Broadening the Possibilities of Canadian Literature: Speculative Fiction, Diversity, and CanLit

Canadian literature is deeply tied to defining what exactly “Canadian” means. The narrow definition is arbitrarily constructed and strictly maintained. Many narratives are grounded in the protagonists’ interaction with the landscape. This, I suspect, is what has led to the generalization of CanLit as sweeping tales about the prairies. Other novels are character-based explorations of historical and social events that have been incorporated into the mainstream Canadian narrative.


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Canadian literature is deeply tied to defining what exactly “Canadian” means. The narrow definition is arbitrarily constructed and strictly maintained. Many narratives are grounded in the protagonists’ interaction with the landscape. This, I suspect, is what has led to the generalization of CanLit as sweeping tales about the prairies. Other novels are character-based explorations of historical and social events that have been incorporated into the mainstream Canadian narrative.BookNet’s 2014 infographic about the average Canadian book buyer gives credibility to the perception of Canadian literature as for and about upper-middle class white people. Books about visible minorities tend to follow a specific pattern: there are stories of immigrants coming to make a new life in Canada but relatively few about racialized Canadians who are the children (or grand-children) of immigrants. There are books about the horrors of the Residential school system but not many tackle the lives of contemporary Native peoples. Not all books written by Canadians or published in Canada are actively marketed as CanLit. Instead, books that fall outside of the tenuous definition of Canada do not get the maple-leaf seal of approval. Most commercial and genre fiction is excluded from CanLit spaces. With a few notable exceptions, such as Margaret Atwood’s work, speculative fiction is not considered Canada’s expertise.Speculative fiction provides a means to explore stories beyond the confines of reality. It is by definition limitless, bound only by the writer’s imagination and craft. I have found that speculative fiction can explore truths in ways that the literary fiction that is so often applauded, does not. When the literary community excludes speculative fiction from the Canadian literary canon, it limits how writers can share their stories and which writers are successful in the Canadian industry. Privileging one form as art that is worthy of praise while ignoring other forms smacks of exclusion and elitism, both of which are off-putting to readers and limiting to creators.Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette (Kegedonce Press) and Shade and Sorceress by Catherine Egan (Coteau Books) are two of a kind. Both are diverse YA fantasies that break through the constraints of Canadian literature. These two titles are examples of books that should be highlighted in order to reframe CanLit as literature for all Canadians.Lightfinder was written by Aaron Paquette, a Métis artist based in Alberta. I started following Paquette’s work when I encountered his fantastic illustration for “A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller which appeared in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older; published by Crossed Genres Publications). His debut novel caught my attention because it was so different. I had read adult literary fiction about Native protagonists (including Richard Wagamese’s fantastic Indian Horse) and I’d read contemporary YA fiction about Native teens (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie deserves every bit of praise it has received) but I hadn’t encountered much YA fantasy with a Native girl as the protagonist. (A friend recommended The Darkness Rising trilogy by Kelley Armstrong but I haven’t read it yet.) My expectations were high. I was not disappointed.
is about Aisling, a Cree teenager who returns to the reservation for her father’s funeral. When she arrives, her younger brother Eric is missing. As they search for him, Aisling’s grandmother and aunt explain the gifts she and Eric inherited, and the roles they will both play in the battle to protect the Earth from the Raven.The book is set in present-day Canada but the fantasy elements are woven throughout. Because of this, Lightfinder can easily be identified as Canadian. There are references to the RCMP and the Banff Centre for the Arts that give the book a concrete sense of place without alienating readers who aren’t Canadian. The conflict in Lightfinder transcends the local. When the story opens, Aisling’s grandmother Kokum had just returned from extensive travels, seeking the help and wisdom of Indigenous peoples around the world.The fantasy world of Lightfinder is firmly rooted in Native traditions. There is enough world-building to explain the major framework but I still had to work to understand certain references. While so many diverse books presume the reader is an “outsider,” Lightfinder does not translate itself; it was up to me to determine the significance of the wendigo, the coyote, and the Raven when Paquette references them. Paquette’s world-building also challenged the fantasy tropes I rely on when reading. My first thought when I read the descriptions of the Walking Man was “like Ents?” This reaction is clearly an indication that my frame of reference for a “tree-like creature in fantasy” is too narrow. Reading Lightfinder was a welcome opportunity to encounter the fantastic in a different context. Even so, I found that there is too much exposition which slows down the plot and diffuses some of the tension. The chapters of the book alternate between Aisling’s and Eric’s perspectives. During Aisling’s chapters, Kokum spends a lot of time explaining family history and lore to Aisling. In contrast, the chapters from Eric’s perspective are much more active. He and his new friend Cor constantly face new obstacles in their path and I eagerly anticipated Eric piecing the puzzle together. In reading Debbie Reese’s work on the portrayal of American Indians in children’s literature, the most striking comment was about the importance of discussing Native people in the present tense. Paquette centres Native people completely in this book. Even in a fantasy book, Paquette portrays his characters as contemporary people. It is a departure from “positive” stereotypes of Native people as noble mystics and wise Elders who are in tune with the land. While Kokum isa wise and calming Elder and Aisling’s gift is, quite literally, her connection with Mother Earth, Paquette does not portray their spirituality in opposition to modernity.Paquette also hinted at the diversity among Indigenous peoples with the inclusion of Matari, a young Anangu man from Australia. Kokum’s travels demonstrate a kinship between Native peoples that extends past state borders while Matari’s language, spiritual knowledge, and alternative for the Raven emphasize the variety in their cultures and experiences.I was also impressed by the number of women in this book. “Strong Female Characters” are currently a staple in YA books but they’re usually badass teenagers holding their own among men and boys. In Lightfinder, women are the principal characters and core of this story. They ranged from young girls to elderly women and each was powerful and nuanced. Aisling is a compelling protagonist. Her character walks the fine line between inexperienced teenager and wise leader and I enjoyed reading about her growth. Skia, a friend who joins Eric on his journey, was another complex character. Her motives don’t align clearly with either good or bad, neither is she obviously for or against Eric’s mission. Skia has her own plans which, along with her feelings for Eric, inform her actions. She is spunky and tough while remaining vulnerable. Though her role is relatively small, her relationship to Eric adds compassion to his character.I do wish Aisling’s mother was developed further. At the beginning of the book, the reader gets a glimpse at her battle with depression and alcoholism but she is absent for the bulk of the narrative. Much of her struggle and story is told second-hand. There was an opportunity to explore her with more depth, either by spending more time on the reservation before the journey or having her join the search for her son.The book gives a respectful nod to substance abuse, mental illness, and depression. All of these realities are mentioned briefly but none of them felt heavy. The references did not overwhelm the book or turn the book into a cautionary tale against “vice.” None of it felt dark. Rather it presented the dire circumstances that contribute to substance abuse and mental health issues as part of Aisling and Eric’s context.Overall, Lightfinder was a great read. My only complaint was the didactic, heavy-handed message at the end. The Raven, even with the melodramatic finishing speech, isn’t as practically evil as I expected. The threat is diffused and abstract leaving very little stakes and urgency. The story is left open-ended though so I look forward to a sequel.
