“‘How’s She Goin’, B’y?’ No More”: Season 1, Episode 5 of The Great Eastern

Welcome to the first of several posts this week, where I’ll be taking an indepth look at an exemplary episode of The Great Eastern (for my introduction to what The Great Eastern is and why you should care, see here).

Creating a richly textured semi-fictional world was one of The Great Eastern’s long-term projects. Many of its most memorable episodes were also atypical ones, ones that departed from the usual format to add whole new fictional territories to the show’s universe: big, bold experiments in world-building and character development. I’ll be talking about some of those memorable and atypical episodes in the next few days. Today, I’m arguing that such atypical standouts work best in the context created by the more ‘normal’ episodes that surround them — the episodes that don’t encompass new territory, but instead lovingly detail territory that’s already on the map. The atypical one-offs can be heard, enjoyed, and appreciated as stand-alone episodes, but their full richness comes from having a sense of the vast textual world of the BCN and The Great Eastern, the slow cumulative work of the ‘normal’ episodes.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to begin by introducing (or re-introducing) everyone to a few ‘typical’ episodes. These episodes contain many of the regular features which, to my mind, characterize The Great Eastern‘s creative and intellectual preoccupations and themes: things like literature, history, politics, and community. These regular segments include “Word Works,” the weekly review of new books and literary culture in Newfoundland; “In the Vault,” where we hear archival tape from the BCN’s storied past, curated and commented-upon by the inimitable Ish Lundrigan, the godfatherly Director of Radio at the BCN; the “At Issue” political panel, where the extreme left and right of Newfoundland debate the finer points of federal politics and global corporatism; and last, but perhaps most importantly of all, the short interstitial programming highlights, ads, community bulletins, and traffic alerts, each a pinhole view on the wider world of the BCN and the fictional (?) Newfoundland it existed in and reported on.

With that in mind, let’s embark on a discussion of an early ‘typical’ episode:

Season One, Episode Five (link)

In its first year, The Great Eastern was a summer replacement program with no promise of any future beyond that. Thus, there are only six episodes in this season (and that includes a New Year’s Eve special). They are each about an hour long (versus the half hour the show would become when adopted to the CBC’s regular schedule). These early episodes had most of the ideas and the players in place right from the get-go; it’s quite surprising how the show really hit the ground running, with few growing pains. Still, I think of the first two years as being of a different nature than the final three. The episodes that comprise these first two seasons are much more than prototypes, but they don’t quite resemble what would come later. The longer running time and the show’s uncertain future make these early episodes both a little more woolly and a little weirder.

This episode in particular quickly demonstrates all of that. After a greeting that feels subdued when compared to the hurricane force of later years, Paul Moth immediately drops the listener into the deep end. “This week, Newfoundland mourns the death of composer, essayist, sportsman, enigma Hugh Kuva.” Who is Hugh Kuva? Have you heard of him before? You haven’t? Well, that’s probably because The Great Eastern invented him.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of presenting The Great Eastern to a working group on fantasy literature and nationality here at the University of Toronto. I sent this episode (and a few others) to the group for them to hear. This episode in particular was confusing for many—they knew very little about Newfoundland, and the convincing impersonation of an earnest NPR/BBC/CBC2 documentary style gave the Hugh Kuva piece a near-perfect ‘aesthetic of truth’ which left some unable to determine which aspects were fiction and which were fact. Everything — down to the accent and diction of the voice actors, the piano music in the back, and so on — sounds trustworthy and ‘correct.’ The details of Kuva’s life, while extreme, were not totally implausible; Newfoundland is an odd place, peopled by odd characters, and outsiders tend to know almost nothing about the details and nature of that oddness.

Academia —most upper-and-middle-class culture in general, actually — is full of people who know how important it is to pretend to know this artist or that book when amongst one’s peers, even if the name is totally unfamiliar. For many, listening to public radio counts as being “amongst one’s peers.” To their credit, my University of Toronto colleagues never did this. But, in the wider world, I suspect The Great Eastern exploited this credulous tendency to sow the seeds of uncertainty; this is one of the show’s delights, in my eyes.

Also, early successes like this segment on Hugh Kuva demonstrate two of the strengths that would stay with The Great Eastern throughout its run: strong, naturalistic voice-acting and careful, creative production values. The Great Eastern understood the little aesthetic details that listeners use to immediately understand, without conscious thought, what kind of radio they are hearing — when and where is it from? What purpose is it serving? In this instance, every detail of the production is unmistakably that of earnest high-culture documentary radio.

Following the memorial to Kuva, Paul, the host, takes the listener down into the BCN vault. “In the Vault” is a regular segment on the show, from the very first episode to the very last. In it, Director of Radio and font of BCN lore Ish Lundrigan plays selected audio from the station’s history. This episode’s “In the Vault” is almost a perfect representative of the segment. We meet “Eric Vincent,” “the founder of the folk realism school of theatre” in Newfoundland, and hear clips from the 1954 radio adaptation of his play Ocean of Pain. Like Kuva, Eric Vincent and Ocean of Pain have no reality outside The Great Eastern, but, like Kuva, we are told of the deeply influential role Vincent’s “folk realism” had on Newfoundland arts and culture. 

We are treated to an archival recording of Ocean of Pain. Actors narrate their miserable experiences in a mournful, over-the-top Stage Oirish-Newfoundland accent as seagulls squawk incessantly in the background:

“O Dear Saviour, dat reminds Oy ’bout de toime me fadder was kilt in de freakish summer squall of T’irty-two. Moiy moiy moiy.”

In short order, all three characters are shot: “O Levi! You shot I!,” the female lead exclaims. “O Maid, dis is no way to live!,” Levi wails in response, turning the gun on himself. Lundrigan stops the tape. “You can see the influences – Dante, Joyce, and so on,” he remarks. He fast-forwards to a later scene in a hospital room, and the squawking seagulls are still there. There is yet more mournful dialogue in over-the-top fake accents, and, again, more unlucky gunshots.

But even as Ocean of Pain seems to mock Newfoundland for indulging an ethnic folk nationalism in love with the purity of its own suffering, The Great Eastern also fires a shot at literary criticism and its pretense to greater critical sophistication: “Vincent’s work reflects the collision between pre-Confederation Newfoundland and the 20th century. Some will adapt, and some won’t,” Lundrigan provides by way of critical gloss.

“It evokes a certain nausea,” Paul remarks. “I mean that in a positive sense,” he hastens to clarify.

From here, the episode segues into “Word Works,” another regular segment, continuing to build an edifice of fictionalized Newfoundland literary/intellectual culture, work begun both by the Hugh Kuva memorial and by the archival recording of Ocean of Pain heard “In the Vault.”

This edition of “Word Works” reviews the controversial “Writing Through Region” literary conference. This is obviously a reference to the famous-in-certain-circles “Writing Through Race” conference, held in June 1994 in Vancouver, whose organizers limited enrolment in workshop to “writers of colour and First Nations writers,” intending to create a temporary space of freedom from the need to “report” to the dominant culture. This “inspired a controversy that culminated in the federal government’s decision to remove [the conference's] funding,” according to canlit.ca.

With panels like “Freeing the Bay Voice,” “Post-Bay Archetypes,” “EJ Pratt: Poet, or High Priest of Townism,” and “Deconstructing the Jig and the Politics of Desire,” The Great Eastern‘s “Writing Through Region” conference is likewise open only to “writers of Bay,” so as to create a space free from “townist” oppression and the appropriation of the “bay voice.” (Paul wonders how “Word Work”‘s host Kathleen Hanrahan, a seeming Townie, was able to attend; Kathleen clarifies that she is actually of “mixed region”).

The “Writing Through Region” conference takes as its subject the identity politics so en vogue in 1990s Canadian literary studies — identity politics that often over-simplified Newfoundland, failing to understand or engage with the complexities of its distinct culture, when it even noticed Newfoundland’s existence in the first place, or differentiated it from some nebulous ill-defined regional entity called “Atlantic” or “East Coast” culture. In the case of the “Writing Through Race” conference, Newfoundland is not spoken of, but, by its omission, is assumed to be part of the dominant/hegemonic culture, no different than white anglo-Ontario. The “Writing Through Region” conference explodes this uncritical move by taking as its subject the denigration and appropriation of traditional rural Newfoundland culture (“Bay”) by urban cosmopolitan outsiders (“Town”). Whereas mainstream real-world literary scholarship speaks of regionalism in terms of a monolithic “Atlantic” or “East Coast” region, The Great Eastern presents a Newfoundland that itself contains multiple regions existing in a state of tension with one another.

