Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Giller Prize + Q Debate

I know I said I was going to be more on the ball, but I'm still a week late on this. So, without any preamble, congratulations to Esi Edugyan, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers). She, like Patrick deWitt, was nominated for all the big awards this year and I am delighted to see she (also like deWitt) has won at least one of them. Too often we see authors nominated for at least the Canadian big-three and then not win any of them (last year it was Kathleen Winter, previously it was Annabel Lyon, etc.). 

But that isn't what I really want to talk about here. Last week, after the Giller was handed out, Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC radio show Q, host a "Q Debate" about whether Canadian literature was too international in scope, and if so, if that means we're missing out on some quintessentially Canadian stories. He held up both Edugyan (whose novel is set in the U.S. and Berlin) and deWitt (whose novel is set in on the American west coast during the California gold rush) as examples of Canadian writers being praised for novels set outside of Canada. Because it was Giller week, attention was also paid to David Bezmozgis, whose novel The Free World is set mostly in Rome, and Michael Ondaatje, whose novel The Cat's Table was mostly set on a ship steaming from Sri Lanka and England. Of the six books on the this year's Giller shortlist, only two were set in Canada: Lynn Coady's The Antagonist and Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.

So, what does that say about the state of Canadian writing? Are we ignoring "Canadian stories" in favour of exotic, cosmopolitan ones? Personally, I say no. Of course, I can't know what these authors are thinking when they come up with an idea and set out to write it, but when the results are as well crafted and interesting as these six books, I'm not worried about it (just for comparison, last year's shortlist was made up of almost exclusively Canada-specific books).  I would far rather have a Canadian author (or an author who identifies as such because of birth or immigration) write about something that they find compelling than feel boxed in by the notion that to win an award they must confine their writing to something Canadian. Of course, the other side of the argument is that there is nothing confining about Canadian stories because the country is vast and the population is diverse; certainly, there are an infinite number of stories to be told. However, if what you want to write about is related to the jazz scene in Berlin under Nazi Germany, being told to stick to Montreal would feel confining. 

It's tricky though, because I love reading stories set in the places I know. Seeing Toronto or Montreal or Nova Scotia or wherever pop up in a novel is exciting in strange way because I'm so used to reading about elsewhere. If I thought that books set in Canadian locales were truly becoming endangered, I'd be up in arms. But I don't think they are, so I'm not. Canadians have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and if they're set in diverse places, so much the better, I say.

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