Wednesday, August 16, 2006

BOOKS: What Makes Canadians Canadian?

For some reason, I've been reading and writing about a lot of Canadian authors lately, so I wasn't entirely surprised that someone -- specifically Diablevert, whom I can always count on to keep me honest, book-wise -- had a thought-provoking response to it.
Dear Doppelganger,

I was reading your post about Farley Mowat a while back, and it got me thinking about the cultural differences between the States and Canada. Like how most Americans think there aren't any. (As Homer put it, "Canada? Why should we leave America to visit America Junior?")

Obviously, this is false. But, being an ignorant American, I would be curious what Canadians think the biggest difference are.

So, what should I read if I wanted to immerse myself in this foreign culture? What authors are particularly Canadian? What are the Canadian ur-texts, the stuff they make everyone read when you're in school and little? (Johnny Tremain comes to mind for me, as a kid who grew up in Boston. We also had to memorize Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride.") Farley Mowat seems to have been one, from some of the comments it provoked.

What makes Canadians Canadian? Go on, come up with an all-encompassing definition of the culture of 32 million people. I dare ya.

Cheers,
Diablevert

P.S. Yeah, yeah, Tim Horton's.
Heheh. We only recently got a few Tim Horton's franchises in Vancouver, and let me tell you, they caused quite a stir.

Anyway. I need to roll this around my brain for a bit before I come up with a response that I expect will be as broad and sweeping as it is totally inaccurate. I bet you all can't wait.

In the meantime, have at 'er, Canadians and other opinionated people. I'm extremely curious to hear what you folks think.

22 comments:

Alex said...

My favorite Things That Make Me Canadian are always the ones that just don't really make any sense. Particularly when movies like the upcoming Bon Cop/Bad Cop promise to bridge The Big Gap.

I think it's the tolerance, mainly. Perhaps the laid-back manners, the reluctance to get into a Real Fight over something that may or may not matter that gets more pronounced in the Praries and less in the cities. The quiet distilled-English busibodiness, talking about the weather and meaning it, generosity but a clear sense of personal space. I just spent a month hanging out in Montreal with other young Canadians from all across the country and what struck me was actually the divisions between areas. Toronto and Vancouver and the Praries all formed their own sub-groupings.

When I was 18, I wrote that worrying about what makes us Canadian makes us Canadian. Worrying about the distinctions and trying to pick them out and a distinct lack of Knowledge for our Canadian-ness. Then I went to Britain and read a whole book on how the British think they're losing their identity, and I realized we'd inherited that, too.

So perhaps it's really our strong sense of what we're not that makes us Canadian. We're Not This. We're Not That. We're Certainly Not Them!

But we care a lot about other people's business anyway, and, well, we're polite. Sometimes as a cover for a deeper rudeness, the sheer undiluted certainty that actually we really are the best and never mind the statistics and cultural relevance of other nations, but we don't need to brag about it, do we. A sense of Let 'Em Have The Movies And The Mounties And The Funny Stereotypes, because Really For Real We're Better Than You. No, really. Sure, you can join, we're accepting that way.

That's what I think it is to be a Canadian. I'm pretty fond of it, really.

Glark said...

First person to mention the I Am Canadian beer ad gets a free punch in the nuts.

Doppelganger said...

Step right up, folks! Glark's giving out FREE punches to the nuts!

Oh, would that I had nuts...

rocketgirl said...

To answer the question about which Canadian authors we had to read in school, here are the ones I can remember (and I think they are among the better known):

- Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens
- Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel
- Robertson Davies' Fifth Business (part of a trilogy)
- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Two other Canadian authors that were "suggested reading" in high school English were Jane Urquhart and Timothy Findley. I highly recommend Findley's The Piano Man's Daughter. It's not exactly Canadiana, but it is a beautiful novel.

Anonymous said...

This is more of a response to the Canadian literature canon question: and maybe this was just because I was in AP all through high school and my teachers were all under 30, but we didn't read very many Canadian authors at all. Mandatory reading was stuck on the classics, primarily (Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, etc). Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" was optional. Carol Shields' "The Stone Diaries" has always been a pretty big deal. We also read Miriam Toews' "A Complicated Kindness" because it's viewed around here to be a modern classic already (I live in the same city as Toews).

rocketgirl said...

At the risk of looking like a Doppelganger stalker, I just had to add one more author to my list above. I can't believe I forgot her in my first comment - for some classic, quintessential Canadiana in literature form, you can't go wrong with Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. It's not exactly recent stuff, but it never seems to go out of style.

Ok, now I promise not to come back again until tomorrow! (In my own defense, I've been away for nearly a month with no Internet access so I'm making up for lost time)

Robyn said...

I just finished a big pile of canlit, and it got me thinking about the canlit class i took in grade twelve that my teacher tried to disguise as a english lit class. Anyhow, things that I love and are very Canadian:
Stephen Leacock's Sushine Sketches of a Little Town
Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion - I can't cross the Bloor viaduct here in Toronto without thinking of the book since I read it.
Joy Kogawa's Obasan

Sarah said...

Your previous post, which involved the sublime Will Ferguson, is a fitting lead-in for my thoughts.

In "Bastards and Boneheads" (or, in "Why I Hate Canadians"...eep! I can't recall!), Ferguson shared his theory on the side-effect of the American revolutionary war. Following the war, a whole bunch of people who were cautious, liked order and didn't want to rock the boat moved to Upper Canada and Atlantic colonies. The influx of these Loyalists (and the decision of the French Canadians to stay with the 'devil they knew' in the British) set up an interesting dynamic: two nations separated by temperament.

