My Canadian is Showing, Eh? : Does National, Regional, or Cultural Identity Determine Our Writing Identity?

I am Canadian, darn proud of it, but does it mean I write “Canadian,” too?

Throughout language arts and English education – surmounted by a BA in English Lit, and sprinkled with pop culture understanding – I have a certain understanding of what Canadian literature is (supposedly). In the main, Canadian writers are supposed to be concerned with man vs the environment / land / nature kind of issues, brought on through our history surviving long, harsh winters and ‘taming’ the Canadian wilderness. [And if you write Canadian literature, please forgive this vast summing up of what can be a very rich, interesting field … just not one I write in.]

When I started recently writing a manuscript and discovered one of the elements I was concerned with was the very elemental man vs nature conflict, surviving a harsh environment, I thought, “uh oh, has my ‘Canadian-ness’ got me?” Which started me thinking: are we so defined by where and how we grow up and live that it’s inescapably going to appear in our writing?

This is a concern for me because I primarily write paranormal historical romances set in Regency Great Britain, a time I have obviously never experienced first-hand, and my handsome werewolf encounter meter is also registering zero. This problem is further confused by the fact that most of the publishing professionals I want to work with are further south, in the United States. Writing contemporaries, an American setting will sell better than a Canadian one – even if I’m more familiar with the Canadian, it’s more lovable, perfect, etc – because the American audience is larger, and will relate better to a setting they feel they can relate to. In order to succeed in my field, it sometimes feels as though I’m being asked to erase my Canadian identity.

Should I give up writing romance and start a long epic about my life at home, surviving a miserable winter, yet again, and hoping an ice age will signal a warm-up? Perhaps base the story in the setting I live in though few other than me could probably relate? Write what you know, they always say.

Yeah, maybe, but who would ever want to read that? Not me, that’s for sure. By the token “write what you know” taken literally, only contemporaries should ever be written because if we’re alive now (and barring the possibility of time travel) none of us have truly experienced or “known” a historical period. Only write from your immediate perspective and location: perhaps I could write about the oilsands or farming since this goes on around me?

This seems no less possible. And yet, isn’t there something of where we’ve been, where we reside always present in our voices? My opinions and experiences are based there: it’s why I’d believe one thing whereas someone living somewhere else – having been raised in a different location, different experiences, perhaps different culture – would believe otherwise. Whether I mean to espouse an opinion or not, writing is full of the writer’s opinions. Is the slave treated badly, or well? How is this viewed by the characters? Doesn’t that view reflect some recognition of the issue if not the writer’s own opinion? What is the position of men and women in the writer’s world? Isn’t this creation in part formed by the writer’s own experiences and notions?

For world creation – and writing something like historicals – certainly we can never truly have lived the period and understand it as a contemporary would other than through research and immersion in first and second-hand accounts (if anyone knows another method, time travel would be cool!). But perhaps we bring where we are, who we are, with us. My English gardens will always have a touch of my garden at home in them, my lakes remind me of the one I look at out the window. Perhaps I can never truly erase my Canadian-ness or identity as someone born and raised in Western Canada. I can change the setting of a contemporary or a historical to fit into more marketable terms, but because it’s written by me, won’t there always be an element of Canada there anyway?

As I go back to my man vs nature plot, I know in my heart it’s set somewhere in Canada, but since I name no names, I can let the reader imagine it’s somewhere they can better relate to. And I can recognize that perhaps there is some truth to the fact that we are heavily influenced by our environment and surroundings, such that they permeate everything we create, everything we are. Probably not such a bad thing, though, right?

What about you – do you feel your national or regional identity influence the way you write or read? Have you ever felt as though you were fighting an inescapable part of your identity when you write as though from elsewhere? In what ways does where you live – and have lived – influence your opinions and views? Please leave your comments – I’d love to hear your ideas on this.






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