Rebecca Salazar on Canada Reads
WHETHER YOU LISTEN to the CBC earnestly, ironically, or in order to shout your dissenting opinions at the radio during live call-in segments, you might know Canada Reads as the radio game show that somehow always predicts which book your parents will give you for your next birthday. Like most CanLit institutions, Canada Reads began as a celebration of Canada’s many literary Margarets (see Atwood, Laurence, etc.). Since 2002, the competition has evolved to include a surprisingly diverse selection of books, defended by a surprisingly diverse selection of Canadian celebrity panelists—it’s almost enough to convince you there’s no diversity problem in CanLit! Bonus: it’s almost enough to convince you there is such a thing as a Canadian celebrity.
The apparent diversity of Canada Reads, however, is only one of its many comforts. Though it bears the slight inconvenience of clogging up your social media feeds every March with hundreds of nearly-identical book-pile Instagrams, these alone provide you with fresh fuel against that one friend who persists in evangelizing the death of the physical book while brandishing the latest innovation in e-reading technology like a torch for the enlightened.
But most importantly, Canada Reads is a totally unbiased and definitely authoritative beacon of Canadianness. Are you the protagonist of a novel-in-progress whose author might not survive another year of renting in Toronto without the sales revenue a Canada Reads nomination could generate? Are you a newcomer, a person of colour, and/or First Nations person, or anyone else who might be given cause to doubt that they are a “real” Canadian? What you need is the officially unauthorized Canada Reads guide to being a Real Fictional Canadian.
Do be relatable
The first book eliminated from Canada Reads 2016 was Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio. Lamenting the loss of the only novel in the competition with a white male protagonist, panelist Adam “Edge” Copeland announced that “the most Canadian book is now gone.” Copeland argued that the protagonist, Henry, is someone “you would meet…on the street,” whereas the others’ novels characters were utterly implausible acquaintances.
The obvious question here: where is this fabled street upon which Edge is meeting so many fictional characters? It surely cannot be in Montreal, where the Sikh sisters in Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread live, nor in Gibsons, B.C., where Tracy Lindberg’s eponymous young Cree woman, Birdie, roams in search of her Beachcombers-celebrity crush.
According to Copeland, what makes Minister Without Portfolio’s Henry so relatable is that “he is Canadian: you’d see him in the bar, you’d watch hockey with him.” Prospective and pseudo-citizens, take note: passport requirements have changed. What we can learn here are a few of the new criteria for becoming a Real Fictional Canadian. Try your best to be white and male. Watch hockey, regularly. Be sure to do so at The Bar, which is presumably located on that mythical street where you might encounter former Canadian wrestlers.
Don’t be unfamiliar
The same celebrity wrestler also argued that Henry is so relatable because of his realness. Winter’s protagonist is “flawed in a very real way,” the novel’s narrative is “real,” and its dialogue is “real conversation.” The lesson here is not to be unreal. While Henry’s narrative “deals with real issues,” the other novels expect readers to believe that someone could “choke on chicken bones and die,” or that someone might “soil their bed while they go on dream quests,” or that anyone would “run marathons.” Two of the other novels even warp reality so heavily that they expect readers to believe their narratives could take place “in another country.” Imagine!
The lesson, of course, is to keep your fiction Real; you wouldn’t want it to sound fictional. A similar caution can be drawn from Canada Reads 2015. In one episode, panelist Martha Wainwright defended her chosen novel for being “distinctly Canadian” for its familiar “interplay of French and English.” Unlike the other novels in that year’s running, which depict such “cage-shaking” issues as immigration and homosexuality, and even employ languages other than French and English, Wainwright’s chosen novel is about “real life.” The key, dear citizen-to-be, is to remain within the realm of what is familiar to Real Canadians, and not to deviate into foreign languages, narratives, or territories. This, in Wainwright’s words, would just be “shock for the sake of shocking,” which is terrible manners.
Do be exotic
The 2015 winner of Canada Reads was Kim Thuy’s Ru, a small but poetic novel based upon the author’s experience of migration from Vietnam to Canada as a refugee in the 1970s. During the final deliberations, which focused on Ru and Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies, opposing panelist Elaine Lui admitted that Thuy’s novel is “the kind of book that’s expected to win Canada Reads. No one’s going to be mad at you, and it’s the safe choice.”
The market for immigration narratives in CanLit is a phenomenon that has been remarked upon by both literary academics and grumbling, xenophobic book club members alike. The ethnicity of an immigrant protagonist—or writer—can be just as catchy a marketing asset as overt sexual content. Skin sells, right? Appealing to a reader’s desire to understand other cultures as well as to their latent fetishistic orientalism can be profitable, but it must be done correctly. For example, one assessment of Ru’s protagonist, by panelist Craig Kielberger, was that her struggle as a racialized immigrant is “too easy” in the novel. As Kielberger explained, “I thought the immigrant story had to be difficult to be the immigrant story, and you had to see someone struggle.” Remember that Canadians love an immigration story the way they love their Tim Hortons coffee: just painful enough to still swallow, but with a heavy dose of sugar at the bottom of the cup.
