Twenty-four staggeringly talented authors contributed to our August #ALUbookclub pick, After Realism (Véhicule Press). We talk with anthology editor André Forget about making a cohesive collection out of two-dozen unique voices, and why a good revisiting of realist writing is sorely needed.
All Lit Up: Congratulations on this incredible achievement: bringing together major writing talents from across the country. How did the submission and selection process work for After Realism? What were you looking for when you selected a story? How did you collaborate with Véhicule Press?André Forget: Thank you for the kind words. Véhicule Press gave me a very broad remit for putting the anthology together, so there wasn’t really a traditional submission process. I spent a few years as a reader and editor at The Puritan, an online literary journal based in Toronto, and I’ve been reviewing Canadian fiction as a freelancer for nearly a decade, so I already had a strong sense of which writers I wanted to see in the book.But the assignment was also an opportunity to do a lot of reading in Canadian literary journals, and in the process, I came across plenty of authors and stories that were doing work I felt was important. There are a lot of really thoughtful writers labouring in relative obscurity these days — perhaps that’s a perennial feature of literary culture — and if the anthology accomplishes one thing, I hope it is to direct readers toward short story collections that deserve more attention than they’ve received.ALU: In the introduction, you identify how millennials – and millennial writers by extension – have grown up amid destabilizing local and world events. Is the millennial’s existence inherently “after realism”?AF: It’s a good question. I’m a little leery of making over-broad claims about the experiences of my peers, but I do think that the past decade has seen a significant rupture in what we consider possible, both for good and ill.I was drawn to the idea of “realism” in part because the word has so many applications. It refers to a style and tradition of writing, of course, but there is also a social and political connotation: consider the realism-idealism binary, in which the “realist” is often understood to be reasonable and grounded, while the “idealist” is well-meaning and naïve. I think one of the strong emotional undercurrents of the past decade has been a rejection of this proposition. We are living through a time of profound economic precarity, a global pandemic, war and the threat of war, runaway climate change, and resurgent fascism; to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy, if the world that “realism” built brought us to this, of what use is realism?Now, obviously that’s an answer that deals more with politics than literature. In the introduction to the anthology, I try to be a little more nuanced in making the connection between formal developments and socio-political developments. But I think the parallels are there.ALU: Montreal Review of Books, Aishwarya Singh says of many of the stories that they “are marked by a strong sense of place, as they delineate the texture of various towns and cities in Canada. We may feel a jolt of recognition as we read the names of specific neighbourhoods and streets, of the daily occurrences that make these places charming or unbearable.” How does place – a huge part of much of the existing, “traditional” CanLit canon – become a new way to experiment with form in After Realism?AF: The traditional CanLit obsession with place is deeply colonial, because the institutions of CanLit as we know them were created by settlers. In addition to the many other things we might say about settler-colonies, they are deeply uncanny places. On the one hand, settlers are trying to create a new society by paving over and destroying existing societies, with their unique languages, mythologies, stories, and place names. On the other, they look back longingly at the imperial homeland, a homeland they try to recreate by importing languages, religions, architectural styles, traditions, and so forth. This creates an ersatz culture that studiously avoids looking at the actual history of the land it occupies, while also feeling a sense of inferiority in relation to the imperial centre.In many ways, most of the CanLit forged in the sixties and seventies was an attempt to overcome this inferiority complex by creating new settler myths that would provide a cultural basis for new, fully independent settler states (this is one of the reasons Anglo-Canadian fiction and Franco-Canadian fiction have such a fraught relationship). Survival, by Margaret Atwood, is probably the most famous example of this, but Hugh MacLennan and Robertson Davies — both of whom go to great lengths to set their novels in recognizable Canadian places — were up to something similar.I think the stories in this anthology are doing something slightly different with place. The fact that generations of writers have already given us novels set in Canadian cities and landscapes, especially by immigrants from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, means there is perhaps less