“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.

Newfoundland in Venice

I’m proud to say that I have an essay in the Spring 2014 issue of the Newfoundland QuarterlyIt’s about Newfoundland’s first official appearance at 2013′s Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious and important fine art events in the world. The inclusion of Will Gill and Peter Wilkins’ exhibition About Turn: Newfoundland in Venice in the Biennale is a signal accomplishment for Newfoundland’s art, and is the the culmination of years of work and fundraising by the Terra Nova Arts Foundation (TNAF), an organization dedicated to raising the international profile of Newfoundland art.

I was going to be in Venice at the tail end of 2013′s Biennale; I proposed to Joan Sullivan, the editor of the NQ, that I might write about seeing Newfoundland’s exhibition. Unfortunately, I discovered, when I arrived, that About Turn: Newfoundland in Venice had packed up shop a couple of weeks earlier than scheduled. The tidal floods that plague Venice were posing too great a threat to the art.

My essay in the current edition of the NQ is about this failure to witness Newfoundland’s debut on such an important and historical stage (the Biennale dates back to 1895). I hope I managed to weave something worthwhile out of this disappointment/failure. Unfortunately, it’s not available to be read online at the moment; after this issue goes off the newstands, I might approach the editor about publishing a copy of the article on this blog.

The Spring 2014 Newfoundland Quarterly

The Spring 2014 Newfoundland Quarterly

A word about the NQ: the Newfoundland Quarterly is almost as old as the Venice Biennale (it goes back to 1901 and is the second-oldest magazine currently publishing in Canada). This is my fifth time publishing with them, but I still get a thrill seeing my work in such an intelligent, cultured, and well-put-together publication. If you live in St John’s, it’s very easy to pick up the current issue: many shops downtown and tourist spots around the city carry it (for example: it’s at The Rooms, Rocket Bakery, The Travel Bug, and the magazine kiosk in Atlantic Place). It’s distributed by Magazines Canada, so it should be in Chapters and Indigo across Canada, but I have never seen an issue there, and I’ve looked for them, sporadically, for years. In Toronto, it used to be carried by Book City on Bloor, but this independent bookstore has recently gone the way of so many of its kind: kaput. I’ve sometimes picked up copies at the Bloor location of International Press in the Annex.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston

Here’s part two of my primer to the Newfoundland novel; read the introduction and part one.

In this instalment, I’ll be talking about Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. This novel would have been a natural starting point for the whole series. It received plenty of attention (both acclaim and controversy) when it was published in 1998, and it has had an enduring popular and critical appeal, finding a place in the later canon of Canadian literature.

It’s a big, ambitious novel that, in some sense, sets out to be the Newfoundland novel, telling the Newfoundland story: how so idiosyncratic, prickly, ill-fated, and (perhaps foolishly) proud a people came to be (inevitably yet improbably) part of the Canadian nation via the unlikely instrument of one Joseph R. Smallwood, himself a scrappy bundle of contradictions. In other ways, though, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a kind of bildungsroman, following the progress of Smallwood from his shabby and impoverished St John’s working class background to the tin-pot tyrant of Newfoundland, from a disgraced schoolboy to the Last Living Father of Confederation (as he self-styles himself) – except Johnston withholds from Smallwood the calmness, wisdom, and self-possession that is the expected end-point of a bildungsroman. Instead, Johnston instils at Smallwood’s core both an inferiority and a superiority complex, reflecting that same combination at the core of Newfoundland, and, in both cases, he leaves them unresolved, lets the contradictory energy generated by such a combination spiral out in strange, irrational, self-deluding ways.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Colony isn’t a blood-and-soil national/historical epic designed as a nation-building exercise. Rather, it’s a shifty game of what-if and maybe and never-was. It’s clever, ironic, and unwilling to commit to any particular grand narrative. Most of the novel takes place before Confederation; some of it is set in New York City and the rest of it is set in Newfoundland. It’s clear throughout the novel that Newfoundland does not make sense as part of Canada, has no affiliation or connection to the nation it ends up becoming part of, but then again, nations themselves don’t make much sense in the logic of this book. The call to nationhood is real, but it is issued to Newfoundland from an outsized landscape that is itself too huge and harsh to allow the few impoverished and exploited residents any opportunity to begin to answer it. Thus, the melancholy that sometimes surfaces in the book is not a melancholy for a lost nation, but rather a melancholy for a nation that never was, a nation that circumstance made impossible – the unrequited dream of the title.

Johnston’s writing in general, and in this novel in particular, exhibits a strange but appealing combination of 18th, 19th, and 20th century styles, like some mix of Henry Fielding (whose surname Johnston borrows for this book), Charles Dickens, and James Joyce, exhibiting hybrid vigour and run half-wild. The book is huge as the land and the personalities it’s about; it’s 560-odd pages of gothic neo-Victorian twists and turns, social realism, satire, mysterious goings-on, and earnest poetic reflections on land and identity.  Colony constantly undercuts itself; melancholic passages on the immensity of the land and the doomed nature of the people who live on it are intercut with breezy satirical excerpts from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland, a text-within-a-text Johnston creates as a kind of counter-point to the serious work of cultural navel-gazing. These excerpts are written by Sheilagh Fielding, journalist/satirist/plagiarist, Smallwood’s antithesis, nemesis, soulmate, and foil. She is Smallwood’s opposite in almost every way – tall (over six feet) where he is diminutive, ironic where he is earnest, elitist where he is populist, self-aware – sometimes paralysingly so – where he lacks self-awareness, allowing him to undertake a seemingly endless sequence of failed “sure-fire schemes” with great energy and vigour.

