“Is winter my country”: Bowering’s Kanada

This essay appears in Open Letter 14.4 (2010), and in an earlier form in Jacket 28 (2005).

“Canadian literature will not understand this novel” (132) says George Bowering in A Short Sad Book. Says George Bowering the character in A Short Sad Book written by George Bowering. Only a few sentences in and already I am confusing everyone. Canadian readers will not understand this essay.

I say it is an essay and it is an essay because I say so and if you are reading this then Open Letter said so too. I can’t take all the blame.

In Canada we are so bored of essays, there are so many essays, they grow on trees, like fungi, are grown on trees cut down and treated and then bound into books. Bound, the Marquis would be proud, we are all Sadists who get off on writing essays.

I am still writing this essay so I am part of the problem but then again you are still reading. I can’t take all the blame.

*

There are a lot of lakes in Bowering’s book. At one point he writes “this novel is full of lakes just like Canada” (121). I grew up near the Lake of the Woods which is mentioned on page 89. A bullet passes over the lake and strikes Evangeline, the title character of Longfellow’s famous poem.

George Bowering has written some famous poems and books but he is not as famous as Longfellow. A Short Sad Book is a book few of my friends have read though many of them know and in some cases love George Bowering. In Calgary all the writers argue about Bowering. He is a hero and a fraud. His Kerrisdale Elegies is a triumph and a travesty. He is fondly remembered in bars and fought about in alleyways. Nobody can even agree on how many books he’s written.

Why is that. Question, mark.

*

One lake that is not in Bowering’s book is Devil’s Lake. I have seen it written Devil’s Lake and Devils Lake but I prefer Devil’s Lake because it sounds more dramatic. Drama is important in stories and even essays. Why should anyone care. Anyway Devil’s Lake is in North Dakota and is a freshwater lake and is the largest natural body of water in the state.

The largest body of water in the state is actually Lake Sakakawea but it is artificial and thus unnatural. Devil’s Lake is the second largest body of water but it gets top billing for being so natural. The Devil is still a Christian after all whereas Sakakawea sounds like some sort of Indian name.

(I have nothing against Native Americans or their names but this is the United States we are talking about. Of course up in Canada we don’t treat them any better but we like to pretend that we do. In the United States they don’t even pretend. Which is worse. Question mark?)

Devil’s Lake is a terminal lake. It is a very polluted lake and is dying a long death. It floods a lot and the Americans get angry because they don’t want this polluted, terminal lake dying on their doorsteps.

But the problem of Devil’s Lake won’t go away. It’s a terminal lake, it has to die somewhere, and why not take a few people with it, don’t tell me you’ve never thought the same.

Anyway North Dakota had a great idea. Let’s just drain this lake so that it doesn’t flood on our doorsteps. Let’s drain it into Minnesota and Manitoba and let them worry about it, those Canadians are better environmentalists anyway.

Of course Canada got angry about this and even other Americans got angry about this and Minnesota and Manitoba both got angry and said look you can’t do this. You can’t do this, it’s a polluted lake, more polluted even than our rivers and you can’t just go polluting our rivers they are our rivers and only we can pollute them. Who knows what you’ve got in that lake maybe sharks and dinosaurs we don’t need those things swimming around in our rivers or in Lake Winnipeg maybe even a mermaid or two or some leeches we have enough leeches and mermaids and sirens singing drunken frat boys to their doom.

But North Dakota said of course we can we have more guns than you Canada more guns even than Minnesota. More bullets and more water and you will get one or the other.

Then the Natives said look you can’t do this Devil’s Lake is a sacred place. You can’t just give our sacred things away. Before at least we could look at them, when you stole the land and said look but don’t touch we could at least look. We are the Spirit Lake Tribe and guess which lake. As if it wasn’t enough that you took our lake away and changed its name to make fun of us. Now you want to give the water away to a country that doesn’t even want the water.
Then North Dakota said oh well oh look sorry but we went and did it already.

So now the Americans have gone and ignored everyone. Canada said look you can’t do this, we have treaties, there are laws, and they just went and did it anyway. The Spirit Lake Tribe said look you can’t do this, we have treaties, there are laws, and they just went and did it anyway. Even other Americans said look you can’t do this, there are treaties, there are laws, and then they just went and did it anyway.

*

I used to live in Ontario near Lake of the Woods. Then I moved to Winnipeg near the Red River. Now I live in Calgary near the Bow River. [1] The Bow is in Bowering’s name but not in A Short Sad Book.

The Winnipeg River flows from Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg. From Devil’s Lake water is drained into the Sheyenne River which flows to the Red River which flows north into Lake Winnipeg.

Lake Winnipeg is not in Winnipeg and the Winnipeg River does not pass through Winnipeg either. But sometimes in the summer I would go to Winnipeg Beach or to Gimli Beach which is also a beach on the shores of Lake Winnipeg and try to impress girls in bikinis by telling them I was a writer of Canadian Literature and maybe they could be a part of Canadian Literature too if they were nice to me.