I will hasten to argue that the bay/town divide and the appropriation of rural Newfoundland is an actual phenomenon; books like The Shipping News and writers like Farley Mowat are named as cultural appropriators in the “Word Works” piece itself. And what was Ocean of Pain, immediately preceding this report on “writers of Bay” who are sick of literary misrepresentation, but an over-the-top satire of the same?

Listeners unfamiliar with the division of Newfoundland into “Bay” and “Town,” unfamiliar with the stereotypes and dominant narratives surrounding “bay people,” might think this segment sounds like crass mockery of anti-racist discourse and the important work identity politics can do. If you are familiar with these stereotypes, and with the divisions and fault lines that exist within Newfoundland,  you might think “if Newfoundland was bigger, more important, if it actually mattered to enough people, then such a conference absolutely would exist” — even if you recognize the silly and satirical dimensions of the piece at the same time (and it IS a very funny piece). The haiku read from Birch, Bark, Bamboo, for example, is both hilariously po-faced and completely contrary to the gushing “folk realism” satirized in Ocean of Pain:

I pull the trap

The trap is empty

I eat the trap

Allegedly, the CBC initially commissioned The Great Eastern expecting superficial, cheap ‘n’ easy “Newfie” jokes – “ethnic yuks,” as the creators of the show put it in the archival material. Early episodes like this one show how The Great Eastern was a different kind of beast entirely — and that it was not above mocking those same expectations. One reason why I’m so fond of this episode in particular is that its focus is so very literary and textual; almost all of it, even the disorienting audio collage of the final segment, is consciously and strategically creating a fictional (and at times ludicrous) literary culture, complete with a diverse array of its own texts, peopled by its own literati, where most perhaps expected (or wanted) little more than funny accents and drunken antics that would reinforce the subaltern “Newfie” stereotype.

“‘How’s she goin’ b’y?’ no more,” indeed.

The Great Eastern’s 20th Anniversary: Introduction

Twenty years and a few weeks ago, The Great Eastern (“Newfoundland’s cultural magazine”) began its short first season as a summer replacement program on CBC Radio’s national service. It remains one of the few instances in CBC Radio’s history where Newfoundland-specific content was given a regular national platform. This week, I figured I’d (belatedly) celebrate its 20th anniversary with a series of posts reviewing the best and most important episodes from its five year run (two years as a summer replacement show, three in regular rotation).

Where to begin? And just what is The Great Eastern, and why should you care?

The Great Eastern was a fictional Newfoundland arts and culture magazine, reporting on popular culture and literary, visual, and performance art as they existed in an alternate reality version of 1990s Newfoundland. The Great Eastern portrays a place that is no marginal backwater; its version of Newfoundland is on the cutting edge of the postmodern and the avant-garde, a place with a vibrant, garrulous, silly, robust artistic community that leaves stick-in-the-mud Canada in the dust.

The Great Eastern presents itself to listeners as the flagship program of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland (BCN), Newfoundland’s public broadcaster from the days before it joined Canada. In our world, the BCN was absorbed into the CBC in 1949, just as Newfoundland was absorbed into Canada. In the world of The Great Eastern, the BCN continued on as a separate entity – and, likewise, the show muddies the waters as to whether Newfoundland is part of Canada or not. According to The Great Eastern, in 1994 the CBC decided to syndicate the BCN’s broadcast of The Great Eastern. In reality, the show is a fiction, commissioned, recorded, and paid for by the CBC. But in the show’s universe, The Great Eastern long predates its 1994 CBC debut, having been produced and broadcast since the 1930s for this alternate reality Newfoundland – or rather, for its own alternate historical version of Newfoundland. Another of the show’s fixations is exploring the history of this alternate Newfoundland – from Newfoundland’s “colonial misadventure” in West Africa to the year William Shakespeare supposedly spent living in Ferryland (and the play he wrote while there). The Great Eastern is constantly rewriting history in strange and interesting ways, ways that often disrupt conventional narratives of Canadian history and culture.

Last year, I published an essay on The Great Eastern in the Newfoundland Quarterly. Edward Riche, author of Rare Birds (among many other things), was one of several writers/performers behind The Great Eastern (because of the show’s peculiar nature, no one who worked on it was ever directly credited on-air – the show’s pretense of being ‘real’ was airtight). He’s reproduced that article (with permission from the NQ) on his website. You can read it here (click the image of the first page and the whole .pdf will load) – it’s a good supplement to the brief introduction I’ve given here, I hope.

The Great Eastern‘s ratings were quite good, but it was never embraced by a CBC more accustomed to plodding, earnest fare – and in search of easy Newfie jokes, uncomplicated “ethnic yuks from the regions”, as the behind-the-scenes archival material puts it with understandable bitterness. When I read this archival material in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, I got the sense that the CBC brass had no idea what they’d unleashed on the world, and were woefully ill-equipped (intellectually and materially) to deal with it properly. One poor bureaucratic creature likens it to the folksy and decidedly unironic Mom-and-maple-syrup Canadiana of The Vinyl Café! 

Although you run into fans who still remember and appreciate The Great Eastern‘s quixotic combination of quicksilver genius and deep ‘n’ bleak satire, no one really writes about it or talks about it much. It’s my aim to change that. One of my dissertation chapters (indeed, the one I’m trying to write at the moment) focuses on the show. It’s a challenge (literary critics aren’t really trained to write about radio, and The Great Eastern can be dizzying in its complexity), but a challenge worth meeting – I hope.

It’s possible to hear all the episodes (nearly 100) if you root around a bit on google. I’m going to refrain from directly linking to them here, because it’s a legal grey area (you can’t buy recordings of episodes, and they aren’t available anywhere on the CBC’s website, but CBC does own them, if only in the legal sense).  It would be a tragedy, in my eyes, should anything threaten or destroy this sole remaining access to these recordings. As far as I know, the semi-legal fan archive which I’m not linking to is literally the only way to access the strange, vital body of texts that was/is The Great Eastern – fitting (though depressing) enough, as the show implicitly argues, by its existence, that CBC’s national broadcasts do not reflect or include Newfoundland’s culture and history, and thus the existence of a shadowy, fictional-but-maybe-not second national public broadcaster just for us.

So prepare to tune your radio way down, past the left-hand border of the dial – tune into the alternate reality of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, 520 on the longwave.

Random Passage, by Bernice Morgan

This is Part 6 in my Primer on the Newfoundland Novel. Click here to read the previous posts in the series.

“It is better to have no history or an imagined one?” – Bernice Morgan

Bernice Morgan’s first novel, Random Passage, was published in 1992. Historically, by no means is it “the first Newfoundland novel” – dozens precede it. However, to my mind, it nonetheless serves as a kind of Ur-text, a crystallization of how Newfoundland imagines itself – and a starting point for many of the texts that came after it. But perhaps I feel this way because I was only 9 years old when it was published, and so my cultural and historical awareness developed in a post-Random Passage context. How did Newfoundlanders imagine their history before Random Passage? (I mean, obviously they imagined it, but how did those imaginings look?) I’m not certain. What I am certain of is that Bernice Morgan’s account of rural Newfoundland’s history, as contained within Random Passage, is the default mode in Newfoundland’s historical imaginary. Countless reviews on sites like GoodReads praise its accuracy – to people writing in the 2010s, Newfoundland’s pre-Industrial past is just how Bernice Morgan portrayed it. For these reasons alone, its place in this series is secure – indeed, I could have opened with it (I almost did) – but there’s yet more to discuss.

The popularity and the long reach of Random Passage can’t be overlooked. It was a national best-seller, and, a decade after its release, it was made into a popular miniseries by the CBC and RTÉ (in Ireland). A scattered Newfoundland novel had gained national attention before this – Percy Janes’ House of Hate, for example – but there were two important differences about Random Passage: first, it crossed a critical threshold in popularity and, doing so, gained some international attention (helped by the TV series, no doubt), and, second, it explicitly set out to tell not just a Newfoundland story, but to tell the story of Newfoundland – to explain the origin and nature of the hardscrabble society that had, improbably, survived for generations with almost no support or encouragement on an isolated and inhospitable coast.

