queerly canadian

Not too long ago, I read the anthology No Margins: writing canadian fiction in lesbian, a recently published book edited by local literary lesbian Nairne Holtz and Catherine Lake. In fact, we discussed it last month’s Queer Ladies’ Reading Society meeting, but I didn’t finish the whole thing in time for the meeting (bad, bad facilitator!) and instead just finished it a couple of days ago on the train heading home from Toronto Pride.

Anyway, the book and the QLRS discussion really got me thinking, and I’m brought back to those thoughts having finally finished up the last few pieces in the anthology. We talked a lot about Canadian identity – themes that in some ways resonate a lot for me and in other ways don’t at all.

Fifteen years ago, if you’d asked me if I’m proud to be Canadian, I would have let out a thunderous “yes!” and waved my flag at you. Today, it’s not so much that I’m unproud, but rather that I’ve developed a much stronger critical eye about our country, the various political forces that shape it, the cultural currents within it, the way it’s all built on stolen Native land in the first place, the frequent tokenism involved in our much-touted “diversity” or “multiculturalism,” and the very idea of nation and borders as a basis for identity at all.

Okay, so I’m really not the best person to be writing from these perspectives in any great detail. There are lots of people out there who are far more politically articulate when it comes to issues of colonialism, Native concerns, and Canadian governmental processes. In a lot of ways I’m way behind when it comes to my understandings in these realms. But at the same time, it feels important to me to acknowledge that being Canadian is way more complicated than waving a maple-leaf flag and declaring ourselves different from the Americans.

No Margins really drives this home for me in a lot of ways. The range of stories – all by Canadian lesbian authors – that appears in the anthology is incredibly diverse, and each one brings up its own list of thoughts. Not to mention all the rest of the information in the book – each short story or novel excerpt is prefaced by a page or two of “Writer Notes” in which each author answers a few questions about the relationship between queerness and Canadian identity/geography/politics in their work, and each story is followed by the writer’s biography.

Plus, at the end of the book, Nairne has appended an annotated bibliography section, which is basically a selection from her Canadian Lesbian Literature website. It gives a really interesting snapshot of the range of Canadian lesbian work – from the memoirs of Elsa Gidlow, who never became a successful writer but, until her death in 1986, eked out her living as a lesbian poet… to Ann-Marie MacDonald’s well-known play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), a lesbo piss-take on Shakespeare… to work by Louise Maheux-Forcier, who published Canada’s first lesbian novel, Amadou, in 1963 (did you know the original Can-dyke work was in French? I didn’t!)… to novels and short stories by Canadian immigrants and women of colour like Shani Mootoo (Out on Main Street and Other Stories) and Dionne Brand (In Another Place, Not Here)… to classics like Jane Rule, whose novel Desert of the Heart “in 1986 was made into the successful lesbian movie, Desert Hearts” (which I still haven’t seen).

My steadily deepening interest in Canadian dyke lit is already in part thanks to Nairne; for the past year or two she’s been getting me to read works by French-Canadian lesbian authors and write short summary/reviews for the website, which has definitely introduced me to literature – some of it fascinating, some of it incredibly bad – that I would never otherwise have encountered.

All in all, that experience and the book itself have served to show me that the incredible variety in who we are as Canadians is so vast that it’s almost impossible, in my mind at least, to conceptualize us as any kind of a unit. Some of us have lived in Canada for generations in Anglo-Saxon families. Some of us are fully or in part Aboriginal / Native and have an entire cultural history from before the whities ever showed up, and are still living with the effects of the destruction that ensued upon their arrival. Some of us are recent immigrants from countries as far-flung as China, France, Sri Lanka, the USA, Haiti, Belgium and Mexico; with the exception of Native people, all of us are descended from people who were immigrants at one point or another. Some of us have lived in a French-speaking province within a Quebecois culture that in some ways is very self-sufficient and insular, in other ways is in an ongoing dialogue with a country that attempts (with varying degrees of sincerity) to be bilingual, and in other ways still is constantly under attack from the much larger forces of much more powerful cultures that surround us.

