Writing Canada: Ten of the Best Canadian Literary Voices

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Ellen Von Weigand

Often overshadowed by its neighbour The United States, Canada’s contribution to the field of literature is diverse and far-reaching. The works of Michael Ondaatje, Joy Kogawa, Alice Munro and Joseph Boyden, for example, offer highly distinctive perspectives which demonstrate the varied histories that compose the country’s rich cultural heritage. Discover ten significant Canadian authors who have helped to prove Canada’s literary strength on an international scale, whilst creating powerful and profound works which express their own perspective on life.

Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943)

Best known for his Booker Prize winning novel turned Academy Award winning film, The English Patient (1992),Sri Lankan born writer Michael Ondaatje gained Canadian citizenship following his move to the country in 1962. His broad range of work, which covers the territories of fiction, autobiography, poetry and film, has found its way into school curricula across Canada. Other notable offerings include In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a fictional account of immigrants who played a profound role in the construction of Toronto but were subsequently blown over in records of the time period, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), a book of poetry speculating on various events in the life of William Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid.

Eden Robinson (b. 1968)

As a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, novelist and short story writer Eden Robinson demonstrates a consistent preoccupation with Haisla culture. Her highly regarded literary debut, Trampoline (1995) is a bleak depiction of the upbringing of four adolescents growing up on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat reserve. Divided into four parts, each section is dedicated to the perspective of one youth, as they navigate the shaky and often oppressive terrain of their own home. Other books include Monkey Beach (2000) for which she received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and Blood Sports (2006) in which she revisits several themes and characters introduced in Trampoline.

Joy Kogawa (b. 1953)

Vancouver born novelist and poet Joy Kogawa is known for her imagined accounts of the internment of Japanese Canadians and her involvement in the Redress Movement to seek justice for her people. Her critically acclaimed novel OBASAN (1981) uses powerful prose to reveal the suffering and strife endured by Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Written from the perspective of a middle aged woman by the name of Naomi Nakane, Kogawa expands upon the story in her 1992 novel Itsuka. OBASAN is listed as one of the 100 Most Important Canadian Books by the Literary Review of Canada. Other works include The Rain Ascends (1995), in which a woman must face the reality that her father, an Anglican minister, is a pedophile, and her collection of poetry, Splintered Moon (1967).

Joseph Boyden (b. 1966)

For his highly acclaimed first novel, Three Day Road (2005), Joseph Boyden borrows from his own family anecdotes to create the story of two young Cree men who work as snipers during the First World War. The novel helped set the stage for Boyden’s subsequent work when it won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His next work, Through Black Spruce (2008), secured Boyden’s reputation as a must read Canadian author when it won the Scotiabank Giller Prize of the same year. Boyden’s most recent book, The Orenda (2013), published in September, has already been received with great praise. The book revisits the events surrounding the Huron, Jesuits, and the Iroquois Indian wars which shaped the formation of the Canadian Nation. A highly moving and profound read, Boyden brings the history of his country to life through this work of exhilarating tragedy.

Margaret Laurence (1926-1987)

A founding member of the Writers Trust of Canada, Margaret Laurence is known for her progressive feminist stance and fervent endorsement of peace. Although the writer spent much of her adult life in England and Africa, her upbringing in rural Neepawa, Manitoba is apparent in many of her most important works. One such example is her 1974 novel The Diviners, which is evidently inspired by the author’s own story. The central character Morag Gunn is born in Manitoba, works for a local newspaper, marries an accomplished man, lives for periods in Vancouver and Britain, divorces and then immerses herself in her writing. As her last major novel, the book won her the coveted Governor-General’s Award. Laurence helped to usher in a new era Canadian literature through her universal appeal, allowing her work, and Canadian literature as a whole, to be considered for the first time within a wider, international context.

Margaret Atwood (b. 1939)

Ottawa born Margaret Atwood has been showered with literary accolades from The Man Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin (2000), to the Governor General’s Award for both Circle Game (1966) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). Although she is best known for her work as a novelist, she is also an active writer of poetry and short stories. The Edible Woman (1969) was her first published novel and one of her most significant works. The story is a controversial depiction of a young engaged woman who begins to feel devoured by her future husband to the point where it destroys her ability to eat. Described by the author as a protofeminist work, The Edible Woman anticipated the feminist preoccupations that shook the world in the coming years.

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001)

The son of a Jewish scrap yard worker, Mordecai Richler spent his early life surrounded by the Jewish community of Montreal. The setting of his childhood would prove a popular subject matter for his writing, appearing in several of his novels. Though he spent a large portion of his career in London he was eventually compelled to return to Montreal for the powerful effect it had had on his development. In 1954 he married a French-Canadian divorcee nearly a decade older than himself, but met and fell in love with Florence Mann, a younger married woman on his wedding night. Richler and Mann eventually divorced their respective spouses and married each other. This personal experience became the basis for one of the author’s most famous novels, Barney’s Version (1997). Richler was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1990 for Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) which was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year.

Alice Munro (b. 1931)

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, three time recipient of the Governor General’s Award for fiction and a long time contender for the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro is an icon of Canadian literature. An expert writer of short stories, Munro’s skill lies in her truthful examination of human relationships viewed against the mundane backdrop of ordinary life. Well known works include Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and The Progress of Love (1986). In 2013 Munro’s book of short stories Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2002) was the inspiration for a motion picture directed by Liza Johnson.

Yann Martel (b. 1963)

Although a Quebecian with French as his first language, Spanish born writer Yann Martel chooses to write in English for the emotional distance it affords him when composing his prose. A life spent in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico and extensive travels to Iran, Turkey and India no doubt influenced the multicultural focus of his works. Martel received little mention outside of Canada until the release of his wildly popular Life of Pi (2001) the story of a young Tamil boy who survives 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean accompanied by a Bengal Tiger. The book won Martel the Man Booker Prize, the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize and nominated him for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983)

French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy secured her position as one of the most important figures of Canadian literature with the publishing of The Tin Flute in 1947. As one of the few significant works of Canadian fiction to gain importance in both English and French, the book tells the story of the young pregnant Florentine, who struggles with poverty against the backdrop of pre-war Montreal. The novel won both the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Peace Medal and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. In 2004, the Bank of Canada printed a $20 banknote featuring a short passage from Roy’s 1961 book The Hidden Mountain.
By Ellen Von Wiegand
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