*

Enough stalling. Let’s get to the thesis, this is an essay after all and so it must have a thesis. Whatever else an essay might be it is definitely something with a thesis.

My thesis is a question and the question is “Does Canada Exist.” I put capital letters on all those words because they are important and I want you to think about them. In Canada nobody cares about anything unless there are capitals involved just like in high school geography. Does Canada Exist.

Before the first chapter in A Short Sad Book Bowering writes: “there is one dream in the following pages” (7). The first chapter recounts a dream, right off the bat, right away, it all seems too obvious, a red herring I think. Canada exports herring and Canadian Literature exports red herrings when it is exported at all.

What I think what I want to know. Does Canada Exist or is Kanada a dream.

*

What is a Canadian and what is a Kanadian. In A Short Sad Book the word Kanada appears twice and each time it appears the novel says “Cuba & Kanada” (26, 32). Maybe he’s making fun of Whitman. [2] Or maybe Kanada is just Canada as the Americans see it, a communist paradise where we have too much space and not enough people and more trees and oil than we need. Kanada as a land with a hidden communist army composed of married homosexuals ready to strike at the first sign of weakness. Maybe that is why they make a show of acting tough, invading other countries and outlawing gay marriage and arresting everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.

I’m exaggerating of course but they started it.

To some Americans maybe Kanada is a paradise where we have more space and trees and oil than we need. We even have Devil’s Lake now, at least some of it, more every day.

Where are all these trees and oil. Out my window I see concrete and gas costs hover when they do not rise. Maybe Kanada is an American fantasy an American phantom. Maybe Kanada is the American dream or the American nightmare or both at the same time.

*

I know what you’re thinking. Is this an essay. You’re only citing Bowering. And not using commas or question marks in the correct places at all times. And your sentences are way too long and start with and. God help us you went to school for this.

Repent.

“It is unnecessary to see a discrepancy, or even a division, between what we know as academic and what we think of as creative writing” (Gunnars 65).

*

Further citation:

T: The book of yours I really like is A Short Sad Book.
BOWERING: Nobody ever writes on that. Everybody’s writing articles now on Burning Water.
T: I actually go back and re-read A Short Sad Book from time to time.
BOWERING: It’s an emetic for Canadian literature! It’s important. (Twigg)

There I hope that satisfies you.

*

In A Short Sad Book Bowering says that he has made over a thousand dollars writing it. Bowering is a better businessman than me. Here I am writing this for nothing. Writing the damn thing in between class work for a Ph.D. In Canada all the writers get Ph.D.s. That’s how you know they are writers because they have lots of education and lots of debt and no money or girls in bikinis.

I was writing a novel called Kanada and it was going well until I re-read A Short Sad Book so that I could write about it. Then I noticed that Bowering says Kanada on pages 26 and 32 and I thought goddamn it I must have filed that away in my brain when I read the book the first time and mixed up all the files when I moved.

So what, I can call my book Kanada anyway and if anybody asks where I came up with the name I will still say I thought of it while reading Kafka which is true instead of saying I stole it from Bowering in a dream which is also true. Bowering must have thought of it while reading Kafka anyway so there you go. All things come from Kafka anyway.

What is Bowering doing in my dreams. I’ve never even met him. What would Freud say about this. The Poet Laureate (former) as father figure. My father’s name is George and it is my name, my middle name, also.

*

Is this an emetic for the essay or just an emetic in general. You decide, this is a writerly text, if you can stomach it you get to decide what is and is not Canadian Literature. You and your stomach get to judge my writing especially if you two are selected to serve on any awards committees.

*

In Bowering’s book he talks a lot about writing because he is a post-modernist when all is said and done. But also I think because he is a writer and we all have heard write what you know. But also I think because he is writing a Canadian novel or maybe a Kanadian novel and wants to know what that means.

“We dont know each other very well” (23) writes Bowering and he means us Canadians. If you are an Australian reading this I apologize or an American or someone else who is not a Canadian. Write what you know. If you are a Canadian reading this I apologize if you don’t agree but I am doing my best. If you are a Canadian reading this please contact me at jonathan@jonathanball.com and tell me how you know you are a Canadian and maybe that will make things more clear than this essay.

He means us Canadians but he also means us and the Americans. We hear them talking about this country Canada and to retaliate we talk about this country Canada but by the end of it we’re all talking about this country Kanada and one of these things is not like the others in a Great Canadian Paradox they are all one and the same.

It’s not easy writing especially when nobody is paying you a thousand dollars. When someone is paying you a thousand dollars it is not any easier to write but it is easier to believe that what you are writing is worth reading.

