People are often asking if there is such a thing as “Canadian identity”, something that differentiates Canada from other nations. I thought I would ask authors if they thought that there was something distinctly Canadian about Canadian Speculative Fiction or how much they felt that their Canadian identity influenced their writing.
I have provided links to the full interviews below each author’s comments so you can re-read them or, if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, to read them for the first time.
“I know that [my Canadian identity] does [influence my writing], but I am not sure if I’m equipped to know how, aside from the fact that Montreal is often an important setting in my stories. On the subject of my being a Canadian writer, Paul Di Filippo, in his introduction to The Door to Lost Pages, wrote, ‘Claude Lalumière is not only a universal author but a regional writer. His native Canada, specifically the city of Montreal, is as much a player in these stories as the people, even when not specifically named. There’s some numinous element of these tales that acts as a counterbalance to the hegemony of US fantasy trilogies. We are hearing a voice literally from beyond the lands we (we American readers) know.’”
“We Canadians are champion diehard storytellers. I mean take a look at our winters. Take a look at our television network. Take a look at our mosquitoes. What else have we got to do but to tell stories to each other?
“In some ways my Canadian identity limits me – in that it is harder to find my place in the international market. But my Canadian identity helps make me the writer that I am today. Remember – I have a half dozen regional books out at this moment from Nimbus Publishing – Nova Scotia’s largest publishing network. I am also close to signing a contract with another new Canadian publisher for a series of YA horror novels. My regional books have sold in the thousands – which makes me a bestselling author in Canada.”
“Nova Scotians are the true storytellers of Canada. We have an even worse selection in television, bigger mosquitos, and less opportunity for honest work. Again I ask you what else can we do but sit around and spin out yarns?”
“Is there something that makes our stories inherently Canadian? Possibly, but it would probably take someone who isn’t from here to determine that. They say you should write what you know. I agree with that, but I would add a corollary: you should also write where you know. I know Canada, specifically Toronto and the GTA, so that’s where I typically set my stories.”
“I like to think that Canadian authors are reclaiming the “horror” word in much the same way David Cronenberg reclaimed it for Canadian film.”
“I think my work is multi-national, multi-cultural and encompasses a lot of attitudes and values that Canadians hold to like gender equality and equal pay for equal work. For example, I’ll use fairness. Canadians like to be fair and that leads to that stereotyping of people from this country always apologizing. But really, it’s not so much apologizing out of guilt–as the Americans imagine–as Canadians being polite, acknowledging the other person’s existence and that they, too, have rights. I think my writing incorporates that even in the conflicts of the story, even when a character is obnoxious. I try to give the characters the chance to do the right thing. If they do, they are holding to my values and the values I see around me, despite how much the current climate tends to try to erode those values.”
“I’d say that in general, Canadians write with intelligence, and that includes the darker genres. They are educated and that becomes clear when you read the stories and novels. Nothing here is slapped together and I suspect that’s because in the past we didn’t have a horror publishing industry so writers have had to work harder, knowing their English-language markets were in the U.S. and Britain, and the French markets in France.”
“Besides being thoughtful and intelligent, Canadians write from their experience. Cities here are different than cities in the U.S. For example, our citizens don’t carry guns. Our landscape involves a lot of nature, which is important to Canadians, and that allows for a certain type of horror that can be both visceral and psychological. Characters in the stories and novels produced in this country — and I’ve read a lot of short fiction for the four anthologies I’ve edited for Edge (two were all Canadian authors and the other two have a goodly chunk of Canucks) and the eight before those for the U.S. market — read like real people, well-constructed, with depth and lives and thought-processes which aren’t stereotyped. Because the characters are intelligent, even if a tad whimsical, readers can respect them. There’s nothing worse in a horror novel or story than the clichés, for example: “Let’s split up!” Stories by Canadians strike me as having characters who are loners, not necessarily out of some twisted or evil past but more because of the way we live here, a kind of self-sufficiency that isn’t bitter. What I mean is, you get characters who just get on with it and deal with things to the best of their ability. And most of the time they don’t have arsenals at their disposal so they have to use brain-power while coping with the emotions evoked by the horrific situation.
