A meeting of literary minds

It was a meeting of literary minds. Celebrated authors Catherine Bush, Eden Robinson and Shyam Selvadurai debated the future of Canadian literature in a lively and sometimes controversial panel discussion moderated by author André Alexis. The panel discussion took place Sunday, May 28, and was organized by Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart, in conjunction with its own 100th anniversary and the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences which is being held at York University, May 27 to June 3.

Above: From left, André Alexis, Catherine Bush, Shyam Selvadurai and Eden
Robinson. Photo by Chris Kurata.

Keith Wilson, president of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) — one of the member organizations of Congress – introduced a stellar panel of McClelland & Stewart authors. Wilson, a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, noted in his introduction that the donation of the dominant share holdings in McClelland & Stewart to the University of Toronto by former York University Chancellor and benefactor of Canadian letters, Avie Bennett, ensures the survival of the publisher as an exclusively Canadian press.

Under the gentle guidance of Alexis, author of Ingrid and the Wolf (2005), Childhood (2000), Night Piece (1999) and Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (1998), the panel generated candid and passionate debate around such recurring questions as what makes a classic and what is the future of Canadian fiction.

Bush, who is the author of The Rules of Engagement (2000) and Claire’s Head (2004), noted the current debate around the New York Times Book Review poll, published in the May 21 edition, that selected American poet Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) as the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years. She said, “the most popular books of our time will probably not be classics.” For her, “clarity and complexity” are the hallmarks of a work that will live beyond its age. Bush wondered about the current Canadian interest in autobiography suggesting it is merely “a culture of celebrity, a culture of voice.”

Left: The panel listens to a response from a member of the audience. Photo by Gary Beechey.

Eden Robinson, who wrote Monkey Beach (2000), Traplines (1998) and Blood Sports (2006), spoke of another kind of classic. A Haisla writer who lives and works near Kitimat, BC, some 500 miles north of Vancouver Island, she fielded the “classic” question within the context of traditional oral culture. “I am considered quite slow in Haisla culture,” the self-effacing Robinson quipped as she explained that in her eyes, the stories that survive are those that are “culturally defining, stories passed down that tell the history.”

The debate took flight, however, with Shyam Selvadurai’s mischievous segue into the larger and more difficult question. “I think the future of Canadian fiction should be all about me,” said Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy (1994), Cinnamon Gardens (1998) and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005), and a York alumnus (BFA ‘89). Selvadurai characterized the future of Canadian fiction as “multicultural and urban”, but suggested the world currently portrayed in much Canadian fiction as “not reflecting the world in which most of us live.”

Selvadurai went on to identify obstacles for immigrant writers including the older demographic of juries and the publishers’ conservative trend to put their resources behind “one or two blockbusters” to the exclusion of many worthy books and some publishers’ preference for “white, established writers who do not address multiculturalism.” Selvadurai said the uncomfortable topic of racism was often not welcome for discussion.

In mooting these issues, Alexis identified what he saw as the nub of the difficulty. “The problem with Canada is that it is a place that has sections,” said Alexis. In response, Bush gave respectful mention to Dionne Brand’s recent novel, What We All Long For (2005), as a significant step toward the writing of Canada as a multicultural and urban community.

Alexis posed a final question to the panel and asked each of the writers what they believe a writer’s job to be. An animated debate ensued and in the end was resolved with Canadian civility by Bush. Summing up, she defined the essence of a writer’s job to be: “to follow your vision and write well.”

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris Kurata, a PhD candidate in English.