Friday, December 3, 2010

Wikileaks & The Canadian Inferiority Complex: The CanLit Solution

From Galiano Island Books, Galiano, BC

Amongst the more underwhelming of the Wikileaks revelations is the American opinion that Canadians have an inferiority complex, one that can be helped by more attention from Americans--in this instance a nice visit from the newly inaugurated President Obama.

This is underwhelming because, as one Canadian pundit said, "We talk about this thousands of times a day, in one form or another." I would add that we write doctoral theses about it, in a variety of topic areas, including all the humanities and social sciences. Some of my medical colleagues have built careers repeating US experiments in Canada and comparing the results. We also put forth books, journal articles, news media specials, and other assorted expressions of it.

Our inferiority complex is part of our great national identity debate: Do we have a national identity? What is it? Is it different from Americans? How so? OK, then prove it, eh? Does it include Quebec? French Canada? How? Is it limited to having a French Canada? If Quebec separated would we have a national identity (or a nation!)?

Most often a Canadian will laugh happily at our inferiority complex, even entertain speculation at our national identity, or lack there of. However, call us Americans, and well, duck! As another pundit opined, "Our inferiority complex is part of our superiority complex". True, part of our national identity consists of claiming not only distinction from, but superiority to, Americans. We are nicer, politer, kinder, less racist, more collectivist, less violent, less obese, more internationally aware, better linguists, better traveled, healthier, and better figure skaters, hockey players, and skiers than Americans. Our beer tastes better and has a higher alcohol content; our health care and justice systems are better; we have more natural resources and better safety regulations; and, we spend considerable financial and social capital cleaning up American messes: ecological, military, political.

We hold the above truths to be self-evident. We don't get our parkas in a knot about facts on any of this. Research that shows we are more racist than we think (but very polite about it), or not such paragons of northern virtue as we like to believe, we tend to dismiss with a wave of the mitten.

Perhaps coincidentally, Susan Swan, a Canadian writer, has an article today on the role of Canadian Literature (CanLit) in educating Canadians about their national identity, particularly as distinct from Americans. In typical Canadian fashion, we don't toot our own horns enough to actually teach much Canadian literature in elementary, primary, or secondary schools, despite significant international recognition and interest. Even at the university level, most often a degree in English Literature leaves CanLit as an elective only. It is very easy to graduate without it, and call oneself an English Literature major.

Susan Swan's article with her recommended readings follows. Then my own recommendations, and a few thoughts on why national literatures are important to foster, include in national schooling programs and support through popular as well as high culture.

See the 12 books listed below

Why aren’t we teaching more of these books?
There's a disconnect between the international success of CanLit and how it's viewed in our schools
From Friday's Globe and Mail [December 3, 2010]

Never mind the acclaim of Canadian writers abroad and this fall’s wealth of literary festivals and big book prizes. There’s a shocking disconnect between the international success of Canadian writing and how Canadian literature is viewed in our schools.

For starters, few Canadian books are taught in our schools, and with one or two exceptions, no province has a mandatory course in Canadian literature.

British Columbia and Saskatchewan have legislation ensuring that high-school students study novels and non-fiction books by Canadian writers. And some provinces, like Quebec and Newfoundland, enjoy teaching their own writers.

But for the rest of the country, there’s still a lingering attitude that Canadian literature is substandard, according to Jean Baird, a publishing consultant who fought for legislation that now makes it mandatory for every English Language Arts student in B.C. to study at least one Canadian text a year from Grade 8 to Grade 12.

“We may be one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn’t teach our own literature,” says Ms. Baird, who believes our education system is failing to grow the next generation of readers.

Eight years ago, Ms. Baird did a comprehensive survey of teachers, students and school boards for the Canada Council and found that not many high-school and elementary students could identify Canadian authors. As little as 31 per cent of schools had courses in Canadian literature.

Ms. Baird says things haven’t changed much since her report. While Canadian literature has grown more popular and diverse, the lack of Canadian textbooks may be worse than the 1950s when I was a high school student.

Giller Prize [a major national book award] short-list finalists: Alexander Macleod (left), Johanna Skibsrud, Sarah Selecky, Kathleen Winter, and David Bergen (TOM SANDLER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why the weird disconnect? There are five major reasons, and some of them are dumb.

The first is that education is a provincial matter so it’s difficult for schools to co-ordinate a national curriculum.

A second reason is harsh budget cuts to education. Few English departments have the money to buy new texts so they rely on old copies of novels by foreign authors, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and Lord of the Flies. At many schools, the teacher librarian job has been phased out and replaced with technical staff who understand the Internet. E-books could offer a partial solution but chances are that many of the library staff haven’t been exposed to books by Canadian writers.

And here’s the third reason: Almost none of our teachers’ training colleges make studying Canadian literature compulsory. So unless a teacher has taken a Canadian literature course at university, he or she may go through our school system without ever reading a single book by a Canadian author.

