November 13, 2002
Interview with Stephen Henighan

The following is an unedited transcript of an interview I conducted with Stephen Henighan on Wednesday, Nov 6, 2002.

Stephen Henighan is the author of When Words Deny the World: The reshaping of Canadian writing, a book of essays about Canadian literature, in addition to two other books of criticism and several novels and short stories. He currently teaches Spanish at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.

Edited portions of this interview will appear in the Argosy, the independent student journal of Mount Allison University, as well as on I'll add links when they are available. Though I was careful to record the words as they were spoken, this text may contain errors or erroneous quotations.

posted by dru in interview

In a chapter entitled "Vulgarity on Bloor," you blast the Toronto literature scene as "unthinking," "image obsessed," and "seduced by mammon." What kind of response did you get?

I've had very negative responses from Toronto itself, where people have banned me from their dinner tables, books reviews in places like the Toronto arts tabloid Eye have focussed entirely on the Toronto chapter. Some people have sworn they will never speak to me again, and that sort of thing.

I've had very positive reacts from elsewhere, although I worry that these are based on a knee-jerk, unthinking hatred of Toronto. While I enjoy making fun of Toronto, and I feel that anywhere that self-obsessed deserves to be poked once in a while, I still worry that the larger argument of my book, the argument about globalization, sometimes gets lost in an unthinking "yeah! let's go get Toronto" reaction, which I've had particularly from people out west, and a bit from the maritimes.

Has this generated the kind of discussion you were hoping for?

I think you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. If somebody asked me if I regretted putting in the Toronto chapter, and I think if I hadn't put it in, the book would have got a lot less attention. The frustrating thing is that that's all that people focus on, but at least it gets the book attention, and then maybe it gets into the hands of someone who hasn't read it, and maybe that person is interested and sensitive enough to absorb something of the argument other than just the supposed loathing of Toronto that animates it. Daniel Richler referred to the Toronto chapter as "the hit single that made the CD popular." Unfortunately, I think it's a price I have to pay for getting the book out there.

In your essay on "appropriation of voice" you said that penalizing White English Canadian writers for portraying characters of a different cultural or economic background isn't going to stop inequality and institutionalized discrimination against marginalized writers. What could writers and publishers be doing that would have an effect?

We're speaking the day after a Canadian writer from Barbados has won the Giller prize. In certain circles it's quite trendy to be "ethnic," but I think that the problem is a set of dynamics in the Canadian publishing industry. Oddly, the people who are most marginalized are not marginalized on the basis of race or gender, but on the basis of region, and sometimes region compounded with race or gender. I'm not sure that a black writer from Halifax would have such an easy time if they stayed in Halifax.

The main problem with the way publishers operate these days is that they are too beholden to literary agents, and so they tend to absord work which has an obvious commercial hook. Sometimes that results in biases of ethnicity or gender, but more often it's a bias against material that is specific to Canada.

On the same subject, what kind of questions did you decide to ask yourself before you decided to write a book from the point of view of an Equadorian woman? If "appropriation of voice" wasn't a concern for you in that case, were there other concerns?

I just don't buy the notion of "appropriation of voice," because it's based on an essentialist idea that we all have some "essence" to our being, and that everybody who is of a certain ethnicity is something. This notion has been discredited in our day. It was the motivating force behind romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century, and it's just out of place in an era where for the last 40 years we've had a lot of criticism that emphasizes that all writing is hybrid, in the sense either of cannibalizing previous writing, or of being the product of people's experiences of a variety of cultures, and coming out of the clashes between cultures that people experience in their lives.

I did not ask myself a lot of questions before I began writing the novel "The Places Where Names Vanish". I suppose because I was just captured by an image of a little girl in a village, and I just wanted to explore that. I kept writing and writing and I seemed to find that in my view I seemed to know things about that girl and so I felt confident writing about them. Now, someone from that background could read it and say "this is garbage," and I think that it's important to pay attention to that if people say that. But I still think I have the write to try.

You have to set your limits; there are certain things you can write and can't write. There was a debate on this between two white South African writers, André Brink and Nadine Gordimer. Brink said that he could not write at all from the point of view of a black character, but Gordimer said she could write from the points of view of certain black characters of her own generation, and who belonged to a social milieu she had participated in. But she could never write from the point of view of a teenager protesting in Soheto, because she knew very little about who that person was.

I think the whole idea of appropriation of voice is extremely old fashioned and reactionary and destructive. I think that people have to be able to try to make these links between different personalities. Otherwise, in a multicultural society, we're going to have no novel at all.

