Journalism & Essays

Swan’s journalism has appeared in American, British and US publications. She started as education reporter for The Toronto Telegram in l967 in the era of student protest after working as a cub reporter on the Midland Free Press in 1961-1963. She went on to write for the Toronto Star and for television with TVO, the CBC as well as performance pieces in collaboration with others. Her controversial performance art includes a show about Barbara Ann Scott titled “Queen of the Silver Blades” and “Down and In” about self pity. Susan continues to contribute essays and is commissioned for her journalism in recognition of her keen insights, incisive interviews, and her ongoing activism in the community of writing and social awareness.A complete bibliography is available by downloading Swan’s Curriculum Vitae in the About Susan section, which includes detailed information in the following categories:

• Samples of book reviews written by Susan Swan
• Material written for television and film by Susan Swan
• Samples of essays and features written by Susan Swan
• Selected readings and cultural exchanges
• Talks by Susan Swan

Recent Articles

You Can Go Home Again

(printed in The National Post, November 11, 2011)

I made my first faux pas when I told Midland, Ont., librarian Bill Molesworth that I’d come to town to take the literary temperature in the hinterlands.

“Hinterlands?” His eyebrows shot up. “I’ll try not to hold that against you.”

Molesworth, CEO of the Midland Public Library, is part of IFOA Ontario (or Lit On Tour as it’s also called), which for five years now has been bringing Canadian and international authors to Ontario towns for readings, panels and workshops at the local high schools.

Molesworth was reminding me of what I already knew so well. No matter where you live, your town feels as big as the world. Margaret Laurence once said there was enough fascinating material in her Manitoba hamlet for several lifetimes of book writing. “It never bored me, not ever,” she told an interviewer.

How could I forget? During the 1950s, I grew up in Midland, where Toronto is sometimes disparagingly referred to as The Big Smoke. In those days, former NHL presidents could get away with addressing the crowds as “Ladies, gentlemen and Frenchmen.” Hockey was king and you were on one side or the other. Either you were for ideas and books or you were for hockey.

As a kid, I used to have two vocabularies — a secret vocabulary that I learned from reading books but never said out loud in case I was accused of being a brown-noser and a simpler, four letter vocabulary for the school yard. (So I grew up not knowing how to pronounce big words.)

The town was just 8,000 then. Now its population has doubled. And while Midland has ridden the boom and bust cycles like everywhere else, its unemployment is up and its median household income is below the provincial average.

Walking around town, I see big changes. Many of the town’s large 19th century maples have been cut down to widen the streets. And my late father’s doctor office is now a pizza parlour. The old YMCA has become a derelict building although the main street with its scattering of high end shops looks more prosperous, and the library that I used to visit three times a week is now located in the old post office which has just added a glamorous extension. Recently, I asked Richard Wright, another Canadian novelist born in Midland, how two writers had come out of such a sports-minded town and he said it was because of the Midland Library. Scratch a library and you find a writer, plus thousands of readers.

And here’s the thing. There’s a hunger in the hinterlands/territories/homelands for books and meeting authors, a hunger that organizers of urban literary events might envy. Not only do writers play to packed houses, the audience usually buys a copy of each book by the authors because they’re eager to discover new writers.

Lit On Tour, which imported over 50 authors to 17 Ontario towns this fall, is the brainchild of Geoffrey Taylor, director of Authors at Harbourfront Centre and the world famous Toronto International Festival of Authors. Taylor says organizers in all 17 towns asked him if they could be part of it.

For instance, Molesworth saw the success of Lit On Tour in Parry Sound, and he figured that if they could do it there, he could do it in Midland. Helen Argiro, the new executive director at the Markham arts council, says she begged Taylor to bring the tour to her community, and this fall, authors Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Bharati Mukherjee, Francisco Goldman, and Dany Laferrier read to a sold out crowd at Markham’s newly renovated Transportation Building. Next year, Argiro will move the event to a bigger venue.

She says their first IFOA Ontario experience was like never having tasted a chocolate fudge brownie before and then being presented with the best fudge brownie in the world. Maybe there wasn’t a strong desire for a big literary event before, she adds. But there is now.

And what about the event I was moderating in Midland with Canadian novelists Madeleine Thien and Helen Humphreys?

It started off with wine and cheese in the new library extension. My brother and sister-in-law arrived looking nervous. And my old fear of using big words lingered in the back of my mind. And then what every moderator hopes for happened. The wall between the audience and the writers crumbled. Madeleine and Helen opened up to the crowded room, which included young writers, retired people and some of my old school friends. Madeleine has written about refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia and Helen’s story describes the secret love affair between Adele, the wife of Victor Hugo and Hugo’s friend. We laughed a lot, especially about the possibility that writers, like Victor Hugo, are egotistical maniacs. Afterwards, my brother and sister-in-law along with many others bought books. An old school friend showed me pictures of us as children. Our Midland audience, I realized, isn’t so different from an urban one. The Internet has made everyone more connected.

Toronto writer Bert Archer, who moderates some of the Lit On Tour panels, wasn’t surprised. Last year, he came to Midland with four authors including Tom McCarthy, a Booker shortlister and unapologetic brainiac. Archer expected McCarthy to go down poorly in my hometown. He did not, Archer says. The large crowd was fascinated by all four writers and they asked perceptive questions, which Archer points out, weren’t long-winded comments synthesized from theses in progress.

