How We Write

Putting a piece of writing out into the world is a bit like tossing a pebble down a mountainside. Usually it clatters down alone, bouncing a bit off this outcrop or that. It eventually loses momentum, settles in with other older pebbles, mostly forgotten. But sometimes, the pebble will bounce in such a way that it triggers other pebbles, and a little landslide ensues. Larger chunks of rock start to break loose and fall, and there the metaphor breaks down.

My blog post from a few months ago, Wilderness Group Tour, ended up being just such a pebble. It is far and away the most visited entry I’ve posted on this blog. It was shared quite a bit on Facebook, and several long, involved, thoughtful, rewarding discussions grew around it. One of these discussions grew into a twinned pair of blog posts by Professors Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie, both here at the University of Toronto. These were partly a response to my post. But more importantly, the blog posts were by two well-respected tenured academics at a big research institution. They were throwing aside the curtain, Wizard of Oz—style, to reveal the truth about their writing practices. And how does the wizard make her magic? How does the writing get done? In both cases: not the way the “Finish Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day” crowd says. Not tidy, not neat. Not too different from the way both Akbari and Gillespie wrote as graduate students, in fact. Productive panic, instrumentalized anxiety, terror of the deadline.

With those posts, the illusion that successful academics all follow a stately, graceful, calm and confident writing practice has been destroyed – to the benefit of everyone (me included) who has angsted out about their heretofore pathologized ‘bad’ writing practice, their inability to become deliberate steady 500-words-a-day types. Scholarly writing, it turns out, is as idiosyncratic as the scholars who produce it, and the methods and manners of writing vary hugely with personality and context.

And there bloomed a book. A collection began to quickly coalesce, taking as starting points my blog post, Akbari and Gillespie’s posts, Stuart Elden’s response to all three, and Alice Hutton Sharp’s post about a writing group organized by graduate students that actually persisted and succeeded where so many fail. Under Akbari’s editorial guidance, more voices were brought in, ranging widely in age, embodiment, background, discipline, position within the broader academy. How does disability intersect with writing? What about babies and cancer and other Big Life Events? What about collaboration? Editing? What about writing ‘lockdowns’ to finish (or take a big chunk out of) a book-length project? How do we write? How have we written? The book emphatically does not dictate how to write. It doesn’t speak in one voice. It’s about what it’s like to write in the Humanities in the present moment, as stressed imperfect humans who are doing their best with often-scattered minds and always-fallible bodies. No bullshit.

How We Write Cover Image: detail from "Wabi Sabi Agness Martin" by Yvonne Wiegers (yvonnewiegers.ca)

How We Write
Cover Image: detail from “Wabi Sabi Agnes Martin” by Yvonne Wiegers (yvonnewiegers.ca)

This is How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blank Page. It’s now available from punctum books, an exciting publisher dedicated to putting challenging and unusual pieces of academic writing into the world. In line with punctum’s mission, the book is free to download as an e-text (you can and should make a donation – punctum are a registered charity, and they do good work) and cheap to buy as a thing-you-can-hold-in-your-hands.

Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 3

In part one of this series of posts, I gave the context for ‘Atlantic Canada,’ explaining how it’s a top-down bureaucratic invention based on accommodating the new province within an existing federalist hierarchy economic development, not on any sense of cultural or historical commonality among the supposed ‘Atlantic’ co-regionalists. In part two, I read a number of texts in the supposed Atlantic Canadian literary tradition to see if a sense of Atlantic literary regionalism emerged from them. My conclusion: it did not. In this final part, I’ll suggest some ways forward – if Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism is a non-starter, then what are some alternate conceptualizations that might prove fruitful?

It is clear that an unexamined/uncritical use of Atlantic Canada as literary region persists in some quarters, out of inertia, laziness, or ignorance. But those who do critical work on the region (or “region”) are aware of its discontinuities and incoherences. Most of them consistently flag “Atlantic Canada” as a problematic term of limited use. So why does the term, and the idea that there is something unifying and homogenous about Canada’s ‘East Coast,’ persist?

