Canadian Authors Gain Attention
Toronto festival highlights country's role in book world
TO suggest that Canada should produce a literature, the English writer G. K. Chesterton quipped in 1910, "is like saying that Canada must soon grow a mustache."Skip to next paragraph
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Well, it's more than 80 years later. This year's Booker Prize co-winner, Michael Ondaatje, is the first Canadian to receive England's most coveted literary award (with British novelist Barry Unsworth).
Canadian writers Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and Mordecai Richler are internationally celebrated authors, who can cast their shadows with the best of them. Younger Canadian writers, successive waves of immigrants, and newly vocal native voices are experimenting with a range of styles and subjects, publishing more books than ever before and exporting a larger portion of their literature to other countries.
In recent months, Canadians have been addressing philosophically difficult issues of federalism and questioning the future of the country itself. But the internationalization of Canada's literature continues, aided in part, by Toronto's year-round Harbourfront Reading Series and the annual International Festival of Authors.
The latter omnibus event, which this year showcased more than 70 authors, poets, and biographers in a nine-day run of readings, included prize-winner Ondaatje, Atwood, W. O. Mitchell, Susan Sontag, Douglas Adams, T. Obinkaram Echewa, Rita Dove, Ken Kesey, Martha Gellhorn, Josef Skvorecky, Annie Dillard, and William Golding (who finished reading a short essay about what the next thousand years of history might reveal shortly before the Blue Jays beat the Braves).
Although Harbourfront actively promotes both Canadian and foreign authors, the International Festival raises the question of how a national literature acquires an international reputation. Can a show-and-tell festival - even the world's largest such affair, as this one is - influence a nation's literary profile? For pragmatists who believe that the creation of a poem or novel is a lonesome act of individual endeavor and fantasy but that the production of literature is a contact sport, the answer is "yes. "
Harbourfront's Reading Series and its International Festival can't establish or sustain the literary longevity of authors, but they do affect their visibility, and in an increasingly media-centered world, visibility often presages influence.
Ted Mumford, editor-in-chief of "Quill & Quire," the national publishing industry tabloid, credits the festival with "helping Canadian authors interface more with foreign writers" and, through their informal agenting, with publishers in other countries.
Guy Vanderhaege, a Saskatchewan writer who won the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Fiction in 1982 for his first collection of stories, "Man Descending," and whose first novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1984, notes that the social aspect of the festival is as important as the public forum Harbourfront provides, since it "puts you in touch with writers you're only slightly familiar with," in his case with Gianni Celati, an Italian novelist and translator, who shares an interest in native cultures.