At the Giller Awards, L to R Louise Dennys (publisher), Heather Reisman (bookstore owner) and Margaret Atwood (author and critic)

The fourth reason is the redefinition of text. According to the Ontario Curriculum published by the Ontario Ministry of Education, a literary text covers a wide variety of writing, including newspaper ads, Facebook and posters. While expanding the definition makes sense in the digital age, it often means the exclusion of books.

“It doesn’t surprise me that few Canadian novels are being taught in our public system,” says Ken Alexander, writer, editor and founder of Bookshelf, a now defunct program that gave away 25,000 Canadian books a year to high-school students.

Mr. Alexander says a sense of book ownership gives students a relationship to their own culture. “Study programs are not about the writing imagination now. It’s all about stuff that can be measured, stuff that can be put on a spread sheet.”

The fifth reason is that it’s up to teachers and school boards to pick books from suggested curriculum choices. And since these choices are merely recommended, Ms. Baird says there is no clear mandate for teachers. So what is taught varies from school to school, and often depends on whether the principal is more interested in funding the football team. And there are certainly many schools and teachers who teach CanLit with great enthusiasm, but it’s hit and miss for students to end up in those classrooms. Parents also object to certain books as unsuitable, making it more difficult to get a consensus about teachable texts.

Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos, both Canadian authors, married to each other, at the Giller Awards (TOM SANDLER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

As a Canadian author, the weird disconnect is frustrating. If we want to understand our culture, why not study Canadian books? But if we want to cling to an old national inferiority complex, then what better way than keeping students ignorant of our literature?

When I taught an arts course at York University, the first thing students wanted to know was how I saw the difference between us and Americans. I’d start them off with a joke about a U.S. border guard frustrated with a traveller who said he had American and Canadian passports. Exasperated, the guard asked the traveller what he would do if his country went to war. The traveller replied that it would depend on the war and why they were fighting. The guard exclaimed: Now I know! You’re Canadian.

Skepticism, I would explain, is a Canadian trait, along with tolerance and cultural diversity. On that course, students read fiction by Canadian authors such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Nino Ricci and Mordecai Richler. By exam time, they were no longer asking me what it meant to be Canadian.

Susan Swan is a Canadian author and a former chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada.

The 12 books pictured above:
The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence
February, Lisa Moore
Room, Emma Donaghue
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
Generation X, Douglas Coupland
Fifth Business, Robertson Davies
The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon
Surfacing, Margaret Atwood
Who Has Seen the Wind, WO Mitchell
Not Wanted on the Voyage, Timothy Findley
Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat
The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud

Of the 12 books pictured, I have read in depth and recommend 5: Margaret Lawrence's The Stone Angel for its literary skill, and insight into aging; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje for his poetic prose and intricate storytelling; Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, the first and best work in his Deptford Trilogy, and an engaging story well told (about narration in life, history, and myth); Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, is  essential to understand Canadian identity, literature and Atwood's own writing, along with Survival, her short, quick, well-organized, jargon free and readable guide to Canadian Literature; Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf is a brilliant following of wolves in nature, and an ecological cri de coeur, though as usual Mowat is happily subjective. I read the latter in high school, and it is a good book for adolescents as well as adults.

As for the others, by reputation or skim read, I would highly recommend Who Has Seen the Wind (WO Mitchell), Not Wanted on the Voyage (Timothy Findley), and The Sentimentalists (Johanna Skibsrud).

Of the Canadian authors whose body of works I know well enough to recommend as a corpus, I would include: Margaret Atwood (poetry and novels, immense range an literary skill); Wayson Choy (lyrical and touching view of growing up Chinese-Canadian); Mavis Gallant (a short story writer published in The New Yorker most often and in collected works, she lives as an expat in Paris); Stephen Leacock (humorist, and Canada's answer to Mark Twain, his short story "My Financial Career" is hilarious and should be read by business and banking types in particular); Margaret Laurence (including her early works as an expat in Ghana, more for insight into the expat perspective on a country than their literary or ethnographic value); Rohinton Mistry (Indian-Canadian, rich literary and storytelling abilities focused on his homeland, somewhat of a modern Dickens); Alice Munro (an award winning short story writer whose stories are collected into volumes which then read almost like a novel, Lives of Girls and Women is a revelation); Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lankan-Canadian, both poetry and novels); Nino Ricci (Italian-Canadian, particularly his excellent first novel Lives of the Saints about immigration from Southern Italy to L'America and the impact on the villages and families left behind); Mordechai Richler (Jewish Anglo-Quebecker, author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and St Urbain's Horsemen, among others); and, Carol Shields (American-Canadian, The Stone Diaries won a well-deserved Pulitzer).

There are of course many more, some on my "to be read" list; and, I have left off those whose work is primarily addressed to children and adolescents. Also conspicuously absent are French Canadian literature and authors who deserve a separate post.