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Partly, in the rest of Canada, it is because “Atlantic Canada” is a fantasy space where European settlement is thought to be genuine, deep and well-rooted. The idea of the Atlantic region fulfills for many the unspoken fantasy of a white homeland on the North American continent. Complication and deconstruction of “Atlantic Canada” are unnecessary and unwelcome. The imagined homogeneity of the region is key to these passively racist fantasies. In such fantasies, Atlantic Canada is the region that gives Canada legitimacy; it is the region through which Britain and Ireland became Canada – are continually becoming Canada. Put simply: in settler-colonialist Canada, it is in the interests of the hegemon to maintain discrete and simplistic regionalisms. Atlantic Canada serves a specific function in the ideological machinery of the Canadian state as a colony eager to clothe itself in signifiers of legitimacy.

There is also the harsh truth that academics are grant-applicants. It may be easier to receive a grant if one talks of “Atlantic Canada.” Certainly it may be easier to publish a book with “Atlantic Canada” in the title, as opposed to, say, “Cape Breton” – there is a larger market. Similarly, an undergraduate class on Newfoundland literature is less likely to be approved than an undergraduate class on Atlantic literature. Both the Maritimes and Newfoundland have a more copious literary production than many would expect, but the perception might persist that, say, Newfoundland literature might prove too ‘small’ or ‘narrow’ a textual corpus to support a great number and diversity of scholars.

Herb Wyile, in Anne of Tim Horton’s, repeatedly stresses that Newfoundland is a special case, unlike the Maritime provinces in many important ways; yet the subtitle of his book includes the phrase “Atlantic Canadian Literature,” giving a tacit endorsement, re-inscribing the idea of Atlantic Canada as literary region. Wyile is reading through the lens of globalization and the movement and structures of capital (hence his title – although I will add: growing up in Newfoundland’s southwest Avalon in the 1990s and early 00s, the nearest Tim Horton’s was 90 minutes’ drive away). “Atlantic Canada” makes a certain sense through the lens of globalization, because it has been hailed into being by economic development policies, and is subjected to national and global forces through that appellation.

Wyile and Jennifer Bowering Delisle, author of The Newfoundland Diaspora, have written the two most important critical treatments of Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism in recent years. Their monographs suggest, respectively, two routes of departure. In many fields, regionalism has undergone a shift away from delineating, describing, and policing the boundaries of ethno-national structures. It now concerns itself with paths and networks which affiliate a diversity of cultures and histories – “the Mediterranean” is one such ‘collection of paths,’ for example. “The Atlantic” is another. This departs from the model of region as an Andersonian imagined commonality/history. Instead, this model describes distinct and distinctive networks of interactions and exchanges – cultural, commercial, industrial, political, military.

This is the way forward suggested by Wyile’s book, with its critical preoccupation with globalization and networks of economic exchange (and exploitation). Wyile acknowledges that Newfoundland has deep, fundamental historical and cultural differences from the other Atlantic Provinces, and that the Maritimes themselves do not particularly cohere, either. It is Atlantic Canada’s place as part of a globalized, corporatized network of exchange that characterizes the region for Wyile.

Although global capital may treat the four provinces in a similar fashion, I still do not see strong evidence in the region’s literary production of an intra-regional network of exchanges – if anything, intra-regional paths are less trod in a globalized Atlantic Canada; the network is post-regional. I would contend that Newfoundland had more to do with Cape Breton 100 years ago than it does now.

In The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle does not read her chosen texts through a regional lens at all. She makes the bold claim that Newfoundlanders comprise a diasporic community within Canada. This allows us to consider new alignments within Canada – perhaps Newfoundland has more to do with Alberta than it does with New Brunswick. Perhaps Newfoundlanders carry their Newfoundland-ness with them regardless of geographic location.

But there is a more daring argument hinted at in Bowering Delisle’s book. Newfoundlanders can be read, in their literature, as always already diasporic, even when they are in Newfoundland, because the distant homeland is an historical entity, chronologically distant rather than (or in addition to) physical distant, known only in the imagination, reconstructed from narrative but never experienced first-hand. If this is the case, geographic region becomes less of an issue, and the Newfoundland subject becomes transnational and transhistorical – leaving region behind, while maintaining a sense of imagined commonality – Newfoundland is then a potential model of a post-regional community.

