Organized by the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo, at Renison University College, October 25, 2014
Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and Our Environment
On October 25, 2014, I’m talking at the University of Waterloo which is hosting an international literary symposium entitled “A Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and our Environment”.
The main theme of the symposium will be an exploration of the intersection of literature and environment in Chinese and Canadian literature. Topics of discussion include literature and the urban environment, a sense of place and space in literature, writing about nature and the role of faith and beliefs in literature.
I will be speaking about the political environment in Canada and how it affects our literature. Since Stephen Harper became our prime minister in 2006, our federal government has drastically reduced funding to the arts.
There are no longer funds for Canadian writers to travel to other countries. Before Harper, our Canadian consulates promoted Canadian culture abroad by bringing in Canadian writers and artists. These programs helped Canadian writers grow audiences in foreign countries and successfully introduced now world famous writers like Margaret Atwood to new readers, and filmmakers like David Cronenberg to new viewers. That sort of helpful boost to artists is a vital part of any nation’s cultural identity but it is no longer happening here because Harper cut 11.4 million dollars to these programs in 2007. The result? Stats Canada says that for every dollar invested in the arts we get eight dollars back. So the cuts that Harper made actually cost Canada approximately $90 million dollars in potential arts revenue.
One of the reasons for these kind of cuts is the Harper government’s attitude to art and culture. Primarily, our current government sees literature as entertainment rather than art, and it is interested in writers competing like manufacturers in the global marketplace, making profits so they don’t need government support. Competing like business entrepreneurs, in other words but without the same level of support that many businesses get from our current government. Just as our Ministry of Natural Resources benefits the oil industry by researching oil fields, and just as the flow through tax credit encourages Canadians to develop risky mines, cultural funding abroad used to help the arts contribute to the economy. But no more.
How realistic is this approach for a small country like Canada, a country that used to have a proud national literature? The answer: our media mostly tells our readers about a tiny sprinkling of Canadian bestsellers, the ones that manage to get sales and marketing support from multinationals, huge publishing conglomerates which flood the Canadian market with their own foreign books.
I doubt if any other country in the English-speaking world is so welcoming of books from other nations. Partly it’s because Canadians speak English and we live next door to the second largest economic power in the world. (China is now the first.) I can’t imagine the United States government allowing their country to be a dumping ground for foreign books at the expense of American literature.
What is so terrible about competing in the global marketplace? At least, a few Canadian books manage to penetrate it and these books can have great financial success. That’s true. But those books are mostly genre books like psychological thrillers. Books on difficult subjects, or books that tell Canadian readers about their own lives may be less common now.
And even when a Canadian thriller does well our bookstore chain Indigo still prefers to flog American books of the same type. For instance, Indigo continues to give display preference to the US bestseller Gone Girl by Gilligan Flynn while downplaying The Silent Wife, a psychological thriller by Canadian writer A.S.A. Harrison whose novel has been a huge commercial hit all over the world and is currently number four on the Globe and Mail best seller list.
There was something glorious yesterday about feeling the enthusiastic grassroots support for Toronto librarians at our “book-in” in the spring sunshine. About 250 to 300 people showed up carrying their favourite book by a Canadian writer and we’re holding them up in the above photograph. Ironically enough, Greg Hollingshead, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, is holding up a book by Jane Jacobs about the new dark age. I’m holding up his collection of short stories, The Roaring Girl, which won the Governor General’s fiction award and Oryx and Crake, a novel about our very bleak future by Margaret Atwood. Is there a message there?
The strike by Toronto’s library workers isn’t about getting more money although that would be nice. Many librarians still make little more than minimum wage. The strike happened because their union is afraid that Rob Ford and his allies on the Toronto library board intend to shutter more libraries. They can do this if they remove a clause that gives library workers some job protection. Once that clause is gone, the library board along with Ford and his allies are free to close more libraries.
Remember, 107 library jobs have been cut this winter although writers, readers and librarians won terrific support for our public libraries last fall. And more cuts will come if we don’t stand up to Rob Ford.
There is no Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog today because the author is out picketing with the Toronto library workers. The librarians’ contract is being renegotiated unfairly by Mayor Rob Ford and his allies. A blog will appear later in the week.
A long time ago, when I was a working journalist, I agreed to meet an official for an East Asian government who wanted me to stop writing about the political prisoners in his country’s jails. He invited me for drinks at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and when we met in the bar we spent the first fifteen minutes comparing our drinks. He claimed his was more delicious because he had chosen a Singapore Sling and I had ordered a Gin and Tonic, which, let’s face it, is not as sugary as a Singapore Sling—which happened to be the kind of drink I drank when I first started going into bars. My companion politely asked me to stop my work for Amnesty International, and sipping my G and T, I just as politely inquired why his government felt the need to put their countrymen in prison for expressing their views. He answered that his country was young, and dissent wasn’t helpful at this period in its growth. I told him that my country was young too, but we didn’t put people in jail for dissent. At least, not on the scale that his country did, and he nodded sagely. “Some day,” he said. “Some day, we, too, will allow dissent, when we are strong and prosperous.” Read More