This is going to be a post about Canadian literature, because I just did a whole PhD on Canadian science fiction, and studying The Discourse ™ of CanLit during the 20th century was a large part of it. So this lives in my brain now, rent-free, and I have opinions on it to share with folks. All of this is according to my research as a graduate student in English Literature, by the way, looking into settler-Canadian literature as it coalesced throughout the beginning of the 20th century and into the ’70s and ’80s, and honestly I stopped JUST before it got really interesting with post-colonial literatures, but that’s how it is.
In any case, my thesis here is a simple one: “classic” Canadian literature is, on the whole, tragic. As in, it fits into the literary genre of the tragedy. As a teen, I interpreted this as “boring and actively depressing,” as I had been conditioned to want happy endings by children’s media and teen angst was already my daily reality; I didn’t need any more of that affect piled on top of me. The more I studied CanLit later in life, however, the more I realized that the tragedy is an integral part of it. This is the affect of Canadian literature. And while it is not something to celebrate, it is not something of which to be dismissive, or actively revile.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt myself more drawn to sadness, and the solemn beauty and emotional sublime that is found therein. I can perhaps trace that back to my early teenage obsession with anime – even though I was heavily drawn to shonen stories, essentially still children’s literature with a heavy element of fantasy, I began to realize that the Japanese narrative, even when it strove to be as over-the-top as possible (looking at you, Bleach), still tended towards an emphasis on the bittersweet, the melancholy, or sometimes the downright tragic (see: Fullmetal Alchemist, Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, all narratives with considerable elements of tragedy baked into the plot that I consumed as an older teen and which began to fizzle in my psyche). The coming together of the youthful adventure narrative and silliness alongside (or overtop of) a deep well of tragedy primed me to be able to go back and read Canadian literature with new eyes.
Because of course, much of CanLit isn’t written for teenagers (much less very insulated white cis hetero mostly-middle-class teens like myself). So while I found it perfectly comprehensible to read, in effect I was an affect alien (to quote Sara Ahmed) when compared to the characters because of my lack of knowledge of the history of the settler state and my lack of adult experience on top of it.
You can find this out on Wikipedia, but very briefly the history of the rise of “classic” settler CanLit is thus:
CanLit, in the early decades of the 20th century, was looking for its literary identity – one to compete on the world stage with America and Britain – basically, the literati up here were mad jealous of how Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Jane Austen, H.G. Wells and the like were generating free propaganda of What It Means To Be American/British, but there wasn’t really any Canadian equivalent, just, like, people who went adventuring through Canada on their way to somewhere else or talked about how terrible it was. Susanna Moodie was bad for business. Northrop Frye and others have opined that this is due to the fact that Canada’s landmass is so great that it’s really hard to have a cohesive identity, especially when the colonial state apparatus of Canada was literally set up by corporations like the Hudson’s Bay Company and okayed by the monarchy in charge as a place to go, take what the empire needed, and then go back to where the important stuff happened.
Not really material evocative of the a narrative about how great the state of “Canada” was. Or is.
John Clute asserts that “the characteristic plots of twentieth-century SF were versions of the fable of America” (22), and goes on to write that, in the American science fiction narrative “you’re on the right side and going to win; it’s good storytelling” (24). I argue that that “fable” was what a lot of early American literature based its propagandizing on; even the works of great American literature that don’t have traditionally happy endings are tragic because they go against this accepted American fable of prosperity and happy adventure (i.e. The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird) – they are singular stories of tragedy that stand out against a larger status quo myth of the American Dream.
I’m not a scholar of American literature, though, so maybe this has already been argued and refuted. I’m observing that, from where I sit as a scholar of older Canadian science fiction / literature, this is how American literature presents itself to me. It occurs to me that reading The Grapes of Wrath can be a cathartic experience, because the reader can choose to immerse themselves in a time/place/situation that is desperate and dolorous but also very truthful to the human experience: the story makes the reader’s own present situation glow so much brighter in comparison. It’s fuel for the myth.