What do you think the political or social role of literature is in Canada; given that there's a limited audience for literary work, how do you think it fits into the nation as a whole?

I actually disagree with part of your question; I think there's a large audience for literature in Canada by comparison with a lot of other countries, particularly the United States. About twice as much of our middle class reads "literary novels" than in the states. It's still a relatively small percentage (15% rather than 7%).

I think literature is extremely influential in shaping our view of ourselves as a nation. However, what worries me in the present situation is that a lot of the literature that has become very popular portrays a rather nostalgic view of our nation. There's very little that engages in an interesting way with the present. This has fortified or enhanced a certain tendency in Canadian life at the moment to turn our eyes away from the present and avoid a lot of the difficult issues we have, like "do we integrate our military with the states," or "do we sign Kyoto," and meanwhile we're all reading Alistair Macleod or Ann-Marie Macdonald about some misty Cape Breton of many years ago. In a way, the popularity of those novels actually goes along with our general reluctance to confront the present.

So there is a deeply political dimension to the kinds of books that become popular with middle class readers. You can get into trouble if you start making it too mechanistic, but I think you can see certain tendencies and parallels in what is popular with the middle classes at certain times of different nations' development. If you look back at the 19th century, it's very obvious in certain cases why certain writers were popular at certain times.

You write a lot about how things are simultaneously becoming more global and homogenized and more local and fragmented. You wrote: "if post-colonialism united us in our differences, then globalization divides us in our sameness." Is there something about the nation state that you're nostalgic for? Is it a lament, or are you just saying "ok, that's over"?

[laughs] It is a bit of a lament. I'll admit to that. It may be nothing more than nostalgia. In some ways, it seems like a great ideal; you hear it in slogans like "think globally, act locally" and who cares about the nation? I suppose that as someone who is interested in the rise of the novel, which is historically closely linked to the rise of the nation, I still feel that there is a filter there. I don't think that you can act solely from your own village, in concert with the whole planet. I feel that you need some sort of platform or filter to get through to the rest of the planet, and that the nation has served that purpose in the past.

If we look at what is replacing the nation-state, it's often not some idealized local community, or some globalized concert of like-minded souls--although both of those exist--but it's often the big corporation. While the nation (at least in some countries) was democratic, the big corporation is not democratic. In that sense, I feel that we're going from an environment where the individual could have some tiny voice at a larger level to an environment where it may be difficult for the individual to have a voice.

Do you think a healthy version of globalization is possible?

Yeah, there's a good globalization and there's a bad globalization. The good globalization is getting to know people in other people in other parts of the world and getting to understand cultures in other parts of the world. Sometimes that means just understanding that they're completely different from your culture and that you'll never completely understand them. Bad globalization is attempts to flatten the whole world into a replica of a shopping mall in California.

There is this debate among people who talk about globalization about whether globalization means everybody in the world becoming the same, or whether it means cultures that are different coming into greater contact with each other while still retaining some of their differences. Though even those people tend to see the many diverse local cultures being homogenized down into five or six big cultures, so we have the European, Anglo-American, Hispanic American, East Asian, Arabic, and maybe the African.

I'm not against contact with other people; I've spent a lot of my time travelling. But I think you also have to make an effort to try and understand other cultures; there's more to it than just flattening them. It's a great gimmick of people on the right to say "you're just scared and parochial, you need to get out there and compete internationally." It's the kind of thing that the Paul Martins and Brian Mulroneys say. Sure we've got to be international, but we also need to ask "how are we being international?"

Your book is quite political in a number of ways, and you obviously have a lot to say about the neo-conservative right; do you feel any connection between your work and that of people like Naomi Klein?

[laughs] Yeah, in some ways I feel that--somewhat against my will--I've become the Naomi Klein of the literary world. I think Naomi Klein is really important, and I can see parallels between what she's doing with products in general, and what I'm doing with literature.

At the same time, you seem to have a lot of perspectives in common with Edward Said; you both talk about the writer as an oppositional figure, emphasize the importance of history, and see the only way to create a transcendent work of literature as though particulars, as opposed to avoiding them. Are there similarities there, or are these just general features of postcolonialist thought?

The parallel with Said is interesting; needless to say I'm flattered by it. Obviously, Said is a figure of global importance. I think that where these similarities probably come from is that I've spent a lot of time reading Latin American literature. If you look at the history of Latin American literature, it only became really successful and international when it began to delve into its own history. And also--paradoxically, and I think this is a paradox that Canadians still don't get--it really became more avant-garde when it began to engage with its own history.