Don’t be too ethnic
Of course, the danger of being the protagonist in an immigration narrative, however, is not being sufficiently saccharine. No one wants coffee so bitter it burns. During one discussion of Ru, for example, Martha Wainwright attributed the novel’s success to its not being as “in your face” as “most” immigration narratives. The problem with talking about immigration or racism is similar to the problem of relatability. Real Canadians are unfamiliar with these issues—do they really still happen?—and may not want to hear about them. You can, of course, tell stories to titillate and entertain, but telling them too loudly or for too long destroys the illusion of safety and familiarity.
Remember: that stuff doesn’t happen here, or it’s all in the past, so stick to hockey and The Bar and polite Canadian streets as much as possible. Your goal is to be “relevant to Canada,” as Bruce Poon Tip argued, referring to the prospective winners of Canada Reads 2016. Setting your story entirely in India, as Anita Rau Badami does in A Hero’s Walk, confuses your Canadianness. After all, as Poon Tip reminds us, “this isn’t India Reads.”
This logic applies to all your other identities, too. Though she was not a Canada Reads panelist in 2015, columnist Barbara Kay graciously bequeathed her advice unto the queer protagonist of Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies. Kay’s comments, according to panelist Elaine Lui, amounted to “telling the LGBT community” that “you can be gay, but not too gay.” Quoting notorious feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lui compared Kay’s recommendatinos to the way in which “we say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful.” Similarly: you can be ethnic, but not too ethnic. You can immigrate, but not into “our” neighbourhood. You can be Native, but don’t bring up those pesky treaty rights. Wear your flag and your costume on Canada Day, but don’t wear a niqab to vote. We all know Canadians are infallibly polite, so, please, kindly refrain from being so difficult.
Do celebrate Canada
Canada Reads is a celebration, after all. As Copeland remarked, we should be grateful that “we’re in a country where we can nationally debate books and reading.” Canada enjoys the immense privilege of a national radio station that chooses to celebrate Canadian books and writers every year—but don’t think too much about the word “privilege,” because it tends to offend those who have it. Focus on this: we have national book parties! Small presses go into overdrive re-printing sudden bestsellers! And #CanadaReads trends on Twitter—even if a significant portion of the hashtag’s use consists of self-published e-book promotions, and CBC-comment-section trolls shouting, “don’t tell me what to read!” Almost half of Canada’s adult population struggles with literacy skills, but we have a game show about books. Think not upon the failures of the education system, but rejoice!
Don’t be so negative
One of the questions discussed by the Canada Reads panel in 2016 was whether a book can be “too difficult” to be worth recommending to all Canadians. The main culprit in this discussion was Birdie, by Tracy Lindberg, which panelist Vinay Virmani described as “messy,” “chaotic,” and shot through with “far too many devices.” Virmani was not the only panelist to question the novel’s “accessibility,” with Farah Mohamed also concluding that “most people would struggle with this book.” The panel seemed visibly aware of the fine line between provoking accusations of “anti-intellectualism” versus provoking those of “elitism,” and navigated this segment carefully.
Mohamed was also disappointed about the plot’s focus in Birdie. Having hoped for a less “negative” portrayal of the lives of young First Nations women, she expressed dismay that there are few “positive,” joyful, or neatly redemptive elements in the novel. Bruce Poon Tip countered this expectation by arguing that expecting a linear, positive story consists of “colonizing the book,” by “trying to make the book respond to how you want it to respond.”
But isn’t what we want simply to celebrate our cute Canadian bookishness? Dwelling on the nation’s continued acts of colonialism, its racism and sexism, its homophobia and Islamophobia, only puts a damper on the Canada Reads party flame. Take note, half-baked-Canadians. This is why books like When Everything Feels Like the Movies fall to second place, and novels like Ru are only allowed to win when panelists stop calling the protagonist’s struggle an “immigration story” and start calling it a “universal” human struggle. This is why novels in which the foreign country is totally fictional, such as Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, win over novels like A Hero’s Walk, in which the setting in India is too, too real. Remember: Real Canadians are nice dorks who hold national debates about great books. Why should you want any more?
REBECCA SALAZAR edited the Fredericton installment of The City Series (Frog Hollow). Her poems have appeared in Lemon Hound, CV2, and Room, and her first chapbook is forthcoming with Anstruther. She is currently a Vanier Scholar at UNB.