self-consciousness on the part of settlers and immigrants about setting a story in Canada. But while there is less reflexive inferiority, there is also this reckoning with the fact that this country was founded on the world-historic crimes of colonization and slavery, crimes which still haven’t been meaningfully addressed. This is further complicated by the fact that many of Canada’s immigrant populations come from countries that suffered under the British, French, Spanish, and Russian Empires, and so have a different relationship again to this place. Because younger writers are, on average and rightly, quite conscientious about these things — and deeply aware of how economic class determines the kind of place one lives in — “place” continues to be this very fraught concept.With all that being said, the writers in this anthology relate to place in a variety of different ways, and I don’t think place is the overriding obsession it may have been, say, fifty years ago. Plenty of the stories in this book are set in landscapes that aren’t clearly part of Canada, or any other state, and if place has shaped the forms a lot of these writers are adopting, it’s probably because of the new sense of cosmopolitanism that globalization and the rise of the Internet have fostered.ALU: There are some ventures into the epistolary in these stories: the letters in Jean-Marc Ah Sen’s “Swiddenworld,” researcher entries in Eliza Robertson’s “The Aquanauts,” D&D tables in John Elizabeth Stintzi’s “Going Toward Gadd.” Do you think there’s something about millennial and Gen-Z life that is hypertextual, lending to this form more often?AF: I actually hadn’t thought about that! But now that you mention it, it’s true that this book does contain a bit of epistolary play. I’m not sure this is something that’s new, exactly — the epistolary novel has a long history in English, and Jean-Marc Ah Sen, for one, is knowingly winking at it.“The Aquanauts” is playing around with an established tradition, too, I think. But in Eliza Robertson’s case it’s this delightfully weird blend of documentary and sci-fi, where she’s taking an actual experiment done by NASA researchers in 1970 and narrating the thoughts and experiences of one of the participants. It’s poetic, but it’s also this wonderful exercise in defamiliarization. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s story is a good example of the same thing, with half of the story taking place inside a D&D game.Both of these stories remind me of an argument made by Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian Formalist writer of the revolutionary period, who believed that literary style develops through hybridization with “popular” forms of storytelling. The Modernists in the twentieth century, for example, renovated the tradition of the 19th century novel and short story by borrowing from journalism, film, and psychoanalysis, which produced Hemingway’s famously terse style and Woolf and Joyce’s experiments in stream-of-consciousness. I think a similar thing is happening now, where writers are being inspired by social media, Wikipedia, text messaging, and games. [Patricia Lockwood’s] No One is Talking About This is another prime example of that, as is Éric Plamondon’s 1984 Trilogy, which I’ve written about here.ALU: The stories in the anthology demonstrate a rejection of the kind of form CanLit is known for, but also the kind of writer CanLit is known for: white, settler, straight, cisgender. How does After Realism represent the diversity of voices that Canada has to offer?AF: After Realism includes a number of stories by Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ writers, and by writers with family roots across the globe; I have no interest in participating in the venerable Canadian fantasy that the only writers who produce literature worth reading are white, straight, cisgender settlers.I think, however, that it is equally important to avoid a cheap or lazy approach to diversity. If you pay attention to certain newspaper columnists, right-wing politicians, and reactionary academics, you could come away with the idea that the values of “representation” and “diversity” are at odds with a commitment to artistic rigour. Hogwash. In addition to being evil in and of itself, white supremacy only narrows and impoverishes our sense of art. I became an editor and writer because I love literature, and it’s a simple fact that a lot of the best writing in this country is being produced by people who are not white, settler, straight, or cisgender. I don’t think of this anthology as a sociological survey, but as a collection of stories by authors who are imaginatively grappling with serious cultural, political, aesthetic, and existential questions, as artists have always done.
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André Forget was born in Toronto and raised in Mount Forest, Ontario. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Puritan, and his work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers in Canada and the United States. He splits his time between Toronto, the United Kingdom, and Russia. In the City of Pigsis his latest novel.