So there goes the myth of hockey vs. books. As Taylor says, there might be city and country mice, but they’re all mice. And guess what? The capacity crowd, enthusiastic and intelligent, made me remember why I write books in the first place: to meet appreciative readers.

Susan Swan’s next novel The Western Light is set in Midland, Ont.

Reprinted Courtesy of the National Post


Why the lack of Canadian Books in Canadian Schools?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Never mind the acclaim of Canadian writers abroad and this fall’s wealth of literary festivals and big book prizes. There’s a shocking disconnect between the international success of Canadian writing and how Canadian literature is viewed in our schools.

For starters, few Canadian books are taught in Canadian schools, and with one or two exceptions, no province has a mandatory course in Canadian literature.

British Columbia and Saskatchewan have legislation that ensures that Canadian high school students study novels and non-fiction books by Canadian writers.

And some provinces, like Quebec and Newfoundland, enjoy teaching their own writers. But for the rest of Canada, there’s still a lingering attitude that Canadian literature is sub-standard, according to Jean Baird, a publishing consultant who fought for legislation that now makes it mandatory for every English Language Arts student in BC to study at least one Canadian text a year from Grade 8 to Grade 12.

“We may be one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn’t teach our own literature,” says Baird who believes that our education system is failing to grow the next generation of readers.

Eight years ago, Baird did a comprehensive survey of teachers, students and school boards for the Canada Council and found that not many Canadian high school and elementary students could identify Canadian authors. As little as 31 per cent of Canadian schools had courses in Canadian literature.

Baird says that things haven’t changed much since her report. While Canadian literature has grown more popular and diverse, the lack of Canadian textbooks may be worse than the 1950’s when I was a high school student. Back then, we studied one or two Canadian writers like Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan. But I went to a private school, and private schools still tend to study Canadian literature more than schools in the public system.

Why the weird disconnect? There are five major reasons, and some of them are dumb. The first is that education in Canada is a provincial matter so it’s difficult for Canadian schools to co-ordinate a national curriculum. A second reason is harsh budget cuts to education. Few English departments have funds to buy new texts so they rely on old copies of novels by foreign authors like To Kill a Mocking Bird and Lord of the Flies.  At many schools, the teacher librarian job has been phased out and replaced with technical staff who understand the Internet.

E-books could offer a partial solution but chances are that many of the library staff haven’t been exposed to books by Canadian writers. And here’s the third reason: Almost none of our teachers’ training colleges make studying Canadian literature compulsory. So unless a teacher has taken a Canadian literature course at university, he or she may go through our school system without every reading a single book by a Canadian author.

The fourth reason is the redefinition of text. According to the Ontario Curriculum published by the Ontario Ministry of Education a literary text covers a wide variety of writing including newspaper ads, facebook and posters. While expanding the definition makes sense in the digital age, it often means the exclusion of books.

“It doesn’t surprise me that few Canadian novels are being taught in our public system,” says Ken Alexander, writer and editor and founder of Bookshelf, a now defunct program that yearly gave away 25,000 Canadian books to Canadian high school students.

Alexander says a sense of book ownership gives students a relationship to their own culture. “Study programs are not about the writing imagination now. It’s all about stuff that can be measured, stuff that can be put on a spread sheet.”

The fifth reason is that it’s up to teachers and school boards to pick books from suggested curriculum choices. Because these choices are merely recommended Baird says there is no clear mandate for teachers. So what is taught varies from school to school, and often depends on whether the principal is more interested in funding the football team. And there are certainly many schools and teachers who teach CanLit with great enthusiasm but it’s hit and miss for students to end up in those classrooms. Parents also object to certain books as unsuitable, making it more difficult to get a consensus about teachable texts.

As a Canadian author, the weird disconnect is frustrating. If we want to understand our culture, why not study Canadian books? But if we want to cling to an old national inferiority complex, then what better way than keeping students ignorant of our literature?

When I taught an arts course at York University, the first thing students wanted to know was how I saw the difference between us, and Americans. I’d start them off with a joke about a traveler and an American border guard frustrated with traveler who said he had American and Canadian passports. Exasperated, the guard asked the traveler what he would do if his country went to war. The traveler replied that it would depend on the war and why they were fighting. The guard exclaimed: Now I know! You’re Canadian.

Skepticism, I would explain, is a Canadian trait along with tolerance and cultural diversity. On that course, students read fiction by Canadian authors like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Nino Ricci and Mordecai Richler. By exam time, they were no longer asking me what it meant to be Canadian.

Reprinted courtesy of The Globe and Mail


Pop Rules, Banff, July 2009

Like it or not pop rules. Its power is reinforced by the Internet and a digital, electronic media, which creates a media-scape as influential as the natural landscapes of forests, grasslands and mountains were to our pioneer ancestors. But many of us remain skeptical of pop culture. If you are like me, attracted by pop’s energy, you may feel schizophrenic because you enjoy a good mindless Hollywood action movie while still feeling let down by its banality and lack of substance.

Although I am a fan of pop, I am also one of its sternest critics because as a novelist, my tradition is literature with its ties to Gutenberg and the world of print.

But as Susan Sontag points out in “Notes on Camp” there is no better person to talk about a cultural phenomenon than somebody with “a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” So I offer the following Notes on Pop as an homage to Susan Sontag who once famously said that camp converts the serious into the frivolous.

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