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.

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

(for an explanation of this primer to the Newfoundland novel, see my introductory post here)

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

Alligator, by Lisa Moore

The first book I thought to recommend for this primer was Lisa Moore’s debut novel Alligator. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Lisa Moore built a reputation within Canada as an accomplished author of short stories. She earned more international (and, belatedly, national) attention with her second novel, 2009’s February, the first (and to date only) Newfoundland book to be long-listed for the Booker prize; it also won last year’s Canada Reads contest. Her third novel, a crime caper called Caught, was released to strong reviews, also last year. But, to me, Alligator is the place to start. Why? Well, it’s not just that Alligator is my personal favourite of Moore’s books (although this is true). Hopefully, by the end of this post, a sense of why I’ve chosen Alligator specifically will emerge.

Moore is a fantastic prose stylist; her writing is blunt yet oblique, full of movement and visual detail. Moore is a master of micro-pacing, varying short, staccato phrases with run-on sentences to create a palpable sense of tempo in her work, rushing ahead here, lingering there, not hesitating to issue second-person commands amidst the action, to grab us by the collar and turn our attention to where she wants it to be. She has a knack for rearranging syntax, for picking out the grotesque details that are hidden in a banal scene. There are few commas in her prose, and dialogue is not marked by quotation marks; this makes the words more liquid, more torrential. See, in the excerpt below, how she starts with a flat statement, then launches into a nearly-unpunctuated rapid-fire sequence of verbs and nouns – and see how “toothpick” is the subject, not the object, of the verb “unfolds” (and note how awful “eyetooth” feels).

“The hot-dog stand isn’t for sale, Frank said. Valentin lifted his lip then in a kind of slow snarl and a toothpick unfolded out of his mouth and he picked at his eyetooth with it and examined the pick and dropped it in the gutter. His black sunglasses were full of the coloured lanterns that were strung across the street. He turned and the lanterns ran across the black lenses, one after the other. The city had done up George Street to look like drinking was a Newfoundland tradition. But the old-fashioned street lights were brand new” (139).

But this writerly prowess, which Alligator demonstrates ably, is only one of the reasons why this novel is on this list. One of the points of this primer is to introduce Newfoundland as a society and as a place to a (friendly, interested) reader who’s unfamiliar with both. It’s no accident that the excerpt above, chosen to show Moore’s technical chops, also ends with a filmic sequence of coloured lights passing across a black lens, immediately followed by a judo flip of the stereotype of the drunken Newfie and Olde St. John’s Towne: George Street is decorated to make it “look like drinking was a Newfoundlnd tradition,” but “”the old-fashioned street lights were brand new.” Alligator is all about the construction of a new Newfoundland that positions itself as already old.

More than that, Alligator is a vibrant, fragmentary, portrait-of-a-city kind of novel, if the city in question is weirdly both old and new, the last port of call on the edge of a continent, on “a cold and ugly island that hardly existed, could not be found on many maps” – and St. John’s is precisely all of those things. Alligator is full of sex and violence; petty skeets and petty bourgeoisie; American tourists and Russian mobsters; a dying filmmaker who returns home to create a romantic paean to the spirit of Olde Newfoundland and an infestation of invasive larval worms that’s eating the city alive -not just its trees, but its spirit, its psyche – even its underwear:

“The next day Frank heard Carol out on the fire escape pulling in her laundry. She had several pairs of underwear hung on the line, pastel colours, each pair flimsy and light-pierced. The panties were full of worms. They had gathered in the cotton-lined crotches of the underwear and made them look black.”

In short, Alligator is stuffed with things; it’s a novel squirming with life. In that sometimes discomforting or even nauseating abundance of detail, it captures something about the feel and the life of St. John’s. Specifically, the feel and the life of St. John’s in the brief cluster of close,  mauzy days it gets most summers, that time when everything lurid and vital about the place seems amplified. A jagged, uncomfortable exuberance, both in style and content, bursts the seams of passages like this one:

“The way you see the elm spanworms is you are almost on top of them and what you see is a blur that registers in some primitive part of the brain as danger, you focus involuntarily on the worm before your face. It comes into focus, the way it inches up the clear thread, and the other worms hanging beside it become visible. They look like twigs. You can mistake them for inanimate objects, except they move. They waver slightly as if they are uncertain of what to touch next. They look like they think.” (88).

