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Margaret Atwood: Canadian culture a flickering light bulb

May 28, 2009

Source: York University Alumni Matters

What is it to be Canadian? Atwood visits our cultural identity past, present and future

Dressed in black and sporting a brilliant red and amber silk scarf bearing a Haida Nation motif, Canadian author Margaret Atwood took the stage to deliver a talk on "The writer as Citizen" for York's 50+50 Symposium.

"I wanted to start before my prepared text with some personal experiences of mine that will set the context of Canadian culture," she said with a glint in her eye. "The first thing I would like to talk about is my scarf. It has a Haida raven on it with the sun; it was bought in Stratford, Ontario. It is made of silk, not a traditional Haida material, and it was made in China. Is it Canadian?"

She continued with another "Canadian" experience: while attending a recent literary conference in Hong Kong, she met a group of young people who invited her to visit their virtual reality and gaming company. During the ensuing tour, one of the principals of the company shared with her that he was originally from Mexico, had lived in Winnipeg for 20 years, knew the Canadian Arctic well and was currently living in Hong Kong. "Is that Canadian?" asked Atwood.

Atwood then wondered about the "Canadian-ness" of her birthday. "You may not know this, but every November 18 [in Sudbury] they have a Margaret Atwood Day, kind of like Robert Burns Day but a lot damper," she chuckled. "I went to my Sudbury birthday for the first time last November. I had Happy Birthday sung to me in three different languages – French, English and Cree. The tunes were all different, the words were all different, but the intent was the same. This was a truly unique cultural experience that someone coming from the outside world would not be able to understand. This was a Canadian experience."

"These are my little Canadian moments and they are important," said Atwood. "Canadian culture is what we make of the world. How much of the world? That depends on how much of it you want to take on."

Revising Canadian culture past and present

In 1971, Atwood was asked by Canadian poet and York Professor Eli Mandel to teach his course in Canadian literature while he was on sabbatical. "I had never taught Canadian literature before; my academic postgraduate studies at Harvard had been in Victorian literature and American literature. Canadian literature had barely been heard of at Harvard or indeed much of anywhere else. Then, as too frequently now, Canadians just didn't seem, on the surface of things, to be very interested in themselves."

As she prepared her version of Mandel's course, Atwood said she "had to do quite a bit of working up on the subject because I did not have a handle on it. As it was, I found myself developing various views, views that emerged from that subject material that were shortly to appear in a book called Survival, written while I was teaching at York," said Atwood.

The book was created, she said, to shore up the fortunes of House of Anansi Press and was part of a series of books that included a self-help book on law and another book on venereal disease. "We intended to have these books prop up our largely money-losing poetry and fiction lists, and they did," she said. "Survival was thus first intended as the VD of Canadian literature. The surprise to us at Anansi was the success of the book. We had a runaway bestseller on our hands. Canadians, it seemed, were indeed interested in themselves once they had been assured that they did in fact exist."

In the early 1960s, many Canadian publishers operated with the support of British and American publishing houses. Manuscripts sent to these small Canadian operations were often subsequently rejected by the partner companies, said Atwood, for being too Canadian. "On the one hand we did not exist and on the other hand, we were too Canadian. This is our dilemma," said Atwood.

This view of the reality of the Canadian cultural experience is a prickly one in Canada. "One decade we exist, the next decade we don't," said Atwood. "As a country's utter existence is largely demonstrable by its culture, this flickering culture nature of ours does have some existence politically. Our current government appears to be of the non-existence persuasion. The weird thing about Canada is that we take this view from the inside."

As time progressed, Canada eventually began punching above its weight in book publishing, magazines and Canadian culture, said Atwood. Citing the founding of The Coach House Press, House of Anansi Press, the strength of the CBC, the presence of numerous national and local Canadian newspapers, a plethora of periodicals and Canadian television shows such as "This Hour Has Seven Days", Atwood called the wealth of content more controversial than anything likely to be seen today. The development of Canadian content quotas also helped build a thriving singer and songwriter sector.

Who could have foreseen that in 2008, Canadian culture would play a deciding role in the federal election? "In appeal to what he thought was the average Canadian voter, envisaged as a brainless TV-watching zombie, Mr. Harper chose to enact his own version of the spoiled caviar-slurping, gala-going artist," said Atwood. The resulting backlash, she maintained, produced a minority government. "Canadians, it seemed, did care," she said.

Canadian culture future

Sometimes on, sometimes off, Canadian culture was and continues to be a flickering light bulb, said Atwood.

Presently, she announced, Canada is in the middle of an earthquake. The earthquake, which she described as multi-dimensional, is expressing itself in a variety of forms. "In every area of life, we are doing more with less," she said. "The so-called cultural industries are under great stress everywhere. The traditional way of doing things is being both eroded and exploded by new technologies."

File sharing on the Internet has caused a meltdown of the music business with a mortality rate, said Atwood, that was equal to or greater than the Black Death. Google digitization of text, print on demand machines and e-readers are challenging the traditions of Canadian publishing. Newspapers and magazines are feeling the pinch of the move of advertisers to online venues.

"News has become instant as it flows around the e-universe," said Atwood. "It has almost become probability news as research and fact checking go out the window. Probability news means that you don't know whether it is true or not, it probably is true, but then again, probably not. Everything is now gossip around the village pump."

Consumers are losing out on the unexpected, she said, as many new experiences are discovered while meandering through a bookstore and stumbling upon new authors or publications by accident. "That can happen I guess on the Web as it misunderstands your search and serves you up yet one more drug ad," she said.

"How long will it take before people just get tired of being available at all times, in contact at all times, turned on or wired in at all times?" she pondered. "The human being is not designed to have its on button lit up 24/7. The new cool thing will probably be monasteries."

Culture of all kinds has its roots in the ground, said Atwood. It needs nourishment to survive. Like a tree, each branch spreads and crosses borders, but unless there is something feeding the roots, death occurs and it is neither slow nor fast.

© York University Alumni Matters