Adaptations: Artistic Fraud’s production of “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams”

Recently, I was lucky enough to see Artistic Fraud’s production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, adapted by Robert Chafe, on the second night of its four-performance maiden voyage. One scene near the end sticks in my mind. The whole Smallwood clan has gathered around the radio to hear the results of the first 1948 referendum regarding Newfoundland’s political future – Charlie, the grousing blustery alcoholic father, Minnie May, the high-strung mother down to her last nerve, Clara, the quiet and conventional wife, and the man himself, Joseph R. alias Joey, leader of the Confederate forces, our protagonist.

The scene opens with a radio announcer reading the referendum results: it’s a win for a return to self-governance, with 45% of the vote, but Confederation with Canada polls higher than expected, at 41%. The continuation of ‘Commission of Government,’ the strange dictatorial colonial interregnum that has administered Newfoundland since 1934, finishes a distant third, with 14% of the vote. As no ballot option received more than 50% of the vote, this means a second, run-off referendum is in the works, between the two most popular options – and it will be this second referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and delivers it to Canada as a tenth province in 1949.

It’s a proud night of triumph for Joey. Confederation has performed better than expected, and Joey anticipates that the supporters of continued colonial rule will be unlikely to switch to pro-independence – he knows that he’s going to win the second referendum. But the scene soon devolves into shouting, curses, recriminations, as Joey’s father, Charlie Smallwood – a man who, earlier in the play, bitterly instructed Joey to “love a woman, not a country” because “a country can’t love you back” – now patriotically accuses his son of selling both his soul and his homeland for a bit of political gain and Canadian coin.

The ensuing fight is fierce, probably the most heated and angry scene in the play. I read it as a symbolic representation of the very real family-destroying arguments that ripped through Newfoundland in the later years of the 1940s, as the issue of independence versus confederation divided families and communities – a trauma that still echoes today, not so many years after.

The night I saw the play, at every thunderous peak of rage, many in the audience laughed, as if the bitter schism being played out for us was a Codco skit.

Continue reading

Newfoundland off the map: Michael Crummey’s “Sweetland”

I’m very pleased to announce that The Toronto Review of Books has just published my review essay “Newfoundland off the map: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland. You can read it by clicking that link.

I first read Sweetland on the train from New York City to Toronto. A book about a community’s final sputtering days (and its strange, stubborn afterlife), it felt especially appropriate to read it as I passed through America’s rust belt.

I finished shortly before Buffalo. It was like I’d been punched in the gut, a feeling that sometimes returns when I think of the book. Here, someone had finally written ‘the Resettlement novel’, and had done it with such emotional depth, such poetic richness, that I was convinced it would serve not just as a monument, but also as a tool.

But then, I got to thinking about how true that could be . . . .

Is the book Moses throws into the ocean maybe one of Crummey’s own? Perhaps even Galore? This passage becomes a despairing “what good did that do?” act of literary violence. Literature will not save us. Ghost stories and folklore will not save us. There may be no use in turning to folklore when an entire culture is going extinct.

That’s the corrective Sweetland offers. Rural Newfoundland is not a fairy-tale place inhabited by fairy-tale characters. It is a real place, a marginal culture choking and sputtering at the hand of circumstance.

Newfoundland off the maps: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Previously on Michael Crummey’s Galore

L’ancienne capitale française

In 2013, I wrote an essay for the Newfoundland Quarterly about how my hometown of Placentia, the French capital of Newfoundland from 1660 to 1713, has a French history rather than a French heritage — that the town today likes to pretend it has some special Frenchness, but that this claim is false and has been since the mid-18th century. I meditate on what our imagined Frenchness means,  how it figures into our sense of identity as Placentia-people (Placentians?), and why we vigorously maintain this imaginary French heritage when all the facts are aligned against its existence.

Le Gaboteur, the French-language newspaper for Terre Neuve et Labrador, took note of my essay and recently asked if they could translate it and publish that translation. Of course I instantly said yes — it’s thrilling when someone does something creative with a text I’ve produced, and I consider translation to be a creative act. Also, I’m very pleased that my ideas will have a second jog around the block, as it were, and that they will be read by people who have a significant interest in the stakes of my essay.

The translation was completed last week, and it appeared today in the most recent edition of Le Gaboteur. If you have (or get) an online subscription, you can read it here. If you live in a part of Terre Neuve et Labrador where Le Gaboteur circulates, you can pick up the November 24 issue and turn to pages 9 and 10.

