& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Canadian culture

Recently, I attended a splendid lunch and learn discussion organised by Diaspora Dialogues where a writer (Joyce Wayne) and a literary agent (Dean Cookegave great insights into the process of writing fiction, and getting published. 

I was there to understand the process because I, too, hope to get my novel published some day. 

And I wondered whether I would be a Canadian writer or an Indian when (if) my novel is published? 

I don’t know; both, I guess.  

How much of a Canadian can an immigrant become, especially a first-generation immigrant. Then, what is it to be a Canadian? And, what is Canadian culture.

There are many interesting theories to these questions.

As a student of journalism at the Sheridan College in (2009), I was introduced to Canadian literature in English, and read Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” definition of Canadian culture.

“...I have long been impressed in Canadian poetry by a tone of deep terror in regard to nature, a theme to which we shall return. It is not a terror of the danger or discomforts or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest. The human mind has nothing but human and moral values to cling to if it is to preserve its integrity or even its sanity, yet the vast unconsciousness of nature in front of it seems an unanswerable denial of those values. [...]

“If we put together a few of these impressions, we may get some approach to characterising the way in which the Canadian imagination has developed in its literature. Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological “frontier” separated from one another and from their American and British sources; communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting – such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality. In the earliest maps of the country the only inhabited centres are forts, and that remains true of the cultural maps for a much later time. [...]

(Conclusion to Carl F. Klinck’s anthology Literary History of Canada – 1965)

Of course, for John RalstonSaul this is a manifestation of the “colonial mind”.

In A Fair Country, he argues:

“Even the way we represent our literature tells us something about the colonial mindset. Roy MacGregor laid this out with perfect intellectual clarity in Canadians. Why is John Richardson’s less than mediocre nineteenth-century novel Wacousta so relentlessly pushed forward as the founding statement of our sensibility? What is its message? That the nature and climate of Canada makes it a place to be feared. That the First Nations are violent and to be feared. That settlers must dominate in every way in order to assuage their fears. This deeply European view – steeped in the discomfort of the outsider – helped to set the pattern for a colonial interpretation of Canada. Ours was to be a place in which white Christians must be constantly ill at ease, uncomfortable, living far from their true civilizational inspirations. At the same, they must also imagine themselves as cut off from the gigantic, uncontrolled nature all around them. They must struggle to survive, dependent on the originality of those fortunate enough to live at the centre of great civilizations. They must marginalize, weaken, if possible destroy, the local Indian civilization. Christianity, in its various forms, would be a safe, rigid structure to protect these Europeans from this uncontrollable, frightening place. Theirs was to be what Northrop Frye called a garrison mentality – a “closely knit and beleaguered society” existing with a “deep terror in regard to nature.”

Some questions don’t have easy answers, and some answers lead to more questions.

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