Many of us are hybrids of these various groups – just as an example, my father is descended from Italian immigrants to the small French-Canadian mining towns of Northern Ontario and my mother is descended from the Anglo-Saxons who were on the RCMP’s March West in 1874, which the RCMP website describes as “the treacherous journey that brought peace and order to Canada’s prairies” (hoo boy). My mom’s parents worked in foreign affairs for many years, and as a result my mom speaks Arabic (from living in Lebanon for a time as a teenager); and my British-flavoured grandmother is fluent in Mandarin (having grown up in China and returned there once she married my diplomat grandfather). My family then spent nine years living in Quebec, so we all speak fluent French, and now I’m a professional French-English translator who speaks Spanish. When I was a kid, Christmas meals included panetone (Italian bread), tourtière (Quebec meat pie) and flaming plum pudding (British); my family crest on my mom’s side includes a Chinese dragon and my mother would say sahaa (Arabic) to us if we coughed. Talk about a cultural mélange. And I’m white, for Chrissakes – hardly the face of diversity.

Basically, all we are guaranteed to have in common as Canadians is the fact that we live within the same national borders and deal with the same government. The rest is a complete crapshoot.

Or is it? Is there nothing else that binds us? Do we have “a culture” that goes beyond hockey and toques? Do we want or need one? What does it look like, or what might it look like if it existed? Geography, climate, currency, CanCon, maple syrup, education system, (eroding) national health care, political processes, holidays, the flag, the CBC, income taxes, newspapers, laws… do these things influence us in any way that might be considered “something in common”? Or do our vastly different individual experiences obliterate those things?

I don’t really know. Something tells me these things are not entirely irrelevant – that individual variance is still influenced, even in a small way, by our common intake of these cultural elements. But how? Search me.

Then take the element of queerness, and toss it into the mix. In a way, I think perhaps there’s more hope for some sort of cultural connection in the shared experience of same-sex desire and/or gender variance. Certainly, if I’m walking down the street, some equivalent of the “dyke nod” will likely take place when a fellow queer and I spot one other. And if you narrow that to Canada and factor in all the common elements we experience here, that doubtless has an effect on how we understand ourselves as queers.

The same-sex marriage process of the past few years is a good example: whether or not you ever choose to get married, it’s kind of hard to deny that we now find ourselves in a really particular legal and social situation that exists in very few places elsewhere in the world, and stands in particularly stark contrast to the situation south of the Canada/US border. This can’t not influence how queer culture develops in Canada – how we form families, how we raise kids, how we understand our relationships in contrast to the dominant heterosexual norm, how we feel about our legal rights and our mainstream legitimacy as sexual beings (whether “mainstream legitimacy” is something we individually seek or abhor).

Even if you drop that specific piece, we’ve got things in common. We’re a minority, it’s undeniable. And as a minority, we develop a certain sense of “brotherhood,” whether that means sharing in glitzy Pride celebrations with thousands of strangers, or breathing a sigh of relief when we see a familiar haircut in a group of new work colleagues, or gravitating towards the queer bookstore in a new city because we know that’s where all the cool events get posted, or giving our business to the restaurant with the rainbow flag in the door, or giving a sly wink to the butch at the counter of the small-town gas station we stop at on the way to Kingston. Queer is, in many ways, its own culture – both influenced by and independent from the larger cultural forces at work in our lives.

On top of that, we’re a minority as Canadians. We’re a huge country with a tiny population and our national politics are quirky at best. We’re well-loved in the international community – apparently we’re real nice and polite – and yet I would challenge anyone who smiles at a maple-leaf flag pin to provide an example of Canadian culture that doesn’t involve the stereotypical hockey stick. 

In terms of literature, we have limited pull and our niche markets are so tiny as to be invisible; over lunch the other day, Nairne had a lot to say about how our queer literary scene is so small that we’ve never been able to support an “underclass” of trashy lesbo romance fiction publishers the way the States does, so by default what gets published is often scattered throughout mainstream publishers and diverse small presses and is thus harder to find for the people who specifically seek it (this was part of her inspiration to create her website). Not to mention, Canadian content in our literature is not exactly a selling point in the first place. As Marnie Woodrow, one of the No Margins contributors, writes in her Writer Notes: “I’m interested in having Canada recognized as a location for plot developments that are more exciting than a good snowstorm or feminist awakening. That said, writers are still fighting about whether it’s ‘okay’ to use the names of Canadian towns in fiction because (gasp) American readers might not recognize the name.”

I don’t have a resounding conclusion about how all these disparate factors come together. I don’t have an answer about what binds us as Canadians, what binds us as queers, how these things intersect, and how they speak differently to different people or leave some people out entirely. But considering the questions never fails to be a rich endeavour.

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