A Literary Tourist’s Fruitless Search for the Canadian Dissident Novel

November 22, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 9 5 min read

You are a tourist to Canada in the season of book awards and writers’ festivals.  You have timed it this way.  You are a literary tourist, or a book lover, at least.  The kind of traveller who seeks out immersive cultural experiences.  Wherever you go, you do your homework.  It is a trip to Anglophone Canada, so you have brushed up on your English (which was pretty good to begin with).  You study maps.  You read up on the history, current events, and controversies.  And now you will go deeper.  You are looking for literature in situ.  You will talk with some Canadian readers, meet some Canadian authors, perhaps.  You will ask big questions and really get inside the soul of this country.

For the most part you get what you came for.  You find some good reads.  Books you will take home and really savor.  You will get inside the Canadian experience, for sure.  You find an enticing rural family saga.  Some nice books about identity—quite a few.  And some of the anxieties-of-the-bourgeoisie style books you find so charming.  They seem beautifully written, and you look forward to making time for all of them.  So you are satisfied—but not satiated.  There is something else you are looking for.  Another kind of story, by another kind of author.  A dissident novel, by a dissident author.  An overt challenge to complacency—or to the state, even.

coverAll throughout this journey you have found it hard not to think of a particular novel—not the one you are seeking, but one that serves as analogue for your experience in Canada.  And it isn’t even a Canadian novel, perhaps not even one that could be written by a Canadian—as you have lately, tentatively, concluded.  Time and time again, you are reminded of Event Factory, by the American author Renee Gladman.  It is a strange and challenging book, and you think of it because it seems to depict the situation in which you find yourself as a literary tourist.

Event Factory takes place in the fictional city of Ravicka, and its protagonist—just like you—is a visitor from afar, with a goal to immerse herself in the local culture.  Like you, she has studied the host society and language and is ready to converse with the locals.  But immersion proves elusive.  Among a variety of other things, she is seeking—just like you—an important text and its author.  It is not, in her case, a dissident text, but a book nonetheless.  And like the book you seek, it proves elusive.  Are the locals being evasive in response to her enquiries?  Or is it that she misses some component of the language to make her desires understood?  It is not clear which.

Your trip to Canada feels much the same way.  You have asked for, but still not found, your dissident novel by a dissident author.  You are not sure why.  Certain events in this country—contentions, protests, and catastrophes of the past decade—have not escaped your notice.  But they seem not to have found their way into the literature; or rather, they haven’t found their way into the novels you see on short lists or book festival display tables, anyway.  What you are looking for is something edgy.  Something from the counterculture.  About someone blocking a pipeline through unceded territory, maybe.  From anyone who writes in opposition to power, or writes about people who take chances.  You ask around, and a few suggestions come up—quite a few, actually.  They are all novels by Canadian authors, to be sure.  But they are about people taking chances in other countries.  No—that’s not what you’re looking for, you say.  You want books about people taking chances in this country.  In Canada.  You are directed to some nonfiction titles, but that’s not what you want, either.  You say it has to be a novel.  A creatively imagined, perhaps contrarian response to whatever turmoil has happened in this country.

You try to be as specific as possible.  You would be happy with some critical satire, at least.  Each country surely must have its satirists.  A Kurt Vonnegut, or a Michel Houellebecq—someone taking liberties at the expense of his own countrymen.  Vonnegut gets some understanding nods, but it seems few have heard of Houellebecq.  So you tell your Canadian interlocutors that even an earnest, disgruntled Marxist will do.  Doesn’t every nation have one of those?  A Takiji Kobayashi, for example.  Someone taking on their own society in their own present age—as Kobayashi did, a lone voice against Japan’s paramilitary intelligence service.  Alas, no one has heard of Kobayashi.  It is hard to convey a common point of reference.

Eventually you find a bookseller advertising arcane knowledge of even the most obscure titles, au courant of the contemporary novel.  By this point you are desperate, so you spill your guts.  You know what’s been going on in this country, you say.  You have been following events.  That man, you say.  That last prime minister.  The one who wanted to sabotage all the climate negotiations.  Yes, she knows about him.  And the new one, who lobbied to send the oil down south.  She knows about him, too.  And that day—the day when 900 protesters were jailed in a single scoop.  And the people who turned off the pipeline valves.  The grandmother who went to jail.  Those people up north—First Nations people—the ones crammed into shacks who can’t get clean drinking water.  These are all dramatic stories, are they not?  Surely they must have made their way into Canada’s novels.

The bookseller hears you out, but remains silent.  She looks pensive, but you can’t read in what way.  Perhaps she is thinking about a book.  Or perhaps she is insulted that all you seem interested in is Canada’s dirty laundry.  So you tell her you like that other stuff, too—the family sagas, the identity stories, the midlife crisis stories.  It’s all great stuff, you say.  But you want to see the other side of Canada, too—through another kind of Canadian novel.  The dissident novel.  Perhaps, you venture, there could be a Canadian Dostoyevsky.  A political risk taker.  You tell her you imagine there must be at least one Canadian novelist like that.  There must be someone like that right now, all things considered.

The bookseller maintains her reticence, and finally you say this: “I am a professor of dissident literature.”  It is a lie, but how else can you encourage her to bring forth the novel you desire?  “My interest is purely academic,” you say.  “In every country I visit, I seek out dissident novels, dissident writers.  That is all.  I have no political motive.  Simply, I wish to return home with a research sample—with an example of the dissident Canadian novel.  Or having had a conversation with a dissident Canadian novelist.”  The bookseller asks whether, because you mentioned Dostoyevsky, you would like a crime novel.  And so you leave her shop empty-handed.  And soon you leave Canada, too—on your scheduled return flight home.

