August 17, 2006

Idle Thoughts on Canadians...

(There's this book blog I read, 50books. Not to drown you in backstory, but after reading a post of hers I was inspired to send her an email asking what she thought makes Canadians Canadian. She posted about it, here. I'm respoding to what she and her commentors wrote.)

1. I hate to allude to the Commercial-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, but does it not bug you at all that with Zed, the Alphabet Song doesn't rhyme? Seems to me using Zed makes it end with a clunk.

2. If Canada's enduring cultural attribute is mildness (politeness, tolerance, caution, etc.) , why is your major cultural export comedians? If often seems that way to me living south of the 49th, anyway. The Kids in the Hall, half the cast of Saturday Night Live over the years (including most of the ones who had a career after they left the show), SCTV (which in turn provides the core of much of Christopher Guest's ensemble). I'm sure there's all kinds of younger Canadian comics I'm missing out on. Is that where all that suppressed rebellious energy goes? The raging Canadian id is unleashed on the stage at Carolines? Am I wrong about this? Am I simply ignorant of the much larger wave of Canadian dancer/singer/sculptor/writer/designer/architects out there, which have revolutionized theatre/the arts/fashion/city skylines?

(Sidebar: If anyone wants to attempt to answer why the British are better at writing classic children's books, I've always wondered about that, too.)

3. Do you think maybe this is such a difficult question to answer because of Canada's relatively peaceful emergence as an independent nation? The early fight between British and French colonies and colonials have plenty of cinematic stuff in 'em, and the resulting rifts in Canadian society seem, to my limited understanding, to still be deeply felt. But as far as your national mythology goes --- the birth of Canada story --- it's all pretty peaceful. America has it's whole Brave-Band-of-Sterling-Men-Risking-All-To-Fight-for-the-Enlightenment-Values schtick. France has at least two major threads to draw from --- god sending Joan of Arc to save the throne of France and/or Marianne hurtling over the barricades with the mob behind her. Pretty much all of South America rebelled against its colonial masters. Whereas Canada's seems to go something like:

And Lo, a white paper was written by Lord Durham, and yea, Canada was transformed from a colony to a dominion by an act of Parliament, and thenceforth, through a many years of debate, referendum and legal tinkering, it became pretty much independent except for the Queen's being on the money and stuff. All Hail Canada, Land Through No Undue Haste.

Thinking about this idly now, in cases where your culture is not so ancient that its origin is lost in the mists of time (India or China, say) it seems like it helps to have a revolution. Not in terms of avoiding the tragic deaths of millions, a laudable goal which I am definitely in favor of, but in terms of giving your country a definite start point, a clear, black and white, There was a Them, and there was an Us, and these are the things We fought for and We won and so these are the Things We Believe. A myth, in other words.

4. Michael Ondaatje? Really? To be honest with you --- and please do not burst through the screen and kill me when I say this --- I didn't even know he was Canadian. I knew he was born in Sri Lanka. I knew he wrote the English Patient and Anil's Ghost. What's so incredibly Canadian about him? Of his major novels, one's set in North Africa and Italy, one in Sri Lanka, one in New Orleans, and one in Canada. I admit I'm not at all familiar with his poetry, and so perhaps it's that which marks him out as a particularly Canadian author. But just on a sort of Jeopardy-level knowledge of him, he doesn't strike me as a write particularly engaged with Canada as a subject. Not that everything the guy writes has to be set in Saskatchewan for him to be Canadian, but it's not only his settings -- his characters as well seem to be mostly from other places.

5. Finally, I just want to pimp This American Life's Who's Canadian? episode just because I find This American Life to be awesome in general, and this episode in particular has some quite funny and intriguing bits.

Posted by Diablevert at August 17, 2006 02:27 PM

Howard Zinn and Jack Van Impe are American. What does that mean?

The myth of America is as stable as a Lousiana Levee. Canada has it's myths too. "A Canadian is someone who thinks he can make love in a canoe." I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

The French have their mythical beginnings but they've had more than there far share of myth busters to. To Sparknote Foucault most of what we know is so much bullshit.

