This is My Country, WhatĂs Yours: A Literary Atlas of Canada
by Noah Richler
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|Hearing the Stories of Canada
by Clara Thomas
This is a big book that grew out of a ten-part CBC radio series. Its author, Noah Richler, describes it as "a cultural portrait of the country and at times an argument for it." He travelled all over Canada, interviewing about one hundred authors, from the far north of Igloolik in Nunavut, to the east- and west-coast islands. "I thought this book would take about a year to write. It took four . . . I wanted to contribute to a place where citizens can make a difference, regardless of their class or heritage." The book is far from being descriptive only; as a whole, it presents an argument: since we live on by our stories, stories are important. Richler urges us to pay attention to those stories that truly contribute to the sense of community he admires .
The book is divided into three parts: The Age of Invention, The Age of Mapping, and The Age of Argument. Each part has several chapters, in which Richler roams around the country, talking to writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, recording their thoughts about their work and their methods. He has adopted the charming, old-fashioned convention of including lengthy chapter descriptions. Consequently, we find each chapter introduced with a reassuringly detailed summary of where it will take us¨and with whom. Here is an example: "In which the author travels to Vancouver and is astonished that the West Coast is such a tense and febrile place and has taut conversations with the writers Nancy Lee, Timothy Taylor, Eden Robinson, Michael Turner, Lee Henderson, Douglas Coupland and Zsusi Gartner in a city still negotiating terms with Bad Mommy Nature."
Richler begins by stating that we accept narratives as a means of explaining our circumstances to ourselves. He then questions their role: can they also determine our reactions and behaviour, and make us behave aggressively? In Nunavut he partakes of the knowledge and experience of John MacDonald, retired writer, traveller, and research centre manager, and gets to know the celebrated filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, an Inuit who grew up sharing every aspect of his family's life. With MacDonald he attends the Inuit Festival of the Return of the Sun where he samples the creation narratives of the Inuit and learns about the evolution of stories. "Stories were told to us so that we can choose which character we want to be. Do you want to go for the good or for the bad?" says Zack. Stories, moreover, display the culture of the teller. When Zack states that he enjoys explorers' narratives, Richler describes him as a man "on the cusp", poised between two cultures and engaged with both. His films display the breadth of his understanding (his film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, about the travels of Rasmussen was recently shown at various film festivals). Richler concludes that the settlers' early stories served their needs and purposes better than the creation myths of the Inuit peoples, especially when colonisers met the colonised. Europe had epic stories, wherein the hero defends his land, which is threatened by a marauding monster: for example, Grendel of Anglo-Saxon lore.
A later development, the novel, represents a different kind of story; its primary concern is the individual and his or her effort to get ahead, "exploiting what opportunities he or she can, and defying the demons that are going to do you in." Rather than the simplistic contest between heroes and villains, the novel, as British author and ethnologist, Hugh Brody explains to Richler, embodies "the intellectual tradition [of the Enlightenment, which] is a dialectic of intellectual progress that is completely absent from the indigenous, hunter-gatherer world. It is not a world where discourse is seeking to defend itself against rival versions of the truth."
Geographically, Richler travels from coast to coast, bringing writers from Canada's far-flung outposts together with urban dwellers, with one goal in mind: to examine the contents of their work. He is remarkably even-handed in his attitudes to diverse writers, and succeeds admirably in drawing them out to reveal the wellsprings of their inspiration. His explorations are praiseworthy for their three constants: enthusiasm for his mission, curiosity, and an affection for Canada that reaches out to every writer and to every reader.
Because of the relatively leisurely format of the radio presentations, Richler is able to quote often and at length, from Jack Hodgins in Vancouver, Alistair MacLeod in Cape Breton, and Wayne Johnston in Newfoundland. This passage from Johnston lets readers share the perspective of easterners: "I've often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle from the eastern side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador. These things finally, primarily, are Newfoundland . . . We are a people on whose minds these images have been imprinted."
Threaded into this enormously informative text is Richler's principal, cautionary argument. When it comes to war stories, do we accept the novel and rule ourselves by its message, which centres on the individual, or do we revert, as we seem to be doing today, to a view of the world characterised by the epic story, with its a villainous marauder threatening our civilisation and culture? According to Richler, we need to develop a literate, educated population capable of discerning the mortal dangers of black/white, good/evil reductionist thinking and work toward the sense of individuality within a strong community that he admires in the many writers he has interviewed.
This is My Country, What's Yours? is a book that can be slowly assimilated according to one's own preference and uses. I recommend savouring the Introduction and chapter summaries first before moving on to the rest of the text. There is another prime use for Richler's book: in decades of teaching Canadian literature, I have not encountered another work more ideally suited for use as a basic text. In total or in parts, it may well become a resource work leading study groups, classes, and book clubs in any number of fruitful directions. It's simply impossible no to get caught up in its author's infectious enthusiasm. ˛