Random Passage by Bernice Morgan

Random Passage by Bernice Morgan

Cape Random, the fictional outport where Random Passage is mostly set, takes its name from Random Island and Cape Island, the settlements where Morgan’s father and mother came from, respectively. Cape Random serves as synecdoche for all of rural Newfoundland, and Random Passage is nothing less than an Aeneid of Newfoundland’s own – something I think Morgan must have intended, as she named one of the central characters “Lavinia” (who becomes Aeneas’s bride in the Aeneid). Morgan departs from Virgil, whose Lavinia, although a living representation of the Latin people, almost never expresses herself. Morgan uses her Lavinia as a mouthpiece, focalizing much of the narrative through her eyes and making the reader privy to excerpts from her journal at various points. Indeed, that is one of the points Random Passage seems keen to make: the work of founding and growing Newfoundland society and culture was as much the work of women as it was of men – maybe moreso. It’s Lavinia who founds the first school and teaches the children to read and write, and it’s ambitious Mary Bundle who learns how to better coax vegetables out of the ungenerous soil. More importantly, though, it’s Lavinia who becomes the chronicler of the community’s history, and, in the world of Random Passage, a culture is the account of its history.

But Random Passage is doing more than recovering the unwritten contributions of women to Newfoundland’s past. It’s an act of imaginative recovery in a more basic sense. Here is a summary of what prompted Morgan to write Random Passage:

“Morgan recounts her Newfoundland childhood experiences, noting that the production and dissemination of Newfoundland culture was almost nonexistent. Watching American films and reading English or Canadian literature while in school, she recalls that even in the 1960s the school literature book, Our Heritage, never even mentioned the word Newfoundland” (from the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage profile on Bernice Morgan)

So it makes sense that Newfoundland should be presented to us through the eyes and the words of a Lavinia rather than an Aeneas – Morgan is, with her novel, giving voice to the voiceless.

In settler societies, historical fiction – especially generational sagas – carry the weight of a young and illegitimate society’s desire for historical and ethical legitimacy. Multi-generational settler stories are narratives of emplacement, meant to assert and reassert a connection between colonists and colonized territory. However, this process is more complicated in Random Passage. The novel comes from the sense that Newfoundland, while irrefutably a colonial project, has also been colonized by Canada, its heritage literally written out of official accounts of the nation. Yet some authentic Newfoundland exists – persists – in an imagined past, before colonial contact with mainland North America – thus, for a text like Random Passage, telling the past becomes not only a colonizing act, as one might expect, but also an attempt to resist and undo colonialism.

Indeed, it’s stressed multiple times, in different ways, that Newfoundland is an illegitimate settlement . The novel’s Prologue is narrated by an elderly Beothuk woman who contemplates the recent arrival of the soulless and violent “Widduns” while her family catches seals off what will later become Cape Random (this scene presages Morgan’s third novel, 2007’s underappreciated Cloud of Bone, an intense meditation on the Beothuk genocide). But, unlike other European settlements in North America, Newfoundland settlements like Cape Random are also illegitimate in the European view. Even as the Thirteen Colonies are fighting their war of independence, it is only questionably legal to settle most of the Newfoundland coast. The unofficial society that exists there is essentially a cashless, lawless one, without any political, educational, or cultural institutions beyond those it creates for itself out of material locally available. The sight of an English sail on the horizon is a cause for anxiety, not for reassurance:

“I allow she’s an English vessel. I minds Uncle Ki Barbour tellin’ us how they used to come down this way burnin’ every house that had a chimney. They once hung two men up in Pond Island, the navy did . . . and you knows none of we crowd, except for Thomas, got any rights livin’ in this place!”

References to historical attempts by the British to discourage or erase settlement in Newfoundland echo – deliberately, I’d guess – the erasure of Newfoundland from the Canadian schoolbooks of Morgan’s past.

So, Random Passage is an unusual historical fiction that operates in ways unlike its mainland Canadian and American counterparts.  I’d argue that, even beyond ‘explaining’ Newfoundland, it is a novel that wants to provide Newfoundlanders living in the present with revitalizing imaginative access to an overwritten/erased past that they are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with or ignorant of – to provide Newfoundland with a tribal memory. It serves a function opposite to the one I’ve ascribed to Come, Thou Tortoise – it creates a Newfoundland where a connection with a pre-Confederation past, with a culture and a way of life now vanished, is precisely what makes a Newfoundlander a Newfoundlander. It is a book about a long lineage of unlikely survivors, a book that intends to propagate that lineage through the imaginative reconnection of the present with the past. Thus both its setting and its characters have to serve as archetypes – Cape Random has to be any or every outport, and the cast of wretches who barely survive there have to serve as imagined ancestors for any Newfoundlander who encounters them.

A book so deeply engaged – by necessity – with archetypes could easily be trite, cliché, predictable. Like any cultural origin story, it could easily be pedantic or polemic – and I suspect it is put to those uses in some Newfoundland high school classrooms, where it is often assigned. Random Passage, though, rises above those qualities, due in no small part to Morgan’s abilities in creating characters and narratives, combined with the consciously metafictional qualities of the novel. The point of view shifts frequently; the novel is polyphonic, self-contradictory. The first half of the book is told primarily (though not exclusively) through one character, Lavinia, partly through the trick of free indirect discourse, partly through excerpts from her journal. The second part of the novel spans the same period of time and many of the same events, but this time it is entirely spoken in the first person, told by Thomas, the fish merchant’s agent (mentioned in the quote above as the only one who “got any rights livin’ in this place!”) with a shadowy past.

In this way, the plot, which is also more complex and engaging than a simple origin myth requires, can spin out its deceptions, its twists. Rather than following a conventional linear pathway, Morgan returns to the same scenes multiple times, giving different information and conflicting accounts, drawing attention, often explicitly, to the way that our knowledge of the past is always unreliable, always mediated by biased and partial reports. Characters mistake one another, misapprehend situations, misremember events,  make bad decision based on bad information. If Random Passage is meant to undo the erasure of Newfoundland’s heritage, to give Newfoundland’s past – and thus Newfoundland identity – back to readers who have been deprived of it through such colonial erasure, then Morgan is also smart enough and ethical enough to deny any sense of solidity or certainty in that past. The past is only accessible in the telling of the past, and each telling changes it. The historical Newfoundland, the seat of Newfoundland identity in Random Passage, becomes “[a] place . . . forever reshaping itself . . . [Will it] vanish completely some day. . . ? No, it is the changing that saves it.”

Rare Birds, by Edward Riche

This is Part 5 in my ongoing “Primer on the Newfoundland Novel” series. For links to parts 1-4, check the bottom of the post.

“I did well on tips. Funny how Newfoundlanders are with money. They sense the end is nigh, I guess.”

Edward Riche’s first novel Rare Birds emerged in 1997, at the midpoint of a particularly apocalyptic era in Newfoundland. This was after the cod moratorium but before the oil boom – a period when the province’s population shrank by more than 10% in less than ten years, when national newspapers callously told Newfoundlanders to “move where the work is” – last one off the island make sure to turn off the lights and lock the door. 1997 was an odd year,though – at perhaps the peak of this pessimism, it was also a year of official celebration, the supposed 500th anniversary of Newfoundland’s European “discovery.” No shortage of government money was poured into pagentry and pomp (the Queen went to Bonavista to greet a replica of John Cabot’s ship as it sailed into harbour, even). However, even as the mere existence of Newfoundland was celebrated, it still seemed doomed, fundamentally ill-fated:

“Nature was reclaiming Newfoundland in the name of the Beothuks and the great auk. The wharfs would wash away, the softball diamonds would become bogs and the phone booth would sink into the damp earth. Newfoundland resisted civilization. The ancient Dorset peoples had failed. The Point Revenge Indians had failed. The Norse had failed. The Basques had failed. And now the British Empire and its Canadian water boys were failing. The island belonged to the black bears and caribou and lynx and crows. And they would soon have it back.”

Something of this atmosphere, this sense of an unsustainable largesse-in-despair, of a fraudulent celebration that can’t help but ring hollow, characterizes Rare Birds, an intelligent but unpretentious plot-driven comedy. It’s a novel that feels, to me, something like a half-rueful, half-wild last laugh, a Swiftian smirk shared by the few who see and comprehend the unravelling situation but are powerless to alter a thing as the island itself sinks under its own weight into the Slough of Despond – hurried to its inevitable fate, perhaps, by the hand of its unloving colonial masters (see above re: Britain and Canada), but doomed, in truth, by its unlucky and maladaptive nature.

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

The protagonist of Rare Birds is Dave. Dave is a foodie suffering what might be a mid-life crisis. He has quit his job, moved home to Newfoundland, and emptied his bank accounts in order to open a fine dining restaurant in a fishing village just outside St. John’s, in the ‘”brown bag belt” – something that might make sense in 2010s Newfoundland, flush with oil money, but a quixotic if not insane move in the economically moribund 1990s. Dave’s restaurant has a fittingly ill-favoured name: The Auk, a bird driven into extinction by the insatiable bloodlust of Newfoundlanders, who slaughtered them into oblivion. Dave has spared no expense: the restaurant has been lavishly renovated, and the wine cellar is full of expensive vintages.

