With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter?

By Vikki VanSickle

“When in Rome, decide to be Roman and convince the reader that they are Roman, too.”

-A.L. Kennedy

Sunday’s round table on national literature, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, began as many academic English courses in Canada begin—with a reference to Margaret Atwood. Moderator James Grainger quoted from Atwood’s seminal Canlit bible Survival, providing a Canadian context for the theme of national literature. Grainger suggested that since the 1990s, Canadian writers have been moving away from a national literature and embracing a more regional literature.

All five writers hail from countries with something of a colonist complex: Canada, Scotland and Australia. They agreed that there is an overriding feeling that an English or American novel is by default the norm and anything else is “other.” Both Irvine Welsh and A.L. Kennedy touched on the fact that Scotland hovers somewhere between a region of the UK and nation. To define a novel as a Scottish (rather than British) novel is a political statement. Kennedy said that while it is paramount that countries maintain a culture life there is always the possibility that politicians will hijack the arts for cultural purposes.

Irvine Welsh, Kristel Thornell, Beatrice MacNeil, A.L. Kennedy and Liam Card at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Is a national literature based on the writer’s nationality or the setting of the book? When and where does quality come into the conversation? An audience member observed that as an Italian-born Canadian, he appreciates literature that is both Italian and Canadian and does not draw distinctions between them.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter? There are of course practical benefits to defining oneself as a Canadian or Australian writer. Kristel Thornell mentioned how her Australian citizenship allows her to apply for grants and be eligible for national awards. Her nationality makes her visible in a community and the cultural infrastructure of a nation provides support for its writers. This is definitely true in Canada, as well.

Welsh talked about globalism and how it has created bland consumable culture, and anything interesting is pulled into the mainstream and is sanitized, synthesized and mass produced before it has a chance to percolate. There was fear among the group that globalism and the desire for an international bestseller has publishers seeking the major common denominator in fiction, that original voices are being ignored, and we are experiencing a steady decline in imagination.

Despite this malaise, all the panelists swore that being true to one’s story and one’s voice was their number one concern, and claimed not to bow down to these perceived external pressures. As Kennedy says, a novel is a conversation between a writer and a reader. It is intimate and universal, regardless of the reader or the writer’s nationality.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.
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