We were surprised that a Literacy & Assessment Curriculum Consultant was reading our work and love that he took the time to ask us about our focus on contemporary CanLit by diverse authors.
This whole project started because Jack tweeted asking people to recommend a book by an author with a physical disability. To our surprise, Amanda Leduc and other Canadian authors responded to his question. Adam Pottle, an author from Saskatchewan who is deaf, offered to send us his books when we couldn’t find them in our school or local libraries.
So we started asking a bunch of questions about what contemporary literature looked like, what did contemporary CanLit look like? Who were the writers? What were they writing about? Who were they writing for? Our questions made us dizzy – there were so many. To narrow our focus, we decided to start with the authors who had reached out to us directly. Our vision for diversity included authors of different culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, socio-economic status, and religious and political beliefs.
We researched author bios and started reading their work. We became so excited about what we were learning that we wanted to share them with other students. We created a website and a Twitter handle. But that didn’t feel like we were doing enough so we started reading the Ministry English guidelines and found out that the overall and specific expectations could be met studying contemporary Canadian authors of diverse background. For example, an overall expectation for Literature Studies and Reading is “read and demonstrate an understanding of complex texts from various time periods, countries, with an emphasis on analysing and assessing ideas, themes, concepts, and arguments.” This could easily be done with Adam Pottle’s The Bus which is set in 1941 in Nazi Germany. The novel is told from eight different narrators that includes patients and the doctor who will kill them in an euthanasia clinic. So, with our teachers’ permission, we decided to redesign the course syllabus and select what we read and studied.
Although we haven’t read a lot of contemporary Canadian fiction by authors of diverse backgrounds yet, based on what we’ve read so far and conversations we’ve had with teachers, parents, and librarians, we are confident that they contain universal truths that classical literature contains. We also like that many of the Canadian authors write books set in places we are familiar with (e.g., Marnie Woodrow’s novel, Heyday, is set on the Toronto Islands. That book was shortlisted for the 2016 Toronto Book Award). Also we like reading books that do not have 50 years worth of reviews and analysis already. It’s kind of cool to read a new book and be able to come up with new insights of our own. That kind of “discovery” makes reading more fun.
Because we were curious, we asked students in our classes to name a Canadian author. Many said Margaret Atwood. We asked them to name a Canadian author of diverse background and they struggled to name one. Before this project, we’d have been in the same case. We never challenged our ignorance because we thought what we were learning was the norm. Watching Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk about the dangers of a single story helped to make the connection between Adichie’s message and what we had been studying over the years.
Right now I’m studying English, International Business, Math and Drama. It’s kind of funny how I can name a bunch of Canadian businessmen (I say businessmen because they are all men) like Cam Heaps from Steam Whistle, Byron Nelson from Leland Industries, and local politicians like Justin Altmann, the mayor of Whitchurch-Stouffville, but until recently I could not name Canadian authors of diverse backgrounds. So, we’re both grateful for this opportunity to explore a different dimension of Canadian literature, Canadian identity, and Canadian culture and to share our learning with others.