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I lived in Ottawa for a month or so in the summer of 1970, when I was going on seventeen. I stayed at my brother's place– He was studying at Carleton then and I bounced around town as a temporary secretary. Among other things, I worked for an automobile insurance company, typing up accident reports, and also, as I recall, for Bell Canada. You may think "I've come a long way"... but in fact I haven't; I distinctly remember that, even then (indelible imprint of the Christian atmosphere of my childhood) I was obsessed with human suffering and my inability to do anything about it; four decades later, however far I may seem to have come, I'm still obsessed with human suffering and my inability to do anything about it.
It's always a mistake to think that literature can serve any "purpose" in the real world– That it can put an end to despoilments, for instance, or have the slightest effect on so-called white men's ferocious appetite for profit and "progress," their capacity to lie, betray, or break promises they've sworn to keep until the end of time.
Take my native province.
Nowadays, the big thing is to extract oil from Alberta's tar sands and sell it to the United States. Alberta one of the biggest oil exporters in the world, second only to Saudi Arabia! True, this is polluting its lakes and giving rise to a terrifying number of cancers among its First Nation inhabitants... But when doctors express their concern about this, Health Canada attacks them for needlessly alarming the population and hounds them until they leave the province. And the politicians, who also happen to be shareholders in the oil companies, patiently explain that they don't have to respect the terms of the treaties with the Indians, because the said treaties were signed before Alberta became a province in 1905!
Literature is perfectly useless in dealing with things of this nature. In Plainsong, the only one of my novels that has Alberta for a backdrop, and I'd even say for a main character, I described the tragedy which occurred in Western Canada when the indigenous peoples encountered Europeans (I don't like to say "the white man," firstly because there were a few women as well, secondly because there were more than one of them, and thirdly because I don't think "white" accurately qualifies the colour of our skin). I use the word tragedy not for its fancy Greek overtones but because, above and beyond designating an unfortunate or disastrous event, it implies the inevitability of that misfortune. And indeed, there was no way that encounter could have had a harmonious outcome. Given that one of the two peoples fervently believed in Progress, and that its approach to the new continent was materialistic, utilitarian and exploitative, the other people, whose life style was based on repetition, cyclical Time, and the transmission of the same customs over generations, could only submit, lose, be vanquished. Such was the theme of a little book I published with Montreal's Editions du Silence in 1990, In Deo - a "dialogue of the deaf" between two ways of being human.
In Plainsong, Miranda and Paddon are in some ways representative of their respective peoples, but they're also critical of them. Not only does Paddon attack the colonials for their exploitative behaviour, their hypocrisy and their cynicism, but Miranda criticizes the Blackfoot Indians for their misogyny, their cruelty, their warmongering and macho violence. The main thing the two characters have in common is an overwhelming love for the Albertan landscape. Working on the novel in Paris, Boston and New York between the fall of 1989 and the spring of 199,that was what I cared most about conveying. I wanted my sentences to go rippling all the way to the horizon, just as the prairies do, coloured by the changing moods of the Big Sky.
Today, were I to undertake to write a second novel about Alberta -- doing huge amounts of research, setting the action, this time, around the artificial lakes created by the draining of the tar sands -- great bowls of toxic soup that are irremediably destroying the beauty of my province, killing its birds, and inflicting irreversible damage on its human inhabitants, especially its First Nation inhabitants -- well, it might bring me another literary prize, put a little more money in my bank account, maybe even hitch me up a notch in the Order of Canada, but it would do nothing at all to slow down that destruction and desecration.
Literature has its powers, it has its magic, it can help us live and make sense of our lives, but Power per se unfolds on a totally different level, in a totally different arena. This means we sometimes have to make gestures of a different nature, qua citizens. Qua writer, I have to face the fact that there's not much I can do for my country. So let me at least say a word about what my country has done for me.
During a recent trip to Portugal, I discovered the work of an extraordinary painter named Paula Rego. Now 75, Rego has been living in London for over half a century, and yet all her biographical descriptions still describe her as a "Portuguese painter." I must admit that this changed the way I think about the "Canadian writer" label, which has so often seemed reductive and inaccurate to me. "Not one line of my books was written in Canada!" I'm continually protesting.
Paula Rego's son, Nick Willing, explains that his mother is incapable of working in her studio in Portugal, because... "the ghosts are already there. Here in London she can make her ghosts and they won't come and bite her in the arse. ... She can humiliate them, she can stroke them, she can comfort them. She's in control because in London there's no magic. But in Portugal, in every corner, every shadow, every time the sun goes down, there is magic– Real ghosts coming out of every nook and cranny."
Willing goes on to say that Rego "often talks of paintings being 'powerful magic'", adding that "she can conjure this magic only in London, although its power source remains in Portugal."
A wonderful sensation came over me when I read that passage. I can transpose it word for word to my own situation, and say: I can only conjure the magic in Paris, although its power source remains in Canada.
Thus, it is with a profound sense of humility and gratitude that I return to the SOURCE today, and accept the honour conferred upon me by the University of Ottawa.
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