I would like to gently put forward new imaginative groupings that might provide startling and strange new readings, further deconstructing the concept of region, and the role of regions as load-bearing pillars in the structure of the Canadian state. I would like to encourage unexpected new groupings. This has begun to happen this century, with a few writers (Lisa Moore and Edward Riche among them) exploring the idea of aligning Newfoundland not with the Maritimes, not with Ireland or Great Britain, but with Iceland, a psychic shadow-twin for Newfoundland. Neither cultural commonality nor shared history nor trade nor political affiliation ground this linkage – it is a kind of surprise, an exciting and fruitful comparison because so unexpected and so contrary to the rigid delineations of geopolitical thought. Might a playful geographic queer reading practice be possible, where discontinuous non-synchronous regions are constructed along new lines of affiliation that are not necessarily bound by physical space? What might that look like?

Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 2

Read Part 0
Read Part 1

In yesterday’s post, I gave a brief sketch of the history of Atlantic Canada as a concept. I explained how it was a political and economic creation of 1949, weakly grouping together the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland, and Labrador, three regions with distinct histories and cultural contexts. I concluded by suggesting that literature is a good place to look for evidence of a deeper regionalism, one based on a sense of regional commonality – and that, in the case of Atlantic Canada, the literature suggests the region does not cohere — it does not exist. Newfoundland, in its literature, tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with the outside world – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’

Today, I’ll take a brief tour through a variety of examples that prove my point, before concluding with some suggestions as to where Atlantic literary regionalism can go from here.

Hugh McLennan’s first published novel, 1941’s Barometer Rising, demonstrates how the Maritimes perceived Newfoundland as ‘other’ just before they were joined under the umbrella term ‘Atlantic Canada.’ McLennan was born and raised in Nova Scotia (partly in Cape Breton); Barometer Rising is a creative and intellectual engagement with the idea of Canada eight years before ‘Canada’ included Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a novel very much invested in nation-building, very easily read as an allegory. McLennan positions an emergent Canada between the colonial Scylla and Charybdis of the US and the UK, exhibiting the promise of a hybrid vigor.

Newfoundland does not occupy much space in the text – but it does appear, and not in a way that supports the logic of Newfoundland as a ‘natural’ extension of the Maritime region. Early in the text, when character and setting is being established, we learn that the well-off Wain family employees Sadie, “our indispensable Newfoundland maid” – a diasporic Newfoundlander. She only makes a few appearances, mostly in the establishing section of the novel. She is firmly coded as ‘ethnic’ or ‘other,’ a comically subordinate subject. She speaks in an over-the-top Stage Oirish dialect, dropping haitches all over: “Ho, Miss Penny! . . . Mr Halfred, ‘e do heat something terrible!” Unorthodox spelling and grammar record her dialect phonetically. As numerous sociolinguists have pointed out, English orthography already bears little resemblance to the sound of words. Phonetic renditions of dialect reliably indicate who the text wishes to single out as ‘other’, usually for reasons of race, ethnicity, class, or some combination of such qualities.

In depicting Sadie, McLennan borrows clichés and tropes of the Irish servant in the English household. When we first see Sadie, she is caught napping in the kitchen, like the lazy or shiftless stock Irish servant of the English canon. In a novel as deeply symbolic as Barometer Rising, it is easy to read Newfoundland through Sadie as Ireland to Canada’s England, unmistakably ‘other,’ a source for ‘indispensible maids’ who express unsophisticated thoughts in comical accents.

Contemporary Newfoundland is obsessed with imagining the pre-Confederation period, the period in which Barometer Rising is set. When reading Wayne Johnston’s works in The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle makes a strong case that Newfoundland’s recent foreign past is a wellspring of renewal for Newfoundland’s sense of difference from the rest of Canada. Newfoundland’s idea that it was its own country, not too long ago, is for many the guarantor of its status as a distinct society within Canada. Newfoundland’s history is typically overwritten by Canada’s history – “our” first Prime Minister, we Newfoundland schoolchildren learn, was John A. MacDonald; Newfoundland Prime Ministers like Philip Little and Robert Bond are erased from the public’s imagination.