The first book in the Last Days of Tian Di trilogy, Shade and Sorceress by Catherine Egan follows the adventures of Eliza Tok. After spending most of her life moving from place to place with her father, the teenage girl’s world is upended when a group of magical beings called Mancers demand she take her late mother’s place as the Shang Sorceress, guardian between the two worlds. Unlike Lightfinder, Shade and Sorceress is high fantasy set with no hallmarks of Canadiana in the text. Shade and Sorceress is set in two worlds: Di Shang for the humans and Tian Xia for the magical creatures. The characters spend so little time in Di Shang that it was hard to pinpoint a time period or an approximate mythology. The names of the worlds made me think Egan was drawing on East Asian myth and folklore to construct the world, but the names of the characters countered that idea and make it hard to settle on a coherent image of what Di Shang was like. Magic, science, and artifacts from the past and present are all jumbled. I was so thrown off by the presence of a car! Tian Xia was more accessible because it was by nature more fantastic. During her time there, Eliza encounters a spider-like oracle, a warrior-witch who commands dragons, an arrogant fairy-king, and an evil sorceress trapped in an ice-prison. Though still not cohesive, these elements were at least familiar to me as part of high fantasy. I can fairly easily imagine the parts that weren’t described until they are explored more fully in future novels. The cover is striking. It was the main reason I chose to read this book. Despite the old adage about not judging books by their covers, most people do, and when most YA book covers feature white girls, a brown-skinned girl with curly hair is a strong and impressive statement. However, Eliza’s mixed heritage plays no part in the narrative. There is no indication that Tian Di has a history that would lead to the marginalization of dark-skinned people thus no need for an allegorical tale, or an educational examination of her “struggles.” It is refreshing to have a girl with dark-skin be the hero of an epic tale just because.One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Xia Sorceress asks Eliza to look into a small enchanted mirror that changes a person’s appearance to match their desires. To the Sorceress’s disappointment, Eliza’s appearance does not change. Eliza doesn’t think anything needs to be changed about her despite the Xia Sorceress’s assertion that she is an ugly child. It is a small scene but wonderful and important. Eliza had acknowledged earlier that her features were different than her peers and that her best friend, Nell, usually receives all the attention but her self-esteem does not waver because of it.I was disappointed that Eliza’s dark skin feels exceptional and a marker of difference. In Holburg Town, where Eliza and her father live, he is easily identified as “Sorma”. The only defining trait seems to be their dark-skin, so I presume that is what marks him as an outsider. Most of the characters in the book are other-worldly beings like the pale Mancers and the paper-white Faithful. The Xia Sorceress and the Fairy King are both extravagant and beautiful white-skinned people. The only other characters with dark skin are Eliza’s father and the witch. The people of Di Shang aren’t described extensively. Especially when only dark-skinned characters’ skin-tones are described, white-skinned characters are considered the normal or default. It would have been more effective to normalize the darker skin by having a great variety of peoples living in Eliza’s home.Shade and Sorceress was a quick and fun read. Perhaps because Eliza is younger than most YA protagonists, the book was lighter and more action-driven in a way I usually associate with middle grade. Each chapter pulled me to the next, despite the length of the book. It was filled with adventure, larger than life characters, and lots of emotion. Eliza completed her mission at the end of the book but there is plenty of room to continue the story in future books.Both Lightfinderand Shade and Sorceress are examples of the extraordinary work of independent presses. Small, independent presses are publishing some of the most interesting and out-of-the-box Canadian literature of the past few years. Both these books demonstrate the type of literature that is possible when we let go of rigid definitions of what CanLit can or cannot be. The industry has a long way to go before it can truly be representative of myriad Canadian stories. But we cannot have a full discussion about the state of Canadian literature or the efforts to diversify it, without highlighting the books these presses produce.*****Léonicka Valcius is a Toronto-based publishing professional. She blogs about various topics, including diversity in the publishing industry.