I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I’m not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels.
In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian?
Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away.
We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the ’80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others.
Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, “is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?” But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It’s a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity.
So after thinking it through, I’ve decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out. The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three.
I’m aware that this isn’t exactly a clear definition. I don’t need it to be. And similarly, I don’t think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We’ve grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do.
So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, “yeah, and…,” and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O’Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book.
Brother by David Chariandy
A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers’ Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July.
American War by Omar El Akkad
A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, “incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, “incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book.
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs.
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“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.