Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Surveying the rich field of the Govenor General's Literary Award

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Last night I had the pleasure of attending an IFOA reading of the Governor General’s Literary Award finalists: David Bezmozgis, Marina Endicott, Alexi Zentner, Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan, all warmly hosted by CBC's Shelagh Rogers. In retrospect this morning, I am struck not just by how richly diverse this field we call Canadian Literature has become, but also that such depth and breadth of change has occurred in my lifetime.

Back in the 1970’s when I was in Grade Eleven English, one of my favourite teachers, Miss Dewsnap, took the then radical position that Canadian Literature was just as good as that from America or Britain. I remember her test question: “What are the three themes of Canadian Literature?” I remember my well-memorized answer, straight from Miss Dewsnap’s lips: “The Wilderness, Building the New Land, and Canadian Regionalism.” In other words, in the 1970’s to be considered Canadian Literature, at least at Alderwood C.I., a book not only had to fit comfortably into one of the above three themes, it also had to be by a Canadian, set in Canada, and about a distinctly Canadian region or phenomenon.

Thank goodness that narrow definition no longer holds sway. Consider last night’s finalists.

In The Free Word, David Bezmozgis describes a group of Russian jews on lay-over in Rome as they await their papers to come to Canada. The excerpt he read last night dealt with the hilarious first day at work of the young man who believed his one true talent was finding the best public places for inconspicuous copulation.

Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows, set during W. W. I, follows three sisters in a Vaudeville Act that as Ms. Endicott put it, “aren’t very good.” In her reading the mother expects to turn down a proposal from a smarmy business associate, only to discover the man is asking for the hand of her daughter, some thirty years younger.

Alexi Zentner’s work, Touch, would have met my rigid high school definition of Canadian Literature. Set in a northern B.C, mining town, the moving passage he read described a river skating party gone wrong. A father jumps through the ice to save his daughter. The town finds their bodies under the ice, their hands reaching for each other but not quite touching.

In The Sisters Brothers. Patrick DeWitt has written a kind of Old West literary Grindhouse, a novel of violence and lust set in the 1850’s American frontier. The passage read by Michael Lista, was set in the shipyards of San Francisco.

Janet Bailey-Nurse left her own launch party to read from Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. In her reading, the lost recording of an African-German jazz musician was only discovered by fluke, found during renovations in a metal box hidden in a Nazi’s wall.

Collectively, the works of last night’s finalists span centuries, continents, and geographies both rural and urban. It took only a few decades for the ever-expanding field of Canadian Literature to grow as many themes as a prairie field has heads of wheat. Its rich bounty today includes every conceivable experience of time place, situation, nationality, race, gender, sexuality and class.

A pioneer in her own right, I expect even Ms. Dewsnap would approve of that harvest.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page