I do think that, if one accepts their fictionality (not all Canadian women academics go off to a cabin in the woods and make love to a real bear, as in Marion Engel's Bear), novels, short stories, and poetry can give insight into national identity, history, preoccupations, geography (much Canadian fiction is regional in focus), culture, and society. An Indian resident in psychiatry in Canada made me aware of this from a practical clinical perspective; and, a French Canadian resident spending a year training in English Canada took up my offer for a list of novels to help her orient herself to English Canadian culture.  It was a fun way for her to acculturate, or at least acclimatize.

I always take with me a key literary work or works of a nation I travel to, even for a resort holiday. In some ways, a resort vacation is a choice to be in an artificial environments distinct from the main lives of the nation's citizens, and so reading something from their cultural heritage is more necessary, though far from sufficient. I must say that the people from the country who notice my reading are surprised, pleased,  and happy to discuss.

One final note on Wikileaks, American opinions of Canadian complexes, and sensitivity to Canadian television portrayals of Americans: "Get a sense of humour, eh!"

What is your impression of the relationship of a national literature and national identity?
Is your national literature taught in your schools?
What fiction (in any language) would you recommend to someone wanting to understand your country, society, and culture better?
Which books would you warn people off as being misrepresentations and misleading?
What literary works have you read that helped you understand another nation better?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences, recommendations?

*I will address the topic of Wikileaks more generally in another post.

Related Posts:
Literature and Culture: 10 Literary Great Reads--Part I (# 1-5)


Susanne said...

I enjoyed the post. I'm not sure what books I would read/recommend in answer to your questions though. :-/

Chiara said...

Susanne--thanks for your comment! So many great American writers, and so many of then Southerners! Faulkner is a particular favourite. Flannery O'Connor is an interesting read. Twain,Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck are excellent writers and good for background understanding of the US. Edith Wharton, and Henry James are very good, particularly Wharton's Age of Innocence, and James' Portraits of... books, "The Turn of the Screw", and "The Real Thing".

Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut are interesting, though I am less familiar with much of their work.

Of the more contemporary writers, Don DeLillo comes to mind. Harriet Doerr's Stones for Ibarra is wonderful, as is Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. E Annie Proulx is a great writer. Toni Morrison is wonderful, even the early works.

American novels I have studied and been tested on that I can easily leave on the shelf, unopened and collecting dust:
Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie
Steinbeck's Travels with Charley
Anything by Herman Melville, including Moby Dick
All are illuminating in their own way.

I hope others will jump in with their favourites from their own national literatures, and their "less favourite". :D

Thanks again!

oby said...

I really liked this post and you had me laughing my head off in some places...

As an American I have always thought of Canada as a distinct culture all it's own albeit I thought in many ways it was similar to ours in terms of types of food (very varied), topography meaning physically looks a lot like America...great open expanses of forests and mountains as well as cities...I personally always thought it was cool that you guys have the very chic Montreal...the closest we come is New Orleans. AND you have a way cooler view of Niagara Falls. Also i always thought if I went for school or moved there culture shock would be way less...I even LOVE "Caillou" which my daughter and I would watch together when she was a baby. I never thought of Canada as a "stepchild" although I admit it doesn't seem to have a distinct culture of it's own (like say Japan) but then again I kind of think that about the USA, too, with the many millions of different people who have come here. One thing I did learn through your blog is that Canadians don't think much of us and I have to admit that really hurt my feelings because I never thought of THEM in a negative way...or felt we were superior...I don't think I will be able go to Canada and tell them I am from America without feeling that they are laughing behind my back...:-(

There are so many American writers that it is hard to mentioned so many already...I like Edith Wharton because I think she gives a sense of what tun of the century New York was in a way that feels like you are wearing a mink coat with ice in your many ways cold and calculating all the while smiling and shmoozing...hard to explain...I love "Age of Innocence". I can't add to the list you have given.

Wendy said...

Chiara, Chiara ... we read off the same page of Canadian authors!!! This is a great post! During my years hosting international visitors I met quite a few wonderful Americans from Washington and Oregon primarily but also from NYC who would come up to Canada and stock up on Canadian authors. It always thrilled me and also caused me some sadness that our wonderful Canadian authors weren't always easy to find outside of Canada. We have such wonderful Canadian authors and especially women. I might add Elizabeth Hay, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Anne Michaels, Francis Itani and of course how can we forget Lucy Maude Montgomery of "Anne of Green Gables" fame. We have so many it's hard to single out just a few. It's interesting to Google Canadian authors. Wikipedia has a huge list available and I've now bookmarked it.

As for our Canadian identity there are two books that never fail to amuse my non-Canadian friends and they are by the Ferguson Brothers ... "How To Be A Canadian" and "Why I Hate Canadians". They are both very funny and pretty spot on about Canada and Canadians!

It is indeed a shame that we don't have Canadian authors up front and center in our schools. It's a crime in fact. I'm so happy that you've done this blog!

Jay Banks said...

Thanks for posting. I could not give better Canadian books recommendations :-) Concerning your comments on too few national literature courses, I would say ok, it may not be great that kids are not compulsorily reading Canadian authors, but I am grateful if they are taught any literature whatsoever. After all studying other cultures can only bring more understanding.


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