Here is one such excerpt from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland:

In 1610, John Guy starts the first formal settlement at Cupids, and is fooled by the fluke of two successive mild winters into thinking he would like to live there He is convinced otherwise by the less-anomalous winter of 1613, after which he returns home and for the rest of his life wakes ups creaming in the middle of the night, refusing to go back to sleep until his wife assures him he no longer lives in Newfoundland.

The London and Bristol Company sells John Guy’s colony to William Vaughan. Vaughan, after a long talk with Guy, which he regrets not having had before he made his purchase, does not actually visit his colony, but instead writes a book extolling its virtues called The Golden Fleece and sends in his place a number of Welshmen.

After not having heard from them for two years, he sends Sir Richard Whitbourne to see how they are doing. Whitbourne reports back to Vaughan that not all of the are dead and there is even talk among those still alive of building shelters of some kind. Inexplicably, the colony is abandoned in 1620.

Vaughan approaches various people and offers large portions of his colony to those who answer “No” to the question “Have you ever met John Guy?” (67-68)

Sheilagh Fielding is one of those breakout characters you get sometimes; I’ve seen her described as one of the great characters of Canadian literature, and Johnston has written a sort-of-sequel, The Custodian of Paradise, focusing solely on Fielding and her whereabouts and activities during a segment of time where she drops from view within The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. She is entirely a creation of Johnston’s, but it’s telling how well-realized she is as a character – and how vital she seems to the story – that people have mistaken her for real, have given her a fraudulent historical dimension (and this is fully in keeping with Fielding’s own slippery relationship with the so-called ‘truth’).

And indeed, Johnston inserts Fielding to represent a kind of third way within a debate that is usually framed as a binary; Fielding, the ironic auto-didact, undercutting authority and destroying certainty, is neither a Newfoundland nationalist nor a Confederate (Fielding, it’s telling to note, does not vote in the referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and dooms its chances at independence). Fielding knows that Newfoundland has always been a colony and always will be, whether as a small province or as a small nation-state. But this does not alleviate the emotional and psychological pull that national narratives can exert; as Lévi-Strauss put it, in a quote I think of often: “you’re not done living just because you chalk it up to artifice.”

It doesn’t matter to the mountains that we joined Confederation, nor to the bogs, the barrens, the rivers or the rocks Or the Brow or Mundy Pond, or the land on which St. John’s and all the cities, towns, and settlements of Newfoundland are built. It wouldn’t have mattered to them if we hadn’t joined. . . .

We have joined a nation that we do not know, a nation that does not know us.

The river of what might have been still runs and there will never come a time when we do not hear it. (560)

When first published, and at certain points since then, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams has come under attack for sloppy history. This is telling of a few things. It tells that we are anxious about our history, how often parts of it are not told, how little most Newfoundlanders know of Newfoundland’s extra-Canadian existence. It also tells that the wounds Colony prods are still raw, still provoke passion and pain. Why else consider a work of fiction – something that is released from fact by its very nature – to be dangerous or distasteful or irresponsible if it gets facts wrong in the service of story, or in the service of creating something that feels correct to its creator? It’s very true that the story of Newfoundland in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, of what it was before it joined Canada, of its precarious and eccentric place within Canada, is seldom told. At least, in my youth, as a straight-A student and bookworm, I knew very little of it. It wasn’t until I studied it in the later years of my undergraduate degree that I even knew some basic facts – like who Sir Robert Bond was, or that Newfoundland was a Dominion, not a Republic, as tourist t-shirts might lead one to believe.

"Dead-Pan" Tells Newfies Of Union

Ottawa Citizen, July 31, 1948

To my mind, though, this makes The Colony of Unrequited Dreams even more important; its errors are small, its fictional inventions suitable and right-feeling. It is not propagandistic, not narrowly supporting one side of the debate or the other, but it makes familiar, palpable, and real the question of Newfoundland’s aborted almost-nationhood, its lingering sense of melancholy strangeness.

Newfoundland Urbanism in Lisa Moore’s Alligator

A second post in a row about Lisa Moore’s first novel, Alligator. Earlier, I extolled Alligator’s virtues as part of my ongoing primer to the Newfoundland novel. Today, I’ll be going a little bit further indepth. This is partly for selfish reasons. In a few weeks I’ll be presenting a paper on Alligator at the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities (happening this year at Brock). ACCUTE (Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English) is running a special panel on the urban turn in contemporary Canadian literature, and my paper on Alligator will be part of this panel.

