Trying to define a country’s literary scene is a difficult thing, particularly when it comes to Canada.
For one thing, Canada is geographically immense. It’s highly unlikely the experience of living on the west coast in the mountains provides the same literary material as living in Toronto. For another, Canada is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, creating even broader differences when it comes to histories and cultures.
It’s for this reason that the Canadian literary scene is defined by difference. It’s diversity and plurality of voices can be said to be its most essential quality, other than the key fact that it is being created by ‘Canadians.’
As such, when it comes to Canada’s literary scene, there’s a lot of variety. Today I thought it might be useful to look at some of most prominent players in the game right now.
It goes without saying Atwood is at the top of this list. Now synonymous with Canadian literature and The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is a true cultural legend. The winner of the Man Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Award and countless others, there are few accolades she hasn’t received.
If you’re looking to move beyond Handmaid’s, check out The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace and another dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake. All of them showcase why Atwood is who she is.
Often overshadowed by Atwood in popular culture, Munro is a literary critics darling. You’ll understand why if you read her collections of short stories. There is no one who manages to capture the complexity of human emotion better. Like Atwood she’s won all the big ones: the Man Booker, the Governor General’s, etc. Yet she also has one extra: a little thing called the Nobel Prize for Literature.
She technically retired a few years ago from writing but her work will remain relevant for years to come. If you’re looking to get into Munro, I’d recommend Who Do You Think You Are. It’s a collection of short stories that follows a few central characters throughout. It is also everything.
Ondaatje often takes a back seat to our famous female writers but he’s not too shabby himself. A Sri-Lankan born Canadian, his novel The English Patient was a global bestseller and later adapted into a blockbuster film. It also just got awarded the Golden Man Booker Prize Award after being the best book to ever win the Man Booker Prize in 50 years.
The English Patient is an obvious choice for first Ondaatje read but The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is up there too. His newest novel, Warlight, has also seen critical acclaim.
One if the new kids on the block, O’Neill’s writing has a magical, dreamy quality to it that turns the backdrop of Montreal into the land of a dark and twisted fairy tale. Her work often explores English/ French dynamics in Canada as well as what it means to grow up on the wrong side of the tracks.
All of her novels are charming, but Lullabies for Little Criminals, her debut, is the most powerful exploration of lost innocence.
If Martel was a singer, he’d be the guy with the one hit wonder. But a big one hit wonder. A French-Canadian who country-hopped extensively throughout his childhood, Martel hit the big time with the global phenomenon Life of Pi. His second novel, it became a bestseller in 50 countries and a critically acclaimed Hollywood film. His subsequent novels haven’t achieved anything same to the close level of success but if he did it once, perhaps he’ll do it again.
Read Life of Pi, but if you’re interested in a nonfiction read, check out What is Stephen Harper Reading?
Another one of the young’uns, Edugyan is an African-American writer who made the big time with her second novel, Half Blood Blues. Winning the Giller Prize as well as being nominated for the Man Booker, it tells the story of a mixed-race jazz musician navigating WWII in Germany.
Read Half-Blood Blues for now but have it on your radar: Edugyan’s next novel, Washington Black, is set to be released this fall. And it’s supposed to be real good.