IN THE UNITED STATES, there is a growing interest in Canadian literature, with the result that Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro and other writers are better known in the U.S. than in their own country.
Canadians, however, are learning to take pride in their literature, as was evident at the splashy Governor General's Literary Awards ceremony -- fondly known as the "Gee-Gees" -- held in Vancouver, on May 6.
This year, for the first time since the awards were established in 1937 by the Canadian Authors' Association, lists of nominees and winners were announced before the ceremony to encourage publicity and sales. And for this occasion only the Canada Council, which administers the event, moved the Gee-Gees from their traditional setting in Ottawa to Vancouver, where a flourishing literary community often feels alienated from "the East," from the Council (currently cutting back its aid) and from Eastern publishers. Winners received their awards at a reception held at the beautiful new Arts Club Theatre on the Vancouver waterfront.
Jack Hodgins, whose first novel, The Invention of the World (Macmillan/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977) was favorably noticed in the United States, won the English fiction award for The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. Margeret Atwood's Life Before Man (McClelland and Stewart/Simon and Schuster), which was acclaimed in the United States but got a suprisingly cool reception in Canada, was a runner-up.
Marie-Claire Blais won her second French fiction award, for Le sourd dans la ville (Stanke). Blais was a protegee of Edmund Wilson, who "discovered" her as a teenager and celebrated her work in his literary guide O Canada. Blais is best known in the United States for her novels A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and St. Lawrence Blues (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Michael Ondaatje (sometimes called "the Warren Zevon of Canadian literature" for his fascination with violence and love) was awarded the English poetry prize for There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do (McClelland and Stewart). This collection is published in New York by Norton, as is his much-praised book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (which won the Governor General's Award in 1970, and has been made into a successful play), and Coming Through Slaughter, a semi-fantasy based on the life of jazzman Buddy Bolden (both published in Canada by Anansi).
Other winners included Montreal poet Robert Melancon for Peinture aveugle (VLB Editeur) and Vancouverite Maria Tippett, a lecturer in art history at Simon Fraser University, for Emily Carr: A Biography (Oxford University Press), about the west coast writer and painter who herself won the fiction award in 1942.
Montreal journalists Dominique Clift and Sheila McLeod Arnopolous won the French nonfiction award for their controversial study of the separatiste issue, Le fait anglais au Quebec (Libre Expression). Arnopolous, in an interview in the Vancouver Sun, said that "A lot of the English people in Montreal find the book painful. . . . Among some we're seen as traitors." Already, two bookstores have refused to carry the work, though Arnopolous insists it is not "radical." The book was initially rejected by two English-language publishers, so Clift translated it into French for its first publication. It recently appeared at last in English as The English Fact in Quebec (McGill-Queen's University Press.)
In Governor General Edward Schreyer's absence (he had flown to Yugoslavia to attend Tito's funeral) Gilles Marcotte, noted Quebec critic, and Earle Birney, the 78-year-old dean of Canadian poets, delivered the awards. Ceremonies were conducted in Canada's two official languages, with Timothy Porteous, associate director of the council, switching easily between English and French as he assured everyone that Canadian literature will play an increasingly important role in and outside Canada, aided by increased Canada Council support. (There were mutters of disbelief at that point.)
Over the years, the Governor General's Awards have been the scene of both change and controversy. In 1959, when the Canada Council took over administration of the awards, categories for best fiction, poetry and drama, and nonfiction in French were added to those in English. A cash prize (now $5,000) for winners was also added. As for controversy, Mordecai Richler, best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, denounced but accepted his 1968 award for Hunting Tigers Under Glass and Cocksure, as well as his 1971 award for St. Urbain's Horseman, on the grounds that novelist John Buchan, the awards' founding patron, had been antisemitic. Several Quebec authors with separatiste sympathies have also denounced, even refused, national awards, though the Canada Council is an independent agency free from direct federal government control.
There have also been complaints that unlike the Pulitzer Prizes, The American Book Awards, or the science fiction Nebula and Hugo awards, the Governor General's Awards have consistently failed to gain much publicity for the winners, or for Canadian literature in general. Their nadir was reached last year when even the traditional dinner was cancelled.
This year the event could best be described as lavish. After the awards presentation, the winners, dignitaries and some 250 guests (representing the local literary community, the universities and the media) moved off, chatting happily in both languages, to a reception. The sun shone on the snow-capped mountains, sparkled off the blue water. Jealous easterners munched chicken wings outside, loosened ties, and understood why some of us -- even if we spent 21 years in Ottawa -- don't consider it or Toronto to be the focus of our literary universe.
Generally, the mood was optimistic and friendly, although there were some disgruntled comments about the state of publishing and publishing publicity in Canada. Christie Harris, the 72-year-old grande dame of the Vancouver literary scene, and author of 18 books for young people, among them Raven's Cry (1966) and Mouse Woman and the Mischief-Makers (1977), which were both named Notable Books for Children by the American Library Association, said that Americans buy two or three times as many of her books as do Canadians -- possibly reflecting greater efforts on the part of her U.S. publisher, Atheneum, to distribute and promote those books.
David Watmough, whose 1978 novel No More Into the Garden (Doubleday) sold out its first printing in a month -- largely in New York and San Francisco, not Canada -- complained that despite the advance announcements, there had been relatively little publicity for the awards, "especially in the electronic media."
The last word belongs to Jack Hodgins. In "real life" a shy, 40-ish high school teacher from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, he is clearly delighted to achieve recognition at last.
"There's a tremendous interest in Canadian literature outside Canada -- in Italy, in Japan. But the publishers aren't helping. They aren't getting the books to people."
And The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, his own award-winning and much-praised novel, he added, still has not found an American publisher.