Perhaps if you had had more time, you think, you might have found that obscure, dissident novel.  And you wonder if it was some fault of your English—your lack of facility with the Canadian dialect—that prevented you from finding it.  Or was it that the Canadians you met were being evasive?  Had you insulted their national pride by asking for some contrarian—perhaps, in their eyes, “anti-Canadian”—literature?  Or could it be that no such book, that no such author exists in Canada?  It would be incredible, you think, that such a thing could be true.  It would be very strange, indeed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Guardian, Marco Polo, and other publications. His debut novel, The Ocean Container, is the tale of a fugitive environmentalist, and was published in 2017 by Ninebark Press. Sampler is a contributing editor for Peculiar Mormyrid, and can be found online at patriksampler.com.


  1. What about Verbatim by Jeff Bursey ? Here’s some blurb:

    “Verbatim: a Novel is a blackly humorous expos of parliamentary practice in an unnamed Atlantic province. The dirty tricks, vicious insults, and inept parliamentary procedures of the politicians are recorded by a motley crew of Hansard employees.But when the Hansard bureaucrats begin to emulate their political masters, the parliamentary system’s supposed dignity is further stripped away. Jeff Bursey reveals in both high and low humour how chaotic and mean—spirited the rules behind the game of politics are, and how political virtue corrupts everyone.

  2. Canada has thousands of dissident novels. And poetry collections. And non-fiction books. And memoirs. And plays. To be Canadian is basically to BE a dissident, given that questioning the problematics of what it means to be Canadian is basically the main template of our country’s literature. And politics. And culture. And identity.

    A few examples:

    Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press). Novel. But maybe too local for your list? Too focused on culture and identity for your taste? Is your definition of ‘dissident novel’ so narrow that anything cultural is excluded?

    And Lee Maracle’s My Conversations with Canadians (BookThug). Too memoir-sh for your list? Too cultural?

    Or try anything by Thomas King. Maybe its dissident qualities are too subtle or humorous? And, like, too cultural?

    Or maybe Scott Gardiner’s King John of Canada? It’s a few years old, but is explicitly political. Maybe this counts? Even though as a novel it is actually quite mediocre? A fun read, to be sure, but not a book to keep on the shelf.

    It’s my sense that your definition of ‘dissident novel’ is far too narrow to make it easy for you to see how Canadians experience, negotiate and write dissent. Opening it up a bit, and paying attention to the issues Canadians grapple with — cultural (multiculturalism, tolerance, truth and reconciliation) and ecological (climate change, urban issues, arctic issues)first, followed a bit more distantly by economic and political-as-such issues, and you might (might) start to get the picture.

    But if you plan to respond, as you appear to have done to the (one?) bookseller you spoke to, only by mansplaining what dissident novels are not, and how no Canadian novels can possibly meet your definition of what ‘dissident novels’ can be, then you’re just not likely to get it. But come back to Canada soon. And listen to Canadians, especially Canadian writers and booksellers. You’ll hear plenty of dissent.

  3. “Could it be that no such book, that no such author exists in Canada? It would be incredible, you think, that such a thing could be true. It would be very strange, indeed.”

    It would also be wrong. This essay is problematic on a number of levels, not least the basic assumption of “I didn’t find the books I was looking for based on one conversation with one bookseller, so they must not exist.” Really? This seems to be more a problem with the author’s methodology than an accurate reflection of the state of Canadian literature. How about the dozens and dozens of books written by First Nation writers that directly challenge Canada’s established white Colonialist narrative? Eden Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Tracey Lindberg, and Thomas King have based their entire oeuvre around these kinds of “dissident” stories. To so completely overlook these authors is to perpetuate the very erasure they’ve been writing about for decades and struggling with for centuries.

    Moreover, much of the CanLit community is in the middle of a major reckoning about what, in fact, constitutes “Canadian literature,” and which authors have been traditionally excluded from that label. Sorry, but the last thing we need is another ill-informed essay reinforcing the misconception that Canadian literature is made up solely of white men gazing pensively out across the plains. This topic has been written about extensively. Articles drawing attention to these so-called “dissident” authors are not difficult to find. Here’s one right here. Maybe do some actual research next time before you make a sweeping generalization about an entire country’s literature?


  4. I would suggest the novelist Eden Robinson writing novels for years about the indigenous people and their experiences. Thanks for a most thought provoking essay.

  5. Oh and Kawaga might fit your criteria, i can’t remember the name of her novel about the Japanese experience (torn from their homes) during WWII written about 20 years ago. And Josef Skvorecky .. Czech Canadian, prolific.

  6. I have just read this again and i am a little ticked. The bookseller comparing Dostoyevsky to crime novels! You clearly were not at Bryan Prince Bookseller’s, A Different Drummer Books or at Ben McNally’s shop on Bay Street in Toronto. You may have been at Chapters or Indigo where the best the minimum wage kids can offer is Nicholas Sparks or Nora Roberts (sadly, that is the demand). OK enough from me. Best regards.

  7. Ha, H.A., I had the same thought about Chapters. We have a non-profit, volunteer-run anarchist bookstore here in Vancouver called Spartacus Books – probably about as counterculture as you can get. Pulpfiction is wonderful too.

  8. Hi Will! I lived in Vancouver in the 1990’s. I miss it so. I looked at your store’s website. It looks beautiful and comfy with a proper B.C. relaxed atmosphere. Nice!

  9. You’re looking in the wrong place. Dissident literature exists in Canada, but Anglo culture and the English language what is being dissented against.

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