The novel opens several months after the restaurant does, and both the business and its proprietor are floundering; there are no customers and Dave’s wife has abandoned the rapidly worsening situation, taking a job with a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC; bankruptcy and divorce both beckon. The novel’s plot takes off when Dave’s eccentric neighbour (and perhaps his only real friend), Phonse, hits on a scheme to bring customers to The Auk’s door: fake a rare bird sighting, a colourful and distinctive bird last seen perhaps twenty years ago (the sighting is debated), now thought definitely extinct. Such a report will bringing hopeful (and hungry) bird watchers out of the city (or, indeed, from around the globe) to the remote locale, the very doorstep of Dave’s restaurant, The Auk. And as The Auk is the only place to eat anywhere nearby, he will have captive customers. The refined palates of the bird-watching set will be impressed by the improbable existence of fine dining in rural Newfoundland; word will get ’round, and Dave and The Auk will both be saved. The scheme works, but almost immediately entropy sets to work complicating the hoax. Sexual frustration, industrial espionage, menacing locals, bumbling Canadian government officials, and a lot of cocaine make maintaining this fraudulent success all the more difficult, and things begin to spin out of control.

Phonse, the engineer and prime mover of the situation, is many things: an inventor, a schemer, an autodidact, a fatalist, a paranoiac (justifiably, it turns out), a dynamo of energy with a relentless and thoroughly open mind. He’s probably the novel’s most interesting character, and he’s also pure Bayman – one of the two most basic tribal distinctions that exist in Newfoundland (the other being Townie – about which more later). We are introduced to Phonse through Dave’s memory of him euthanizing an adolescent humpback whale that had become trapped in sea ice and was doomed to be slowly and cruelly crushed to death. This extreme act of difficult kindness, marginal to if not outside of propriety, sums up Phonse perfectly. Phonse either sees the situation clearly or educates himself until he can do so, and then he simply, without ceremony or posturing, does the thing that needs doing; to lesser minds, this may make him appear eccentric if no insane.

Phonse is a Bayman. Townies are from St.John’s. Baymen are from the countless rural communities. In the Townie mind, Baymen are supposed to be uneducated, unworldly, simple, small-minded, perhaps even uncivilized. Phonse is none of those things, but he lives in exile from his outport community, Push Cove, because many of the people there precisely fit this stereotype. By including both the stereotype and its opposition, though, Riche attacks from both sides both offensive stereotypes of and romantic notions about Newfoundland.

“It was the hollow myth of Newfoundland again. The people were all supposed to be so sweet and colourful but never dangerous, the good poor. This was Canada’s Happy Province. I’ll introduce you to some car cannibals, thought Dave. They’d club you like a seal pup and sell your organs for the price of a dozen beer.”

And what about the Townies? If Phonse is a Bayman, Dave is a Townie; if Townies have a dim view of Baymen that is, nonetheless, often accurate, Baymen return the favour, likewise with a degree of accuracy:

“The peculiar little city gripping the steep sides of a small harbour seems magical on first sight. Its streets are a senseless maze, the map of a drunk’s progress. Its wooden row houses are painted the most audacious colours to combat the dreary agency of persistent fog and drizzle. The people, the Townies, seem friendly, generous with colourful opinions, spoken with a distinct mongrel brogue of Irish and English influence. They are surprisingly worldly. For the people of the many outports along the coast of Newfoundland, St. John’s was Sin City, impossibly cosmopolitan and jaded for such a small place. The charms of St. John’s were undeniable, irresistable. No wonder it had suckered so many souls. The people that really lived in St. John’s, the ones who hadn’t gone away too long or hadn’t fallen under its spell during a brief visit, the real Townies, knew better . . . . They knew that St. John’s was, beneath the pink and powder blue paint, the political capital of a four-hundred year legacy of misery and deprivation, a desperate colonial outpost of missed opportunities. Dave’s town.”

Rare Birds is worth reading for its wit and its plot; it’s a funny, briskly paced, readable book; you can get through it in a day. In addition to these qualities, passages such as those I’ve quoted here make it a notable and useful introduction to Newfoundland. It’s a novel that’s deeply engaged with the project of theorizing the place, thinking about its nature, its past and its future. Riche has absolutely no romanticism for Newfoundland, and, judging from Rare Birds and his other writings, he relishes opportunities to dismantle romantic myths about the place. But this isn’t to say he doesn’t love Newfoundland as well. Rare Birds demonstrates a wealth of knowledge about the place, its history and its people, the kind of knowledge few Newfoundlanders possess (at one point, Dave bitterly thinks that the provincial slogan should be changed from “The Happy Province” to “I Forgets” – a nice riff on / inversion of the Quebecois Je me souviens). Rare Birds also demonstrates a lot of deep thought about why Newfoundland is such a “tragic case,”  a “battered and bewildered nation, the sport of historic misfortune,” and it does all this through the medium of a fast-paced plot-driven satire.

Previous posts in this series: Lisa Moore’s Alligator, Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Michael Crummey’s Galore, and Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise.

July 1

This is adapted from something I wrote on facebook seven (!!!) years ago. 

July 1 is usually a day of conflicted feelings and conflicted identity for me. July 1 is Canada Day, but it’s also Memorial Day in Newfoundland, a day to remember Newfoundland’s war dead in general, World War I in particular, and the slaughter of Beaumont Hamel in 1916 most specifically. This is complicated not just because of the disharmonious combination of emotions — celebration and commemoration — but because the Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War were not Canadians. They were not fighting for Canada. When the media covers Memorial Day, this fact is often left out, or only hinted at. But I think it’s at the heart of why July 1 is such a strange and difficult day for me.

Most of the time I have a pretty reasonable internal compromise regarding my sense of national identity. I’m an nth-generation Newfoundlander who also happens to be a first-generation Canadian. Because of Newfoundland’s odd political history, I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada, even though my family has lived in Newfoundland for at least 200 years before my birth. My parents did not come to Canada as children; Canada came to them.

As an uncritical youngster, I was full of overwhelming but mostly formless Canadian pride. I chalk this up to successful federalist propaganda, itself a response to the surge in Québec separatism in the 80s and 90s. There was a frantic edge to the flag-waving of the early 90’s, as if Canada was Tinkerbell and this was the bit at the end of Peter Pan where we all have to applaud to save her life.

Newfoundland patriotism? The attitude I received during childhood was that Newfoundland meant backwards, wrong, ignorant, poor — something to be ashamed of. Though it was never put so bluntly, the message was loud and clear: If I wanted to be anything more than the stereotype of the ignorant and lazy welfare bum, I would have to excise Newfoundland from my identity and become, essentially, exactly the same as people from the Canadian heartland. Good kids didn’t talk ‘like that’ (with a Newfoundland accent). Good kids loved Canada. Good kids aspired to a particular WASP-y Southern Ontario ideal which, we understood, was Canada. I was a good kid.

As I grew older, I became curious about my own place and my own people, so incredibly different from that Canadian ideal. I felt alienated from my own culture and I wanted to reverse that. I didn’t have much by the way of dialect, but I tried to hold on to what had survived. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I started to study Newfoundland history and learned that we had once been a country  — well, mostly. For a while, at least, we had the same legal status within the British Empire that Canada had. I learned how Newfoundland once had passports, Prime Ministers, currency, stamps, and so on. These were facts that, incredibly, had been omitted from all my public schooling. It was as if, when we joined Canada, everything from before that date was erased and replaced by Canadian history. I knew who Sir John A. Macdonald was, but I had never heard of Sir Robert Bond. I knew who Louis Riel was, but not William Coaker.

This isn’t to say joining Canada was a bad thing, on the balance. The quality of life in Newfoundland took an enormous leap forward during our first twenty years as part of Canada. The fact that I am as educated and as healthy as I am is largely due to the advantages I have had as a Canadian. It would be ungracious to pretend otherwise. It is, literally, a privilege to be born in Canada.

If Newfoundland had gone it alone, we might have been an incredibly prosperous small nation, with all of our resource revenue for ourselves, or we might be a destitute, illiterate, malnourished micronation that never fully escaped the 19th century. Or we might be somewhere between the two. Or we might be something else, something I haven’t considered or imagined. It’s impossible to say what might have been.

Harold Horwood, a controversial Newfoundland writer most prominent in the 1960s and 70s, had an interesting theory. Horwood’s idea runs like this: it took the peril of cultural destruction that came with our joining Canada to make Newfoundlanders aware of ourselves as a unique culture. The perceived erosion of our culture by Canadian cultural imperialism is what prompted cultural nationalism in 1970s Newfoundland, just as American cultural imperialism prompted Canadian cultural nationalism during the same period.

