Cultural Globalization and Canada

Blue Ice Cave courtey of puttsk at
Blue Ice Cave courtey of puttsk at

I’ve recently been reading Michael Crummy’s Galore, which tells the story of generations of families (the Sellers and Devines) in a remote village, Paradise Deep, in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Newfoundland. The entire novel is characterized by bleak humor and beautiful language. It’s also not for those who might be scandalized by bawdy scenes. Father Phelan, for example, is a renegade priest who comes to comfort a widow haunted by her dead husband’s ghost, and stays to torture the phantom by making love to his widow. But what most struck me about the work is the extent to which it reflects cultural globalization, because Crummy was clearly inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude. This much would have been clear even without the quote from Garcia Marquez at the book’s start. The entire novel is patterned after the Colombian novelists’ classic book, including the conclusion.

Magical realism is a literary genre that emerged in Latin America, perhaps with the work of Jorge Borges, although in really flowered in the 1960s with the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The genre is best known for contrasting the ordinary lives of characters with unrealistic events, which pass without much comment. Certainly, this would match Crummy’s Galore, which begins with a character emerging from the belly of the whale. Many authors outside of Latin America, such as Peter Carey and Lawrence Thorton, have adopted this approach. But it is interesting to see it employed by Crummy, whose previous novel River Thieves, was a gothic study of how Newfoundland’s settlers exterminated Beothuk peoples. To me, Crummy’s newest novel raises the question of whether we can truly talk of a national form of literature or film in an era of globalization.

One can see the same issue with Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), the first movie filmed entirely in the Inuit language. The English sub-titles did not keep the film from commercial or critical success, and it won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 2001. Kunuk clearly wanted to document the spiritual practices and material culture of the Inuit. The actors worked hard to learn archaic Inuit words and phrasing. In Canada, a nation that has often sought to define its sense of nationalism with reference to the north, this work would seem to represent a culturally authentic study isolated from other global traditions. But the film was the result of an alliance between Kunuk and Norman Cohn, a visual artist from Southern Ontario. And Kunuk himself was inspired by the work of aboriginal film-makers and artists in Australia. To anyone who would like to know more I highly recommend Michael Robert Evans’ wonderful book, The Fast Runner: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat.

If a novel set in nineteenth century Newfoundland is inspired by a Colombian novelist, and a film that captures traditional Inuit life draws ideas from the work of Australian aboriginal artists, I wonder if the nation-state is really the best frame to study literature in an age defined by cultural globalization. But how many classes on “Canadian Literature” are there in Canada, or “Australian literature” in that country? Of course, many universities in these countries have “national content” requirements. When I went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, every history major had to take one Canadian history class to graduate. In an era of globalization, however, perhaps universities should have requirements that now focus more on making global citizens, rather than examining literature or history within national boundaries. How useful are these national boundaries to understand literature if novelists and other artists find their inspiration on the global stage? At the same time, some literature and scholarship will never be published without support from national governments. Perhaps it’s best to focus on national literature, but to take care to place it in a global context.

My own book, Dangerous Spirits, examines the Algonquian belief in an evil being called the windigo. This spirit has now become a motif in global popular and literary culture, such as novels, board games and films. It is even the theme of a German novel set in the American Southwest. I also wonder if the Whitewalkers in Game of Thrones might have been inspired the windigo. The print version of the book is now available in Canada. The book is also available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks. The print launch for the United States is set for April 2015

Shawn Smallman


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