Oh the irony of that sentence coming from a white European.
I was lucky to study under a thoughtful, astute, and culturally aware professor, who made a conscious effort to teach works from indigenous writers, women of colour and queer creatives: meaning that my introduction to this fascinating genre was broad, rich, and true to the complexity and conflict inherent within Canada’s culture and society.
My expectations of studying Margaret Attwood and little else were soon dismantled.
In wholly colonial terms, Canada is a relatively ‘young’ country. It was only officially established in 1867 by British settlers, despite numerous generations of indigenous peoples, tribes, and communities living on the land in the centuries that went before the colonial invasion.
Without an archaic literary canon to carve out a path, contemporary Canadian literature is free to play with a myriad of experimental forms and radical ideas, often responding to this difficult history. At the same time, indigenous communities offer their own stories, words, poetry and prose, that exist both within and defiantly outside the category of ‘Canadian literature’.
Alice Munro – The Moons of Jupiter
Ok, not so political. In fact, Munro is perhaps the closest thing to a Canadian sweetheart behind Attwood herself. In 2013, she won the Nobel Prize for literature—the first Canadian and 13th woman to ever do so—and her short story collections are legend the world over. But I simply had to include her in this list for the quality of her work.
Munro’s short stories are character-led, orbiting around relationships and intimacies. Often understated, they walk a clever line between mellow and compelling. For instance, the story ‘Accident’ tracks the progression of an extra-marital affair with a shocking accident at its apex, which is jarringly secondary to the relationship at the fore.
Likewise, ‘Moons of Jupiter’, the collection’s title story, is a pensive reflection on the relationship between its narrator and her dying father, punctuated with flashbacks. This style is typical of Munro, playing with chronology and history, and viewing life like a series of snapshots rather than a neatly-tied, linear tale.
Munro’s stories are particularly close to my heart since I worked in her archives as a Research Assistant, as a way of topping up my spending money during my year abroad. What started as a part time job became a fascinating process, reading and analysing her typewritten manuscripts and handwritten letters between her editors and publishers. For such subtle storytelling, it’s incredible how many iterations she went through: one story might have fourteen versions, written from scratch, with changes as simple as the name of the narrator’s boyfriend or her home town.
Daphne Marlatt – Ana Historic
This. Book. I have to admit, the first time I read Ana Historic it went straight over my head. I thought it was bizarre, confusing and pretentious. But once I gave it some time, understood its context, and appreciated Marlatt’s intentions, it gained a newfound significance.
Ana Historic is a textbook example of écriture feminine. In case this term is unfamiliar to you, écriture feminine was a literary movement pioneered by radical, second-wave, French feminists, with Hélène Cixous leading the charge via her infamous essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’. Écriture feminine was an attempt for women to take ownership of language, syntax, form, narrative, and ultimately, the canon; to defy the stringent dictates of patriarchal writing and literary traditions. Without getting into the tricky territory of its gender essentialism, this aim was undeniably ambitious and had a powerful effect on women’s writing.
Marlatt moved in similar radical circles of French Canadian feminists, which is wholly apparent in this novel that heeds Cixous’ instruction that “woman must write woman”. The narration of Ana Historic moves between the voices of Annie, Ina, and Ana (and Marlatt herself), jumping between different eras and experiences and challenging the distinction between fact and fiction. As the literary critic Caroline Rosenthal writes, “Marlatt shows that reality is always discursively constructed and that language [and history by extension] can never represent a reality but always encodes somebody’s reality while excluding others”.
The novel also has a metanarrative thread, as Annie doubts the status of her own writing while bringing the historic figure of Ana to life from her journals, and grappling with the misogynistic oppression of her mother, Ina. Yes, it’s confusing, and visually a challenge: there’s no capital letters, no chapter headings, very little punctuation and sometimes it takes a minute to work out who’s speaking! But give into it, and you start to appreciate how impressive this book really is.
If écriture feminine gets you thinking, try reading Marlatt’s short essay on language and women’s writing called ‘Musing with Mother-tongue’.
Phyllis Webb – Naked Poems
Written in the 1960s, these short, understated poems were considered highly controversial for the time. Webb beat Rupi Kaur to the minimalist poetry game, and thank god she did. Hilariously, one critic complained in the Montreal Star that the brevity of her poems made them bad value for money; to which she sarcastically replied in an interview, “they’re very short so they must be very expensive”.