*

I was going to read all of Bowering’s books, so that I could become a Bowering expert which is somebody who knows for certain how many books he’s written but then I began studying for a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature and all of a sudden I had no time to read any Canadian Literature. If you are a Canadian writer you have lots of debt and a shelf full of Canadian Literature you don’t have any time to read.

But you have lots of time for jokes and here’s one. George Bowering walks into a bar in Calgary and the bartender doesn’t say anything but the waitress, the waitress runs over and throws her arms around him and asks him if he wants the usual and it’s weird because he’s in town on a trip to do a reading to promote his 287th book and so I ask how often he comes in and she says he was there once or twice a few years ago but she never forgot him.

The poets show love in their arguing and this a different kind of love and so Bowering is a success by any standard.

*

“So it was a success story. Canadian literature had succeeded. But if it had succeeded was it really Canadian literature” (166).

If you make over a thousand dollars from it is it really Canadian literature. Is it a Canadian novel if you do not write it when you should be grading papers.

*

In A Short Sad Book Bowering spends a lot of time recounting all the things that are supposed to be Canadian, like beavers and maple leaves and hockey and politicians. He also spends a lot of time claiming ignorance. Has he ever seen a beaver except on a nickel? Can he pick a maple leaf out of the many leaves on the sidewalk? Does he know what offside means or what it looks like? Does he know more about American or Canadian politics?

In Canada we don’t make history, “in Canada the only history is writing history” (78). History is written by the winners in other places but in Canada history is written by the people who write history.

In Canada the people who write history say look at us, we are writing history, give us book deals and girls in bikinis.

In Canada the Natives say they have an oral history but we say in Canada history is writing history then they tell us stories and we write them down and we sell them for thousands of dollars and say look at all this written history it must belong to us and not the Natives.

They look at our thousands of dollars but are not allowed to touch.

In Canada we say look at us, we are not Americans and that is all. To be Canadian is to not be American. Don’t worry Native Americans we are not Americans and neither are you, really. Look we have thousands of dollars now. We would give you Natives some but of course you don’t need it you have all those traditions whatever they are.

*

I have forgotten to talk about winter. In America they talk of the Great Canadian Winter. In Canada we talk of the Great Canadian Novel which takes place in the winter. In A Short Sad Book Bowering details the quest for the Pretty Good Canadian Novel. Before this happens Evangeline meets John A. Macdonald.

*

She said arent the mountains beautiful. He replied would you like me to take you up there.

Is winter my country she said.

& up they went. (64)

*

When Evangeline says “Is winter my country” she means “of course.” Of course winter is her country. Of course Canada and winter are the same.

They are the same in our minds, and in the minds of the Americans. Kanada and winter are the same.

*

If they are diverting their bad water towards us what will be next.

Does Canada Exist or is Kanada a dream everyone will forget when they wake up.

*

Maybe. But.

*

It’s in speaking that ideas come to us, words, & then we, in our own words, we find perhaps everything, the city too, the garden, & then we are orphans no longer.

The words will make a world.

All the time I am writing this Canadian book I am not writing something else & it is the invisible book I am not writing. There is one of those for every book that is written.

We have just solved the great Canadian problem of the one-book novelist.

Bowering wrote all of that and you can read it on pages (126-7) of A Short Sad Book. I would have said so earlier but I liked it so much I wanted to pretend for a moment that I wrote it after all.

*

I think I understand now, thank you Bowering. Can I call you George. Canada is a dream and it is no dream and it is history. Kanada exists on the bookshelf under Canadian Literature. I will write it and then I will throw it into the Bow river.

Bowering, bow.

Notes

[1] Now I live in Winnipeg again, but when I wrote that I lived in Calgary. It would be boring and less dramatic to say that I moved back to Winnipeg and it would ruin jokes and puns so I didn’t. Since the “notes” section of an essay is always boring and lacking in drama I thought I would add this note here, also I didn’t have any notes before and was feeling inadequate but I feel better now thank you for your time.

[2] “In Whitman’s poetry, the embodiment of the United States as the new, democratic nation spreading its influence over the world coalesced with the celebration of the figure of Columbus and his quest to find a sea route to Asia . . . The poem [‘Our Old Feuillage’] lovingly details the geographic breadth of the United States . . . [and] includes other (embraced) countries in distinctly erotic terms: for example, ‘soft-breath’d Cuba’ and ‘Kanada.’” (Schueller 178)

Works Cited

Bowering, George. A Short Sad Book. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977. Print.

Gunnars, Kristjana. Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004. Print.

Schueller, Malini Johar. U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. Print.

Twigg, Alan. Strong Voices: Conversations with 50 Canadian Authors. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1988. ABCBookWorld. 17 Sept. 2005. Web.

Biography

Jonathan Ball holds a Ph.D. in English and is the author of the books Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009) and Clockfire (Coach House, 2010).

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