Whereas Canadian writing tends to become very traditional when it is about history, my own personal creative ideal is a novel that is engaged with history yet avant-garde.

In your talk, you emphasized that we need to pay attention to our history even though it's being glossed over by all kinds of cultural forces; are you planning to attempt to write a novel about history in a global world?

I would attempt, in any novel that I write, to engage with history in some way. Now, engaging with history doesn't mean writing a historical novel necessarily, and although you recognize it, probably half of the writers in Toronto don't. An engagement with history can be an engagement with the present, because the present is also history. And I think that's the point that we have to get to, where we can see the present in a historical context, rather than just seeing it as an eternal, shifting, diaphonous veil that we can never grasp anything through.

There is a similar theme running through your work, about the need for literature not just to engage with history, but with a place and a set of concerns. After reading your work, this necessity seems obvious or even self-evident; is there a lot of discussion about how literary work responds to the context in which it is created?

In the present context, I would say that in most of the literary journalism that is written today, or that appears on TV today, there is almost no discussion of that. I think that the forms of literature are very much taken for granted these days. At least, the form of the novel is taken for granted and the form of the short story is taken for granted. There may be marginal forms of literature that could become in more important in the future; things like dub poetry, where people do actually talk about "well, what is dub poetry," or "is it possible to have interactive literature online?" and there, there is a debate about form. Too often, I think--when we're talking about mainstream forms of literature, in this country at least--there is not a substantial debate about form, and there probably should be.

On the very last page of the book, after criticizing the different changes in Canadian publishing, the kind of shift towards the globally marketable novel, you end up dismissing digitally published literature as something which will be "fleeting," "flashy," and "web friendly," and unfriendly to longer formats like essays and novels. Do you think that new technology could have a positive role in Canadian publishing, or is it inherently flawed?

It may have a positive role in publishing. I think print-on-demand is probably coming in the next few years, and in some ways that may be good, because it means that books won't go out of print. So, if you publish a book of short stories in the present situation, they would print 900 copies, and you would sell 400; then, after six or seven years they would dump the remaining 500 copies into some remainder operation, and the book would never be available again. I think we may be moving into an era of print-on-demand, where after a book has initially come out and had its run, it'll still be digitally stored somewhere, where a bookstore will be able to download it and reproduce it. I think that could be great. It could be really positive, and it could keep a lot of stuff for which there was relatively little demand in print, and contribute to diversity, which in general is the enemy of most globalizing forces.

On the other hand--and maybe I'm just too old for this--reading on the web is not a very satisfying experience. If I start reading something on the web and it interests me, I always print it out and read it on paper if I can. Because of that, it seems to me that literature on the web is short attention span literature. It may be flashy and interesting in the way that certain types of poetry or a vignette or a very short story or a rock video or a dub poem could be interesting, but I'm not sure that the web has the capacity to involve us in more sustained forms of literature, which make a more protracted analysis of our world and day to day lives as human beings.

At some point, you refer to "Canadian self-abasement." What kind of relationship does this have with your criticism of free trade fiction?

Canadian self-abasement is always with us, I think. It's a fairly ingrained trait, and it's something that it would be lovely for us to be able to overcome.

It's linked to free trade fiction in the sense that a lot of Canadian writers are a little too quick to capitulate to the global market, not always at an obvious level of pandering to what they think will be a popular form, but sometimes merely at a level of not daring to dramatize the complexities of the world around them by keeping it simple. Also, writers avoid including things that they're afraid will be too controversial.

I'll give you an example. One of the novels short listed for the Governor General's award is Exile, by Ann Ireland, a very good novel. Ann Ireland's first novel was published by McLelland and Stewart, the second was published by Doubleday, so why is this one published by Dundurn, a relatively small press?

It's about a refugee who comes to Canada and is adopted by a bunch of idealistic liberal Canadians, thinking "oh, we're going to have a refugee coming to live with us and we'll help him out," but the refugee turns out to be a bastard. He seduces every woman in sight, and causes all sorts of trouble. All of the big publishers in Toronto turned down this novel, in spite of Ireland's track record as an excellent writer, because they did not want to publish a book which doesn't conform to our stereotypes about ethnic minorities. They didn't want to publish a book with a central character who was a) ethnically different from the writer, but b) ethnic and a nasty son of a bitch. You still can't do that. That's a good example of how somebody who did challenge the norms was initially slapped down for it. I'm very happy to see the book on the Governor General's short list, because I think that there's a kind of vindication there, of her attempt to write about a difficult subject, which the big publishers were afraid to touch, even though they had published her in the past.

