Monday, November 21, 2011

Are Canadian writers Canadian enough?

“Are you Canadian enough to understand?” she asked.
“That depends,” I responded. “What do you mean by enough?”
“That’s a relief,” she said. “I thought you were going to ask me what I meant by Canadian.”

John Barber, in an article entitled “Are Canadian writers Canadian enough?” (The Globe and Mail - Oct. 29, 2011), bemoans the fact that the shortlists of three major Canadian award programs, designed to recognize the best Canadian fiction of 2011, included very few books with real Canadian content. By “Canadian content”, he is referring to something that is set in Canada or has something to do with Canada and its citizens.

I guess the first question we must ask ourselves is whether a Canadian writer can be separated from Canadian fiction. Can a writer of fiction, which is not recognized as Canadian fiction, still be considered a Canadian writer? Or does he belong to something else? Perhaps he should be considered an international writer, or a universal writer. But to whom does this make any sense? We are obsessed by affiliations. If we do not clearly belong to something, do we exist?

Barber indicates that the jurors of the Canadian writing awards would defend their choices for the Canadian fiction shortlist by stating that it is enough that Canadian  writers view the world, no matter where their stories take place, through Canadian eyes.

Canadian eyes. What does this mean exactly? Have you read a book about something taking place in another part of the world and told yourself, “Now, that really sounds Canadian”? If a movie, like “Cairo time”, were to be produced by an American, rather than a Canadian, would you say that it would definitely lose its distinctive Canadian flavour? Or do you think there was a distinctive Canadian flavour there in the first place.

One of the main problems that I have with my writing is where I fit into all of this. Does a Canadian expat, who has lived for over 30 years in a foreign country, even have the right to consider himself a Canadian writer? And even if we didn’t go by content alone and applied the measure of the Canadian awards jury - could I possibly say that I still see the world through Canadian eyes, after all of this time? Where does my adopted Israeli identity come into all of this?

If I had to choose between being called an Israeli writer or a Canadian writer, I would probably choose Canadian writer, mainly because all of my formative years took place in Canada. And this part of me cannot be forgotten, no matter how deeply buried it is. But, if I were in a court of law, the evidence would weigh heavily in the other direction.

For what defines an Israeli writer? I would say that first and foremost (and I am probably going to get into a lot of hot water over this remark), Israeli writers share a siege mentality. It doesn’t matter whether they live in Israel or abroad; whether they are Jewish, Arabic, Druze or Christian... the siege mentality is there, and it works its way through their writing - whether they are trying to break free or settle in and build stronger barricades. Do I share this siege mentality also? Definitely. Did it infiltrate into my psyche after arriving here in Israel? That is where the jury is still out. Many might say that it was already built in - that this siege mentality might have been one of the reasons why I left Canada in the first place and seemed to fit into Israeli society relatively easily. If so, how does a boy who was born in a small town by Lake Ontario and grew up in a rather sterile suburb of Toronto - develop a siege mentality? You’d have to ask one of my multiple personalities, I suppose.

So why can’t I call myself an Israeli writer? I have the required siege mentality. I married an Israeli sabra. My three children were born in Israel. We speak Hebrew at home. My aggressive driving through the streets of Tel Aviv would make most Israelis proud. My university education took place in Israel and I acquired my profession here. I say "we" for Israelis and “they” for Canadians. And I only began using “eh” late in life when I wanted to still sound at least a little bit Canadian.

But I think the jury will come back with a definite “no”. Why? Simply stated... I am not Israeli enough.

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