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what is canlit?

November 23, 2015

this is something i think about often. theoretically, we all know that canlit (CanLit, canadian literature) is just “literature originating from canada” (thanks wikipedia). in reality, we all know that canlit is writing about trees.

there, i said it. there’s an old guard in canadian literature that is still around, either physically or metaphysically, and that old guard wrote about trees and pondering one’s own existence while looking at trees, and that theme stuck, man.




even to just read the wikipedia entry for canlit – here are some themes that wikipedia designates as “common to works of canadian literature”:

  • Nature (and a “human vs. nature” tension): Reference to nature is common in Canada’s literature. Nature is sometimes portrayed like an enemy, and sometimes like a divine force;
  • Failure as a theme: Failure and futility feature heavily as themes in many notable works;
  • Urban vs. rural: A variant of the underdog theme which involves a conflict between urban culture and rural culture, usually portraying the rural characters as morally superior;
  • Southern Ontario Gothic: A subgenre which critiques the stereotypical Protestant mentality of Southern Ontario; many of Canada’s most internationally famous authors write in this style;
  • Self-deprecation: Another common theme in Canadian literature.

oh fucking great. there’s more to the list, and i just cherry-picked the worst-sounding ones, but gee whiz does that sound ever boring or what. granted, these aren’t themes solely relegated to canadian writers, but there’s enough of us writing about this stuff that people are taking notice.

and guess what? the american literature entry isn’t boiled down to simple bullet points when talking about themes. it’s full and vast and long.

i love my country so much. i love my identity. i love the writers in this country. (just look at the all the canadian writers i showcase here!) but i do not love the current definitions of canlit, and i want them to change.




on that note, it’s also personal, and i would be lying to infer it wasn’t. it seems like my own writing is not canadian enough for many canadian literary magazines (too rude, too sexual, too full of bad words, not focused enough on the sound of waves or the smell of trees), and too canadian for the u.s. literary magazines (too polite, too north-of-the-border, too “what the hell is ontario?”). which is a complaint, but also not a complaint, because it means i need to search out the liminal, odd literary magazines, and that act has broadened my literary world by so much.

i do write about trees. how could i not? our country has a wolf living on its head, this feral, feral land that exists north of us and that so many of us don’t know or have never visited. our country is beautiful. we are, as someone i know told me once, defined by our geography; that’s probably what makes us canadian. the black spruce of northern ontario are gorgeous. the sitka spruces of b.c. are gorgeous. the sugar maples of quebec are gorgeous.

but they are not the only thing that defines us any more. the canadian shield does not define us completely any more; the beaches of vancouver island do not define us completely any more; the red sand of PEI does not define us completely any more; the tundra does not define us completely any more. they are parts of us – integral, deep, would kill us if they were cut out of us. they are important and beautiful and i truly believe that canada is  one of the most beautiful countries, if not the most beautiful in that stark and desperate and windy way that i so appreciate.




but hey, guess what? we’ve also expanded beyond that. we can write things that are not deemed “canadian” and that’s okay. we don’t (shouldnt?) have to mention geography to get ourselves noticed. i want to write about the canadian shield sometimes. i don’t want to write about it always. we can just write a poem about an emotional state and not have to out ourselves as canadian while doing it. we can just write.

so often i’ve tried to fit something into my writing that makes me canadian, and therefore salable for my home literary market. it’s exhausting, if it’s not natural.

so if it’s not natural, don’t do it. if it is natural, write all you want and revel in it.

here’s what we need to do: read the weird shit canadian writers are writing. not ask them about what makes them canadian. (do we ask americans this question?) not ask them about what in their writing makes them (and it) canadian. let’s start there.



me, staring at trees.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2016 9:39 am

    Interesting. When I started the site Canadian Writers Abroad, I simply meant: writers from Canada who lived outside of Canada for a while. But sticking that word Canadian at the front does make people ask me what makes these writers Canadian, and what about their identity, to such an extent that I’ve started asking the writers I interview about their Canadian identity — until an upcoming one, who asked me not to ask that question. Nor have I noticed a preponderance of trees in the work of writers I’ve been writing about….


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