Canada Reads 2017: Day One

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So today I wanted to talk about what happened during this first day of Canada Reads.

I was fortunate to be in the studio audience for this first day, and I’ll be there for the next two days as well. There was a lot of waiting in line, but it was well worth it to experience this cool Canadian literary event first hand. Please note that I’m going to talk about the eliminated book in this post, so if you’re waiting for the TV spot that will be on later, please be aware of the large spoiler that lays ahead! I’m also going to be talking about some of the moments from the debate that I agreed or disagreed with, so other book and debate spoilers will also come up.

You can watch the Day One replay here.

I haven’t yet been able to read all of this year’s contenders as I’ve been on the library waiting list for ages, but I certainly intend to get to all of them. I’ve read Fifteen Dogs and Nostalgia so far, and though I probably shouldn’t judge before I finish the others, I don’t think that either of them answers this years’ question.

The question is, of course “What is the one book that Canadians need now?”

I enjoyed reading Fifteen Dogs, but I don’t think it should be the winner. All respect to Andre Alexis, and to Humble the Poet as well. Humble’s concise and well-spoken argument for this book saved it in this first round. He stated that the human condition is at the root of all of humanity’s issues, and that we must thus examine what it means to be human in order to solve those issues. It was a rather inspired argument, and I hope to see him expand upon it in the days to come. Still, as mentioned by Measha, this book has already won the Giller Prize. It’s being read and thought about already, and perhaps we should be giving another read the chance to come forth and shine..

In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Nostalgia, nor did I think that Jody Mitic’s argument for it was strong. He argued that in order to move forward we must examine our past – which, fair enough. I agree. However, that wasn’t the strongest point I would take away from the novel. Humble brought up the struggle for young people to find their place in society, and Measha the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the young woman who does what she has to in order to get by. I think that Jody moved closer to an urgent point when he brought up the refugee crisis in the novel, but he lost me by the end when he said that the main character had ‘run from his past’. Did we read the same novel, Jody? The main character was erased by a government he was at war with – that could have been an interesting point to bring up itself.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person taken aback at Chantal Kreviazuk’s vehement defense of The Right to Be Cold, at the expense of fellow defender Jody Mitic. Surely a concession that perhaps the book is not an easy read, but is still an important one, would have been kinder than saying “we don’t need you then”.  Yikes, Chantal. Still, it’s important to note that she wasn’t able to be there in person because her son is currently hospitalized in Los Angeles. So perhaps emotions were running high there. I do think that her arguments weren’t very strong either. Yes, climate change is an important issue that Canadians (and the world) need to be thinking of. What makes The Right to Be Cold the book that will unite us as a nation? That focus will be far more important moving forward in the competition.

I’m curious to read Companytown, especially after Measha Brueggergosman’s defense of it. A world in which everyone is enhanced, there is no exclusion of any race, and where sex work is decriminalized? Yes please. I also thought it was interesting she mentioned that it’s a book that shows that one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia. Candy’s argument that she found issue with the main character being ‘strong’ by displaying masculine traits rather rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think it’s right to think as physical strength or muscular definition as being typically feminine or masculine traits. Don’t build a fence around your definition of femininity, Candy – I am surprised at you. Still, though Companytown sounds like a story I will be more than happy to get my hands on, I don’t know that it is the book that Canadians need now.

Now we come to the impassioned defense of The Break by Candy Palmater. Unfortunately, Candy was sitting with her back to my section, so I couldn’t see her facial expressions as she defended the novel – I could see the reactions of her fellow defenders though. I think that colonialism does still have effects that are deeply felt in our indigenous communities today, and I was really hoping this book would make it further in the competition. When Measha said she was uncomfortable that there was a lack of male representation in the book, I was very surprised. Jody’s concurrence that the fact that men seemed to be demonized, and that all of the male characters made him feel uncomfortable seemed to seal the fate of The Break. He mentions a part of the book in which something is said about ‘the way that white men say goodbye’ and that he didn’t realise that they said goodbye any differently. He felt uncomfortable, demonized – and othered. Measha wondered where the good example of men were in this book, because they aren’t all irredeemable people. (Not all men – sound familiar?)

What I have to say to you is this: I am shocked that The Break was eliminated for what seems to be essentially a lack of non-indigenous and male representation. As Candy said, she spoke to many people for whom this book was the experience of their lives. There are women in this country, and in this world, who don’t know any kind men. Not their fathers, brothers, husbands, or friends. Candy spoke of the relation between this book, our indigenous communities, and the fact that colonization has affected them so deeply in a manner that has yet to ever be addressed in any substantial way.

You feel uncomfortable reading this, Jody? Measha? Good. You were supposed to. If a book doesn’t make you uncomfortable, if it doesn’t make you think, or question your perception of the world, or your country, is it important enough to win this competition? Is it important or urgent enough to be read by all Canadians now?

Candy, my heart breaks for you, as I know how invested you were in your defense of The Break.

The avoidance of hard truths is a hard pill to swallow. The discomfort of Canadians with the thought of sexual violence, battery, and colonization is strong. Often, people dismiss it in favour of thinking there are systems in place to help already, and that indigenous people are simply too lazy to do anything about their situations. Wake up, people. Educate yourselves about the conditions so many in our own country are facing today, and the reasons behind them.

What did you think of this first day of Canada Reads? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Let’s have a debate in the comments below!

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