Narcity did this little piece last week: “Justin Trudeau Wants Everyone To Read More Canadian Books & Here Are Some Options.” The Prime Minister mentions:
This is all in celebration of Canada Reads, an annual CBC competition where 5 celebrities sit together to debate 5 Canadian books worth reading. It is engaging entertainment to listen to and invites Canadians to read some of the great–and increasingly diverse–emerging storytellers in our fair land. These are usually very realistic books rather than my own world of speculative (or classical) fiction, so it often takes me a decade or two to get to the hottest new things. But historically, Canada Reads has included The Illegal by Lawrence Hill (a winner by the author of the gorgeous and disturbing Book of Negroes, which also won in 2009), The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (a winning book that beat out The Birth House by Ami McKay), Generation X by Douglas Coupland, Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley, the game-changing A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (which won in 2006 and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction), Life of Pi by Yann Martel (one of my favourite books ever, and perhaps SF), Michael Ondaatje’s genius In the Skin of a Lion (the 2002 winner), and Margaret Atwood’s brilliant book, The Year of the Flood (dystopic SF, so right in my world, which followed her Oryx and Crake, a 2005 contender).
Thus, PM Trudeau is entering a game well in play that millions of Canadians follow each year.
I am pretty critical of our prime minister, who is far better at showing gravitas than in making grave decisions. But I am very pleased to see him recognizing Canada’s literary history and arts community, though he continues his predecessor’s plan to functionally defund arts and humanities research in Canada. While I don’t know Heather O’Neill, I like his list. Robertson Davies is a Canadian treasure and Douglas Coupland is a weird and wonderful feature of the lost generation. PEI’s own Lucy Maud Montgomery is an international superstar, Canada’s bestselling storyteller–perhaps one day to be rivalled by Margaret Atwood. When Atwood came to PEI to talk about her sequel to the 2002 CBC Reads contender The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, more than 1% of our adult population showed up to see her. She’s really quite remarkable.
So kudos to Trudeau on his literary list! Plus, Justin certainly rates as one of the greatest world leaders in the “Great Hair” section.*
However, I wanted to write about “The Canadian Books the Prime Minister Forgot to Read.” Here is my list, which I hope diversifies our shared reading list in terms of genre (including fantasy and speculative fiction), style, national profile (a collection of authors who have lived in every region of Canada), and cultural background.
It continues to puzzle me, but Guy Gavriel Kay remains Canada’s least well-recognized international-profile writer. Perhaps it doesn’t puzzle me that much, because his entire publishing life has been solidly within the fantasy genre, and that’s simply not one of our privileged voices here in Canada (think of Atwood’s attempt to carve out “speculative fiction” as a new way of thinking about books). As he describes in this Guardian piece, Guy Kay honed his craft as a Tolkienist, even working on the editorial project, The Silmarillion. His literary and gorgeous urban fantasy meets Tolkien-like Nordic epic, The Fionavar Tapestry, remains one of my absolute favourite series ever. What many don’t know, but Canadians are starting to recognize, is that as Kay moved away from Tolkien-like fiction, he was able to carve out a genre in which he has become a master. The eleven novels since The Fionavar Tapestry are strong literary works of historical fiction that include some sort of fantastic thread within that entirely realistic literary world. From Canada’s prairies to the University of Toronto, to Oxford and then to the world, Guy Gavriel Kay is a must-read Canadian author.
Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most distinctive literary voices. I don’t know if there is a large community of Afro-Caribbean-Canadian writers, but a mosaic of these different cultural realities appears in her writings as they combine with genre-defying literary experiments. Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber is a strong example of futuristic SF. As a Black woman writer, she has some of the inversive wit and sardony of Octavia Butler, with girl and women characters that make us want to reread Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. But with Jamaican, Trinidadian, and other Carribian dialects transmuted to the planet Toussaint, Midnight Robber is impossible to read dispassionately–thus deserving its many award nominations. However, it is Hopkinson’s earlier novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, that is something completely new in the world both in terms of problematizing political choices (by showing them decades down the line) and for creating speculative fiction for which a definition of “fantasy” or “realism” depends entirely on one’s worldview. The Brown Girl in the Ring deserves the awards it has won, including being a contender in the 2008 Canada Reads competition.
While Nalo Hopkinson follows the literary style of Canada’s Harold Ladoo, lost too early, she creates her own voice in Afrofuturism.
