August 6th, 2009
Several blogs ago I wrote about having taught a graduate seminar in Spain this summer, at the University of Rioja. The course was on Canadian literature and film and I mentioned the challenge of assigning material that would somehow, impossibly, represent Canada to a group of doctoral students who claimed to know little or nothing about the country and its culture.
One blog reader asked me to identify the material and so I happily do so in this entry. Originally, my syllabus included six novels and two films but I was strongly advised against assigning more than four works and two films for a week-long course, even though the amount of time in the classroom was equivalent to a full term course.
A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. Why? Because this award-winning novel is set in Manitoba and focuses on a strict and often troubled Mennonite community. The social and geographical context of the story is about as far away from the plains of Spain as one can get, and so I thought students would find the work exotic and strange. They did.Â I do. I also think itâ€™s a brilliant achievement of character and tone. Critics have almost unanimously identified it as a Canadian Catcher in the Rye, and, indeed, the spunky, rebellious, potty-mouthed heroine is a lot more likeable than Salingerâ€™s Holden Caulfield.
Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden. Why? Boyden is a powerful story-teller. His most recent opus, also award-winning, opens a large and dark window on native experience. The novel moves back and forth between two points of view, one of an aging hospital-bound bush pilot and the other of his feisty niece who is on her own journey to make sense of her family and its history. I thought it was important to assign a work grounded in aboriginal experience, and Boydenâ€™s work is so compelling.
Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay. Why? This novel is irresistible, also award-winning, a real accomplishment. Hay sets her story in the Canadian North, another exotic location for Spanish eyes, I should think. Highly readable, the novel focuses on a group of characters thrown together by not-so-accidental circumstances. They all work at a local radio station, keep odd hours, and cope with loneliness in different ways. Parts of this story are achingly romantic, but never cloyingly so.
Alligator by Lisa Moore. Why? Because it is centred in St Johnâ€™s and allowed me the opportunity to wax on about the city and its literary appeal. Because the novel deliberately moves away from traditional story-telling strategies, interweaving and layering different narrative voices.
Double Happiness, by Mina Shum. Why? This comic feature by Vancouver-based director Shum features the talented Sandra Oh, whom my students immediately recognized as one of the stars of Greyâ€™s Anatomy. Yes, the world is small global village. This charming film takes up a common Canadian theme: the tension between generations, the older one being strongly traditional, ethnic, still rooted in old country ways (in this case, China), the younger generation being more assimilated, North American, keen to move on and shed the trappings of the past. Shum handles the characters and the plot lightly, and the results are winning. My students had some trouble with what they deemed to be the slow pace of the film, reminding me just how wired todayâ€™s younger audiences are to action pictures and the commercial demands of Hollywood.
Calendar, by Atom Egoyan. Why? Egoyan is one of our most critically acclaimed directors, an intellectual artist who embraces difficult filmmaking. Calendar is a study in ethnic tensions, as well. This is a highly autobiographical film about a couple who are in the throes of breakdown. Language, cultural, and gender differences mark the unraveling of communications between husband and wife, here played by Egoyan and his real-life wife, ArsinÃ©e Khanjian. Egoyanâ€™s films routinely call attention to the perils and pleasures of technology, and Calendar is no exception. I think my students found it sad and touching, although I prepped them to see the movie this way in advance. It can be confusing enough when English is oneâ€™s first language.
Access to these works and the critical literature they inspired is more and more possible because of the web. I brought DVDs of the films and we watched them together, but the Spanish students were able to find a sufficient amount of review and informed material on the works â€“novels and films– to comment extensively on them. Interestingly, almost all relied on Wikipedia at some point or another in their presentations. I had no problem with that, and I was glad they had such easy access to information about Canada, the authors, and their works in this way, but I can imagine some of my colleagues bristling at this new-order use of source material. Itâ€™s easy to accept new ways of citing information when you cannot take our own university libraryâ€™s ample resources for granted. One student even worked a downloadable interview with Lisa Moore into her presentation, giving us Lisaâ€™s voice, her very animated presence in our classroom. Who could deny the appeal of such instant intimacy with an author they had never even heard of before the course?
Describing these works here brings back the experience of the class and the joy of talking about works of art that I adore. Teaching is such a privilege.