But cultural nationalism isn’t satisfying to me. It’s reactive. It shuts down diversity and possibility.

Today is Canada Day. On July 1 1867, Canada was formed. Newfoundland didn’t show up to the party until 82 years later, on April 1 — rather, 11:59 pm March 31, in consideration of what else April 1 is.

Today is also Memorial Day in Newfoundland. On July 1, 1916, the Battle of Beaumont Hamel nearly wiped out the Newfoundland Regiment, later called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the only regiment to be awarded the appellation ‘royal’ during the course of World War I.

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source:  http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part2_the_battle_of_the_somme_part1.asp

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source: http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/

 

More than 800 Newfoundlanders were sent over the top that morning; the next morning, only 110 were alive, and only 68 of them were able to answer roll call. For a nation of barely 250,000, this was a huge one-day loss. To put it in proportion, it would be like 89,000 young Canadians being killed in a single hour of senseless carnage, today. But July 1 was merely the bloodiest day of a very bloody war. When even a single human death is an inconceivable thing, it feels brutal to deal in numbers of these magnitude. While casualty rates for Newfoundlanders were comparable to rates for Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, Newfoundland’s tiny population magnified the social cost. Joan Sullivan’s non-fiction book In the Field is an account of how delicate the social ecosystem of a small Newfoundland outport can be; how the death of just a few young men — or even a single one, in the case Sullivan investigates — can disrupt a fragile community’s chain of existence, leading to its eventual destruction. In World War I, Newfoundland lost a significant part of a generation of political leaders, thinkers, businessmen, writers, inventors, innovators. Due to the tiny size of the then-country’s population, these were often irreplaceable losses.

Newfoundland also went deeply into debt to finance its efforts in World War I, and the fact that this debt was never forgiven has often been held up as one reason why the Dominion suffered an economic collapse in the early 1930s, surrendering its self-rule to the very British government it had gone so deeply into debt to defend — something that sticks in the craw of many Newfoundland nationalists still.

unveiling national war memorial, st john's

Unveiling of the National War Memorial in St. John’s, July 1, 1924. Source: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/greatwar/

So, since World War I, July 1 has been a day of great mourning and deep significance in Newfoundland, entirely divorced from the Canada Day celebrations in what, until 1949, was the next country over.

But now we are Canadians, too. We have been for more than sixty years. I am a Canadian as well as a Newfoundlander, and usually I can be both without too much trouble. But July 1, for the reasons given above, is a day when that compromise feels uncomfortable.

I find inappropriate many of the patriotic displays associated with Canada Day. July 1 sees like a day when we are encouraged to rally around cliché, natural symbols and animals that most Canadians (some of the most urbanized people on the globe) have little knowledge of, and bits of culture filched, expropriated, appropriate from the land’s original inhabitants, who continue to be subject to abuse and discrimination, and whose land is still under illegal occupation.

So how can one celebrate Canada Day? To be Canadian is to be local. Canada is not a monolith. Canadians are not one people. Canada is not two solitudes; we are not one English people and one French people. Canadians come from anywhere and everywhere. Canada is not even a nation, in some senses of the word. It has always been a composite, comprised of countless disparate fragments. Any attempt to create a united identity for Canada that moves away from that fact is immediately an ethical failure.

I am not patriotic. Canada has a violent, bloody history that often gets forgotten. It is an ongoing colonial project and its body count is still rising. However, it is also good to consider the positive aspects of this improbable, imperfect political entity. It is (usually, mostly) a society of tolerance in a world that is mostly cruel and unwelcoming. My current provincial member of parliament, here in Toronto, demonstrated something rare this morning: a patriotic tweet from a politician that didn’t feel like empty pandering. He wrote:

https://twitter.com/Glen4ONT/status/483956820520599552

So, that brings me back to my childhood, watching the 1995 Québec referendum. Is Québec a nation? Of course. So is Newfoundland. So are the Cree. So are the Métis. So are the Acadians. So are the Inuit. So is WASP-y Southern Ontario. These nations have different levels of recognition, different levels of prestige, sometimes wield power against one another. But the watchwords are “pluralism and hope,” and something so difficult as an effective pluralism won’t ever be achieved without hope and optimism. We are countless nations within a political compromise, pursuing a common good as best we can. Canada is that compromise. I think the most Canadian thing a person can do is to respect that Canada is not a single nation, is far more than two solitudes. July 1 is a day to honour differences and the framework that allows difference to exist.

So, perhaps ironically, the best way I can celebrate Canada Day is by honouring Memorial Day instead. Which is, as always, what I will end up doing.

Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

This is part four in my primer on the Newfoundland novel - check out parts one, two, and three.

Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, was published in 2009. As far as I know, there was nothing like it in Newfoundland literature before and there has been nothing like it after. In the wider world, there are books it could be compared to—The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example—but, then again, its very Newfoundlandiness makes it different from those, too.

Why should you want to read Come, Thou Tortoise? Well, it is very funny and very sad. It’s also much smarter than you might initially give it credit for—it’s not for nothing that the title is an allusion to Shakespeare (specifically, it’s from The Tempest, when Prospero is calling Caliban to make his first appearance). It’s a very funny, very weird, very sad, very loving book. It’s an exuberant text, full of stuff, in love with language, in love with the world, in love with improbable and atypical forms of love, of being.

In love with language? It’s almost an understatement. In addition to literary allusions that span Donne to Rimbaud, the book delights in puns, wordplay, productive linguistic errors and misreadings; these might strike some readers as cloying or cutesy or corny, at first. But, if you take the book on its own terms, it becomes clear as you read on just how deeply ingrained these word games are in the emotional lives and worldviews of the core characters, of the family and community and microculture they have created for one another through sharing these language games. Even the protagonist’s name and identity are tied up in these productive puns: she is “Audrey” but she is also, to family and friends, “Oddly” – which is how she sees and makes sense of (reads) the world: oddly.

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

One of the very first puns a reader encounters serves as a good example for this kind of thing: Come, Thou Tortoise begins with Audrey/Oddly. She is racing home from Portland, OR, to her hometown, St. John’s, NL, because her father is unexpectedly in a “comma. Sorry, coma.” Oddly tells us how  she finds the concept of the comma comforting; a comma is a pause in a sentence, a temporary stop, but the sentence keeps going afterwards. There is life after a comma. She is rushing home to deliver a heart-moving,  (literally) rousing bedside speech, and she imagines, if she gets the speech right, that her father will wake up. This might strike the first-time reader as ‘quirky,’ and quirk is a difficult spice to cook with. But this is all in the novel’s first few pages, when the world of the text is still unfamiliar; as one reads on, it becomes clear just how much power language, narrative, and ritual have for the little queer community that is Oddly’s home in St. John’s. Making punny changes in language becomes a way of tweaking its power, bending it, perhaps, to a more favourable path, if only for a time.

This little community of disobedient readers (in the style of Eve Sedgwick) could exist anywhere, in any town or city in the world. But it’s particularly fortuitous that it exists in St. John’s; Come, Thou Tortoise is a love-letter to the weird little city on the edge of the continent, but, like everything else, it refuses to play it straight. The cultural and physical geography of the ‘real’ St. John’s is constantly warped, for the delight or comfort or satisfaction of the people at the novel’s heart. At the same time, Newfoundland’s relative obscurity and unimportance on the global scale make it a safe harbour where these disobedient discursive practices can flourish, can create that little queer community.

I could go on—especially since Come, Thou Tortoise is the focus of one of the chapters of my dissertation (so I’ll almost certainly come back to this book in the future here on the blog).  For now I’ll say that if you can handle the deep punning, and if you’re interested in queer new imaginings of St. John’s, and if you’re looking for something that’s by turns very funny and very sad, you should pick up this book.

Also, one of the narrators is an actual tortoise.

Critical Distance and Minor Literatures

I spent the beautiful last weekend in May at the annual Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, this year held at Brock University (it moves annually). My contribution to the yearly thought-deluge was a paper I gave to ACCUTE about Lisa Moore’s Alligator (a novel I’ve written about on this blog, here and here). In this paper, I talked about how Alligator is both a Newfoundland novel and an urban novel, and how this challenges Newfoundland’s place as “region” within the Canadian national imaginary, where Newfoundland is thought of as a resolutely rural heterotopic space, a romantic fantasy of an ‘authentic’ nineteenth century Anglo-European territory. I ended the paper by trying to conceptualize St. John’s (and urban Newfoundland more generally) using the metaphorical model of the port. It’s my contention that Alligator forces readers to encounter Newfoundland as a node within multiple and overlapping transnational networks.