These verses are naked in both senses of the word: stripped back and devoid of any ornamentation; and a raw, intimate portrayal of feminine sexuality. Webb managed to subtly relay her own lesbianism in these poems with the simple mention of “my blouse” and “your blouse”, enough to raise eyebrows in the 60s but not enough to scandalise.
While the collection is made up of suites containing about 40 of these ‘naked’ poems, Webb initially wrote over 100, playing with the genders and situations of her poetic figures. The final orchestration is hugely impactful and conjures up beautiful imagery of “plum light” and a lake that is “largely moon-ridden”. Webb’s poetry is worth savouring, so if you have the time, find yourself a quiet corner and sit with these poetic snippets for a while.
Joshua Whitehead – Full-Metal Indigiqueer
Full-Metal Indigiqueer is an experimental collection of poetry from Whitehead, a queer, Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit poet, whose hybridised identity makes its way into his hybridised poetry. He explores his intersectional identity and the atrocities faced by his ancestors through a myriad of cultural references, from Shakespeare and Milton to RuPaul’s drag race, Grindr, computer programming and Lana Del Ray.
I was introduced to his work through a live reading, during which he read the poem, ‘in(debt)ured servant(ude)’, which consists largely of numbers and symbols, since it is lifted from a Walmart receipt. When my professor requested this poem, I was so impressed by how confidently Whitehead read these unremitting digits, delivering them in a monotonous, relentless rhythm. The poem grapples with the inherent atrocities of capitalism, corporations and the imbalances between employer and employee: with crowded lines, no spaces between words and unanswered questions.
His entire collection is raw, powerful and unflinching. Whitehead tackles race and racism, colonialism, identity, tribalism (both its indigenous meaning and present day manifestation/appropriation), systemic violence, personal abuse and homophobia. There is so much to unpack from Full-Metal Indigiqueer that it takes several readings and a lot of grit to tackle fully.
Importantly, Whitehead’s creative method and playful forms elevate the collection. He dismantles language, symbols, conventional structure and syntax as an act of decolonial rebellion, in much the same way that écriture feminine seems to reclaim language from the patriarchy. These poems are an education, and a poetic feat.
Rachel Zolf – Janey’s Arcadia
Zolf’s collection, Janey’s Arcadia, is a similarly political, decolonial project, with the bold aim of challenging settler attitudes and highlighting the discrimination experienced by Canadian indigenous people through colonialism. Her work is entirely ‘found poetry’, meaning that no word is original, but reframed and repurposed from existing documents: specifically, settler documents, detailing interviews with white, European women, making the move to Canada as they joined their husbands in a newly established domain of the British Empire.
Zolf accessed these documents through Optimal Character Recognition (OCR), by which original manuscripts are scanned and turned into text, to be moulded and repurposed into poems. OCR is imperfect and naturally produces errors (which we might view as ‘typos’), which Zolf deliberately chose to include in her poems. The most noticeable and prevalent of these errors is the mistakenly spelled ‘indign’—a misreading of ‘indian’, a now outdated and racist term for an indigenous person—which kicks up its own resonances. The result of the OCR process is a garbled, confusing text, which is sometimes entirely unrecognisable or at least only secondarily intelligible. As such, Janey’s Arcadia elicits questions about meaning, intention, interpretation and the power of speech.
Like Whitehead, Zolf doesn’t stay within the bounds of the page, stanza or typical poetic form. She plays with font size and distribution, sometimes stretching her text to the very edges of the page or injecting handwriting within typed lines. I found, ‘What Women Say of the Canadian North-West: The Indign Question?’, to be her most powerful piece. Zolf juxtaposes comments from settler women about their thoughts on the indigenous with snippets from newspaper articles concerning murdered or missing indigenous women: a tragedy that persists in contemporary Canada. These poems leave you reeling, made all the more powerful by their original source; knowing that these aren’t the ‘made up’ words of an author but the spoken words of settlers past.
I hope to have given you a little flavour of the richness and diversity of Canadian literature, its rebellious potency and experimental variety.
While some of these books are a little obscure, you should still be able to get your hands on them in the UK. If you can’t find them online, ask your local bookseller to order them for you, or have a hunt on Bookshop.org to help support independent bookshops.
If anyone would like to discuss these books further, or borrow a copy, please drop me a line (@florrete on Instagram). I will happily engage in a conversation about anything I’ve raised here and will do my best to signpost you to the ideas and works of the real experts on these topics.
MEDUSA Editors also recommend you check out Florie’s business, Making Faces!