Sunday, March 29, 2009

More on whether there is one literature, or there are many...

In this post, I'm using a comment from Geoffrey Philp (as ever, thanks Geoff) to further think through the matter of whether there is one literature or there are many literatures, and, as an example, whether there is room in Canadian literature for a Caribbean voice.

Geoff says:

"... a literature has to do with community and memory, so to the extent that a poem/short story or novel captures something that is important for that community to remember, then it becomes something cherished. SNIP (New paragraph) This does not, however, take into consideration community politics, etc. where a writer's work may be ignored for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. This is along way of saying yes, there may be room in Canadian literature for a Caribbean voice, but it will depend upon the Canadian community to decide whether that voice will become part of their collective memory."

I keep saying that twenty men in the world now decide much of what the rest of us get to read. (Okay. It may be a few more than twenty, but not that many more.) It is they who decide what gets into books, and books are the modern collective memory. Thus, in many cases, the community may never get to hear the poem, short story or novel of a particular writer, and so may never get to choose to remember or to forget it.

American poet, Emily Dickinson helps to make the case: Fewer than a dozen of nearly eighteen hundred poems that she wrote were published during her lifetime. Had her sister Vinnie not found the poems and been determined that they should be published, the community might never have known of Dickinson's poetry. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, "The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time..." Indeed! And, "Until the 1955 publication of Dickinson's Complete Poems by Thomas H. Johnson, her poetry was considerably edited and altered from their manuscript versions..." Ha! Those twenty men at work...

Out of her story, some points to be made. (1) Many writers are recluses. (2) The community needs to value those who make songs and stories, support them, and seek them out, if necessary, or else it is they who will lose the prize of the work. (3) Scholars, when they function well, do what Johnson did. They find the work, respect it, make it available. (4) Good presses are needed to complete the process of delivering the work to the world.

A community is not twenty men. That's why the small press movement is such an important one. It gives people other than those twenty men the power to make the choice about whose stories and poems get sent out into the world, whose songs have a chance to be heard so that the community may make its choice about what to remember and what to forget. That's why the Internet is so important as well. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems that it's the Internet that will cut through this Gordian knot by making everything available to everybody.

There has been a fuss recently here in Canada about literary prizes, and who gets them, and who decides on who shall get them. It has been noted that only one of the three judges for this year's Griffin prize is Canadian. And that that is good. It's certainly to the point of our present discussion, for it's a way of working us towards that big fat global notion of what is song and story. The fact that the Griffin is awarded not just to a Canadian but also to an international poet of distinction is also a step in that direction. Nor does that international poet need to be a poet who writes in English! We should note that in 2006, Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite was the Griffin international prizewinner, thus demonstrating at least that Canadian ideas of the very best poetry certainly do include Caribbean voices.

This discussion isn't done, by any means. For instance, here in Canada we need to talk about why Québec does so much more publishing than the rest of Canada. It's not a matter of size, so it must be something about how the community values song and story, how it arranges for the discovery of singers and storytellers, and enables their works to reach the people who will choose to remember — or not. For sure we can't ignore that it so happens that the community is French.

So. Canadian literature. French Canadian literature. English Canadian literature. French Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices. English Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices. French Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices in English. English Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices in French. And, good people, we've only just begun to look at the songs and stories of Canada...