THIS YEAR SHOULD HAVE been an auspicious one for CanLit. As Canada celebrates the sesquicentennial, it seems every newspaper, blog, and bookshop has a “top 150 Canadian books” list to push. Canada’s 150th also evokes fond memories of the 1967 centennial, when CanLit was just coming into its own. But for many, those 150 lists, chock full of CanLit luminaries like Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, are hard to stomach right now.
I DON’T REMEMBER WHEN I first heard of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though I do remember the first time I lied to seem more impressive. I was six-years-old at the Jewish Public Library in Montréal, as was my childhood ritual. The library was a short walk away from the duplex I lived in facing a park. My older cousin was there—he was, very impressively, seven years old and a boy.
EVERY COUPLE OF WEEKS, Robert Edison Sandiford calls me from Barbados. Robert is one of this year’s Quebec Writers’ Federation mentors and I am his protégé. We’ve made arrangements to speak at 5 pm via Skype so this interview would feel more face-to-face. At 5:10, we still have no audio so he switches from his laptop to his desktop. At 5:25 the recording app on my phone stops working. At 5:37 we decide we’ll have to hobble back and forth between the computers, a phone, and another phone app to make it work. Afterwards, when it’s all sorted, he say: “Well, there’s a lesson about tenacity.”
I WAS IN MY mid-to-late twenties when I decided to write in English. A few obvious obstacles stood out: I wasn’t a native speaker and I was working in a totally unrelated field: software engineering. However, I was an immigrant in Canada, and had been lectured more than once on how people in Canada could pursue what their heart desired (a female friend with a knack in operatic singing, unable to officially practice it in Iran, found her voice here in Canada; others in engineering backgrounds formed bands; etc.). The optimism of my age made me venture into uncharted territory. However, there was another less obvious challenge ahead of me: what to write about?
As a rule when writing, I avoid the obvious in the first line, but today the excitement is impatient and uncontainable: I am so very pleased and honoured to accept the editorship of carte blanche, to work with the fantastic current masthead, to sustain and refine an established journal that publishes pivotal contemporary voices—George Elliott Clarke, Madeleine Thien, Heather O’Neill, Gwen Benaway, Kayla Czaga, Domenica Martinello, Meags Fitzgerald, among many others—and to engage as a community of writers and artists centered in Montreal and spiraling out throughout Quebec, Canada, and North America.
“The problem is that we’re living in a moment of cultural contraction and I don’t think there’s much we can do about that. That might seem like a strange thing to say given the billions of words and images published on the Internet every day, but my sense is that the Internet isn’t helping but is actually making things worse.”
Being asked to write about the status of Canadian Literature feels very similar to when an ex lover asks you out for coffee. You know nothing good will come from it and can anticipate the entire conversation, but you still show up looking cute and hoping that therapy has finally fixed them. At least, that’s how talking about Canadian Literature feels to me. I’ve been there, had the group therapy, learned to love myself for myself, and have deleted CanLit’s contact information from my phone.
Matthew Forsythe has worked as an animator, a children’s book illustrator, and a graphic novelist. He has two books coming out in the near future. The Gold Leaf (Enchanted Lion Books) with Kirsten Hall is out on May 26th. The Bad Mood & The Stick (Little Brown) with Lemony Snicket will be in stores this fall.
Brad de Roo caught up by phone with Matthew just as he arrived in his hometown of Port Colborne for a library talk. They chatted about teaching, comics, visual culture, narrative structure, work, and the improbability of artistic satisfaction.
Last summer I pitched a small essay to carte blanche because I wanted to write about an out-of-print novel that I had discovered several years before. The author has long since passed away, and the book itself has been all but forgotten: with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of people, most of whom are outside of the literary community and who were interested in the life of the writer, who was a scientist. The novel received lukewarm reviews following its publication in the 1960s. After a small print run, it seems to have disappeared altogether, besides a handful of copies from online used bookstores, and one I found in a book saleroom tucked behind a torn Atlas and a Baby-Sitters Club boxed set.
Stephen Henighan is a novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Guelph. Most recently, he was written the novels The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown Press, 2016) and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (Linda Leith Publishing), which is available on March 25. Brad de Roo chatted with Stephen about multiculturalism, literary nepotism, satire, Victorianism, performativity, and cultural appropriation.