There were only two people on my panel, myself and my U of T colleague and friend Joanne Leow, which left almost 50 minutes for questions, answers, and discussion. Happily, there was a sizeable, attentive, generous audience. I’m not at my best during question and answer periods – I ramble, I lose track of the question I’m meant to be answering, and, most frustratingly, I think of things I could or should have said days or weeks after it’s over. So this blog post will be an attempt to put that esprit de l’escalier to some productive use.

Halfway through the Q&A, Professor Nicholas Bradley from the University of Victoria asked me a huge question. To paraphrase, he asked how I feel about critical distance and objectivity when working on something so close to my heart, or to my home.

I did a poor job answering because he’d put his finger on something enormous, something tied up not just with critical thought but also with deep emotions, something I’m still struggling with.

My immediate instinct, when giving my answer, was to praise the value and worth of “objectivity” and “critical distance.” This instinct was not the result of careful examination. I did not come to the independent conclusion that ‘distance’ is good and necessary. Instead, my answer came out almost unbidden, like a knee tapped by a little rubber hammer, or maybe like genuflection. I wanted to reassure everyone in earshot that I wasn’t some myopic crank, but that I was a “legitimate scholar,” whatever that means.

Clearly there is some unpacking to do.

When you work on small, minoritarian, unrecognized or under-recognized literatures, especially literatures that are marked as somehow different (queer, racialized, otherwise ‘ethnic’ texts, etc), the anxiety that people won’t take your work seriously is very real. And of course, when I say “you” in the previous sentence, I mean “I.” And when I say “people,” I mean anyone and everyone, other academics included – this goes beyond the awkward Thanksgiving dinner where you try to explain your work to uncomprehending family members. Small moments of deep learning burble up in my memory – being laughed at for knowing a number of Newfoundland folk songs, for example, or people screwing up their faces in confusion and asking “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” when I tell them what I work on. There are people who are only familiar with the “goofy Newfie” stereotype, who are thus trained to find laughable or ridiculous any attempt to take the place and its culture seriously. Then there are other people who can’t or won’t differentiate “Newfoundland” from “East Coast” or “Atlantic” literatures, even after that grouping, while convenient, is not particularly useful (see Corey Slumkoski’s Inventing Atlantic Canada or Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s The Newfoundland Diaspora).

Even structural things within the academy contribute in their way: I did my undergraduate degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where Newfoundland Studies is a legitimate field. However, I was in the English honours program, which had a long list of canon-reinforcing course requirements. A course in Newfoundland literature wasn’t one of those requirements, and so I did not take a course in Newfoundland literature – no time, no space in my schedule; I did Chaucer instead. In fact, I have never studied a Newfoundland text in a course at any level of post-secondary education: BA, MA, or PhD. At the MA and PhD levels it was an impossibility, in fact – none of the courses had any Newfoundland content, and at neither institution was there an interdisciplinary Centre for Newfoundland Studies through which specialized courses might be offered, as is sometimes the case with other minority literatures. So why wouldn’t people look confused and ask “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” if it’s seldom taught and rarely, if ever, the focus of a course?

These experiences tell you (tell me) that you (I) can’t take certain things for granted, concerns I suspect other scholars of literature don’t have, at least not within the sanctuary walls of the English department. There is a nagging and pervasive anxiety that people will not value the subject of your critical inquiry or intervention. Do Shakespeare or Milton or Dickens scholars have to concern themselves with these feelings, I wonder? No one laughs at them, and no one doubts the existence or worth of the texts they study. There are always courses focusing on them; they are always on someone’s syllabus.

One way I have of trying to soothe that anxiety is to invoke objectivity, critical distance, what have you. But why does the anxiety I’ve detailed above provoke that kind of reflexive response?

Of course, it’s a completely counter-productive move. I might summarize my academic mission like so:  “I’m doing this work because I’m intimately familiar with my culture, its history and its working. Because of that familiarity, I have insights that I do not see reflected in existing criticism; I believe these are useful insights which would enrich critical discourse. Worse, I sometimes see the differences and challenges to orthodoxy that are thrown up by my culture and its difference being wall-papered over, knowingly or unknowingly. I want to use my familiarity, my closeness, to tear away that wallpaper before it sticks.”

Which is kind of the opposite of critical distance, isn’t it? It’s critical closeness. The lack of distance is exactly what allows me to do the work I do, and I’m sure the same is true of many scholars, thinkers, writers, and artists from atypical cultural backgrounds.  Closeness isn’t a liability, when what you’re close to isn’t part of the canon; it’s a tool, and a good tool, too.

So why this reflex to cast that aside and adopt the guise of the body-less scholar, the floating brain in a jar that has no ties to the world, no existence in the world beyond the grounds of the University? The idea that the critic of culture should be without culture him-or-herself? And of course, “without culture” is entirely impossible; what is meant by “without culture” is “part of the University culture that has developed in Europe and North America over the last few centuries.” Or, in other words, is critical distance perhaps merely critical closeness that conforms with the expectations of hegemony?

That’s the big question I’ve taken away from what Professor Bradley asked me (nb: we spoke afterwards, and he indicated that my instinct as to what was expected in answer to his question was actually contrary to what he was was pressing for – yet more evidence that this instinct of mine is a trained one growing out of old fear, and not necessarily prompted by the situation to hand). Is it possible that this unthinking reflex, bowing at the altar of critical distance in a rote, unthinking fashion, may be a way of not angering or irritating the orthodoxy? If you feel like your place in the discussion is already tenuous, you don’t want to do anything that might place it in peril. But I’ve always been prone to a certain cowardice, too. I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, even when they should feel uncomfortable (and when they will be better for having felt uncomfortable, will appreciate it once the discomfort has passed). When I uttered empty platitudes about critical distance, was that my way of rushing in to say “No one needs to get upset! The way we do things is fine, just fine; I don’t want to wreck anything, I just want a little seat at the table and a few crumbs from the feast”?

If the answer is yes, then what follows is the realization that growing a backbone and being courageous are necessary work for any critic of any minor literature, and that I’m still doing that work.

FREE NFLD

What follows is a personal essay I wrote more than a year ago now. I shopped it around to a few places, but it failed to find a home. I’m putting it up here as it’s partly a news item, covering some events from the fall of 2012, so if it sits much longer it’ll be too stale to do much of anything with.

FREE NFLD

I spotted it on the side of a trash can on Yonge Street, Toronto, midnight on Halloween, a night for mischief, a night when the boundaries between worlds are supposed to be thinner. FREE NFLD.

I stopped and said “hold on.” My friend, a thirty-something fellow of good Ontario upbringing, stopped and turned.

“Free Newfoundland,” I said, pointing at the trashcan. I was delighted and I wanted him to share my delight. He didn’t understand why this small, crude graffiti, this Sharpie scrawl, should cause me joy, though. In fact, he seemed a little offended.

“We’ve spent so much money on you. You’re not going anywhere. We own you now.” That’s more or less what he said.

“You can marry a trophy wife, but that doesn’t mean you own her!” My hasty, awkward response. I let it go. We walked on for the moment.

At that point I’d been living in Toronto for three years, but the place never felt more alien to me than it did when I spotted that graffiti. I’d never felt so dépaysé—so outside of my country. That little eight-letter scrawl, F-R-E-E N-F-L-D, it was like a secret message. It was a piece of enchanted writing, enchanted so only some folk can read it. Don’t you get it? I wanted to ask my walking companion. The homeland is speaking to me! Via a trashcan on Yonge street! On Halloween night! A message from the other side! Some half-forgotten ember in me flared to life, if briefly.

FREE NFLD!

*

free nfld 5 FREE NFLD. I have a shirt from Living Planet, an independent clothing and design shop in downtown St. John’s, that says the same thing. I don’t wear it much up here in Ontario, though. Sometimes I break it out when I want to be a bit of an arse (on the first day of a Canadian literature class, for example). Other times I wear it when it’s entirely appropriate (attending a public lecture on Newfoundland English, say). Most of the time, though, I wear it when I’m homesick. It’s a solace, a comfort, a signifier small and strange, special to me.

“Free NFLD?” a clerk in a bookstore once asked, spotting my shirt. “Free it from what?”

I couldn’t think of a way to answer her. “You know.” But she didn’t know, and I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t say “free it from you,” because it’s more than that (and less than that). Besides, she seemed nice. It was like the shirt slightly wounded her, and I felt a little bad about that. It was like her thought was: why would you want to be free?

