It’s almost Canada Day, which means we’re going to see a lot of really impressive “to-read” lists; and, for good reason, too. We are very fortunate to be the land that houses great writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Lawrence Hill (to name a few).
Despite being a fan of the well-known Canadian classics, there are so many other amazing reads that escape our popular to-reads lists. To spread the word, today I dedicate my Canada Day post to some classic Canadian gems that deserve more recognition.
- What We All Long For, Dionne Brand (2005)
“They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.”
With the diverse narrative perspectives and vivid descriptions of contemporary Toronto, it seems fitting to start this list with What We All Long For. Brand’s book was the first time I had ever read a text that fully encapsulated the city, in all its busy-ness and diversity. Those familiar with Toronto will appreciate Brand’s local descriptions and images.
What We All Long For follows four second-generation young adults living in the Downtown. Tuyen is the daughter of Vietnamese parents who lost their son when they left Vietnam; Carla is a bicycle courier who is still grappling with her mother’s suicide; Oku is a second-generation Jamaican poet who hides the fact that he dropped out of university; and, Jackie runs a clothing store on Queen Street West and must deal with the alienation she feels from her Nova Scotian parents. Alongside these narratives is the perspective of Tuyen’s lost brother, Quy, who shares his story of searching for his parents after surviving the Vietnam refugee camps. Though each characters’ experiences are diverse and different, there are many moments of overlap that make for a gripping, memorable read; it is Canadian literature at its finest.
- Why Should I Have All The Grief? Phyllis Gotlieb (1969)
“…she was a symbol, and he could not force himself to accept anything the symbol stood for. The marks on her body externalized the scars on his spirit; her liquid, loser’s eyes were windows looking out on days of torture and filth. He added her hurt to his guilt and kept going with a heavier burden. But one thing all the force of his reason could never tell him was whether by neglect he had shamefully wounded a living person, or merely stepped back from the edge of a precipice.”
Perhaps it is unfair of me to put an out-of-print book on this list, but I don’t care. Why Should I Have All The Grief? is one of favourite novels. It is truly a disappointment that publishers haven’t picked up on its beauty.
Why Should I Have All The Grief? takes place in Toronto, Ontario. Heinz Dorfman is an Auschwitz survivor who has kept his story, nightmares, and survivor’s guilt to himself for over 18 years. The silence takes a toll on his marriage and his ability to be in the world with others. When Heinz’ uncle arrives in Toronto and asks Heinz to take part in a traditional Jewish Funeral ceremony, Heinz must confront his surviving family and the trauma he buried. Gotlieb’s gift for dialogue, subtlety, and science fiction make Why Should I Have All The Grief? a complex navigation of trauma and memory. It comes at my highest recommendation.
- Klee Wyck, Emily Carr (1941)
“Some Indians used the hollow boles of ancient cedar trees as grave holes, though life was still racing through the cedar’s outer shell.
In one of these hollow trees the Indians had lately buried a young woman. They had put her in a trunk. There was a scarlet blanket over the top. Scattered upon that were some beads and bracelets. There was a brass lamp and her clothes too. The sun streamed in through the split in the side of the tree and sparkled on her dear things. This young dead woman lay in the very heart of the living cedar tree. As I stood looking, suddenly twigs crackled and bracken shivered behind me. My throat went dry and my forehead wet–but it was only Indian dogs.
Up behind Toxis the forest climbed a steep hill and here in the woods was one lonely grave, that of “our only professed Christian Indian,” according to the Missionaries. The Missionaries had coffined him tight and carried him up the new-made trail with great difficulty. They put him into the earth among the roots of the trees, away from all his people, away from the rain and the sun and the wind which he had loved and which would have rushed to help his body melt quickly into the dust to make earth richer because this man had lived.”
Yes, this passage is long, but I’ve chosen it for a good reason. For over 50 years, Canadian publishers censored these words because they were too critical of the Church and too sensitive towards Indigenous spiritual practices. Even now, if you search for Klee Wyck in used bookstores or on Project Gutenberg, you won’t find this passage and many others. Thankfully, Douglas & McIntyre’s 2004 edition recovered Klee Wyck’s missing 2300 words.