Moore has routinely been described as belonging to a cohort of Newfoundland writers who have turned from a vision of Newfoundland as a rural and homogenous society to one of Newfoundland as urban and cosmopolitan. I have no qualms with this characterization – it’s an accurate one, to my thinking. However, my paper argues that the urbanism in texts like Alligator is not linked to a recent demographic shift, but is rather an elaboration on a cultural and economic situation that was already the case, and had been the case for some time. Newfoundland, we understand through Moore’s writing, “was always already cosmopolitan and international.” [1]

This is, perhaps, an unexpected conclusion. The idea of Newfoundland as only recently, incompletely, and uncomfortably urban is a powerful and pervasive one. Often, St. John’s is depicted in both homegrown and mainland media with a picture of the Battery or Quidi Vidi in isolation, out of context; both look quaint and appear village-like, as if the ‘true’ St John’s were a handful of colourful saltbox houses sprinkled along cliffs and in-between weather-worn boulders. There is no sense that the dense core of St. John’s is a space “as urban as lower Manhattan,” as Wayne Johnston puts it in his recent The Son of a Certain Woman. And yet, according to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland is the most urban of the four Atlantic provinces, and a majority of Newfoundlanders have lived in ‘urban’ rather than ‘rural’ environments since 1961.

Water Street before Confederation.  http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/tradecns3.html

Water Street (St. John’s) before Confederation. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/tradecns3.html

Recent Canadian literature is often understood as dealing with Canada’s process of “citification”, of becoming urban. Within literary studies, the classic metaphor for euro-diasporic Canadian society has been the garrison: ‘classic’ Canadian literature is imagined as a small-town literature, depicting insular and mostly-homogeneous communities engaged in the ongoing process of building walls between themselves and a threatening outside world–both the potentially lethal nature world and the chaotic shifting mixture of peoples and cultures that are ‘other’ to the imagined-as-homogeneous society that’s found within the garrison’s walls. Canada’s 21st century urban spaces are conceived as being in opposition to this garrison mentality; the shifting spaces and permeable boundaries of cosmopolitan and transnational urban space disrupts and destabilizes the garrison, removes it from its position of prominence as the metaphor that structures an understanding of Canadian literature.

But if Moore’s Urban Newfoundland style reveals an “always already” urbanity, rather than a recent trend or demographic shift, then does her work, and Alligator in particular, fit into this perceived process of “citification” in Canadian literature? Well, it doesn’t. It’s my contention that, instead, in novels like Alligator, we encounter a deep and, crucially, pre-Canadian history of cosmopolitan urbanism, offered to the reader through an entirely different structural metaphor: not the garrison but the port.

Alligator is, at its core, the portrait of a port city. A port city is an inherently globalized environment, necessarily a space characterized by transient and trans-national people who live in it or pass through it. It is, by its very nature, a ‘mixed’ environment. What better port city to set up as a counter-example to the Canadian garrison than St. John’s? St. John’s is already the site of one failed national project (the Newfoundland one), and it is one of the (contentiously, perhaps the) oldest European-founded city in Canada–yet it only became a Canadian city within living memory; it is a city that has at its core an impossible-to-resolve pair of superlatives: both the newest and the oldest.

Alligator deploys St. John’s long history as a port city in a self-aware, post-modern fashion, where history and heritage are narrative and aesthetic creations of the present moment. It models in St John’s an urbanism that is about flux and the “give” that exists within a system like a city. Alligator also employs gothic tropes–most notably, the ghost of 19th century Newfoundland nationalist Archbishop Fleming and a city-wide infestation of an invasive species of larval worm–to suggest that such urbanism has a long history in St. John’s, and is also inscrutable, transformative, in flux. In short, the urbanism of Alligator is, primarily, a gothic urbanism. The ghost of romantic Newfoundland nationalism returns not to reassert its validity, but to reveal both its inauthentic and unstable nature. In doing so, it can’t help but likewise reveal the inauthentic and unstable nature of the Canadian nationalism that has overwritten it. At the same time, the larval worms, the alien presence of unknown origin, an uncanny presence beyond comprehension, are munching away on the fabric of the historic city. In the novel’s last sentence the worms emerge from their cocoons to erase the now-incomprehensible nationalist rantings of the ghost of the 19th century Archbishop with wings that are pointedly reminiscent of blank pages.

If Newfoundland is depicted in literature as rural, provincial, anchored in the past, resolutely English or Anglo-Irish in character, then it can be absorbed into the traditional structural narratives of the Canadian nation state despite its belated and ambivalent entry into Canadian Confederation – it becomes a cluster of yet more garrisons that reinforce, rather than complicate or contradict, the dominant national narrative. But if Newfoundland, through its port city of St. John’s, asserts a cosmopolitan, transnational history that runs older and deeper than Canada’s, asserts itself as bridging a pre-national past with a post-national future, then teleological master narratives about garrisons versus cities no longer square so neatly. This is, I argue, precisely what Alligator does.


[1]  Herb Wyile paraphrasing an argument made by Susanne Marshall in a 2008 special issue of Studies in Canadian Literature that focused on Atlantic Canadian writing.