We’re Not In Green Gables Anymore: Canada’s Revolutionary Reads

When I think about iconic Canadian literature, I think about Anne of Green Gables skipping in raptures over the red roads of PEI, the heartbreaking irony of Sinclair Ross’ Painted Door or A Field of Wheat, and maybe, if I’m in a more “contemporary” mood, I’ll think of Margaret Atwood and her much-lauded Cleverness. I don’t think of the word “revolution” when thinking of Can Lit any more than I would think of the words “outer space”. Sure, some Canadian out there is writing about it, I thought to myself, but they can’t be all that good or I would know about it.

Or maybe I’d have to take a class entitled Canadian Literature after 1920 (this year the course theme was “Revolution(s)”) and surprise myself immensely by enjoying it. Which is what I did. Considering three of the books we studied were Canada Reads winners, it seems I am not the only Canadian reader to discover a taste for revolutionary literature.

Readers of Canada (and beyond), allow me to present to you, in the order in which I read them, the books of the Summer 2012 semester of Canadian Literature after 1920:

    • In the Skin of a Lion– Michael Ondaatje (winner of Canada Reads 2002)This one is pretty obvious, and Michael Ondaatje certainly isn’t an unknown quantity to Canadian readers. This was my first encounter with him though, and I wrote my final paper about the book (a high-falutin’ affair entitled “Not Just ‘Men From Nowhere’: Narrative Inclusion as Revolutionary Act in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion“). The book is big on beautiful language and lyricism, and big on telling stories, but light on the the proletarian rhetoric someone might expect from a book that deals primarily with the conditions of the (mainly immigrant) blue-collar workers who built key features of modern-day Toronto (which is alright by me). As expected, considering its author, In the Skin of a Lion is a fine book. A damn fine book, y’know?
    • Next Episode– Hubert Aquin (winner of Canada Reads 2003) This book gave me some difficulty. When you read it, it seems to be about a revolutionary imprisoned in a Montreal psychiatric facility trying to write a spy novel, set in Switzerland, about a revolutionary spy, but actually it’s about the political climate of 1960s Quebec. Get it? I didn’t, but according to my dad, who read the book in French back when he was a student, if you had been following Quebec politics at the time, you would get it. Give this book a whirl if you’re feeling brave and patient.
    • Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography– Chester Brown Considering the story of Louis Riel (and his involvement in the Red River Rebellion and the 1885 Northwest Rebellion) is told entirely by Brown in minimalist black and white comic-strip format (like the kind you would see in a newspaper), Chester Brown’s achievement is impressive. By Brown’s own admission, a lot of facts have been omitted or altered in his telling (since it’s pretty hard to fit major historical events in a comic), but his departures from historical fact are exhaustively cataloged in his notes at the back of the book, along with research information. If you don’t know much about Louis Riel, you’ll actually learn something from this comic-strip depiction.
    • Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistancea film by Alanis Obomsawin Kanehsatake is not a book, obviously, it is a documentary about the 1990 Oka Crisis. I was so struck by this film I am really quite speechless (and wordless) about it. Watching it will give you a very different, rather uncomfortable view of Canada and the way our rights as citizens are (dis)respected.
    • In Another Place, Not Here– Dionne Brand This book is a stylistically difficult, deliciously unsatisfying read. The underdogs do not “get theirs” in the end and the villains (when they can be defined) do not learn, or lose, anything. But the language (including Caribbean dialect in the voice of Elizete) is poetic and sensual with the ripe and sweating heat of Grenada pulsing against the empty greyness of Toronto. The plot centres around two people in a lesbian relationship but In Another Place, Not Here is not a novel about being gay. It is a novel about heat, and passion, and unfairness, with a final image that tears your heart right from your chest and just leaves it lying on the floor. It’s a book you can’t help but respect.
  • Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter– Carmen Aguirre (winner of Canada Reads 2012) Despite its often heavy content, stylistically, this book is probably the easiest and fastest read. It is also the funniest. A natural storyteller, Chilean exile and Vancouver theatre artist Carmen Aguirre shares with the reader her (previously unshared) memories of growing up a daughter of the Chilean resistance movement. At the age of 11, Carmen’s mother and stepfather remove Carmen and her sister from the safety of their exile in Vancouver and return to South America to aid Chile’s resistance against the dictatorship of Pinochet. First kisses and doing the hustle are juxtaposed against bullets in the street and the all-important facade the family had to keep up at all times to ensure their safety from arrest and torture. At 18, Carmen officially joins the resistance as a fighter in her own right. This is a book not about gunning down baddies or blowing up buildings but about the physical danger and psychological and emotional toll underground resistance takes on ordinary people who are willing to risk all for a greater cause. The book created a bit of a controversy on the Canada Reads panel when panelist Anne-France Goldwater referred to Aguirre as “a bloody terrorist” and mused that she can’t understand “how we let her into Canada” (you can read more about Goldwater’s comments on the Globe and Mail website). Personally, I was quite taken with the book, and don’t see why anyone needed to use the “T-word”.

We’ve only got another month of summer. Get into your hammock or down to the beach and sink your teeth into some revolutionary reads. You might look at your country, or at least its literature, in a different way.

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