Editorial – Is There Actually Something Canadian About Canadian SF?

By Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things that is gradually being more and more ignored in analyses of Canadian SF is the regional aspect. So many people focus on the need to see Canadian literature as international, rather than also looking at its regional qualities. Yes, Canadian literature is international, but really all literature is international – creative processes are international ones, fed from the influences of all of the reading that the author has done. But, their regional experiences also influence their writing – it is a conversation between the international and the local.

Authors like Nalo Hopkinson have discussed their experience of coming to Canada and learning about the Canadian experience by reading Canadian SF, getting a sense of this alien environment by reading about the aliens and social others that are produced through the Canadian imagination (Final Thoughts in Tesseracts Nine).

I understand why so many authors want to focus on the “international” quality of their work. Ultimately, they want it to be read outside of their country of origin – they want to have a larger readership. But, this is often only the case for people from countries that have less established histories of SF. The American and UK markets are quite comfortable with calling their work distinctly American or English, setting the story in their own country and flavouring it with local dialect and setting. Canadians are less inclined to do this because they know that overwhelmingly the market is dominated by Anglo-American SF works and they are often told by publishers that their work won’t sell in the United States because Americans won’t read about places other than the United States. I think this is highly unrealistic and assumes an unadventurous quality in a group of people (SF fans) who are obviously quite adventurous – they are willing to imaginatively explore other worlds, new environments, and new and diverse cultures in their literature, certainly they would not be adverse to reading about a country next door.

Yes, literature should be international, but what is often meant by this is not actually international, but, rather, marketable in the larger Anglo and American markets.

Canadian identity is a complicated issue, so many people feel that rather than try to think about the Canadianness of their work, it is far easier to assume that Canada is a cultural blank slate that does not have a cultural imprint on the things that occur within it. This does a disservice to Canadian literature, and also ignores the experience of new Canadians (people who have immigrated to Canada), who are often told that Canada is an easy place to adapt to and therefore that they shouldn’t have any difficulty fitting in. When they inevitably do experience difficulties such as racism, exclusion, and even culture shock, they often internalise this experience and, rather than criticising Canada’s lack of inclusivity, will criticise themselves for not fitting in.

It is important to be aware that we do have a regional culture – a culture that is not monolithic, that is changeable, that is often based on questioning itself and asking itself what it is.

Canadian culture is Speculative. We don’t believe we have a culture, so we always ask ourselves what it is. The great part about this is that’s what Speculative Fiction is all about – asking ourselves about ourselves. It is in the mirrored gaze of the alien’s eye or the monster’s saliva that we see the image of ourselves. We create our aliens and our monsters from our own imaginations and they embody our fears, our desires, our thoughts about our place in the world – they tell us about ourselves.

The best thing that we can say about Canadian culture is “it’s complicated” and it is always going to be about living the question, speculating. – and that is okay, in fact, it makes it interesting. As SF fans, we should be okay with living with ‘the question’. We do it every time we read our favorite books.

Derek Newman-Stille

4 Responses

  1. “their work won’t sell in the United States because Americans won’t read about places other than the United States.” This is false. At least, one won’t read about Canada in the same way one wouldn’t want to read about the rest of the world… even another part of the U.S. (E.g., a Southern not wanting to read about the Pacific Northwest.)

    It is true most Americans don’t know much about Canada, but often that is seen as the fault of Americans rather than realizing Canadians don’t do a good job promoting their identity outside of Canada. Heck, we tend to consider those Canadians who make it big in the U.S. as sell-outs. Almost like it’s better to just be a hit in Canada than achieve international success.

    While living in the States with my Canadian wife, many people were curious to learn about Canada, its history, culture and politics. Americans are curious to learn about their seemingly silent neighbours. Let’s not be afraid to give them a taste of Canada, its people, and its regions.

    • Note that I didn’t say that their work won’t sell… I said “that they are often told by publishers that their work won’t sell…”. This is an important difference. In fact you are stating the same thing that I am. Publishers are telling authors that their work won’t sell in the US unless it features Americans, but as I noted, in actuality, their work will sell in the US market because especially Americans interested in SF ARE actually interested in other places (hence why they read SF, which is fundamentally about other places). However, one of the comments that several Canadian authors have made to me is that publishers are still assuming and disseminating this idea to authors that they won’t be able to sell their work if they don’t set their work in an American city.

  2. I’ve heard far more stories about Canadian editors Americanizing Canadian books than I have about foreigners objecting to Canadianness. All of my short fiction was first published abroad, but I’ve never once had an editor (or reader) complain of Canadian settings or characters. Even Canadian spelling seems to be more accepted abroad than in some Canadian publishing houses, which is ironic considering the money those publishers get from governments, in the form of grants, earmarked for the promotion of Canadian culture.

    Douglas Gibson, in his “Stories and Storytellers”, relates a telling anecdote about the book Death on the Ice: “…from BC to Nova Scotia, we ran into a chorus of rejections from booksellers who refused to stock more than a token number of copies of the book, because it was “just a Newfoundland book.” Meanwhile, newspapers as far away as Australia were running excerpts from this amazing story. Sometimes the provincial barriers in our country are discouragingly high.”

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