Life Beyond Atwood: Interviewing Montrealers on Canadian Literature

Life Beyond Atwood: Interviewing Montrealers on Canadian Literature



 Looking into Margaret Atwood's life and her influence on the literary community, gives readers only a glimpse into all that is going on in Canadian literature today. Atwood worked hard to get Canada on the map with her theories on Canadian literature as well as her bestselling novels. The influence is not lost on many of the Montreal students that I interviewed who had all heard her name before and remembered hearing she was important. Despite this importance, not everyone agreed she was the only name to know in Canadian literature. In fact, not everyone mentioned her before I brought her up.

To begin with two of the students I talked to mentioned Alice Monroe as the most influential Canadian writer which cannot be seen as a surprise since she recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. As Maria Mon, a creative writing student living in Montreal, but originally from Panama, said, Monroe "had brought Canadian literature into the spotlight." For her, however, the most influential writer will vary from person to person depending on what you're looking for in a Canadian writer. To make a writer Canadian, she says the author needs to have spent some time in Canada and want to be considered a Canadian writer.

This rings true for another student I talked to with a background in French literature. Sophia Dias, having read literature in many languages, chooses Michel Tremblay as the most influential Canadian. Though many do not think about it, it is especially pertinant to Montrealers to look for writing that represents our nation in both of its official languages. These two languages considered, Dias believes there are certain things that stand out in a Canadian work. "It can involve making use of our unique scenery both natural and urban as well as our blend of cultures," she says. "This could mean French-English in Québec, immigrant issues in the other provinces, Acadian and Native, etc."

Thus, the more people you ask, the harder it is to find a definition of a national literature that works or an author who can represent a nation. A future CEGEP teacher, William Lessard, weighed in on the subject by saying that he does not think there can be a link across all of the regions, cultures, and languages in Canada. "I don't think it is possible for a writer to represent all of Canada," he says. "Considering the important cultural differences between provinces and between speakers of either official language."  Though he had heard of Atwood, he did not know much about her and ended up naming other important writers when I asked such as Leonard Cohen, Timothy Finley, and Mordecai Ritchler.

 In contrast to Lessard, two of the people I spoke to had heard of Atwood, but did not feel like they could identify with her at all. Tara Goodfellow, a journalism student from Ontario, where Atwood was born, chose to list other authors when I asked her about Canadian literature. She had not read Atwood, but her friends had told her not to read anything by the author because they did not enjoy it. Though she needs to read to make more of judgement, Goodfellow already can say, "she has written many novels, but I don't think she's the most influential writer, nor the most influential writer of Canada." Natacha Tremblay, a psychology student at Concordia, on the other hand, makes her decision on Atwood's work informed by some of the literature classes she took in CEGEP.  At least when talking about Atwood's poetry, Tremblay believes the works are "one-dimensional when talking about certain people at certain times, not things every Canadian could identify with."

A national literature serves everyone which can be seen in the amount of time and money the Canadian government puts into ensuring Canadian authors publish works that can be enjoyed by people all over the country. Though not all of the subjects I interviewed knew a lot about the topic, they deserve to have an opinion just due to the fact that they live in Canada and contribute tax dollars to the Canadian literature project. If I can say one thing about Canadian literature, from both the information gathered in these interviews and my own experience as a literature student, it is that people do not know enough about the world that exists beyond Margaret Atwood. Though known as one of the most influential Canadian writers, many other less conventional writers can be found to represent all of the diverse backgrounds of people in this country.

For one final thought, I look to Mitchell Brown, a creative writing student at Concordia who said that he enjoyed Atwood when he read one of her "dystopic stories that chilled and fascinated simultaneously, but never once considered Handmaid's Taleto be a "Canadian" book." Thus, comes the hard question of what makes a Canadian book? Is it the same for everyone? Clearly not, which means there are many more questions to be asked and discussions to be had.

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