Introduction for Noah Richler
The highlight of the presentation ceremony is the introduction of the authors by distinguished individuals.
Some years ago, geography instructors at universities across Canada embarked on an experiment to find out how their students "imagined" their own country. They called this experiment "mental mapping." Each student was handed a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw a map of Canada in ten minutes, putting onto their map whatever they considered important. The results were fascinating. Right across the country, despite popular conventions of wilderness and space, students tended to depict Canada by drawing political boundaries. Some natural features did survive more or less intact: the Great Lakes, for example. Not so the Arctic coastline, which tended everywhere to be reduced to a squiggle. Almost universally, Eastern students drew in the Rocky Mountains, but equally universally they found idiosyncratic places to locate them. And while Western students generally did draw a line they called the St Lawrence River, as often as not their river joined the Atlantic Ocean somewhere in New England, as though it had no need to flow north through Quebec. Perhaps most telling of all, students everywhere positioned Ottawa farther away from themselves than it really was.
I was reminded of this inquiry while reading Noah Richler's This Is My Country, What's Yours?-which is itself a kind of mental map, or what Noah Richler calls a "psychogeography" of contemporary Canada. The plan initially seems simple: to traverse the country, observing and reflecting-to interview contemporary novelists, sampling their work-and then to tease out the myths, dreams, and common assumptions that elucidate how Canadians live in the world today. The achievement, of course, is much more complex. Neither a reference book nor a travelogue, this book is an inquiry into how we tell stories, because, Richler says, "story is often the best way to know a place."
And to learn oneself.
Raised in Montreal and London, Noah Richler is well known as a journalist for publications in Canada and Britain-Granta, Punch, the Guardian; Macleans, The Walrus, the Globe & Mail. In London, he produced prize-winning programs for BBC radio for fourteen years before returning to Canada in 1998; once here, he joined the National Post as books editor and columnist. But returning to Canada, Richler especially wanted to find out what made it "home." So he embarked on his journey into the geography of narrative, and on CBC Radio's Ideas, he produced the ten-part series called "A Literary Atlas of Canada" which he based on the material he had assembled for his book. What he suggests here is that "place" is only a landscape until it is animated by stories. What he finds are stories about absence and occupation, disappointment and affirmation, windigos and work and the constant need to ask questions. What he affirms is that stories function like maps, wishing reality into existence, charting it, arguing its conventions and implications-so that stories are never as "innocent" as they might seem on first hearing, but function more fundamentally like "aggressive rivals" locked in a struggle for precedence and survival.
This book is thus not just a set of interviews with new and established authors-there are many here, among them Douglas Coupland, Tomson Highway, Joseph Boyden, Rudy Wiebe; Barbara Gowdy, Colin McAdam, Robert Alexie, Miriam Toews; Michael Ondaatje, Austin Clarke, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Michel Tremblay; Michael Turner, Alistair MacLeod, Zsuzsi Gartner, Yann Martel-not just a set of excerpts and interviews, but a way for the author to reconnect with the country from which he had long been absent. The epigraph, from the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, signals as much from the beginning: "A man sets out to draw the world . . . [only to discover] that his labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face." But there are ramifications to such a journey, as there are to the mental map that the journey draws.
This is My Country, What's Yours? is both a book of voices and a book about voice-a combination that makes you want not only to go out and read contemporary writers but also to examine and reaffirm the values that make Canada work well: in other words, to read the country for yourself -not just "by yourself," but also "so that you might find yourself." "What's Yours?" asks the title of the book. This is not a casual question; it's a challenge.
It is a pleasure to invite Noah Richler to come forward.
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