“Don Hutchison, who was the editor of the wonderful anthology series Northern Frights, used to say he thought Canadians wrote with a sense of place, and that might be what I’m getting at. But I think it’s more. I think the place shapes the person and their world view and how they cope with everything. What I like about what I’m reading by Canadians — besides the fact that they like to slide between genres, which I find fun — is that they bring themselves to the fore and that Canadianism is recognizable. In my view, we don’t need the government shoving Canadian content down our throats as if it has to be protected or die out, or shoving language down our throats, ditto the reasons. These things already exist and can stand on their own. It’s who we are and it shines through in the writing. When travelling, one can usually spot travelers who are English or French or German because they are distinctive. But you can also spot Canadians because we are distinctive in our way. Canadians are nice, fair, friendly without being in your face, and honest. Why Canadians don’t see and appreciate these rare qualities in themselves, I don’t know, but it’s also in the writing and in the books we’re now producing that are in the horror/dark fantasy genre and that’s one of the reasons Canadian fiction stands out.”
“If I can depart from the standards of civil debate for a moment, I would suggest that in a country where anti-intellectualism is on the rise – where anyone interested in technology or SF is branded a geek, and where a political leader such as Stéphane Dion can be discredited amongst the public by being called “professor” by that weird gang of mediocrities, cranks, embarrassing amateurs, control-freaks, spin-doctors, and corporate sock-puppets comprising the Government – the question facing Canadian SF is: how many of us want to think?”
“It’s probably premature to begin identifying what, if anything, differentiates Canadian from international steampunk. If its popularity survives for more years, then a comparison might be worthwhile. In some ways, the real history of Canada is kind of like an alternate history of the United States – we were the part of British North America that chose to stay British. Those who didn’t want to become republican Americans came here as Loyalists.
“Once you get past the superficial bric-a-brac of steampunk that is common in books from various countries, the Canadian angle has interesting opportunities, since it places the reader in North America, and yet also in the greatest multinational empire that has ever been.
“For a writer of fiction, the fluid, evolving nature of the empire that Canada was a member of provides plenty of opportunities to imagine what it might have become, for better or worse, had its evolution proceeded differently.”
“Not being a scholar of Canadian SF, I don’t know if my forecast would be any better than those of Environment Canada since their budget cuts. It looks like SF will continue to be sidelined, culturally, for the foreseeable future, since there’s a sort of literary apartheid in Canada (as in other countries), which places SF down in the lowest class where it can be disenfranchised by excluding it from the grants, prizes, reviews, media attention, and the rest of the grease and hot air that lets the literary machine chug along, hoisting books out of the shadows and into the public eye.
“Some countries, perhaps, do a bit better than Canada. In the US, where every stage of the Lit Cycle from writing to reviewing to award-giving isn’t subsidized by a federal or provincial ministry of official culture, there seems to be an acknowledgement that literature consists of something beyond self-conscious nation building, lyrical tales of suicide on the prairies during the Great Depression, and other dismally “realistic” but morally uplifting fare. Coincidentally, the US also has a huge SF publishing industry, attracting writers from, among other countries, Canada. And there’s probably a reason why writers like Sir Terry Pratchett appear in the UK, and not in Canada. Despite there being the same tendency to pretentious literary cliques in the UK as we have here, Pratchett was knighted (the equivalent of a Companion of the Order of Canada), his works have been performed as stage plays, as TV programmes, and on the BBC, and he won this year’s Wodehouse Prize (equivalent of the Leacock Medal, but with more pigs and champagne). Writing SF requires imagination, but I’m not sure that I have enough to imagine a Canadian fantasy writer being similarly celebrated by his or her country.
“Government assistance was certainly necessary here to kindle a national book industry and literary institutions. Unfortunately for many “genre” writers, it’s now simply supporting an industry that does little for them but denigrate and ignore their work. Canadian literature won’t be as rich and varied as it might be until the bigotry of the industry abates. I suppose the best way for that to happen might be for more people involved in Canadian SF to sit on grant & prize juries, write reviews, and speak out when they’re discriminated against, not on their literary merit, but on their choice of subject matter (or choice of friends).”
“Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of the [Canadian] themes that recurs in my work, especially the Heroka shapeshifter stories, is that of the conflict between our civilization and the natural wilderness, as our resource-based industries, which feed our cities’ growing hunger for timber, water, power, minerals, and land, consumes more and more of the natural world and habitats of our wildlife. Our country has always been defined by its vast wilderness areas, and yet the huge majority of our population lives in only a few highly urbanized pockets of that vastness. So there’s this destructive dichotomy between us and the land we live in–we live off of the land but we don’t really live in it. But for those who do live there and for the wildlife species that live there, we’re destroying more of that wilderness every year to feed the hunger of the cities. This is the central theme in The Wolf at the End of the World and in most of my other Heroka stories. The Heroka are a race of shape shifters whose vitality as a race is tied directly to the vitality of their totem animal species, species that are dwindling as their natural habitats are destroyed by logging or mining concerns, or flooded for hydro-electric projects.
