Interview with Noah Richler
Noah Richler was raised in Montreal and London, England. He was a prize-winning producer and host of documentaries and features for BBC Radio for fourteen years before returning to Canada in 1998. He joined the National Post and became its first books editor. He has contributed to publications here and in England. Most recently, he was the host of the CBC's Richler on Radio and of "A Literary Atlas of Canada", a ten-part series for Ideas based on his researches for the book, and now available as a CBC audio-DVD.
Olga Stein: I very much like how you open the first chapter with a passage from M. G. Vassanji's No New Land. The passage captures, in ways that many new immigrants to Canada can relate to, how quickly a transplanted community adapts, grows roots, and makes itself a home of its new soil. "They talked of Don Mills as if it were in Upanga. The buildings of Rosecliffe Park were known, it seemed, in intimate detail." This is both a playful and clever way to kick off a chapter that introduces Canada as the great "Nowhere". We know, and many of our non-native Canadian authors have reminded us with their works, that for immigrants, Canada has always been the great "Elsewhere", that dreamed-of destination. This is just one of the more obvious tensions the passage allows you to set up. There are many more. The title, No New Land, itself speaks volumes, especially in the way it introduces the problematic notion of 'newness' when it comes to a place that has existed before immigrants—before even the first white settlers—began arriving here. How important is that tension, which also pits the new against the old and suggests a clash of cultures, to your book
Noah Richler: Noah Richler: It was important to me to be able to begin the book with a bit of humour and in a fashion that alerted the reader, right away, that the Atlas is not a book of reference. I've always loved that passage of Vassanji's. It seems to me to exemplify not only the changed perception of the country from abroad, or how we have evolved in our sense of ourselves, but to show that the idea of Canada held by peoples who do not belong to the British establishment, has always been different. One of the tensions you are perhaps too decorous to have identified, Olga, and one that runs throughout the book, is between those who came here to forge a new life entirely free of the old strictures and rules that once oppressed them, and others who came here to do the Empire's work or who, already here, took it on in the same way that the colonial administrative class of the Raj had done. In Canada, this held for the cultural sphere as much as it did in commerce. In both spheres there were people effectively exerting received opinions and loyalties to authorities that were ensconced outside the country, to the detriment of unwitting Canadians—i.e., what was true of the Governors of the Hudson's Bay Company and their predilections was also true of Northrop Frye and others pandering to ideas and values that were not rooted here.
It has always astonished me how little we recognise of the dynamics of having been a colony simply because our colonial administrative class was also white. One of the things I most definitely wanted to do was to use my experiences and conclusions from cultural programs I made in other parts of what had been empire and apply these at home. After all, you don't have to be from Bombay or Nairobi to learn the diminished sense of self that empire teaches. Austin Clarke's short stories are fabulously instructive about this—and a kind of craven, self-negating deference is one of the cruelest lessons of all. So while I get impatient with our constant singing of praises to ourselves and forgetting to aspire to other, more worldly standards (the "Nowhere" chapter is also something of a riposte to those who think that Canadian writers are world-famous and talked about—they're not), I'm also tremendously put off by those constantly seeking the imprimatur of England or America—whether Frye yesterday, or some of our most influential (though not necessarily sound) cultural critics and politicians today. In truth, Britain, more often than not, is the parochial place, not Canada, and our yearning for American approval (through a pat on the head in Washington, but mostly through the market) is another instance of our colonial history persisting if in different costume.
That said, I think that we have evolved away from this sense of being nothing and nowhere in particular. I profoundly believe that in the current era, one I describe as our "Age of Argument"—or, using the first chapter's terminology, this is a time when "nowhere [is] an address with virtues" — that Canada has arrived, that it is somewhere. Canada was only "Nowhere" and off the map to those whose hearts and ambitions lay with the old country. It was never Nowhere to the citizens of Kenya, as it has not been to emigrants from Ireland or present-day Somalia and so on. This is another dual aspect of Nowhere that I wanted to capture
There is a corollary to the three stages (in my book) that relates to how we phrase and what we expect of the question about identity that Canadians are often derided for asking. Northrop Frye's "where is here?" belonged to our Age of Invention and the period in which Canada was Nowhere and off the map (though a utopian opportunity for those working people who did not take their cultural cues from elsewhere). Then that question, during our Age of Mapping—in which novelists did a great deal to chart and celebrate the country—became "what is here?" Now, I would say, that that period has ended, and in our Age of Argument—in which we are busy debating the country and what shape it should take—the question we are posing is "what does it mean to be Canadian?" And by that we are asking what does it mean to be the responsible citizen of this country, or, by extension, of any country in the world. That is extraordinary.
