Writers work against Vancouver’s shifting backdrop
Living in a city that’s neither big nor small, Vancouver writers, in some respects, have the worst of both worlds. We’re not in a publishing centre like Toronto or New York City, where one has a chance of securing a book deal by attending the right cocktail parties. (Raincoast Books has stopped publishing its own titles, though Douglas & McIntyre has stepped up with its newly introduced line of fiction.) Nor can we write about our hometown in the same way a London or Paris writer can casually name-drop neighbourhoods to a cosmopolitan (or at least aspirational) readership.
At the same time, we don’t live in a city like Winnipeg, with relatively affordable real estate, or in one that has cheap, beautiful apartments like Montreal. And, unlike Montreal, we don’t have a café culture that encourages solitary, indoor pursuits like writing and reading. It’s an unsinkable cliché, but Vancouverites like their fancy coffee to go as they hurry to the beach or the Grouse Grind. Sunlight is such a precious commodity that staying inside on a cloudless day to peck away at a book is a crime of waste that’s morally equivalent to driving a Hummer or drinking from a plastic water bottle.
Vancouver writers have adopted different strategies for overcoming the obstacles of isolation and the high cost of living. One school of writers tends to be more outward-looking. Novelists such as Madeleine Thien (now living in Montreal) and Anosh Irani have appealed to foreign publishers in part by setting their books far away from our livable but not too sexy country. Journalists like Deborah Campbell, who’s written extensively about the Middle East in big-time periodicals like Harper’s and the Economist, and Charles Montgomery, whose prizewinning travelogue, The Last Heathen, dealt with Melanesia, seem to use this city as a pit stop between exotic locales.
Of course, another set of writers has found wide readerships by delving into the narratives and eccentricities of our city and province. In his novels Stanley Park and Story House, Timothy Taylor has energetically framed our city’s food and real-estate obsessions around personal quests for self-knowledge. U.S.–born magazine writer John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce turned the story of a disgruntled logger’s act of vandalism into a Governor General’s Literary Award–winning page-turner. In their best-selling memoir The 100-Mile Diet, J. B. Mackinnon and Alisa Smith describe how they spent a year eating only locally sourced food as a way of diminishing the environmental impact of globalized eating. And in The Lost Coast, novelist and poet Tim Bowling rues the loss of salmon culture.
Without a steady circuit of publishing and media wingdings, Vancouver writers seem to exist only in small pockets that rarely intermingle. These include the poets of the Kootenay School of Writing, among them former poet laureate George Bowering, who have a monthly bowling game; the slam-poetry and spoken-word performers who gather at the Brickhouse on Main Street; and students in the UBC creative-writing program, where this journalist does some part-time teaching, who seem to live at the graduate centre pub, talking about voice and point of view over an umpteenth jug of draft. Maybe this paucity of social opportunities is good for their work.
Over the decades, Vancouver as a literary setting has evolved. “McGoff didn’t have much use for modern Vancouver,” one character says in Malcolm Lowry’s classic 1947 novel Under the Volcano. “According to him it has a sort of Pango Pango quality mingled with sausage and mash and generally a rather Puritan atmosphere. Everyone fast asleep and when you prick them a Union Jack flows out of the hole. But no one in a certain sense lives there. They merely as it were pass through.”
Some would argue that the provincial starchiness described by Lowry’s character, and in Alice Munro’s depictions of the city drawn from her time here as a young mother in the 1950s, still remains. But the sausage and mash and Union Jacks have been replaced by izakayas and rainbow flags as the city serves as a laboratory for cultural emulsions funded by seemingly endless gobs of money that otherwise smart people believe originate solely from grow-ops, Calgary oil men, and Internet domainers. Taylor’s novels and the work of Douglas Coupland, which, in their own ways, revel in our city’s rootless newness, might be the works that best represent this locale.
Then again, given all the glass in its condo towers, it might be the fate of our city to remain a transparent, if not invisible, presence in its writers’ work. It’s been suggested that Vancouver was the model for the gloomy, futuristic version of San Francisco imagined in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired the movie Blade Runner. (Dick briefly lived in Vancouver in the early 1970s.) Maybe our city, in a literary sense, is destined to be a versatile, if not anonymous, backdrop for writers the same way that movie producers use it to stand in for Minnesota or, in a Jackie Chan film, the Bronx. For many Vancouver writers, as it was for one famous locally shot TV show, the truth is out there—outside the city limits.
BEST ALTERNATIVE TO A POETRY READING
Solder & Sons
247 Main Street
At Solder & Sons, a used-book store located in the Downtown Eastside, local musicians like Kenny Roux, Jeffrey Allport, and store co-owner Robert Pederson scrape cymbals, manipulate tape loops, and toy around with homemade electronic devices in semiregular performances of sound art. Even for those who generally prefer a little more music in their music, these improvised performances are enjoyable opportunities to drift off to some pleasantly discordant ambient sound. Plus, they’re all instrumental, which means there’s no one speaking in that halting, constipated “poet voice”. For more info, visit www.solderandsons.com/.
BEST EXCUSE TO SUPPORT A LOCAL MAGAZINE
To subsidize their literary magazine, the editors of One Cool Word hold big, lively parties in various venues throughout East Van, featuring local bands and auctions of dirt-cheap visual art. Usually, for around $10, one gets admission plus an issue of the magazine, which showcases local writing, art, and even music in a CD insert. One Cool Word’s energetic, unpaid staff, composed of recent graduates of the UBC creative-writing program, deserves at least two cool words: right on. Check out www.onecoolword.com/.
BEST NEW PLACE TO GET WRITING DONE
Historic Joy Kogawa House
1450 West 64th Avenue
Now that Joy Kogawa’s childhood home has been purchased and saved from the wrecking ball after years of struggle, it’s set to become a writer’s retreat for visiting authors, starting in 2009. (The first author to arrive in the house, located in leafy, sleepy Marpole, will be Madeleine Thien.) Hopefully, the house, which celebrates the contributions of one of B.C.’s best-known authors while reminding us of a regrettable episode in our nation’s history—the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II—will inspire new books in the years to come. More info is available at www.kogawahouse.com/ .