Research Roundtable: Newfoundland’s Queer Challenge to Canada and the Linguistic Turn

What follows is a modification of a presentation I gave last fall to the Research Roundtable, an annual event at the University of Toronto’s Graduate English program, where upper-year PhD candidates and faculty give twenty-minute presentations about their work. I’ve adapted that presentation into this blog post. While my thinking has changed over the last year, what follows more or less accurately reflects my main scholarly project at the moment: the disruptive and sometimes queer ways that Newfoundland’s literature is positioned within Canada.

I’m from Newfoundland (a great help in my work), and one of the origin points of my project was the realization that I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada. Yet my family isn’t a recent arrival in North America — I’m an eighth-generation Newfoundlander; my family has been here for so long that it’s not clear where in Europe we even came from (although Southeast Ireland and/or Southwest England is a safe enough bet). This realization—that I was the first in my family to be born Canadian—troubled the neat categories I’d been trained since childhood to use when thinking of the broad categories or ‘types’ of Canadians: ‘old Canadians’ (the English/French ‘two solitudes’ sorts), ‘new Canadians’ (recent or ‘recent’ immigrants), and Native Canadians (First Nations and Inuit). My family, and other Newfoundland families like it, fit none of these categories.

Many communities fall through the cracks between these three broad and overly-simplified categories: African-Canadian descendants of Black Loyalists and Jewish Canadians, to name just two examples. But my family were – are – Newfoundlanders, and that goes beyond the standard model of regionalism and into some strange territory: my family came to Canada in the mid-20th century from a foreign country, but that foreign country doesn’t exist anymore. They arrived in Canada on April 1 1949, but they traveled nowhere. They immigrated without moving. A diaspora without moving? A displacement that yet retains place? In one sense, I felt that I had stumbled on an utter conundrum, a conundrum no one had yet unpacked.

Continue reading

“The folly of Newfoundland’s grand colonial experiment”: The Great Eastern’s Oougubomba Saga (Season 4, Episodes 11, 13, and 14)

There’s a long history in Western literature—in all Western media, really—of using Africa to tell stories that are really about some aspect of the West. The Great Eastern, a Newfoundland-centric alt-history public radio satire (previously and previously), might seem an unlikely place to run into an example of that—but it exists. In the fictional version of Newfoundland The Great Eastern builds over its five years on the CBC, we learn about “Newfoundland’s disastrous colonial experiment,” its “brief twenty-year Age of Empire”—the fictional West African nation of Oougubomba, Newfoundland’s colony between 1926 and 1946. Yes, in the world of The Great Eastern, Newfoundland took a direct part in the “scramble for Africa.” We’re told that the Newfoundlanders administered Oougubomba in a fairly brutal fashion, enslaving the local populace, founding settlements like New Botwood and New Pouch Cove, clearing land for settlers from Upper Canada (so-called “Ontarikaans”) to establish plantations. Newfoundland’s interests in Oougubomba were defended by the King’s Own Jowls and Cavalancers (an insider reference to the Newfoundland folksong “The Kelligrew’s Soiree”—one of many that occur throughout these three episodes). The Newfoundlanders were violently expelled by a rebellion in 1946, and contemporary Oougubomba, as experienced through The Great Eastern, demonstrates a fascinating blend of cultures: part Newfoundland, part West African. Relations between the now-independent African state and its no-longer-independent former colonial master have improved. While “in some part of the interior there is still animosity towards the Newf,” for the most part, we’re told, Oougubombans “grin and bear it.”

There are two episodes of The Great Eastern that take place in Oougubomba, episodes 13 (listen) and 14 (listen) of Season 4. In addition to these, episode 11 (listen) serves as a kind of prelude to Oougubomba. Taken together, these three episodes may be the pinnacle of The Great Eastern‘s energy and ambition. These three episodes comprise a risky, complex, difficult-to-parse text.

I find it difficult to write about Oougubomba for all kinds of reasons—not least of all because I’m nervous about my ability to navigate the political minefield these episodes fearlessly zig-zag across. It’s not just that, though. I’m not certain what it is that these episodes are saying. They don’t sum up easily; they don’t constitute a monolithic statement. And that’s a good thing, a symptom of the show’s willingness to challenge authority and convention and its unwillingness to establish itself as a voice of authority or the inaugurator of new conventions. The Great Eastern sets out to do a lot of things, but it certainly doesn’t want to teachIt constantly turns to uncertainty. The Great Eastern builds its alternate universe as part of a disruptive project, and Oougubomba certainly contains disruptive potential.

Continue reading

“‘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

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:

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source:


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:

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:

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.