We are a tenuous nation, but also a very sophisticated one. You can see this everyday, most recently in the debate that followed Michael Ignatieff's gaffe about Quebec as a notion. The discussion was exhilarating, and much more nuanced than you would find in Britain, say. Why should that surprise? We are a nation founded on uncertainty and doubt—and querulous and wonderfully modern as a consequence.
As for the "newness" you talked of in your question, I think that depends on the baggage that we bring. If we can properly live in and react to the new place, then the experience and the land will be new. If our outlook is still determined by the places we have left behind—as is usually the case with the emigrating generation of any ethnicity, Tanzanian, Albanian or Scottish—then the land will be a sorry version of the old one and it will be up to the children to invent a new life.
OS: You write: "Any place is only a landscape until it is animated by the stories that provide its identity. . . its 'psycho-geography'. . . the sum of stories . . . create an impression of a place that is imaginary, but functions as any map would, for places are as real as persons." Canada as a country is the largest landmass in the word. Did you feel daunted at any point by the massive challenge your atlas project—to 'map' Canada's vast and varied 'psycho-geography'—represented? With so many different peoples, traditions, and stories, how did you come up with a starting point?
NR: It was hellishly difficult to come up with an encompassing story that I felt I'd conceived in good faith and not for convenience's sake. A book demands a certain narrative arc—readers expect it and authors want to supply it—and I had to reconcile this with not manipulating authors' views into a position that was simply expedient. This was another of the interesting tensions of the book. Authors are fiercely individualistic. They want and even need to believe that what they are doing is singular. So authors quite often resent the idea that they may be susceptible to or even channeling influences that are, as I put it, "in the air." But I believe that each of us is affected by the time in which we are writing, and that the sum of these influences—of the stories that are being told at a particular time in a particular community or region—constitutes much of the so-called "sense of place."
When we live somewhere, we enter into the stories and anxieties and aspirations that live in that place. Most of us vacillate between these sorts of small and then impossibly large ideas of the places that we live in, however, so that writing about place is at once a fiercely local and a much more grandiose endeavour.
I tried, when I was starting, to be rigorous about ideas that in our own epoch are often platitudinous—that we reflect ourselves in the stories we tell about the world, and so on—and I wanted to consider the stories that are out there as things in themselves that are spoken by us from time to time. I like this view because I am generally desperate for anything that suggests that not all information about the world is carried in us—in our genetic codes, for example—but that ideas also exist in the air outside of ourselves. Any evidence of this certainly makes the world more interesting.
From a practical point of view, it was necessary for me to traverse the country East to West, North to South, but also in high summer and deep winter—we are so different in January and in July. And I wanted to represent the different kinds of stories that exist in Canada and that, as I say in my book, do battle from time to time, the creation myths, epics, novels.
OS: You seem to be very interested in the evolution of the narrative form and some of the social and philosophical principles embodied in both the earlier kinds of stories, creation myths and epic tales, and the later European novel. You describe the filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk's rebellion (he alters the ending of an old myth, something the very conservative elders complain about). Obviously, it's hard to talk about all of the different trends you see in the literary cultures of native peoples across Canada, but is there some thing/s in particular you find especially meaningful?
NR: Perhaps the seminal moment of This is my Country occurred some twenty years ago, when I was in West Africa making a set of BBC Radio documentaries with the Jamaican-British writer Ferdinand Dennis. We were interviewing the Ghanaian novelist Kojo B. Laing. When we alluded to the work of Amos Tutuola, the great Nigerian oral storyteller who was still living at that time—he was the author of The Palm-Wine Drunkard, one of the first oral stories to be published as a book (by Faber & Faber)—Laing brought his fist down upon the table, and hollered, "I hate this romance about oral storytellers. If we had known how to write novels, if we had known how to tell lies, then we would have defeated the colonial invader!" It was an extraordinary thought that took me years to unravel, and that was not always easy to discuss.
If you think about different narrative forms having particular properties, and negotiating as Richard Dawkins's celebrated memes did, on some higher plain (whether or not these stories' narrators even know it), then you arrive at a fascinating situation in which stories do battle, as well as the somewhat more testy notion that underlying this struggle is a hierarchy; that's a testy idea because one can conclude, as I did, that certain kinds of stories served certain narrative cultures better—although, I should add, I believe in all sorts of stories coexisting, fighting sometimes, and not some linear progression in which we are all driving towards an end of story, if you like. Creation myths live alongside novels—and only sometimes are these forms of story actually in conflict with each other.
