Review of “Emergent Voices: CBC Canadian Literary Awards Stories 1979-1999” (edited by Robert Weaver)
by Raywat Deonandan
September 5, 2001
This article originally appeared on the Prairie Fire website. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Someone once described the CBC CanLit Awards as being reflective of the diverse literary landscape of the country. While the prize’s administrators have never purported to be rewarding anything more than simply the best story submitted in each given year, I think it’s fair to say that the stories that have won this prize represent the CBC’s very specific vision of Canadaor at least its vision of Canadian literary quality. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But the distinction must be made between a body of work that mirrors the Canadian ethic and a body that satisfies a predetermined template of national character and supposed diversity.
Having expressed that caveat, I must say that the stories contained within this volume are exceptionally well written, their writers sampled from the most prominent of Canadian literary names: Michael Ondaatje, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Janette Turner Hospital and Carol Shields among them. But a good anthology is more than just a collection of good stories. A good anthology is bound by a compelling and meaningful theme. While one cannot fault Emergent Voices for its glorious and timeless literacy, it nevertheless renders a disappointing and predictable theme of Canadian pastoralness, informed, dare I say it, by the CBC committee ethic. It seems that the stereotype of Canada as either an untamed wilderness or a pioneering prairie country has been warmly and unconsciously embraced by the juries of the CBC contest. The first two stories, Sen Virgo’s “Les Rites” and W.D. Valgardson’s “A Matter of Balance,” are good examples of this ethic-tales of Canadians suffering and mastering the outdoorswhile stories like Kent Thompson’s “A Local Hanging” (though beautiful in its brutal simplicity about vigilante justice) and Budge Wilson’s “The Leaving” (a wonderful, non-condescending portrait of an oppressed housewife) expound upon that other Canadian stereotype, the provincial, isolated and navel-gazing small town.
Littered among these otherwise finely crafted works are the obviously pandering tales. Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Other Country” is manipulatively patriotic, dreadfully dull and pretentious, seemingly tailor-written for contest jurors. The two stories by Janice Kulyk Keefer (“The Wind” and “Mrs. Putnam and the Planetarium”) are well written, but, to be blunt, pointless and without depth. Janette Turner Hospital’s “Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords” is another entry that sings with seeming relevance, but finally fails to make a point. In fact, this is a criticism that is oft shouted at these pageswhere is the depth? Truly timeless tales, stories that would reflect the nation in a guttural and global sense, would echo across many levels of society and of the human experience. Instead, this collection offers a proliferation of small topicsfamily strife, interpersonal angst and the lot-without even a hint of a grander context. Two powerful exceptions were both written by ex-patriate Ernst Havemann (“Bloodsong” and “An Interview”). Both of Havemann’s winners comment upon African societies while describing small personal interactions. It is a shame that it took a change of scenery to another country to achieve such depth and universal interest.
The big names are particularly disappointing. Michael Ondaatje’s “The Passions of Lalla” is lyrical and complete in a way that is unique to the genius of Ondaatje. But the story is surprisingly uninteresting, meandering and somewhat overwrought, saved only by its fanciful setting in Sri Lanka. Carol Shields’s “Flitting Behaviour,” a story about a writer with a dying wife, is tiresome for its predictable characterizations. For my money, there is nothing more boring than writers writing about writers.
Thankfully, the collection ends on a promising note. Bill Gaston’s “Where It Comes From, Where It Goes” tells of a non-traditional healer who, because of his uncertain status as possible fake, struggles for purchase within his community. Gaston’s is a small-town story with an appreciation for the existence of the surrounding urban sprawl. This wonderfully evocative tale is a reminder that CBC prizewinners are not necessarily indicative of the entirety of Canada’s literary potential, but are becoming so. Despite an obvious obsession with the stereotypes of wilderness and domestic strife in prairie households, the industry is awakening to the accelerating prominence of urban strife, global vision and true diversity .