Canadian literature is broadly defined as writings that originate from Canada as well as those written by Canadians living elsewhere in the world. Due to the vast area of the country and regional variations in writing, Canadian literature is usually categorised in 3 ways:
- writings originating from different parts of the country (geographical)
- writings addressing different domains like Aboriginal or ethnic writings, women’s writing, nature poetry etc. (genre)
- writing belonging to different literary periods like Canadian postmodernism or Canadian poets between the Wars.
Often, the international reader harbours the notion of Canada being a literarily poor nation. The country is portrayed as culturally empty, a vast cold desert and a place with untapped resources that can be extracted and monetised. These notions of the cold, frozen land is sometimes even stereotyped in the country’s fiction, catering to popular reader demands. Before becoming an independent nation in the late 19th century, Canada was ruled by British and French colonial powers. The first invaders vanquished the original aboriginal population; although present day Canadian government acknowledges the tribes of Inuit, First Nations and Metis.
Canadian literature, thus, strongly reflects its recent colonial past and perspectives on nature, frontier life and the country’s position in the world. Northrop Frye, the famous Canadian literary critic, coined the term “garrison mentality”, through which he describes Canadian Literature as one that portrays the individual as the member of a society, who feels isolated from cultural centres and is barricaded within a restricted environment by hostile landscapes.
Canadian literature, although varied in its style and genres across the length and breadth of the country, possess some key characteristics that define the body of works in its own unique manner. Satire and irony are dominant modes, with litotes used as a common speech pattern. The figures of the trickster and underdog hero are given more importance than the unidimensional Classical hero who values chivalry and valour. Some critics have interpreted these tendencies toward literary indirectness politically and psychologically, finding in it a national sense of isolation and inferiority. Others argue that indirectness is a healthy ability to appropriate the inherited English language to the culture’s individual purposes.
Settings often possess a symbolic dimension. Quebec figures as a mysterious land of allure and moral turbulence, Ontario as an enthralling but amoral territory and Atlantic Canada as a region of old values. Until recently, writers like Stephen Leacock valued rural life over urban, and praised the village as a repository of moral uprightness; although almost the entire population of Canada now live in developed cities.
Margaret Atwood, a noted Canadian poet, environmental activist and novelist, in her famous book Survival-A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature opines that survival is a key symbol that characterises Canadian literature and by extension, Canadian identity. Her nature poetry works like Surfacing make insightful comments on the Canadian feelings about nature as both the provider and protector, and the barren and ominous predator.
Characters often leave their homes in search of self and spiritual prospects, like the character Dunston Ramsay who leaves his hometown in search of a new identity in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business. After the Second World War, there was a greater influx of people from around the globe into the country, due to relaxed immigration laws and renewed political alliances with USA. As a result, multiculturalism became an interesting aspect in the writings post 1960s. Cross-border and cross-cultural contacts validated cultural hybridity as a social norm, challenging conventional notions of “ethnic purity” and “fixed identity”.
Alice Munro is another important short story writer to emerge after the Second World War, who writes in the now popular Southern Ontario Gothic style. She has addressed women’s issues in her stories like Lives of Girls and Women and The Love of a Good Woman which portray the dilemmas of the female protagonist in coming of age and coming to terms with the family and town she grew up in.
Throughout the later half of the 20th century, writers have addressed current social issues in their writings, like women’s suffrage, children’s education, homosexuality and substance abuse. With the establishment of numerous institutes of advanced learning and Universities, and technological boom in the form of multimedia and Internet, literature has ceased to be strictly linear and unidimensional. Writers constantly try to reinvent styles, themes and subject matter; thereby presenting to the world a dynamic oeuvre of Canadian literature.