That said, one thing that is Canadian is the knowledge that we are from somewhere else. That Canada is a multicultural space. A Canadian would never say "Happy Cinco De Mayo, Now get the hell out." But one would say "No one is making you live here."

Michael Ondaatje also wrote about Billy the Kid. Living in Canada makes you Canadian. I think New Canadians have to say some sort of pledge, but if you're born here there's no need to affirm your allegiance.

What's so Canadian about M.O.? His passport.

What's so American about Timothy Leary or The Who?

Posted by: Trophycase at August 18, 2006 03:46 AM

I disagree with Trophycase - I think there is more to being Canadian than your passport. (And I'm pretty sure The Who are British).

Diablevert, I'd recommend reading "In The Skin Of A Lion" by Michael Ondaatje. It's definitely his most Canadian book. But he's still a Canadian writer, whether or not his subject matter is Canadian, although he wasn't born in Canada. He's a Canadian by choice, rather than by birth.

And as for the Zee/Zed thing, I agree that the song doesn't work as well with Zed. But we grew up watching Sesame Street too, and a whole new alphabet song would have just been confusing.

I don't think Canadians are mild. Behind the politeness and tolerance and caution, we can get pretty het up when we set our minds to it. But comedy is a national characteristic too. Pretty much all the Canadians I know are funny. I think we've got a mix of the British and American senses of humour, so tend to do very well in American comedy.

And, yes I think you probably are missing out on Canadian dancer/singer/sculptor/writer/designer/architects. They're less visible, and we do tend to blend in with Americans, all stealthy like.

Posted by: Alice Huzar at August 18, 2006 05:29 AM

Well, I dunno about this his passport business. As a person, M.O.'s seeking out Canadian citizenship and making the land his home certainly mean he's Canadian. You can hoist him high and fly 'em proud as one of the best Canadian writers.

But my original question was more about the core cultural texts. The stories about who you are and where you come from that you have drummed into you as a kid. In Boston, a lot of that stuff dealt with the American Revolution, and Boston's (and many of its famous citizens) prominent role in that event. Johnny Tremain, for instance, is the story of an Apprentice silversmith who eventually joins the Minutemen.

There's plenty of other writers, as well --- Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. Ginsberg's Howl or its progenerator, Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. Hawthone, Melville, Edith Wharton. Toni Morrison. All of these are writers whose books are in some way concerned with the kind of place America is, the kind of society it is. All of them are regularly shoved down the throats of highschoolers in order for them to understand thier society.

You can be born in America and not be a particularly American author --- Henry James and T.S. Eliot are as much if not more English authors than American ones; many of thier works are set in England and are primarily concerned with English society. (I simplify, greatly.) Jospeh Conrad was born in Poland, but he's generally credited as an English author.

Valdimir Nabokov was a Russian writer for the first half of his career, but called himself and American one after --- and I would say had good claim to the title: Lolita, his materpiece, is very much about America.

So when I'm wondering what's so Canadian about Michael Onjaante, thats kind of what I'm wondering about. His acknowledged masterpieces have nothing to do with Canada as far as I can tell, but he kept coming up in people's comments. Is his Canadian book a really well known novel up there, required reading, an acknowledged cultural treasure the way, say, Song of Solomon is? Or is he just a good writer who happens to be Canadian?

Posted by: Diablevert at August 19, 2006 10:38 AM

When you write do you write about America, or where ever you're from? No, I never have, nor would I want to. Then you get categorized, or typecast, depending on your cultural reference. M.O.'s best novel is by far and bar none Coming Through Slaughter, which if memory serves is about the American South. But it probes beyond boundaries. Writers, not that I'm one, identify with humanity, not nationality. That's for the politicians, and maybe the writers turned political. But the writer most scarred by issues of nationality and who rose far above all of them is Albert Camus. He boiled literature done to philosophy, and then who cares where your from.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 20, 2006 06:09 PM

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