The Politics of Adjectives
"The Great Canadian . . . . whatever"
Have you ever noticed how
many Canadian businesses and organizations brand themselves as "The
Great Canadian . . ." something or other? Ever wonder why? In a brief
article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1929, Harvard
Professor of Literature, Douglas Bush, asked the question "Is There a
Canadian Literature?" His answer was that in order for a
Canadian literature to exist it must produce evidence of greatness, a
great novel or poem or play--something great enough to be included in
the established canon of great literature. The sardonic response has
been that in order for anything to be "Canadian" it must also be
"great"; ergo, "The Great Canadian Bagel," "The Great Canadian
Restaurant," "The Great Canadian Theatre Company," etc, etc.
Canadian Nationalism: An oxymoron?
During my enthusiastic Canadian nationalist phase in the mid-to-late seventies, I naively
imagined that most Canadians would be eager to embrace Canadian
literature, performance and art. To my shock, Canadians, who would claim
admiration for Dutch painting, Italian opera, Swedish cinema, German theatre, and English or American
literature, reacted with outrage at the thought of having anything described as "Canadian" "shoved down their throats." (The violence of this expression always took me aback.) For the intelligentsia and literati inside Canada, "Canadian" invariably implied "parochial," "tribal," and that famously misunderstood expression "a garrison mentality."
Does Canada even exist?
I must admit, I have long suspected that the name "Canada" came from Portuguese map-makers who labelled the topography of my homeland "ca nada" meaning "here nothing." (See Pure Laine Québécois) Frank Davey, who is routinely described as “a leading authority on Canadian literature,” is quoted as saying that “Canada does not exist except as a
political arrangement for the convenience of individuals accidentally
happening to live within its arbitrary area.” Hugh MacLennan, author of what, for some time, was consider the quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, was also categorical that "there is no Canadian literature." Eventually, we came around to admitting that Canada does exist as a nation, a state, an imagined community of people and diverse peoples, a big piece of real estate with borders and a quirky history, and it was okay to call something Canadian because we had a flag and a beaver and a constitution and a police force mounted on horseback, and Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dionne and hundreds of thousands of other names worth mentioning.
Is There an Anglo-Québécois Literature?
Always a glutton for punishment, as an English professor in Quebec, I went from defending the adjective "Canadian" to promulgating the modifier "Anglo-Québécois." Reactions tended to be a rolling of the eyes rather than the visceral "shoved down our throats" response. However, resistance to "Anglo-Québécois" was similar to what I had earlier witnessed in reaction to "Canadian."
Josée Legault, in her book, L’invention d’une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois, is adamant that "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communauté' anglo-québécoise" ["even if it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do in fact reside in Quebec, one can still not talk of the existence of an Anglo-Québécois 'community'."] In an essay entitled “Neil Bissoondath disait . . . .,” professor of literary studies Gilles Marcotte was equally adamant that “Il n’existe évidemment pas telle chose qu’une littérature anglo-québécoise [ . . .]." ["There obviously exists no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature . . . ."]
What the experts say
Just as professors, critics and authors who would seem to have a vested interest in the recognition of Canadian literature resisted the idea, English professors, critics and authors in Quebec, typically repudiated the notion of an Anglo-Québécois literature. Jason Camelot is a professor of English at Montreal's Concordia University and the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Language Acts: Anglo Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century. In his introduction to a special issue of the journal Canadian Poetry on Anglo Quebec, Camelot agrees with Marcotte that “there is no such thing as Anglo-Quebec literature in the sense that there is now Can Lit and la littérature québécoise." More surprising still, Linda Leith, author, editor and impresario, who has done more for and about English literature in Quebec than anyone, has avoided the expression Anglo-Québécois to describe her work and interests.
Thinking inside the box
I know we are all supposed to admire people who "think outside the box" but, really, I wish there were more people (like me) who could think inside the box. I may not agree with Professor Marcotte, but I understand his logic. For Marcotte, Québécois literature is by definition French. Québécois literature in English, for Marcotte, would be the equivalent of a married bachelor.
The term "Québécois" only became the politically correct designation of a citizen of the province of Quebec in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. Earlier, "Québécois" was understood to mean a resident of Quebec City. With "French Canadian" now signalling Francophones outside Quebec, inside my symmetrically-inclined, Canadian box, Anglo Québécois seemed all the more legitimate as a designation for Anglophones living inside Quebec.
The difference between a wine glass and a glass of wine
I must confess that when I began writing this post, a discouragingly long time ago, it was with exactly the opposite intention of what I have written here. I intended to maintain my obsessive conviction that "grammatical mistake" should be "a mistake in grammar," and "comparative literature" should be "studies of literature in a comparative context." Any composition manual will tell you that placing an adjective in front of a noun is more succinct and elegant than following a noun with an awkward clause or phrase. Additionally, an adjective in front of a noun has the potential of becoming the next big thing: "post modernism" versus the more informative "modernism after 1965," "oral literature" (a contradiction in terms since "literature" means what is written) versus "written representations of orality," and "block chain" versus "a chain of blocks"--this latter phrase at least gives an inkling of how this technology works. Nothing whets the appetite of an academic more than the possibility of coining the next big thing, the next viral catchphrase.
Clearly, many of the phrases we accept are, to use one of my favourite academic expressions, "sites of debate." The problem I see is when we accept without debate. I still wonder why, when the Americas comprise two continents and 35 countries, the adjective "American" is typically, exclusively applied to the USA. I spent four years studying the works of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce as "English" literature, barely noticing that these authors were all Irish. Politics matters.
I recognize that the appellation "Canadian literature" means something more than and different from "literature in Canada," or "literature about Canada," or "literature by Canadians." But I also see that when all these things have been happening for some time, the political decision to use the adjective this way makes sense, even if we might pause and stumble over exactly what the adjective "Canadian" might mean in this case.