I think, to a certain extent, that this division persists to this day. Working for the government, I can say that Canadians are inherently cautious when developing laws; we want to learn best practices from elsewhere before we set anything in stone. And our motto still lauds "Peace, Order and Good Government".

Does it make us Canadian? Does it define us as a people? I don't know.

As for canlit, I cannot recommend Will Ferguson enough. Love, love, love him! Montgomery's writing carried me through my childhood, so I have a fondness for it as well.

Marianne said...

The whimsical part of my brain says, "What Makes Canadians Canadian? The momentary thrill engendered by the following book listing in Publisher's Weekly:"
Zamboni: The Coolest Machines on Ice (Nov., $19.95) by Eric Dregni.

C'mon, not even a little happy flutter? Maybe it's another one of those regional Atlantic-Canadian things then.

Alice said...

Zambonis are inherently cool. There's no getting away from that.

I'm Canadian, but I live in England, so I have the "Where in America are you from?" "Actually I'm Canadian." "Oh! I'm so sorry!" conversation a lot.

It's interesting to me that British people know we don't like being called American, but they probably couldn't say why.

British people are often shocked that I can't tell some American and Canadian accents apart - especially those from California or the northern states. But I can always tell after speaking to someone for five minutes. Americans are much more aggressive in the way that they speak, and Canadians tend to be more passive and polite.

Whenever I get homesick, I like to re-read Douglas Coupland's Souvenirs of Canada. It's a great book about the things Canadians, and only Canadians, identify with.

As for authors, Douglas Coupland, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, LM Montgomery, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell, Stephen Leacock, Mordecai Richler, and Michael Ondaatje are a good place to get started.

melbell237 said...

Aside from the canlit parts, a lot of the descriptions here make me think of the US northern midwest, where I'm from. Maybe if you go far enough north in Minnesota you might as well be Canadian? I don't know for sure. Those of you who've seen A Prairie Home Companion or Fargo might recognize a few things - yes, a lot of that is caricature, but there is a ring of truth to other parts. Talking about the weather and meaning it, having stimulating conversations about weather...I hear that.
Also, LM Montgomery is still a major part of a Minnesota girl's growing-up-reading experience. It was the Laura Ingalls Wilder books first, then Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books. They kept me busy all summer as a kid.

Diablevert said...

Hmmm...This is interesting. Y'all have compelled me to read the wiki on Canadian history. Whether this should be to your pride (for inspiring me to slightly ameliorate my ignorance) or my shame (it's a pretty high level of ignorance that wiki is capable of satisfactorily reducing) is ripe for debate.

There's a couple more things I'm wondering about, now. So as not to clog up the comments, I'll post about 'em at length here. But these are the bullet points:

1. Zed
2. Export of Comedians
3. Canadian mythology.
4. Michael Odjantee
5. This American Life is awesome, and Ep. 65 is very relevant to this discusssion.

Diablevert said...

Ah, see, when I said "here," what I meant was: Here.

ashleigh said...

I don't think that I read a lot of Canadian authors in school either. I remember doing an independent novel study that had to be a Canadian Author, but I don't think I ever read any Canadian authors in class other than that. As far as the Canadian identity, I think it changes so much from coast to coast, it's hard to say exactly what it is. Life is so different in different parts of our country that it's hard to come up with things that the whole country can relate to.

Marianne said...

Maybe if you go far enough north in Minnesota you might as well be Canadian?

I would tend to concur. While I've never been to Minnesota, anecdotal evidence suggests I would feel at home there.

Madeleine Powers said...

This question was posed in the past, actually -- here's an excerpt from an article on the subject:

Arguably one of the most famous Canadian aphorisms is, "As Canadian as possible under the circumstances". But not many know its author, or how it came to be.

In 1972, Peter Gzowski, then summer host of This Country in the Morning, held a contest to complete (in the manner of "As American as apple pie") the saying "As Canadian as...". Heather Scott, a seventeen-year-old summer music school student at the time, heard of the contest, and immediately came up with the phrase that has since become so famous.

trophycase said...

There's no difference between Americans and Canadians. Not one, other than passports (The Canadian Passport is the same hairdo as the Billy Ray Virus). America has more people. So there are smarter people there and dumber people there, but it doesn't really get much dumber than a dumb Canadian.

There are regional differences in Canada and in the US. A person from Detroit is more like a person from Windsor than Portland.

There are areas of the US more tolerant and progressive than anywhere in Canada. Ann Arbor comes to mind.

Canadians have fallen for the idea of being Canadian and much as Americans have fallen for the idea of being American. Have you ever driven in Vancouver? Canadians are not polite. Have you ever hung out in Eugene? Americans are not intolerant.

Oh this is about books... Pierre Burton did some good work. (Canada's Studs Terkel)

Rachel said...

I think the great Margaret Atwood summed it up nicely:

"If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."

Emily said...

As a Minnesota girl who has taken several trips to many trips to Manitoba in her lifetime, one of my favorite things about Canada are Loonies and Toonies. Spare change is suddenly worth a lot more money. I shouldn't find that to be awesome, but I totally do. As for Canadian authors, the only one that I can recall reading is the oft mentioned L. M. Montgomery. My Anne of Green Gables set is one of my prized posessions, even if it got me to subconciously spell "favourite" incorrectly on a spelling test.

Anonymous said...

W.O. Mitchell. Who Has Seen the Wind?

CBC

Profanity & nudity allowed on network TV as long as sufficient warnings are shown.

Mel said...

Tom King..."Green Grass Running Water" to name one. He is one of my all time favourite Canadian authors. Funny guy.

Fiona said...

I've also read some of the novels written by Canadian authors and they are quite excellent. I was always curious on their preferences, their thoughts, and more. And I can see that in the words they choose in paper writing services, the topic they handle, and many more.