You talk about how the changes in Canadian publishing have had an effect on the kinds of writing that are produced, but you also mention that if you're a writer, you write, and that's your main motivation, and you do it even if you can't get paid for it. Is there a tension there?

There's always a tension there, and the tension is partly that you can never make much money from writing [laughs]. I love making money from writing; it's the greatest feeling in the world when I get a story accepted and someone sends me a cheque for $200, but let's face it, $200 isn't going to contribute that much to my rent this month. There is a tension. You always crave success, because you want your vision to be relevant to other people and so on, but ultimately, you've got to remain faithful to your vision, even if it's not relevant to more than a handful of other people. It's very difficult sometimes. Here, I suppose I'm taking a fairly traditional line, but I do think that you have to remain faithful to your own vision, but at the same time, it's perfectly natural to want to be successful and to make money from your writing.

You have spent a lot of time in South America and Central America. What did you do there, and how does that fit into the set of ideas you have developed?

Latin America has been an ongoing theme throughout my life for quite a long time. I was completely seduced and overwhelmed by Latin American literature as a teenager and saw that I had to learn Spanish. In my early twenties, I travelled alot in Central America and studied in Colombia. In recent years, I have returned as a Spanish prof to do research and interview people. In January, I'm taking 50 students to Guatemala for four months.

It has provided me with a counterpoint in useful ways in imagining Canada, because... in the old days, we imagined Canada in terms of England or France--our relationship with the two countries that helped to found our country--and today there is a tendency to imagine Canada in terms of NAFTA and integration with the United States, and so on. So I think that one thing that my travels in countries like Mexico and Peru and Guatemala have provided me with is a vision of alternate ways of belonging to the Americas. Obviously, our links to the nations whose colonies we were originally are bound to dwindle as time goes on. If we're going to be part of the Americas, I think we need multiple models of how we're going to be part of the Americas. I don't think just this mantra that we need to harmonize everything with the States is good enough. I don't think it's reactionary to think that, and I don't think it's unrealistic to think that. There are a lot of different models out there, of ways of being American, in the sense of North American and South American, and I think that we need to draw from all of those, not just the US version.

Since your book has stirred up all this controversy, you've appeared prominently in the Globe and Mail in a feature on the Giller and in McLean's, do you feel like you're being...


Yeah. How is that going to affect your ability to write another book like this?

[laughs] It'll be difficult for me to write another book like this. On the other hand, even if this book had only been popular among a very tiny circle of people who agreed with me anyway, I wasn't going to write another book of essays for a long time. You can't write a book like this every two years. You can write a book like this ever ten years, because you don't come up with an original view of society every two years. If you look at Naomi Klein, she wrote No Logo, which is clearly a landmark book, but her latest book is a collection of her recent journalism it doesn't--and I don't think that she would disagree with this--it doesn't have hugely new ideas in it. I think it will take her a few more years to come up with a new take on reality, and maybe reality has to change a bit so that she can have something new to analyze.

I have a book coming out next week called "Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family," which is about the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where I taught for a while, and after that, I'm doing nothing but fiction, and I'm doing an academic book on writers in Spanish and Portugese speaking countries who have participated in revolutionary governments, and how their writing changes after they leave for the revolutionary governments.

It'll be at least ten years before I write another book about Canadian culture or literature, so whatever happens to my career in those ten years, or if I'm alive in ten years' time, there wasn't going to be another book like this anyway.

You're right that it has the potential to make things difficult. I've suddenly got to know all sorts of people whose roles I've been analyzing as figures, and suddenly they've been humanized for me, and that does make it difficult to write about that sort of thing.

[from an email followup:]

Could you elaborate on the "different models of globalization" you came to understand in your travels in Central/South America, perhaps in reference to a particular experience?

I've done so many interviews in the last week that, though I remember enjoying your questions, I cannot recall the precise context of our discussion of globalization. I suppose the distinction I would usually draw would be between the idea of globalization as every where becoming the same versus the idea of distinct cultures moving closer to each other. An example of the latter interpretation might be found in the way the Maya in Guatemala and Chiapas are using high tech and the internet to assert their political demands, and even to preserve their culture, by producing computer games in Mayan languages so that their children won't lose interest in their languages.

by dru

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