No list of Canadian imaginative talent should be without a Newfoundlander. I don’t if the world knows about Newfoundland, a rugged and beautiful land where every hamlet and fishing village on this grand North Atlantic rock has its own traditions, accents, arts, stories, and secrets. A Labradorian by birth, Crummey is a prize-winning poet who slowly developed a craft for short stories and highly literary historical novels. Nalo Hopkinson’s novels take concentration and focus to read as we bend ourselves to the characters’ patois. Crummey’s complex writing also demands our literary attention, even when the setting and atmosphere are so immediately striking (such as his third novel, Galore). And although their language is beautifully crafted, both Hopkinson and Crummey lead with striking and troubling characters. Indeed, as a writer, Michael Crummey gives the reader no quarter in which to hide from the sheer reality he describes. His 2019 Giller-shortlisted The Innocents pinned me to the page and nearly broke my heart.
Emily St. John Mandel is one of those artists that appear as an overnight success after a decade of hard work. While her part madness/part caper/part high school reunion character study, The Lola Quartet (2012), is certainly worth reading–my Goodreads review for it was “A strong book, like jazz”–it is her 2014 Station Eleven that is her breakout hit. St. John Mandel succeeded in creating an apocalypse that was not merely a disaster book, but the lived stories of people as they experience a crisis and can only experience “normal life” through memory and artifact. I have always suspected that the use of letters and memory could challenge the linearity of normal life-apocalypse-life, and St. John Mandel succeeds with dexterity and artistry in a completely accessible novel. It is a book that is worth rereading as we reflect on how we can grow after a year of pandemic conditions.
From Denman Island, British Columbia, to the literary big city, Emily St. John Mandel is one of the writers to watch over the next decade and brings something fresh both to dystopic fiction and to the Canadian scene.
In 2020, I reviewed Rebecca Rosenblum’s So Much Love–an author whose writing may turn out to be the new voice of Canadian realistic fiction. But as I am trying to open the world–and CanLit readers–to a greater sense of play in our literary landscape, I am going to return to Mark Sampson, whom I have reviewed several times (see here, here, and here). In either case, Rosenblum and Sampson are a dynamic literary partnership with quite distinct styles. Each of Sampson’s first three novels is a different genre, voice, and style. Sad Peninsula is international literary fiction with a significant historical thread, well-researched, immersive, and picturesque. The Slip is one of the funniest Canadian novels I have ever stumbled upon, a late-night read for smart people who like to laugh at themselves. And All the Animals on Earth is last year’s well-timed pandemic buster, an off-the-wall apocalypse that still has a way of calling us back to what is truly important. What I love most about Sampson’s life in letters is that he is consistently shaping his skill-set, believing that tale-craft does not fall from the sky but is won through years of practice.
And … the truth is that I know all this because I saw Mark working away at literary greatness in high school here in Prince Edward Island. While I dreamed about being a writer, he put pen to paper. I might be accused of being biased here, but this is a truth of the Canadian literary scene: people know one another in this big little country. I am friends with Mark and Rebecca, and yet I think my assessment stands. Plus, let’s be honest, we need a Prince Edward Island writer on this list!
Though not everyone has discovered Mark Sampson just yet, I suspect that in a decade he will be one of the authors that Canadians never forget to read.
While I am breaking the five-book rule here, I wanted to go past novels and look at at least one poet. Louise Halfe is known in Cree as Sky Dancer, and has become one of Canada’s leading indigenous poets. A residential school survivor, I have her Bear Bones and Feathers on my bedside table right now–her first collection of poetry, which won the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award (which is big in Canada as Milton Acorn was a Prince Edward Island poet; Michael Crummey also won the award). Halfe’s Burning In This Midnight Dream was a profound discovery for me in 2020, a beautiful and courageous collection that quite had me reeling. I am still new to First Nations poetic traditions, but Sky Dancer’s work bodes well of a rising voice. These are hard books to read, but with rewards beyond the lyrical.
I would love to hear from you about what “Canadian Books the Prime Minister Forgot to Read.” Drop me a line, tweet this piece out with @BrentonDana tagged, or include a note in the comments below. This year’s Canada Reads list includes:
- Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh champions The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
- Singer-songwriter Scott Helman champions Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee
- Actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs champions Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
- Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee champions Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
- Chef, recording artist and TV host Roger Mooking champions Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
*And, begrudgingly, I will admit, PM Justin Trudeau didn’t panic or prevaricate when a pandemic hit, and didn’t get lost in conspiracy theories. Canada ranks among the steadiest of the G20 COVID-19 experiences.