Saturday, 13 October 2007

Wave the Flags; Bang the Drums…Something National This Way Comes

"A country's literature is a crystal ball into which its people may look to understandtheir past and their present, and to find some foretaste of their future." – Robertson Davies

With this higher purpose in mind, I write with a suggestion to the UK book industry. Let’s celebrate an English Book Month, to champion our national literature. I suggest it be in March, when the weather is at its most English. This national celebration can manifest itself in any or all of the following ways:
* Book tours of English authors discussing what it is to be, and write, “English”. They’ll talk about how being known as an “English author” can damage their chances on the world stage; how the national qualifier might relegate them to the fringes.
* A website with a discussion forum on which author most encapsulates Englishness, and how our national literature explores our cultural identity as English people. Noted English authors to blog on the national book scene; an online vote on the “top 50 English books”; celebrities pick their favourite books from our native literature. English-only, mind, and no, Bill Bryson doesn’t count, much as we might like him to.
* Posters, book lists, reading guides, and t-shirts to be distributed to all bookshops, for displays highlighting authors from this country.
* Have a poll on whether Germaine Greer is allowed to be part of the celebrations.

I suggest also a special English Book Month publication. Let’s find, say, six examples of new English writing talent, short stories set in England or essays on Englishness; we can call it The Six Pack in comical reference to our national penchant for beer, and sell it for six pounds.

It all sounds rather ridiculous, doesn’t it. But replace the word “English” with the words “New Zealand” and you get…

Yes, here down under we did all of the above (apart from the Germaine Greer bit, although I did push for it). Even the t-shirts and The Six Pack. Our bookshop windows screamed with kiwiana. Penguin publishers gave independent kiwi bookstores a nod by printing a limited edition of Commonwealth Award-winner Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, complete with signed bookplates, which they’re not even allowing the big chains to sell. Already a bit of a collector’s item; if Jones wins the Booker, it’ll be a major kiwi coup.

Here in New Zealand, Jones is flavour of the month – their first home-grown million-dollar author (incidentally, the Kiwis pronounce his title “Mustah Pup”, which as a Brit I find inappropriately amusing). Yet Jones recently talked about not wanting to be known as a New Zealand Writer. Look, is Toni Morrison, he asked, called an “American Writer”? We strive, we hope, he said, one day to be called just “Writers”, on a level playing field. In fact, in a country such as New Zealand, whose very identity is founded on avoiding tub-thumping – indeed, ridiculing our Big Noisy Neighbour Australia for her nationalistic jingoism – must we insist upon wheeling out National Book Months or Weeks or Lists or Festivals?

Having also spent a few years in the Canadian book industry, I see New Zealand Book Month rehashing arguments I’ve heard before. Why do we harp on about CanLit/ KiwiLit? Why are Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel Canada’s only “writers” while Carol Shields still comes with the qualifier “Canadian”, or worse, “Prairie author”? Is it really necessary to localize and nationalize and trumpet the Canadian (Kiwi) Novel? After all, as (Canadian) poet David Helwig says, “any country is only a way of failing/ and nationality is an accident of time/ like love”. If it seems absurd to look at all English authors’ writing as first and foremost an example of Englishness, then why not in New Zealand and Canada and the Caribbean and Nigeria and all the other nations that are still identified primarily by the term “Commonwealth literature”? Isn’t it time we stopped dividing up literature in English by thumpingly unhelpful national boundaries?

Douglas Coupland makes the same noises as Lloyd Jones. His beef is that Canadian “national literature”, of the sort that gets funding from the likes of national arts councils, is pigeon-holed to exclude his type of urban writing – it must instead be about roughing it in the wilds of Ontario while the Canada geese fly overhead and the Inuit teach you the ways of the ancient ones. If that’s the case, this enforced nationalization can only be reductive.

As technology makes the world smaller, and Gen X makes way for “GenXPat”, according to (sometime Canadian) author Margaret Malewski, National Book Month begins to look like a celebration of the past rather than the present and future of a country’s writing. After all, we stopped using the term “post-colonial” and moved onto “Commonwealth”, which in itself now seems a designation increasingly out of date. As Margaret Atwood pushes her “LongPen”, signing books in North America from London via a robotic arm, as the book industry moves closer to download-on-demand titles for customers to read on portable ibooks, national boundaries should become irrelevant. We little high-street booksellers are forever lamenting the internet juggernaut that will eventually put us out of business, but it could be our biggest grassroots weapon. All a local author will need – whether from Watrous, Saskatchewan, Whakatane, NZ, or just plain Watford – is a few bloggers and the odd Facebooker on the bandwagon to become better and more quickly known internationally, than any publisher or distributor could afford to make them. Slap a Print-on-Demand machine – already lowering in price – into your bookshop and you’re all set for the next century.

In the end, New Zealand Book Month’s biggest publicity has come completely inadvertently and has not the slightest thing to do with our national literature. The logo on the Book Month t-shirt represents what one would see looking end-on at a book open on its spine, its pages fanning up and out. The combination of this with the chosen logo colour of green prompted numerous customers and schoolchildren to ask if it’s National Weed Month. The t-shirts, as you can imagine, have improved the image of the average school librarian considerably.

I’m a newcomer here down under, and a true GenXPatriate: a British citizen with Canadian residence and a New Zealand work permit. With a British/Canadian mother and a Canadian/Kiwi dad, living in whichever of the three countries we’ve called home so far, our future children already have an acronym awaiting them: “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). And I wonder, as I fold up my National Weed Month t-shirt and take down the New Zealand flags, what their national literature will be.

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