Alligator is often praised for inaugurating a turn in Newfoundland literature, praised as the anti–Shipping News – an urban and urbane turn away from nostalgic and melancholic writing about a fading rural society increasingly out of place and out of time. But while the St. John’s of Moore’s fiction is indeed a cosmopolitan, energetic, shifting urban landscape, Alligator remains very much a detailed portrait of a specific place, and it would be a very different book if St. John’s and Newfoundland both did not provide it with such a specific and unusual cultural and historical context. Alligator, and the dying filmmaker I’ve mentioned, are both haunted by the ghost of Archbishop Fleming, the 19th century architect of Newfoundland’s romantic nationalism. The book engages specifically and repeatedly with the question of what Newfoundland is, post-Confederation, post-globalization. The ghosts of old Newfoundland have been appropriated and packaged for the tourists, but there is a deeper reality underneath that packaging, one that still has an enormous amount of imaginative and affective power in the world of this book. Here is Madeline, the filmmaker, moving heaven and earth to make her final masterpiece, a film about traditional, pre-Confederation Newfoundland, a film completely unconcerned with historical accuracy yet obsessed with the affect of an imagined never-real past:

“You get an idea in your head. She wanted Newfoundland before Confederation because what kind of people were they? She remembers her mother’s housekeeper tearing the skin off rabbits in the kitchen sink… She could not put into words about how she’d captured the history of Newfoundland in this film, new because she was inventing it, or how this film had spiritual implications….”

Perhaps, too, I started with Alligator somewhat selfishly. At the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities this May I’ll be delivering a paper on Alligator, gothic urbanism, the port versus the garrison, and Newfoundland. I’m writing it now, and my next post will be a translation of the paper’s abstract into somewhat less formal, somewhat less academic language. Hopefully, it’ll explain why I think Alligator is both very fresh, very challenging, yet still, at its heart, undeniably a novel about Newfoundland.

Newfoundland novel primer: introduction

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making posts about my favourite Newfoundland novels, explaining why I think they are so wonderful, but also why I think they are important as Newfoundland novels specifically. This is intended as an imperfect and partial primer to the Newfoundland novel.

It all started a few months ago when Alison Kinney, a writer friend who lives in New York City, posted the following question on my facebook wall:

Was talking with a friend about Newfoundland writers, was wondering if you had a top 10 list of recommendations? I thought I saw some on the Books That Influenced You list; should I just start there?

This, of course, opened wide a floodgate. I’d create a primer in Newfoundland literature for Alison, a must-read list, and I’d write a paragraph or so about each book I put on it. But I’ve always been leery of canons. Can a text – can any art at all – have an objective quality of goodness or worth by which it can be compared to others of its kind? I reject that idea out of hand – any assessment will be subjective, will value certain things over other things. One judge will be blind to something that would shine like a beacon to a different judge.

I guess, though, you can do an (imperfect, biased) assessment of how well a text represents a culture and a place, at least in general terms. You can also get a general sense of cultural impact, if a text is at least a few years old – a sense of what literary life it has (if any) beyond its own covers. But if I was to guide my ship by those stars, I’d have to call at ports like Death on the Ice, House of Hate, and, yes, The Shipping News, and I have never enjoyed or loved those books (this is not to denigrate their importance, or, in the case of Death on the Ice, the vital work of cultural mourning and memorialization that they do).

But context and canonicity (such as it is) can’t be ignored completely, especially since the person who asked for a list of recommendations is someone who has never been to Newfoundland, someone who is not familiar with the place, its history, its context, the way it is today. The list of recommendations would need to have an element of didacticism to it, resist it as I may.

But the person who asked is also someone I know a little, someone whose literary tastes I have some sense of. So my response to Alison’s request would also have an element of a friend making a reading list for a friend.

But should anyone ever go ahead making a reading list – or a canon, for that matter – without friendly intent, without imagining the reader’s position and the reader’s taste?

Next: Newfoundland novel primer: Alligator, by Lisa Moore

Labrador and Newfoundland

Here in Toronto I’m sometimes asked questions like “what’s the deal with Labrador?”

What’s the deal with Labrador? I have a variety of potential answers, but all of them are unsatisfying in their way.

– “You know Trinidad and Tobago? It’s Tobago.” (Problem: not fully accurate, plus questioner must have a good knowledge of Caribbean geography).

– “Newfoundland is Denmark, Labrador is Greenland.” (Problem: not the most accurate comparison; for one, Denmark is too far away from Greenland. Also, questioner must know that Denmark owns Greenland).

– “It’s the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador; Newfoundland is the island portion. One province, two territories.” (Problem: while technically correct, this does not explain what Labrador’s ‘deal’ is, nor the relationship between the two territories, nor why I specify that my work is technically about Newfoundland rather than about Newfoundland and Labrador).

– “The twin planets Romulus and Remus” (Problem: must be a Star Trek nerd to comprehend).

– “Well, Newfoundland owns it, basically. It’s more or less a colony of Newfoundland.” (Problem: while evocative and not totally wrong, it lacks a certain technical precision and indulges a certain small hyperbole).

