No more cacophony on-air (but still a few more tears) and the debate around the reasons for reading – the reasons for creating art, the reasons for consuming it – continues.
Should art expose the broken bits of the world or provide respite from those fractures?
Colum McCann says “The amazing thing about good writing is that it can find the pulse of the wound without having to inflict the actual violence. It is a way of recognizing the hurt without praising it or suffering it. Writing allows the illusion of pain, while forcing us to grow up and recognize our own demons.”
E.B. White says “In a free country, a writer’s duty is to have no duties.”
This is a deeply rooted debate, not confined to this annual broadcast event.
Ordinary readers debate the same matter regularly: some arguing that they face hard facts the rest of the time so their entertainment should be full-on entertainment, others arguing that it is a privilege to enter that state of denial, even temporarily, while others have no escape.
The producers aim to deal with this division by declaring that readers have a moral responsibility, and then set the panelists to debating the way in which they direct their responsibility.
So, this year, it’s a question of which book will open Canadian readers’ eyes.
But the debate doesn’t go anywhere, only becomes a matter of degree: theme or no theme, every reader has a personal understanding of how much a reader’s eyes need opening and the idea of a moral obligation becomes about ‘how’ open.
Are we squinting readers or wide-eyed readers?
And how far do readers cast their gaze?
It’s no surprise that this question of Canadian-ness comes up in a program called “Canada Reads”. This year, from the announcement of the title alone, some folks have grumbled about American War‘s inclusion.
In past years, books about the immigrant experience were often said to be “important” but not necessarily books for “all Canadians to read”. Books like Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony and George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls were described as being too specific for every reader to relate to the story.
(Maybe it’s no longer acceptable to express this openly, but I don’t think the attitude has changed a whole lot. Loyal Canada Readsè fans will remember the terrorist/revolutionary debate in 2012. Has that really changed?)
Novels set outside the borders of what is now Canada were challenged for being not Canadian enough either, like Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Rawi Hage’s Cockroach. (But it’s not simple: Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes won in 2009 and The Illegal in 2016.)
And as much as I love Lisa Moore’s February and Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness (which won in 2013 and 2006 respectively), for instance, it seems clear that the book all Canadians should read is most often the book that privileged (often white) Canadians are most comfortable reading. (Although this year, four of the five selected books are by writers of colour.)
I think the debate this year, about American War‘s inclusion, is interesting because the premise of the novel is rooted in the idea of borders changing from what they are today, based on resource availability, and the conflicts which arise (personally and politically): it’s a story in which nation-hood has lost its meaning.
This idea, the idea of those who lack things wanting those things, on the ways the landscape shifts to accommodate those desires: this is the oldest idea ever and it’s not a Canadian idea, it’s a human idea.
Most of today’s listeners are feeling very secure in the idea of nation-hood, however. For most listeners’ lifetimes the borders of Canada have not altered since Newfoundland joined the union in 1949. Canada is Canada.
(Well, except for that business in the northern territories, which many settlers find threatening or irrelevant: Nunavut and all.)
But the border between the countries now called Canada and the United States has a history of being contentious. Powerful folks on the southern side of that “line” have historically wanted resources north of that line.
In recent weeks, conflict between the two countries has raged over trade agreements rooted in the American government’s sense of entitlement to Canada’s natural resources and the Canadian government’s historical reliance upon power wielded globally by the United States.
This border has been challenged more than many Canadians want to consider, whether through concerted invasions or episodes of terrorism and the government of Canada has become embroiled in war because of its relationship to the United States even recently. The dotted line we coloured around in social studies class as school-kids is not as secure as many people think, and ideas about inclusion and exclusion don’t necessarily have anything to do with geo-political borders anyway. And these ideas are integrally connected with one’s understanding of how these borders were established historically (and shifted throughout colonization) and the awareness that the indigenous people who originally and continually inhabit these lands comprise their own sovereign nations too.
It’s obviously political, but it’s also (perhaps surprisingly) personal – because when one votes for a Canada Reads title, one’s personal understanding of what it means to be a reader and how each reader views their position in the landscape comes into play.
And, then, there’s the matter of winning.