“Other Canadian themes in my work include a suspicion of both corporate and political power, a suspicion that I think is greater here in Canada than, for example, in the US.”
“I don’t think [Canadian supernatural fiction] is heading anywhere different than supernatural fiction in general, which is beginning a downswing. It will never go away completely, but the market will be smaller.”
“There are differences in the [Canadian versus other nations’]markets. What is a bestseller in the US will not necessarily be a bestseller in Britain. That’s the same for all geographic areas—Canada also has differences from both. The literature produced in our country reflects the differences in regional taste. I’m not sure it affects the supernatural aspects of the story as much as the general ones—the tone, the themes etc.”
“[My Canadian identity] makes it easier to do Canadian characters and settings 🙂 On the other hand, it makes it harder to do American ones, and that’s where a lot of my stories are set, for the simple fact that I can have a larger cast of supernaturals that way—it’s easier to speculate that so many supernatural beings go unnoticed if the population is much larger. Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s had much impact on my opportunities as an author or how I’m treated.”
“I quite enjoyed blending Canadian folklore with other myth cycles. It’s a sandbox I could see myself playing in for a long time. It’s easy to think that Canada doesn’t have a folklore unique to our borders. But I don’t think that’s the case. I would love to see our own folk stories and tall tales take centre stage. I would also love to see Indigenous writers bringing modern takes on their myths and folklore to the fantasy genre. Something I’ve so far only really seen from Daniel Heath Justice.”
“Because I so enjoyed mixing myth and Manitoba, I also hope that Thunder Road can inspire readers to look more closely at their homes to find those ties to the mythological past.”
“I have to be honest, I’ve never thought about my work in [the] context [of its Canadian identity]. I certainly didn’t set out to write the Great Canadian Fantasy novel and am woefully unfamiliar with the Canadian literary canon (perhaps if it included more dragons and robots…). I suppose one could say there is an element of the immigrant’s tale to Thunder Road, not a uniquely Canadian experience, but we are a nation built by immigrants. It’s one of the reasons I decided not to make Manitoba Ted [the main character from Thunder Road]’s home. Having him trying to start a new mundane life in an unfamiliar place echoed his becoming a part of the Nine Worlds, and the new fantastical life that awaited him.”
“I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.”
“Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.”
“I try to set a majority of my works in Canada, or at least have a Canadian character represented. Our recognition in the world as peace keepers, progressive thinkers and top providers to our citizens is very important to me. I am proud of my nationality and our country’s history, and come from a long line of writers, historians, politicians and educators.”
“Canada has always seemed to me to be a place struggling with memory. Both of my parents emigrated to Canada just before I was born, my mom from South Africa and my dad from England via Zimbabwe. I didn’t feel a strong connection to Canadian history. I grew up reading books about European history, reading children’s literature that was grounded in mythologies that seemed very distant. Stories were things that happened in other places. As a medievalist in Canada, I find I always have to explain why I do what I do. When I go to England, they get it. Because it’s a part of their history and it matters to them. I’ve learned to live with that dissonance.”
“I think the macabre in Canadian fiction accomplishes what the macabre accomplishes in all fiction: it gives us a sense of our own mortality, of the body as something that will inevitably die. It reacquaints us with fear, and at the same time it enlivens us. Does Canada have its own unique brand of the macabre? Most definitely. Canadian literature has been traditionally considered to have a strong vein of realism to it, but the macabre, the Weird—the kind of books that ChiZine Publications has championed–are doing something to open that up. That’s good. I don’t believe in straitjacketing literature.”
“Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe.”
“[Canadian Speculative Fiction] tends to be darker and more reflective. With fewer happy endings… LOL! Who else but a Canadian would write a science fiction romance with a tragic ending? When I wrote The Cypol (Extasy Books) I discounted the protocol of the romance genre for happy endings. The Canadian publisher accepted the novelette, which says a lot. Even though the critics liked it, romance fans hated the book. LOL! I think that Canadian SF authors bring a dark edge to the genre that slides a bit into literary fiction. Again, perhaps why Booker prize-winner in literary fiction Margaret Atwood finds herself writing speculative fiction. Her works are a good example of what Canadian SF writers do best: infuse meaningful reflection and deep allegory in speculation. I think much of Canadian speculative fiction springs from our multi-cultural and northern setting.”
“I feel a strong Canadian identity and I’m certain it imbues my main characters and the cultures I portray. Firstly, I make a point of using Canadian places as settings for my fiction (if set on Earth, that is).
