornung: All writers I discuss define their selves with regard to at least two different countries and to several different political affiliations. All of them oscillate between their places of origin—whether inside or outside of Canada—and their Canadian residence. Thus, Canada figures as only one of several countries of reference. Although all writers express pride in being Canadian citizens, they seem to be both self-conscious and confident about this political allegiance. The adoption or re-confirmation of Canadian citizenship mostly in their adult lives differs radically from the national birth-right of other Canadians. It is no exaggeration to view this transcultural basis as a particularly meaningful form of citizenship.

As Gertrude Stein argued almost 100 years ago: “every writer needs to have two countries: one to be born in and one to live in.” In the 21st century this situation is intensified. Thanks to increased mobility and migration, the fixed attribution to one nation is superseded by a flexible interpretation of political identity beyond the conventional parameters of nation states. The concrete experience of different cultures and languages imparts special expertise to writers in reflecting on transcultural points of view. This understanding of what it means to be Canadian incorporates cultural features from around the world, thus enhancing the canon of the country’s literature. As a result, the Canadian writer of the 21st century joins other contemporary writers in writing for a global readership.

MC: I want to thank everybody for participating in this interview.


Manuela Costantino is Associate Dean, Faculty of Language, Literature, and Performing Arts at Douglas College in Vancouver. She taught in the Department of English and the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include migrant life writing, world literature, and Middle-Eastern studies.

Coral Ann Howells is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for English Studies at the University of London and Professor Emerita at the University of Reading, and she has repeatedly served as a member of Canadian Literature‘s editorial board. Her numerous publications include the Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (2006) and the forthcoming Oxford History of the Novel in English, volume 12, co-edited with Paul Sharrad and Gerry Turcotte. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Eva-Marie Kröller is Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, and she was Editor of Canadian Literature from 1995 to 2003. Her publications include the Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature (2004) and its forthcoming second edition (2017). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Sarah Stanton is Publishing Director for Humanities at Cambridge University Press and In-house Editor for The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature.

Réjean Beaudoin is Professor Emeritus in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies at the University of British Columbia, and was Associate Editor, Francophone Writing, for Canadian Literature. His publications include Naissance d’une littérature: essai sur le messianisme et les débuts de la littérature canadienne-française 1850-1890 (1989) and Le Roman québécois (1991). He has published numerous articles on the contemporary Québécois novel.

André Lamontagne is Professor of French and Chair of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. His publications in the field of Québécois literature include Les Mots des autres (1992), Bibliographie de la critique de la littérature québécoise au Canada anglais (1939-1989) (with Réjean Beaudoin and Annette Hayward, 2004), and Le Roman québécois contemporain: les voix sous les mots (2004).  As a creative writer, he has published a collection of short stories and two novels.

Alfred Hornung is Professor and Chair of English and American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz. He has published widely in the fields of autobiography, postcolonialism, and intercultural studies. Among his latest publications are American Lives (2013), Ecology and Life Writing (2013), Medialisierungsformen des (Auto)biografischen (2013), Obama and Transnational American Studies (2016), and Jack London: Abenteuer des Lebens (2016).