Oration honouring Kevin Gerald Major
Grefell Campus fall convocation Friday, Oct. 7
Discussing his characters and their use of what a school librarian characterized as "swear words," Kevin Major stated in a 1983 address that "their speech, their attitudes, their lifestyles, may be quite different from our own, but it is a vital part of our education to share in their lives." Thus the impetus behind his writing seems as much social responsibility as individual expression, as much intellectual curiosity as inspiration. Kevin Major began writing because he saw the gap between the world his students knew and the worlds depicted in the young adult fiction available to them. Having first compiled an anthology of Newfoundland and Labrador writing for use in the schools, Kevin Major then undertook to make real for readers the voices and experiences of contemporary young Newfoundlanders. He described 1978's Hold Fast as "the first novel I was able to get published" – a description which hints at previous attempts – but whatever the steps leading to the publication of that first novel, it was clearly the right path to have taken, since Hold Fast won the Canada Council Award for Children's Literature and the Ruth Schwartz award, was named book of the year by the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians, was placed on the Hans Christian Anderson Honour List, and was nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Other awards and numerous award nominations for his books have followed. Kevin Major has won the Ann Conner Brimer award three times and the Children's Librarians Book of the Year Award twice. He received the Mr. Christie Award for The House of the Wooden Santas and the Stellar Book Award for Ann and Seamus; in 1992 he received the Vicky Metcalf Award for his body of work, and in 1997 was named Memorial's alumnus of the year. In that year Hold Fast was ranked second – to Anne of Green Gables, of course – on Quill and Quire's list of the 20 best Canadian children's books. Since his stated aim is to allow readers to share in the lives of the characters they encounter, Kevin Major's frequent use of multiple narrators and first person narration can be seen as a conscientious as well as a stylistic choice. That aim also informs his history of Newfoundland and Labrador, As Near to Heaven by Sea, which frequently quotes from the letters and reports of travellers and settlers to convey their experiences as much as possible in their own words -- the words of their own time and place. Kevin Major recreates the voices and experiences of the province's past in fiction when there is no record to quote, dealing with the Harvey family's rescue of shipwrecked emigrants in Ann and Seamus, with Aboriginal Peoples in Blood Red Ochre and New Under the Sun, and with the Newfoundland Regiment's experience at Beaumont Hamel in No Man's Land. As widespread as his work has become – and it has been translated into several European languages – Kevin Major has not relied solely on the dissemination of the written word to help us learn of and from the experiences of others. He has worked with visual artists Robin Peck Smith, Tara Bryan and Anne Meredith Barry on the production of L'Anse Amour/L'Anse aux Morts and Gros Morne Time Lines, has rewritten No Man's Land for theatrical production, and has seen Ann and Seamus produced as an opera. In keeping with his sense of the social role of literature, Kevin Major has been active in the provincial arts community, long serving as chair of the Arts and Letters competition and spending a term as writer-in-residence at Memorial University's St. John's campus. He has also conducted group tours to Beaumont Hamel for the university, and in doing so has characteristically ensured a range of voices by having the participants take turns at reading aloud the works of war poets and has insisted on respect for the experiences and events of the war, once asking shutterbugs at the grave of Wilfred Owen to stop snapping pictures and think about what they were seeing. Whether recreating the language of a teenaged outport boy or quoting the adventurers who helped to shape our history, Kevin Major's primary concern has been conveying and respecting the reality of those living in a particular time and place. For his extraordinary success in achieving that aim, Mr. Chancellor, I present for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa) Kevin Gerald Major.
E. Holly Pike
Grenfell Campus university orator
To read Kevin Major's convocation address, please visit www.mun.ca/gazette.