This prompts a vigorous writing-back among Newfoundland writers who continually re-tell and reference Newfoundland’s unCanadian past, keeping the kernel of Newfoundland’s foreign identity undigested. As Cecily Devereux puts it, when introducing Wayne Johnston, Newfoundland is “characterized simultaneously in terms of what has been lost and of what remains always there, internalized or incorporated at the level of memory” (The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland).  “When it came time to sing the Ode [to Newfoundland,” Johnston says, in the lecture that follows, “all the grownups were teary-eyed, almost happily, it seemed, as if to reminisce about the loss of one’s country was something they revelled in and looked forward to.”

The necessity of engaging with Newfoundland’s recent foreign past underpins and infiltrates even such unlikely ‘cosmopolitan/global’ texts as Lisa Moore’s Alligator or Michael Winter’s The Architects are Here, both of which repeatedly remind readers that Newfoundland, not so long ago, was foreign to Canada, and that parts of it remember that foreignness, cling to it, renew it via narrative.

English Canada had split its government and its economic heart between cities, and so had the French. Nothing grand could happen, no flagrant tragedy, no dictator or revolution because the power was in Ottawa and Quebec City, while the business and culture were in Toronto and Montreal. But St John’s possessed both, and St John’s looked at Newfoundland as its country. (Michael Winter, The Architects are Here)

She wanted Newfoudland 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. . . . (Lisa Moore, Alligator)

The feeling that Newfoundland somehow remains foreign within Canada turns up reliably in post-1949 Maritime literature – even in Cape Breton, the northern tip of Nova Scotia, physically and culturally most proximate to Newfoundland, with a strong history of Newfoundland diaspora. Newfoundland is imagined not as a sibling or cousin but as a proximate stranger, a place with some sense of Important Difference.  Unlike most of his work, Alistair MacLeod’s story “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” is not set in Cape Breton. It is set in a Newfoundland outport contemporary to the date of publication (1974). It is almost shocking in its romantic treatment of the setting. The folk realism of MacLeod’s Cape Breton gives way to a depiction of a mist-shrouded Newfoundland of supremely superstitious folk where houses do not have telephones and children are so pure and free from the taint of mainstream North American consumerist culture that they do not know ‘freezee pops’ and other junk foods (a personal note: even the smallest outport had a store that sold processed mass-marketed treats; my father drove a Pepsi truck on the Cape Shore in the very early 1960s).

In other of MacLeod’s stories, ones set in Cape Breton, Newfoundlanders remain a tribe apart. They are like the Cape Bretoners, in that they are globetrotting labourers, but their relationship to tradition and home lacks the ambivalence and complexity accorded to MacLeod’s Cape Breton subjects. Newfoundlanders pass through Cape Breton on their way home, strange and singleminded as salmon returning to a spawning ground, clearly set apart from their Maritime cousins, despite any shared qualitites.

Other Newfoundland texts, like many written by Wayne Johnston, or Trudy Morgan Cole’s By the Rivers of Brooklyn, make two moves which further undermine a sense of Atlantic regional affinity. They imagine pre-Confederation Newfoundland as an un-Canadian island turned in on itself, but they also imagine that Newfoundland’s primary external relationship is with New York and New England, further stressing Newfoundland’s ambivalent relationship with Canada, leapfrogging the Maritime provinces as a kind of fly-over (or ‘sail-past’) country in the bargain.

Newfoundlanders work on high steel, building New York’s skyscrapers. They rent apartments in Brooklyn’s Little Newfoundland neighbourhood (which actually did exist), or they sleep on benches in Central Park if down on their luck. They stay with sisters and cousins when they first arrive; they run into people they know from home while walking the busy streets.