– “How Newfoundland is to Canada? That’s how Labrador is to Newfoundland.” (This is the best answer I’ve come up with yet, but it still doesn’t quite do the trick).

1534 map of the Labrador coast (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

1534 map of the Labrador coast (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

What I am trying to say with all of the above is this: Labrador is geographically, culturally, and historically distinct from Newfoundland, but Newfoundland controls it and derives wealth from it. Urban development and power (economic, political) are concentrated on the island (mostly in St John’s and around Conception Bay), and only a fraction of the wealth derived from Labrador’s resources actually stays in Labrador. Labrador’s population is tiny — about 27,000, a little more than 5% of the province’s total — so it wields very little power in the provincial parliament, just as the province’s 7 MPs can do little in a Canadian parliament of 308 (soon to be 338) members. Further, almost a third of the population of Labrador is First Nation, Métis, or Inuit, many times higher than the proportion of the island. In certain lights, it’s very difficult to think of Labrador as anything but a deeply colonized territory.

The official name of the province was changed, in 2001, to Newfoundland and Labrador. Folks (especially politicians) will call themselves by some variant of the gangly phrase “Newfoundlander and Labradorian.” This might be intended to convince Labradorians that they are equal partners in the enterprise that is our province, but it always strikes me as poorly considered at best (especially considering how unequal Labrador is in many other ways, and how, to many Newfoundlanders, Labrador’s resources seem more valuable than Labrador’s people).

Why is “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” poorly considered? I’m a Newfoundlander. I’m from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I can’t call myself a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” because it would be lying. I am not a Labradorian, but that phrase suggests I am. I have never even been to Labrador, and I acknowledge that Labrador has a history, culture, and landscape that’s distinct from Newfoundland’s. Being part of the same polity doesn’t mean being a single, unitary people. It would be like someone with deep roots in Normandy claiming to be Corsican – or Alice Munro claiming to be a Newfoundlander. To pretend that islanders like myself are “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians” because the province has a double-barrelled name feels like a rhetorical attempt to justify the colonial relationship that exists between the two parts, to Labrador’s detriment.

This becomes obvious if you pay attention to those same politicians who might claim to be a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian.” A minute later, they’re liable to say something like “our island home” or “our island province.” Newfoundlanders are island people; that turn of phrase comes very naturally to the tongue. But it only reveals the lie that is “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians” — we are not a single, unitary people. Worse, a Newfoundlander claiming to be a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” erases prima facie the idea that a Labradorian might exist, and that a Labradorian might have different thoughts, interests, priorities, and cultural contexts than a Newfoundlander would.

But this is a literary blog, and the question, for me, has to be: are Labrador texts and Newfoundland texts of the same family, or are Labrador texts of their own genus, with their own concerns, animated by their own context and history? It’s difficult to say, in part because it’s difficult to access many Labrador texts. The literary productions from our province that garner the most attention tend to deal with Newfoundland, not with Labrador — but I’d argue that Labrador texts do indeed form a distinct category.

Innu traders at Davis Inlet, Labrador, 1903

Innu traders at Davis Inlet, Labrador, 1903 (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

So what are the big, high-profile Labrador books? Only a few come to mind quickly. Kathleen Winter’s Annabel is a Labradorian novel, one that attends to the distinction between Labrador and Newfoundland. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Labrador has become a centre for surviving human civilization, but it was written by British man who probably chose Labrador as a setting simply because it was remote and Arctic, a place more likely than most to escape man-made global catastrophe. It’s difficult to build a bridge between Wyndham’s hyper-religious post-apocalyptic eugenicists (and their fertile farmlands) and Labrador as it currently exists.

Michael Crummey’s Hard Light has some poems set on the Labrador coast, where the speaker’s (and the author’s) father travelled to fish in summertime as a boy and a young man, but the nature of that relationship with Labrador as a place exemplifies the typical Newfoundland relationship with Labrador: a temporary site of resource extraction rather than a place of permanent habitation. Here, Labrador is a place without its own permanent or distinct habitus, a great and temporary outdoor factory rather than a fully formed and permanent societyIn the poems that make up Hard Light, the speaker’s memories of summers spent fishing on the Labrador shed light on his Newfoundland heritage.

There are other Labradorian texts, like Robin McGrath’s Livyer’s World (another speculative fiction about a futuristic post-apocalyptic Labrador – hmmm), or John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, and every former High School student of a certain age suffered through The Lure of the Labrador Wild (although its attitude toward Labrador is that it’s the last blank on the map, a terra nullius waiting for the discovering white man – it engages with Labrador as supposedly empty and inhospitable wilderness, not as a society with a history and a culture). To my mind, a study of Labrador literature, as a literature distinct from Newfoundland literature, is well overdue.

