Stories on the edge of familiarity

How Canadian Literature Is Like Comfy Jeans (Lessons from #Theareads)

Anyone who’s actually read a lot of Canadian literature is probably looking at me right now, going “Thea… are you… are you okay?”

Canadian literary fiction has this tendency to be really depressing. I get that. This isn’t about that. :P

Up here in the Great White North (and, yes, we got snow this week where I live. In May. Lucky us), we get a lot of American media. Movies, TV shows, books. Heck, we’re all about just as informed and interested in American politics as Americans are. Some people like a lot of British stuff, too. Especially when we start talking about things like Jane Austen and Doctor Who. We get so much media from outside the country, in fact, that our first assumption when we find a book or movie or TV show is that, if we can’t hear any accents, it’s American and, if we can, it’s British. Yes. We get enough American TV and movies that we can’t, for the most part, tell the difference between an American and Canadian accent. Basically, if someone made something and it’s cool, we assume they’re from somewhere else.

When writing, this peculiar sense of cultural and creative inferiority has come out in the feeling that my stories are just bad versions of American and British fare. There’s something about it that I just don’t get, and I’ll probably never get because I’m Canadian. Like, why does the villain have to be so very prominent? Why aren’t we giving much attention to the people who help the hero be heroic? Why do people keep ignoring the real presence and danger that weather can create? Do that many women really need to be portrayed as sexy? What is up with everyone constantly exploring/conquering things?

In sum: Why don’t my stories look like theirs?

And it wasn’t “why don’t my stories look like theirs” in a curious, wondering way. It was a “why don’t my stories look like theirs” in a “my stories will never be considered good because they don’t look like that.” I felt like a hack, even as trying not to be a hack felt like trying to speak a language I’ve never learned.

And then, a year ago, I discovered Margaret Atwood’s book, Survival, which is about what Canadian literature is. Reading it was like a revelation. Here were all these themes and motifs and concepts that I wrote out all the time. Here was a shape of story that I recognized! Someone put all of it together and said “You’re not broken. You’re not American. You’re not British. You’re Canadian. See?” I think I actually cried at one point. Maybe more than one point. If ever I meet Margaret Atwood in person and thank her for writing Survival, I know I’ll cry right there and then, never mind who’s watching. Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools? I don’t know. But they should.

When I did my grand reading of all the things event to celebrate the end of my degree, I made sure that I would read at least one book by Krista D. Ball last. Why? Because I like to save my favourite things for last. My family can tell with reasonable accuracy what food I like best based on what order I eat it. And, while I loved reading all of the books I chose for those two days, I wanted to read a Canadian author last and see if what had happened the first time I discovered her fiction would happen again.

This is where the jeans thing comes in. Back in junior high or high school, some of my friends had a conversation about jeans. Jeans were hard to shop for, they said, because you couldn’t tell if they would work until you put them on and, most of the time, they were uncomfortable. (I smiled and nodded mostly to keep the conversation going… even still, I mostly wear jeans and t-shirts and I’ve never encountered this problem of uncomfortable jeans, but I could empathize.) But, they said, every once in a while, you’d try on this one pair that was totally different. Like. Completely different. They’d be so comfy that they felt like they were made for you and, if you didn’t buy them right then and there, it would be a long time before you found something like it again.

The first time I read Krista Ball’s book Spirits Rising (about a woman who can see and interact with spirits and who has to deal with Viking and native spirits that were accidentally summoned by a teenager just after she moved to the isolated Newfoundland town to get away from this sort of thing), it was like sliding on those comfy jeans after years of trying to wear jeans that just didn’t quite work. If you look at my bookshelves, you’ll find that, with the exception of a handful of authors, all of my books are by non-Canadian authors. Here, I list the Canadian authors on my shelves whose books I read before I read Survival:

  1. Jean Little
  2. Kit Pearson
  3. L.M. Montgomery
  4. Anita Horrocks
  5. Stan Dragland

Beyond that, there are only three other authors I found since then. That’s it. That’s all. It’s kind of sad.

Keeping that all in mind, and the fact that I had read ten fabulous books by American authors that day and the previous, imagine the moment I opened Knight Shift, the second of the Spirits series with both excitement and hesitant hope.

And found myself in those comfy jeans again.

So, I leaned back with a sigh, relaxed, and laughed along with Rachel’s very Canadian self-deprecating humour as I lost myself in the magic and mayhem yet again. It really was the best way to wrap up Thea Reads. It really, really was.

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