Though it seems delightfully multicultural, our book-publishing biz may be nothing more than multi-racial
In support of PEN Canada, feat readings by Ann Ireland and Goran Simic Thu, Jan 15, 6:30pm. $5 admission includes a copy of the chapbook. Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen W.

We hear it all the time, and it’s the source of much patriotic chest-thumping: Canada is the most multicultural country in the world. So it may seem odd to hear complaints about the insularity of our publishing industry.

“I don’t believe they see room for the incoming foreigner,” says Reza Baraheni, an exiled Iranian writer living in Toronto. Baraheni and others lament that while Canada has a large and growing community of exiled writers thanks to PEN Canada’s prominent international work, we do not welcome them into our publishing community.

The complaint seems all the odder when one considers that foreign-born writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and M.G. Vassanji are among Canada’s highest-profile writers. Yet all three of them come from post-colonial (i.e., culturally familiar) countries with histories of English-language culture. And all three, perhaps more notably, came to Canada young and established their literary reputations here. CanLit, young and fragile and just beginning to stand proudly in the world, has claimed such writers as its own.

This is not so in the case of Canadian writers who have built literary reputations elsewhere (the one obvious exception being Josef Skvorecky, who won the Governor General’s award in 1984 for a novel written in Czech and translated into English). Baraheni, for example, is the author of more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and literary criticism in his native Iran and around the world. Harper’s Magazine has called Baraheni “Iran’s finest living poet.” He’s been living in Canada for seven years, since fleeing imprisonment and attempted assassinations at home. He has yet to have a book published by a Canadian press.

Baraheni speculates that the “No Foreigners” sign hangs on the door of the Canadian publishing world because Canada is still unsure of its national literature, still building confidence in Canadian voices and stories, leaving little room to explore global culture outside its borders.

He notes that Paris publishing houses have published several of his books in French translations in the past few years, and says that Canadian houses would benefit from opening up. “There seems to be a kind of contradiction between what is being published in this country and the reality of what exists in this country … there’s room for both parties [foreign-born and native-born writers] to learn from each other, instead of just learning from the Americans or the British or the French, it means also learning from those other countries that may have affinities with what you have felt for a long time…. The experience is very, very colourful.”

France is a less multicultural country than Canada, yet it consistently publishes books in translation from around the world, and from its own exile community. But France famously has no identity crisis and no insecurity about the strength of its home-grown culture.

Goran Simic, an exiled poet from Bosnia who lives in Toronto, says, “In France they are open. They publish the books and they treat all writers as French…. I don’t know why Canada is not as open. Canada is such a multicultural country. But Canadian literature is still young.”

Simic’s correspondence with Toronto novelist Ann Ireland on the subject of exile forms Open the Door, the first in a series of chapbooks of writers in correspondence to benefit PEN Canada’s work with exiled writers living in Canada. Simic came to Canada in 1996 after living through the siege of Sarajevo. Upon arriving, he took up a writer-in-exile chair at Massey College. After that he spent two years hauling boxes at Holt Renfrew, and then bought a restaurant (which he has since sold, see “A Sarajevan at rest,” in eye, Nov. 27, 2003). Finally last fall, he published his first volume of poetry in Canada, Immigrant Blues, with small London, Ontario-based Brick Books. Though he’d been published in English before (by Oxford University Press in England) and in Poland, Norway, Germany,Sweden, Finland and Holland, in addition to continuing to be published in the former Yugoslavia, he felt it was important to publish this book in Canada. “I didn’t even think of going to England … I live here. This is my home.”

Brick Books general manager Kitty Lewis says it would be inaccurate to portray her press as a champion of the exile cause. Simic’s book came to Brick through a poet they’d published before, and importantly, she says, it came already translated (by Simic’s ex-wife, Amela Simic). If they’d had to pay the translation costs themselves, Lewis says, it’s unlikely they would have gone ahead with the book. “We just don’t have the resources,” she says.

Lewis says the economics of the publishing world, especially for poetry, go a long way to explaining the difficulty of publishing writers from abroad. “Who’s publishing poetry? Not very many people. Certainly not the big guys, because it doesn’t make money. So it’s the literary presses and we are doing the best we can. But, you know, a small press like Brick, where there’s one full-time employee, we get 130 submissions a year. And we can only publish seven books. So it’s not that we’re looking only for Canadian content. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the writing, the excellence in writing.”

As are, we can only assume, this country’s largest publishers, now all American- or European-owned: Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin. It is these houses that are most conspicuously not publishing people like Baraheni and Simic. We can only speculate as to their reasons, as numerous calls to each went unreturned.

Dennis Duffy, an expert in Canadian literature at the University of Toronto where he is Professor Emeritus of Media and Journalism, is dismissive of claims about the “culture and mindset” of the Canadian publishing world. “I always prefer institutional explanations,” he says. In that regard, he points to an old splinter in the side of Canadian culture and history. “Our culture is still, in many ways, hung up on the issues surrounding the two official languages.” Duffy says multiculturalism is still often seen in Quebec as a way of distancing ourselves from the rights of the French, and so most of the institutional support and money for things like translation are geared exclusively to English and French.

Such support is also available for foreign publishers looking to translate Canadian books from the two official languages into others, pointing to a nation keen on developing and exporting its culture. Yet little or no money is available, Simic laments, for the translation of books from abroad into English. “It’s a pity we are not open to the world.”

This is yet another sentiment that may seem odd, given that our largest literary event is the International Festival of Authors, which draws writers great and obscure from around the world to Toronto to read. Yet it is during that festival, as eye noted in an editorial Oct. 31, that we realize how few of those books from the non-English-speaking world are available for sale here outside of the festival.

Several months ago, before his book was published, Simic told me that he felt that there was still a “sense of us vs. them,” in the Canadian literary world.

Recently, as a writer newly published in Canada, he expressed a strangely similar sentiment. “Everywhere I go, I’m always called a Bosnian poet living in Canada. But this is my home, not Bosnia. Why not a Bosnian-Canadian poet? I prefer Bosnian-Canadian.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on January 15, 2004.