Newfoundland literature and Labrador literature can be uncomfortably jostled together, but it feels unsatisfying, a compromise made due to political and academic realities. It’s difficult enough to get people talking and thinking about Newfoundland literature as distinct from Canadian literature; tell the world that, oh yes, there’s also Labrador literature, and it’s different from Newfoundland literature in important ways, which is itself different from Canadian literature . . . .? You’ll recall how I opened this post. In my experience, many, perhaps most, Canadians don’t even really grasp the nature of the relationship between Labrador and Newfoundland.

Besides, there are only a few platforms dedicated to the production and the discussion of Newfoundland literature and literary culture, and such platforms are under threat by new economic and political supposed-realities. So it also seems ethical for Newfoundland literary studies to offer a home and a voice to Labrador literary studies. But I do think, even then, it’s important to remember that they are not the same thing.

EDIT: In an altogether fitting (though embarrassing for me!) error, I completely neglected to mention Them Days, a publication focused on Labrador heritage and culture that has been going strong for almost 40 years. It only goes to show how easy it is for Newfoundlanders to make mistakes and oversights with regards to Labrador!

Introducing Wayne Johnston and The Son of a Certain Woman

I got to do something very cool last December. The Newfoundland Quarterly launched its Winter 2013 issue in Toronto, and I was asked to introduce Wayne Johnston, the featured reader at the launch. I picked up a copy of Johnston’s new book, The Son of a Certain Woman, and read it (I’d been meaning to do this anyway – it’s kind of my job to try to keep up with these things), and thought about his other books, and how his writing has shaped my thinking over the years. Then I sat down and wrote the following introduction:

The-Son-of-a-Certain-Woman-711x1024

If you are interested in Newfoundland and in contemporary fiction, you probably already know Wayne Johnston as the author of many best-selling and award-winning books, among them The Divine Ryans, The Navigator of New York, Baltimore’s Mansion, and this year’s The Son of a Certain Woman.

My first encounter with Johnston’s writing was hardly unusual: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. When I read it, I was struck twice over. One: it’s a bravura narrative performance, big and complex and compelling, almost neo-Victorian in scope. Two: it’s a densely woven text that explores in literary language things I had sensed but had not, before, been able to speak. In Newfoundland’s case, the well-worn line about the past being a foreign country takes on literal reality; here was a text delving deep into just what that might mean. To be raised by immigrants who never went anywhere, the mother country simultaneously surrounding us and impossibly beyond reach: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams explains this spiritual diaspora, this simultaneous estrangement and belonging. In the very last sentence of Colony, though, there is a turn from history and memory and images, a turn to vital fluid: “We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.”

But blood is a strange thing. Whose blood roars in my veins? Well, it is my mother’s blood, blood that flowed across a placenta and into me. So the motherland of bog and barren and sea-seeking river is also a literal motherland. So patriotism is a form of mother-love in disguise.

The Son of a Certain Woman is not chasing the ghost of nationalism. But it is very much a novel about mother-love and about the interweaving of people and place. In fact, The Son of a Certain Woman is obsessed with mother-love, and Percy Joyce, our adolescent narrator, dispenses with deferrals and abstractions and substitutions: he wants the real thing. The novel can be read as a kind of a tragi-comic meditation on this familiar lyric: as loved our fathers so we love, where once they stood we stand.

But the past remains a foreign country, even if The Son of a Certain Woman is set after Confederation, in the 1950s and 1960s. The St. John’s it depicts is at once immediately familiar and utterly strange territory, a menacing priest-choked theocracy where child abuse is normalized, where homosexuality is both mental illness and crime. Yet it is also unmistakably the place I know best, a gnarled city grown on thin soil, laden with queer fruit. St. John’s has a hundred names in this book. It exists as a holy city like Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, another “city upon a hill.” St. John’s is “the Anemopolis, the city of wind,” “the city from which no traveller returns,” “the city of Eros and erosion.” It is an entire world, this city, a jumbled, incestuous, fucked-up tangle of humanity, as urban as lower Manhattan, we’re told, but a thousand kilometres of barren bog and killing ocean from any other urban place. Percy’s father abandoned St. John’s before Percy’s birth and it really doesn’t matter if he is still alive or dead. In this book, to be off the island is to be beyond the boundaries of the universe.

Very early in The Son of a Certain Woman, Penelope, Percy’s mother, and her lover, Medina, literally give him St. John’s on his birthday, which is also St. John’s day, mythical day of the city’s founding. This is Percy Joyce’s City, even as the Joyces stand in opposition to the oppressive powers that control it. Percy Joyce, misshapen, straining with lust for his mother, is marked from birth, literally stained, as an outsider, yet, simultaneously, he is also the very centre, the omphalos, of St. John’s, this queer city of contradictions.

Please join me in welcoming Wayne Johnston.