*


Many people in Ontario don’t know that Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada before 1949. Many of them don’t know that Newfoundland used to be more-or-less an independent nation (as independent as Canada was at the time). Many of them, to my shock, don’t even know that Newfoundland is an island—and that’s fact #1 about Newfoundland. They don’t know that you can only get there by boat or by plane. If they
do know that, they sometimes think the ferry only takes half an hour, or maybe an hour. I tell them the length of the Cape Breton–Argentia crossing (14 hours, not counting boarding and disembarking) and they don’t believe me. I tell them it’s about the same distance as the crow flies from Toronto to St. John’s as it is from Toronto to Cuba. That Moncton NB is only half-way to my home-town.

Quick: which is further south? Victoria BC or St. John’s NL? It’s St. John’s, but you couldn’t tell it from looking at most maps of Canada. We’re so deep into the margins that they squish us up into the corner. 

They aren’t used to thinking about how we (do or don’t) fit in.

*

free nfld bestSometimes, here in Ontario, I get this question. Well, this observation; it only feels like a question because I feel like some response is expected: “You’re from Newfoundland. But you don’t have an accent.”

“And why do you think that is?”

This tends to bring the conversation up short. Like it has never occurred to them that, if you want to be taken seriously outside of Newfoundland, you have to learn how to shed your accent at strategic moments—or, worse, you had it trained out of you at an age too young to even understand what you were being robbed of.

I do have an accent, though. Sometimes it is very thick. But it usually hides when I’m on the mainland. I don’t want it to. The fact that it disappears against my bidding makes me wonder if some shame about my heritage is still lurking in my subconscious. But if I consciously coax it out, if I put it on, it feels like cheating. It’s hammy, over the top, fake. Faking it makes me feel more estranged, not less. I shouldn’t have to fake it.

*

freenfld 1

“I’LL TAKE IT”

FREE NFLD. I’ve always liked the grammatical ambiguity of the phrase. It’s not a sentence, like Vive le Québec Libre! You could read ‘free’ as an adjective, not a verb. It could be a descriptive statement, not an imperative command. It could mean “Newfoundland is free,” not “Newfoundland is in need of freeing.”

That’s a tough sell, though. I’m sure most people intend FREE NFLD as an anti-Canada sentiment, if maybe a half-hearted one, if maybe not one to be taken too seriously. More an uncomfortable shrug against the steady and pervasive soft weight of cultural homogeneity than a proper political agitation. To me, though, it’s a reminder of how arbitrary it is that Newfoundland is now a part of Canada.

I never understand Canadians who get up in arms at the idea of Newfoundland leaving Canada, as if this would deeply damage the Canadian national fabric. Do these people think Canada was incomplete, a flawed and partial entity, prior to 1949? That was the line the mainland papers took, back when Newfoundland joined. There were many editorials written to that effect. It was depicted as a “finally, the country is complete! The dream of the Fathers of Confederation has been realized!” moment. It was an expression of manifest destiny. Newfoundland always belonged to Canada, even if Newfoundlanders didn’t know it, even if some of them refused to accept it.

But you know, if our joining up was so important, why isn’t April 1 a national holiday in Canada? They could call it National Unity Day or something like that. The Day of Doneness. But April 1 is not recognized at all, not even as a fake holiday that no one gets off from work. It’s not worth a mention on the calendars.

It’d probably be difficult to keep a lid on the damnable Newfie jokes, though, even if the anniversary was officially moved, like the moment of union itself, from April Fools to the final infinitesimal moment between March 31 and April 1.

*

As November progressed I started seeing more and more of them. FREE NFLDs in downtown Toronto. Written on doorframes, on walls, in corners and alleyways. The city was alive with reminders. “Don’t forget! Newfoundlanders are all around you!

The press back home picked up on the rash of FREE NFLDs in Toronto. There was a story in St. John’s largest and most important daily paper, The Telegram, about it. They interviewed a woman from Stephenville who now lives in my neighbourhood of Toronto. She had the same surprised and happy reaction I did when she first spotted the FREE NFLDs. We’re everywhere up here, she said. We’re taking the place over. Tongue in cheek. This sort of Newfoundland nationalism is a nationalism that hurts no one, makes no uncomfortable claims, has no violence or threat behind it. Sure, we can take over Toronto, and be mistaken for Ontarians after we do it. Like the poet Agnes Walsh wrote, in her poem “One Art”: we “can get jobs on the mainland / or at radio stations / our voices do sound so homogenous now.”

My father has told me about the Newfoundland clubs that used to exist all over the mainland, clubs where expatriot Newfoundlanders could congregate. Back when a majority of Newfoundland-Canadians were made, by act of legislation, rather than born, like my generation was. These Newfoundland clubs would create a piece of Newfoundland in a room far from the island. They acted as unofficial embassies of a non-nation.

Do we have that now? So many of my friends—young, intelligent, ambitious people—have left Newfoundland, and most have landed up here in Toronto. I go to a party in Roncesvalles, a hip west-end neighbourhood of Toronto, and the room is full of us. Our accents come out. No coaxing, no faking. We create Newfoundland for each other. To comfort each other. We confound the few mainlanders in attendance, make cultural references they have no way of being familiar with, jokes they have no way of getting. It is a little cruel, but having to abandon our homeland to have a career is also a little cruel.

*

free nfld 3It’s getting colder outside. I attend the launch of Greg Malone’s new book Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders. The book alleges that Confederation in 1949 was a con job, a dirty deal between London and Ottawa. The launch is in a bar on College Street, in Toronto’s Little Portugal district.

(The Portuguese White Fleet in St. John’s Harbour. My father, a pharmacist on Water Street, his first job. Selling the just-landed Portuguese sailors—so polite, my father says; so likeable—soap, aftershave, contraceptives. For use in that order, I imagine. The long, quiet connections between our nations, Portugal and Newfoundland. And now here we both are on College Street).

The rash of FREE NFLD graffiti in Toronto’s downtown core has continued. I’ve counted fifteen examples of it, from Bloor to College, from Bay to Jarvis. Who are they for? What are they saying?

Greg Malone, ranting about how our nation was taken away from us via years of secret negotiations, backroom power-plays. The right of national self-determination for the world was agreed upon when Churchill and Roosevelt met in secret shortly after the start of World War II, in the labyrinthine waters of our own Placentia Bay. Less than a decade later the right of national self-determination was ironically suspended in Newfoundland’s case. The referenda were a sham, he says. He’s got the documents to prove it, he says. This stuff will make any Newfoundlanders’ blood boil, he says. Our nation was taken from us, he says.

Exhilarated, I write a facebook status about it. “Be careful,” a friend comments. “Malone isn’t a historian.”

Greg Malone? “He basically found evidence for what our dads always told us,” another Newfoundland-to-Toronto transplant says to me, at the launch itself.

“Yes, but I like having all of my teeth and a University education,” I respond. It’s my dumb, sideways way of saying I like the material benefits of being a Canadian. I like the social welfare and the prosperity. (Yet here both of us are in Toronto, me in academia and my friend in publishing, because such careers are very scarce at home). “But maybe I’d have them anyway?” My teeth and my diplomas, I mean.

Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say Greg Malone is totally correct, that Newfoundland has had a gross injustice perpetrated against it. Lead astray in the dense fog of the global post-World War II shakedown, lost amongst the de-colonial/re-colonial realignment of the world. It’s much more difficult to rally and rail against this muddle of events, where no shots were fired, no dissidents imprisoned, where the so-called victims now enjoy an extremely high level of freedom and prosperity.

But, again, let’s say it’s true. What then? What is the next course of action? Do we sue Westminster and Ottawa? Do we campaign for separation? Do we ask for an official apology? Do we ask for a nice-but-meaningless declaration of nation-within-a-nation status? What about all the Newfoundlanders who consider themselves Canadians now? The youngest people born in pre-Confederation Newfoundland will start to collect their old age pensions soon. There are still people living who once held Newfoundland passports, but this won’t be true for much longer.

All this just brings it back to the bookstore clerk who asked me about my shirt. FREE NFLD. Free it from what? If FREE NFLD is a call to action, what is it asking us to do?

*

free nfld close

“WHY”

December 2012. I took a camera with me when I left the house. The more FREE NFLDs that appeared around Yonge and Wellesley, the more I grew afraid for their survival. I wanted to document them before they were wiped clean.

Maybe my fears weren’t well-founded. Only Newfoundland-based media had reported on the graffiti. Toronto-based alternative urban news outlets like Spacing and The Torontoist either didn’t know or didn’t care. This made me wonder: who is the intended audience for these FREE NFLDs? From my first sighting, back on Halloween night, I thought it was immediately clear. It was like the secret codes hobos would scratch on fence-posts, signs meant for other hobos, signs understood by other hobos. FREE NFLD is a signal left by a diasporic Newfoundlander, meant for other diasporic Newfoundlanders, something only ‘we’ will notice, a complicated signal that only ‘we’ will comprehend. A reminder that there are a lot of us walking around Toronto, that we can pass unnoticed but still carry within us the seeds of an irreconcilable otherness. A reminder that we are members of a secret, second nation, or an un-nation, maybe. A balm to the homesick and the despairing: you’re still one of us, and there is still an ‘us’ to be one of.