“I like that Robert J. Sawyer, back in the 1980s, either set part of his novels in Canada or made at least one of his main characters a Canadian. This was in a time when it wasn’t vogue for a large American publisher to set your novel outside the USA unless it was some place globally recognized, like Paris. Sawyer wasn’t the only one; other notable Canadian SF authors who set their stories in Canada include Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow and Guy Gavriel Kay.”
“One reviewer called my characters “kinder, gentler vampires”, which strikes me as very Canadian. I certainly felt that you could not have the kind of violent, predatory vampires in Toronto that seemed common in U.S. vampire fiction – though one New York writer I shared a radio panel with seemed appalled at the idea that I assumed you could leave dead bodies all over Manhattan and no one would care. However, I don’t think there’s any particular type of Canadian vampire. Mine might be “kinder and gentler” but those are the last words you’d use to describe the vampire in Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night. One of the interesting things about that book is that the demons that must be confronted are deeply rooted in the book’s Northern Ontario setting and in a part of Canadian history we’re conditioned to think of as something boring to study in public school. The evocation of nature as a shaping, often inimical, force is one of the things that is considered traditionally “Canadian” and it works brilliantly in that book.”
“In her book Survival, Margaret Atwood once advanced the idea that all CanLit centres around a massive, indifferent, rejecting physical landscape and our place, or lack of one, within it. And while I initially found that idea hard to go by, mainly because I was raised in one of North America’s cities. One thing I’ve learned from teaching Canadian film history is that Canadian “culture” is mainly defined negatively, like in the old Molson’s “I am Canadian” beer commercial: We don’t eat blubber, we don’t have a President, etc.
“Nine times out of ten, particularly in English-speaking Canada, what we’re defining ourselves against is the spectre of America—if I had a dollar for every time a student of mine from somewhere else in the world asked me to admit there’s basically no difference between us and the U.S., I’d eat free for at least a week. Before that, however, it was about wanting to still be part of the British Empire even after they didn’t have any use for us, and these days it’s about how our vaunted multiculturalism mainly provides a way for us to stay in insular little groups and only interact when forced to. Which does, in the end, actually stem from geography: We’re a country the size of the former Soviet Union with a population the size of California spread out across a very disparate series of environments, most of whom still maintain they were tricked into becoming part of one country united by a railway and a radio-television network.
“When you get down to it, our national self-image is entirely imposed from the outside, a generalization cobbled together from dreams and guilt, then historically distributed through a Film Board put together by a socialist Scots expatriate who hated Hollywood and a Broadcast Corporation run from Ottawa. No wonder we’re so unable to explain what sets us apart. I always think about the title of one of Alice Munro’s early short story collections, Who Do You Think You Are?, because it perfectly encapsulates the sort of crushing self-doubt and left-over British class system resentment of the individual’s capacity for change in the face of static stagnation that defines the heart of the non-indigenous Canadian experience. And while it’s slightly different when set within an urban context, it’s not even vaguely as different as most of us would like to think.
“Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that there’s a big empty place in the Canadian psyche that takes extremely well to fantasy. Hell, even our “non-genre” literature tends to have a massive streak of surrealism and magic realism in it—think about the work of Michael Ondaatje (a poet turned prose writer, which happens a lot up here), Wayson Choy, Paul Quarrington, Derek McCormack, Michael Helm, Anne-Marie McDonald, Barbara Gowdy, Margaret Laurence, Anne Hébert, Atwood herself. But whether you’re talking about Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay or Susie Moloney, Andrew Pyper and Michael Rowe, our fantasy tends to be rooted in the uncomfortable, the self-reflective, the place where power and freedom come with a price, one that must be paid knowingly, and in blood. We accept coincidence and synchronicity, but also understand hubris, and karma. We expect doom at best, failure at worst. It’s bleak, but it’s familiar, especially to somebody who likes horror.”
“I think Canadian SF is darker and more experimental than mainstream American SF. I think the publishing industry allows for more kinds of individual author development—we have smaller publishers with greater weight in Canada. In the States, where every microgenre gets codified and calcified, I see a lot more of the same stuff coming out for consumers. I see a lot more undefinable genre in Canadian SF. A freedom because, partly, there’s not a lot of fame on the table, but also because there’s a desire to create a Canadian SF. It looks like we’re nowhere near nailing a specific kind of SF, though, more inviting people to play. Look at Evolve from Edge—the SF future of vampires; look at anything Chizine is doing, which is so out there! It massacres genre-expectations. It also gives authors so much freedom.
“Canada has the opportunity to show what the future of Canada will be through SF, and use our regional identities as a way to forge a truly unique version of Canadian SF.”