Why is Canada getting such a bashing in the literary press these days?
At this year’s Kingston WritersFest, Adam Gopnik, a Canadian who lives in New York, mentioned how glad he was to be back in Canada. In Canada, he said, he can breathe. He felt that for the first time in a long time, he was in a civil society. I recall Joyce Carol Oates saying much the same thing a few years ago at the same festival. Oates, who lived in Windsor for almost a decade before moving back to the States, said that when she arrived in Kingston, she could physically feel herself relax. She, too, mentioned our civil society.
In a recent edition of the New York Times Book Review (September 23-24), reviewing a book by Canadian writer Saachi Koul, columnist Haley Mlotek begins her otherwise unremarkable assessment of Koul’s book of essays, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, with a disclaimer: she “knew” Koul, she said. “All Canadians do.” Apparently, she meant that Canada has a tiny population, and therefore is “hermetic if we’re being honest,” and everybody knows everybody else, as in a small town in, say, Nebraska. Canada is “a cramped, twisted rabbit-hole,” and the implication was that if we refrained from reviewing books by people we knew, we wouldn’t be able to review anyone.
That’s what I gathered she meant. What it sounded like to me, however, was that she was being even more Canadian than she knew: she sounded nervous that she was reviewing a book in the New York Review of Books. Her disclaimer amounted to what those who teach creative writing call “throat clearing.” It should have been cut.
Full disclosure: I know Saachi Koul, too. Last April, I moderated a panel at Hamilton’s GritLit Festival in which Koul took part. “Saachi Koul” was hardly a household name then, but she has attracted some notoriety since. As an editor at BuzzFeed Canada, she put out a call for women writers of colour to submit work to the publication. “No white males need apply,” she added. When the predictable kick-back hit the fan, she wrote: “If you’re a white male upset that we are looking for non-white non-men, I don’t care about you. Go write for Maclean’s.”
The kick-back came from so many fronts that she shut down her Twitter account, at least temporarily, and later posted a decidedly uncivil message: “Ban Men. Throw them all in the garbage.” She sounded like Donald Trump tweeting about Puerto Ricans.
None of this is mentioned in Mlotek’s review of Koul’s book, of course, Canada being so hermetic that such teapot-tempests rarely reach the pages of the New York Review of Books. Which is a pity, as the incident would have provided Mlotek with something accurate to bash Canada about, rather than saying we are so inbred that we all know who Saachi Koul is. Koul’s attitude towards men might have made an interesting comment on what Mlotek calls Koul’s “fraught” relationship with her father, other than that it was “tense and played for laughs.” There’s a lot about Koul’s father in her book, and a good deal of it is uncivil.
In the September 11 issue of the New Yorker, there is a poem by Billy Collins that is equally baffling. The poem, called “Safe Travels,” is about how little he enjoys travelling, how much he’d rather remain in his room, like Proust, only, perhaps, not. The last six lines of the poem are these:
Of course, anytime I want
I can travel in my imagination
but only as far as Toronto,
where some graduate students
with goatees and snoods
are translating my poems into Canadian.
I knew what a goatee was – it’s a kind of van Dyke – but I had to look up “snood.” First I looked in Webster’s, where a snood is “a fillet or band for the hair of a woman and especially of an unmarried woman.” Then, because we are talking about translation, I checked the Oxford Canadian Dictionary: “Snood. An ornamental hairnet usually worn at the back of the head.” The OCD does note that, historically, “a snood was worn by unmarried women in Scotland to confine their hair.”
I can’t actually picture female grad students at the University of Toronto, or York, or Ryerson, wearing snoods. Last time I looked, they weren’t. But then, I can’t picture them translating Billy Collins poems into Canadian, either. The whole poem seems to be an excuse to say something nastily risible about Canada. Webster’s also noted that a snood is “a fleshy protuberance at the base of the bill of a turkey.” Maybe that’s what he meant. But then, wouldn’t that be American? In Canada, we call them wattles, which are defined in the OCD as “a loose, fleshy appendage on the head or throat of a turkey.”
Although Mlotek, Koul, and Collins miss their mark, there has been some legitimate criticism levelled at CanLit of late. In a brilliantly disturbing article published in September, in Open Book, Alicia Elliott observed that the racism, or exclusionism, that has marked Canadian literature since its inception is no longer tolerable, and is angering a lot of non-white writers, male and female, causing some, like black writer Rinaldo Walcott, to turn their backs on CanLit altogether. “Something,” writes Elliott, “has been simmering beneath polite Canadian smiles for a very long time,” and is finally bubbling to the surface.
She goes on to make an insightful and important statement: “I believe that this sudden anger at CanLit is the inevitable result of Canada’s own national identity crumbling.” She sees the recent groundswell of indigenous writers and writers of colour demanding an end to the kind of society that ignores and silences any voice that is not pious, conservative, and bland as threatening to turn CanLit into “a fiery Dumpster.” It would be foolish for a writer of any background to disagree with that, and dangerous for any society to ignore it.
She ends her essay with a call to all Canadians to get together, “to sit down and fix the problems.” This is a far cry from calling all writers who don’t fit a particular racial or gender profile “garbage.” That’s what Donald Trump does, and what both Adam Gopnik and Joyce Carol Oates are happy to escape by coming to Canada. What Koul has called for is incendiary and divisive: what Elliott says we must do is what only a truly civil society can do: collectively address the problem, and fix it.
Read more blogs here.