Maritime literature also reinforces that region’s ties to the northeastern US. Texts like Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on your Knees likewise orients its affiliation not to Upper and Lower Canada, but to New England and New York. But, while fictional Newfoundlanders find other Newfoundlanders in New York, and fictional Maritimers find other Maritimers, the paths of Maritimes and Newfoundlanders never cross in these textual representations. In none of these texts does a diasporic Cape Bretoner bump into a diasporic Newfoundlander on the busy streets of Manhattan and experience the immediate recognition and fellow-feeling of exiles who come from the same place – the fellow-feeling of subjects sharing a diasporic identity. If such encounters were to exist, it would strongly suggest a sense of commonality that pertains when all other structures are inaccessible or have failed – Hillier and Conrad’s definition of regionalism, given in part one of this series of posts. But, in my experience, such encounters do not exist in the literature. In New York and New England, the Newfoundland diaspora and the Maritime diaspora are distinct.

In the next entry, I’ll examine a few critical attempts to deal with this failure of Atlantic Canada to cohere as a literry region, and I’ll suggest some possibilities for ways forward and next moves.

Continue to Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newfoundland off the maps: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Previously on nfldtxt.com: Michael Crummey’s Galore

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

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

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

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

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

Season One, Episode Five (link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pull the trap

The trap is empty

I eat the trap

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

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

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.

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.

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.

I’m asking for it to be created

Hello friends, acquaintances, strangers. My name is Michael. I’m a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Toronto. The topic of my dissertation, and of this blog, is contemporary Newfoundland literature and culture.

This blog’s title is a kind of joke that’s true. If you search Wikipedia for “Newfoundland Literature,” you get the following response: “The page “Newfoundland Literature” does not exist. You can ask for it to be created, but consider checking the search results below to see whether the topic is already covered. 

I love this, enough to make it the slightly cumbersome title of this blog. Newfoundland literature flies under the radar. It’s a stealth literature, an unverified species. It might not exist. But here’s the thing: “you can ask for it to be created.”

Newfoundland is an oddity, in cultural, historical, political, economic, linguistic, and ethnic terms. Because it’s an oddity in inconvenient, difficult-to-parse ways (especially so for outsiders, who might be rightly reluctant to make statements about a dense, knotty culture they are probably unfamiliar with), and because it’s so relatively small and relatively unimportant a place, the implications of Newfoundland’s oddness don’t often get attended to.

At least, that’s my experience of things. Newfoundland is absent from Linda Hutcheon’s The Canadian Postmodern, for example – it’s not mentioned, as far as I can see, suggesting it’s ‘just’ another region, equivalent to ‘the prairies’ or ‘the north.’ It has a couple of brief mentions in Margaret Atwood’s Survival, but only as a rhetorical stand-in for a remote place, a place few Canadians will have visited, but a place that is, nonetheless, subject to the totalizing theories contained within the book (even though, when it was published, Newfoundland had been Canadian territory for fewer than 25 years). Even in more recent scholarship, like Kit Dobson’s Transnational Canadas, Newfoundland is only mentioned as the place where Lisa Moore is from – but there’s no indication that it might inform Moore’s position or worldview, or that Newfoundland, because of its odd history and position within Canada, might be a space where transnationalism plays out in strange or interesting ways.

And we know what happens if we ask Wikipedia.

But I didn’t choose to use Wikipedia’s phrase in an angry way. Once, I might have. Instead, though, I’m kind of delighted by it. One of the lessons I’ve been learning as I write my dissertation is that there’s a freedom to play that comes with a degree of obscurity, if you have a geographical island, or an island of the mind, as an arena to stage that play. Not being included in systems of knowledge, not being acknowledged as a category, allows for a greater degree of imaginative freedom. “Newfoundland literature does not exist,” but “you can ask for it to be created.” You can ask Wikipedia to include it as an official node within its global web of knowledge – or, and this is the reading I chose, you can go ahead and make it up for yourself.

This is what this blog is for. Through reading texts (not just books, but, yeah, OK, primarily books) from Newfoundland, and through writing about what I’ve read, I’m asking for Newfoundland literature to be created.