When the British arrived in what later became the Canadian Arctic, it is quite clear that the creation myths told by the Inuit served their society less well than the narrative culture of the novel did the colonists. In the Middle East—and in the West—that same narrative culture of the novel is engaged in conflict with societies telling epic stories—and, note, by 'epic' I do not mean long stories, but those whose general purpose is to sing the virtues of the host society over others, often because they are perceived as threatening it. Hence, the relentlessly combative Islamist way of telling the story of the Koran, or Harper and Bush's elevation of the military—always a shortcut to a coherent idea of nationhood.
Canada is doubly interesting in this regard. Earlier, I suggested that the country is founded on uncertainty and doubt, and that is exactly where the novelist begins: in doubt. The questions the author raises, and that the reader follows, demand an imaginative leap into the life of some distant character or situation, and this leap is the foundation and the exercise of our common humanity. Canadians make this leap all the time. Our dubious situation on the land here—where we know that all of us, aboriginals included, are, in a manner of speaking, tolerated guests—and our particular brand of multiculturalism, in which we are not 'tolerating' others who have arrived here from what had previously been some corner of the British dominion, but feeling our situation and equivalence fraternally—go hand in hand with our healthy appetite for "fiction". We are at the forefront of the narrative age of the Novel. We feel its lessons of our common humanity in our bones.
OS: What about Quebec's literary culture? What are some of the internal pressures causing Quebecois fiction to change?
NR: My experience was that the younger generation in Quebec is, by and large, more confident and therefore more at ease with the rest of Canada, even inquisitive about it. Quebec is in a less ideological phase, which is why Duceppe or Bernard Landry or Victor-Levy Beaulieu seem all the more shrill and remonstrative today. The ideologues' days are numbered. They are telling an epic version of their society while many younger novelists have come around to the inherent internationalism of the novel, and these same authors are beginning to be conscious that it is no longer enough to hearken after the example of certain American novelists—Kerouac, Hemingway, Brautigan and so on— while ignoring English-Canadian ones. They are realising that to do so is to exhibit a certain parochialism. And besides, Quebec already pretty well has what it wants, and English Canada is no longer the same potent enemy.
I am filled with enthusiasm for what is happening with young Quebec novelists now, though I also have an abiding respect for the work of the province's previous generations of writers. I am not a nationalist, though I believe in the happy accident we call "Canada" because it's there and worth defending, and I am aware too, how much easier that would be if English Canadians (principally in Ontario) had half the sense of the power and place of culture—of story—that Quebeckers have by virtue of their Gallic legacy. We are an incredibly fortunate nation, not better than anyone else but more fortunate, and we have responsibility to that good fortune. We could start by learning what comprises it, and the best way to do that is to honour and engage in the stories that we tell. That is the suspicion that started the book for me, and the lesson that ended it.
OS: There is another dimension to the question, "what is Canadian?" that you Noah may be too decorous to mention. Many Canadianists ask "what is Canadian" about novels written by citizens who weren't born here, and whose literature is not about Canada on the whole. Do you have a brief ripost to those voicing such concerns?
NS: I like a certain comment made by the Montreal Lebanese novelist Rawi Hage, author of the Giller and GG shortlisted novel DeNiro's Game (Anansi). Hage was being interrogated on the CBC's "Sounds Like Canada" shortly after thousands of Lebanese-Canadians, or Lebanese holding Canadian passports (just as Dion is a Canadian holding a French one, and, I'd wager, many leading executives and politicians in this country are Canadians holding English ones) had been rescued, and the idea of dual nationality was started to be debated. Hage said, "not just the rich can have several homes." As much as I believe it is time for our best soccer players to start playing and probably losing—but for Canada, not Holland or Britain (if the Ghanaians can do it at the World Cup, why can't we?)—I am not disturbed by the competing loyalties of some immigrants. It is completely understandable that a first or even second generation Lebanese- or Indo-Canadian would spend his or her life, as Atwood points out, pining after the old country. The Irish have made a whole cultural industry out of doing so. I would like the word "Canadian" to be more important than whatever qualifier now fashionably precedes it, but as As Rohinton Mistry told me of these so-called hyphenated Canadians, "soon the hyphen will fall away." I am not concerned. •