There is no myth of the Canadian state.* Or, well, there wasn’t, in the 20th century — in the past few decades, I think we’ve really bought into the American Dream Lite, with the weird syncretization of our culture after the mandate against [Canadian Culture thingy research this]. Except Joe Canadian is a bit more down-to-earth and less fussy than his American counterpart, and wears plaid flannel and drinks beer. Or something.
It seems to me like the settler-Canadian myth is very past-oriented, whereas the American Dream is future-oriented. And it seems to me like the reason that “classic” settler CanLit is sad is because Canadian identity, itself, is ultimately a tragic thing.
I’m thinking of narratives in Canadian literary fiction such as As For Me and My House (Depression-era lonely pastor’s wife on the prairies), Fifth Business (first in a trilogy about a white man’s life in small-town Canada), The Stone Angel (story of a 90-y-o Scottish settler remembering her life in Manitoba), Alias Grace (historical murder-mystery set in 19th c Canada), Obasan & Itsuka (Japanese-Canadian internment and the struggle for a government acknowledgement and reparations), The Lives of Girls and Women (short story cycle following the life of a woman in small-town Ontario), Bobbi Lee Indian Rebel (about and Indigenous woman growing up in 20th century Canada), A Really Good Brown Girl (Poems about the Métis experience in Canada). (those last two are Indigenous lit so I’m cheating a bit, but I’m justifying their inclusion because they still speak to life in the Canadian settler state during the 20th century)
Canada was founded as a resource colony. In fact, we had a good bit of (settler) pushback against colonialism during the 20th century, most notably in Quebec but also in the rest of Canada, culminating in the Repatriation of the Constitution in 1982. Literary critics in Canada have for decades talked about the need to throw off the colonial mentality in the Canadian imagination in order to make truly great art.
This discourse all reads to me as a lot of talk about “getting past” this country’s history, in order to begin anew, or to “deal with” the terrible things that have happened (deportation of the Acadians, repression of the French language, genocide of Indigenous peoples, Komagata Maru, putting all sorts of innocent Canadians in camps during the World Wars… the list goes on) so that Canadians can go on to write truly great literature (aka propaganda, but I think that’s happened somehow in the 90s anyway, so to me the point is kind of moot).
I think the institution of CanLit is being too hasty, however: tragedy IS the Canadian literary myth. And that’s okay. (It doesn’t mean it’s okay that tragedy happened: it is never okay to do horrible things, and art never ever justifies the suffering of others, let me be very clear). Settlers shouldn’t be rushing to move past it. We shouldn’t be dwelling, but we should be, as Donna Haraway writes, staying with the trouble. Letting it discomfit us. Allowing it to prod us to explore our past and learn how to be better humans.
Trying to rush past or deny that tragedy happened leads humans down a dark path of the denial of suffering of others and a stunting of our own capacity for empathy. I wonder if the settler-Canadian urge to speedrun through the Truth and Reconciliation process (for example) is at all related to the record number of holocaust deniers, Qanon followers, America-First simps, and people who attack critical race theory and discussion of gender/sexuality?
Are we in Canada trying so desperately to make things happy that we only make them more tragic through our actions? That was a rhetorical question; the answer is: Yes, yes we are.
This country has been a tragedy since long before its incorporation as a resource-colony/vassal-state of Britain. There has been a lot of energy wasted in denying that reality or attempting to brush it under the rug and move past it as if Canada has no baggage at all. I have heard people make critiques of regimes in China and Japan doing this, but I think Canadians have started to turn towards this, in our rush into the future. It is the childish impulse to pretend like nothing bad has happened, to try to forget about negative experiences, to deliberately ignore the fact that there might be consequences.
Healing and grief are very long, very slow processes. Sometimes, they are not ever over. These processes take up a lot of time and brainspace and affect the way that an individual lives their lives – the same way that writing a novel can. And that is natural and not a bad thing.
Again, I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this post. Do any of these thoughts resonate with you, or are contradictory to your experiences? This is the very edge of familiar territory to me and I am quite willing to have been wrong or have made weird assertions. Let me know if there’s anything off. I’m still chewing over this idea, these ideas.
*There’s not a mythic narrative of greatness that permeates Canadian literature, let me say. The myth of Canadian liberality and kindness and openness … that’s a subject for another post.