But maybe the intent was more like the original FREE NFLD, a famous piece of graffiti in downtown St. John’s, a six-foot silhouette of the island with the slogan in ragged red across it. It’s been gone for a decade now. I always understood that particular FREE NFLD as an earnest, genuine protest, part of the cultural nationalism of the 1970s. Maybe these smaller, hastier, cruder FREE NFLDs are meant to smack ignorant, complacent Toronto in its face, to get its attention. To make people who’ve never thought of Newfoundland and its claim to difference actually think of it for once in their lives. This unknown someone, writing FREE NFLD again and again, in the heart of empire, reminding the colonizer of the people they’ve colonized?

And there it is, behind it all: the old, original FREE NFLD. Pre–t-shirt sloganization. Before you could buy it and wear it. The big colourful mural on the steps at the east end of George Street in St. John’s. On a wall in a basement in rural Southeast Placentia there’s a picture of me next to it. It was taken shortly before the paint became too faded to see, before it was erased. I’m sixteen in the photo. Scrawny, hair too long. Behind me is the Great Northern Peninsula. The Burin, the Bonavista. The Avalon. All of the peninsulas like so many grasping arms, reaching out. And then there are Placentia, Trinity, Conception, Fortune, the rest of our countless bays, themselves curling, carving, reaching into.

A decade left to this younger self before he leaves for Toronto. FREE NFLD. Yes, I look fairly free.

Off to Kalamazoo!

I’m off to Kalamazoo, Michigan, tomorrow morning. I’ll be attending the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies – strictly as a spectator / social butterfly / intellectual flaneur (I’m accompanying my husband, Chris Piuma, who is a medievalist, and who’ll be giving no fewer than three papers over the course of the conference – so I’ll also be there for support).

Newfoundland offers more than a little flicker of interest to some medivalists, what with Vinland and L’anse aux Meadows and all that. And while the Viking attempt at a colony seems shortlived and ill-fated, the hold it has on our imaginations is very real and very powerful.

For one, it allows Newfoundland to claim a heritage and lineage much older than any other part of European North America. Of course, people and cultures have lived in all of the Americas for tens of thousands of years – but there is still a big conceptual wall in popular understanding between First Nations and European-founded settler-invader nations. Not only is such a claim fraught with those problems, but it’s also not really accurate in other ways: there is no Viking heritage or lineage in Newfoundland, just a Viking history, an isolated incident centuries before the Basque, the Portuguese, the French, the English, or the Irish visited and settled these shores. But this is often overlooked when one of the dominant narratives surrounding Newfoundland is its sheer age.

Newfoundland is imagined as being much ‘older’ than the territories that surround it (and thus more ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’), but it’s also imagined as being out of time in a curious way. It’s arguable that Newfoundland is the only European-derived community in North America conceived as having pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment roots, and the Viking link is very important to such imaginings. Check out that tourism ad I posted above – it’s a startling (and appealing) attempt to create a thru-line from the Vikings to a stilted version of contemporary Newfoundland (those big-eyed red-headed children clambering over rocks and meadows – rocks that, if you listen close, are actually whispering to them). The ad acknowledges that the Vikings left Newfoundland long ago (just a few years after they arrived, actually), but then it speculates that maybe they actually are still around - either as ghosts or as a some other kind of presence. The point of the narrative is clear: the Newfoundland of 1000 CE is blurred into the Newfoundland of the contemporary moment. It’s a kind of magical, ahistorical medievalism, and it’s embedded pretty deep into the Newfoundland imaginary.

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Here is the third instalment in my primer on the Newfoundland novel. If you missed them, here are links to the Introduction, Part 1 (Lisa Moore’s Alligator), and Part 2 (Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams)

The elevator-pitch for Michael Crumey’s third novel, Galore, would be “if 100 Years of Solitude were set in a Newfoundland outport fishing village.” But, as the elevator doors chimed open, I’d hasten to add “except in a really good and not derivative way!,” because that description is as dangerous as it is apt. Why dangerous? Well, García Márquez-derived magical realism is a tired and overworked patch of literary ground. But I’d argue that, in Crummey’s hands, it becomes fertile and exciting again, and this is so for two reasons: the source material provided by Newfoundland, and the specific cultural work Crummey achieves with it.

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Galore, by Michael Crummey

Before Galore, Crummey had published poetry and short story collections as well as two novels (I’ll discuss one of these novels, the Giller-short-listed River Thieves, later in this series). Both of his first two novels are historical fiction, and both are written in a grounded realist mode. So Galore is a notable departure in both content and execution. It’s a big, bold, imaginative, energetic book, stuffed to the brim with the improbable oral history and folklore of pre-industrial Newfoundland.

Until very recently, rural Newfoundland was an often-illiterate oral culture, mostly settled in the 18th century, primarily (often overwhelmingly) by people from the southwest of England (think Thomas Hardy’s Wessex) and the area of southeastern Ireland around the “Three Sisters” (the rivers Suir, Nore, and Barrow), with Waterford City as an epicentre. Various combinations of these two founder populations, plus random additions of Aboriginal, French, Welsh, or Scottish people (among others), were left for a couple of centuries to scrape an existence in the various nooks and crannies of the island’s jagged and inhospitable coast – not totally isolated, but isolated enough. This gave the cultural DNA of these founder populations time to combine, evolve, and mutate, as well as an environment which only encouraged such a process. So it’s hardly surprising that Newfoundland has a wealth of folklore, ghost stories, fairy tales, apocryphal history, and so on. This provides material that Crummey puts to good use in Galore. The fictional community of Paradise Deep, where Galore is set, is even structured along the lines of a bifurcated English and Irish origin, with the families of King-Me Sellers (blustering English merchant) and Devine’s Widow (eldritch Irish matriarch) representing the initially disparate cultures that eventually merge into the strange hybrid that is Newfoundland.

But, at the same time, Galore is deflating the touristic cliché version of everything I said in the previous paragraph, which insists on viewing Newfoundland as a strange island off the maps and outside of time, where everyone is charmingly Oirish and it’s perpetually about 1850 by way of 1350. The promotional copy on the back cover even engages with this trope: the book is said to portray “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland.”

I remember Galore got a lot of traction in the US and world-wide after its release; it was short-listed for the Dublin IMPAC literary award (the world’s most lucrative literary prize), and Crummey was given a feature interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR (you can listen to the interview by clicking here). I bought my copy of Galore at McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, and the checkout clerk exclaimed, when I laid it on the counter, “oh, I’ve been meaning to read this! I hear it’s excellent!” This made me happy, but I also wondered in what ways the book’s popularity might be an example of Shipping News syndrome, where the appeal is rooted in how a little-known and remote chunk of white North America is surprisingly revealed as strange and exotic.

Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay (Michael Collins, 2013)

Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay (Michael Collins, 2013)

But that is also somewhat the point of Galore; Newfoundland was, in Crummey’s vision, a strange and exotic place – but note my use of past-tense there (and the use of past-tense in the back-cover copy: “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland)”. It was. Galore cuts off in World War II, but it doesn’t just cut off; it loops back to the beginning, suggesting that Newfoundland, between settlement and industrialization/becoming part of Canada, has a kind of circular, infinite-within-its-boundaries existence; it makes that period of Newfoundland’s past something other than normal time, other than normal history. The limitations, privations, fears, and wonders of pre-industrial outport life are scarcely comprehensible to most contemporary Newfoundlanders; this “gone world,” as Crummey calls it elsewhere, remains in living memory for another decade or two, most Newfoundlanders only have a second-hand knowledge of it – we’ve heard of this ‘other’ Newfoundland, but we’ve never been there; it’s only spectral; you can only catch glimpses of it here and there. Those glimpses exist in the traces of ghost stories and fairy stories and folklore, the very material Crummey uses as to construct his text.

In some ways, then, Galore is still a historical novel, it simply has moved from documentary history and written history to oral and cultural history, to intangible felt history. Galore is contemporary Newfoundland’s attempt to come to terms with its estranged past, its emotional and, well, spiritual history, something indistinct but still very slightly perceptible, for a little while longer, at least. Galore is the sort of history which resist verification, which is beyond factuality, the kind of thing that has never been written down in history books, but which can occasionally be captured in literature such as this.