Though Klee Wyck certainly has its issues, it is a beautifully sensitive collection of stories set in British Columbia. Many of Klee Wyck’s stories revolve around Carr’s time as an art teacher, where she made many friendships with Indigenous peoples in nearby areas. Her descriptions of these friendships, the totem poles, burials, and other spiritual practices are as visually captivating as her paintings and also offer a critique of Christian violence in Canada. By painting a more rounded picture of these local relationships, Klee Wyck offers a unique and important historical account for Canadian readers.
- Fronteras Americanas, Verdecchia Guillermo (1993)
“I am a hyphenated person, but I am not falling apart; I am putting together.”
Those who say Canadian writers aren’t funny haven’t read or seen Guillermo’s Fronteras Americanas. This one-act play follows Verdecchia’s personal experiences as a hyphenated person (that is, a person who identifies with more than one nationality). Verdecchia satirizes his divisions by assuming two personalities: the educated, Argentine-Canadian and the stereotyped Latin-American, Fecundo Morales Secundo (shortened to Wideload). In his Verdecchia person, he shares lecture-styled stories of his experiences trying to find home in Canada; in his Wideload persona, he plays into the stereotype, speaking in a thick accent and making fun of the way white Canadians dance. Full of humour and emotion, Fronteras Americanas captures what it means to be a hyphenated person in Canada, in all its pain and glory.
- Swing Low: A Life, Miriam Toews (2000)
“There are no windows within the dark house of depression through which to see others, only mirrors.”
I am always surprised that Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness gets so much acclaim given the fact that Swing Low: A Life is infinitely better. While A Complicated Kindness is a wonderful novel, Swing Low: A Life is transgressive, fragile, thoughtful, and perhaps the most important book in her repertoire. I have yet to read another author approach mental health and suicide with as much care, and her most recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, only affirms this.
Miriam Toews wrote Swing Low: A Life after her father Mel’s long-time struggle with bipolar disease and eventual suicide. During Mel’s time in the hospital, Toews got into the habit of writing sticky notes and reminders in his voice. Swing Low: A Life’s narrative voice follows suit, making it one of the novel’s central vulnerabilities: Toews gives voice to Mel’s complicated life, but she assumes his voice to do so. It’s risky. It’s also Toews. As someone personally familiar with the tolls mental health can take on the family and person, I believe Toews does a careful and brilliant job.
- Frog Moon, Tostevin Lola Lemire (1993)
“She wanted to end the years of silence. She wanted the taste of the words in her mouth as after a novena or a long fast.”
The fact that I have never seen Tostevin Lola Lemire on a Canada Reads list truly shocks me. Her writing is stunning. As a reader, you can feel her words on your tongue. Sometimes, when I’m driving through long stretches of land or feeling especially reflective, I find myself thinking about them.
Frog Moon, Lemire’s debut text, is a feminist retelling of oral tradition, myth, legend, and classic stories. The protagonist, Laura (who also goes by Laure in French), is a Franco-Ontarian who alternates between sharing stories of her French upbringing and stories of her present, Anglophone life in Toronto. Navigating several different identities, the protagonist turns to different modes to make sense of who she is. I believe this is a spectacular read for those who enjoy coming-of-age stories and wonderful writing.
- Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai (1994)
“Yet those Sundays, when I was seven, marked the beginning of my exile from the world I loved. Like a ship that leaves a port for the vast expanse of the sea, those much looked forward to days took me away from the safe harbour of childhood towards the precarious waters of adult life.”
Despite being a required course read during my Master’s, I somehow managed to evade reading Funny Boy until very recently. In some ways, I’m happier knowing I was able to appreciate this collection as a reader rather than an academic. It’s often taught in Canadian cultural studies classrooms because of the narrator’s reflections on the intersections of class, race, and sexual orientation; however, many academic readers forget that it is also funny, painful, and loving.
The six connected stories follow the protagonist, Arjie’s, life growing up in Sri Lanka. Between the internal struggles with his sexuality and the external Sinhala-Tamil tensions, Arjie’s stories are deeply emotional and complex. With Canada positioned as the novel’s end-point, Funny Boy helps Canadian readers witness some of complicated histories existing for many of our diasporic citizens.
- Drawing Down a Daughter, Claire Harris (1992)
“the sun gathers wings draws back his blade
morning bleeds into the river
inside you thrash out i hug my belly in the helpless dawn
for a moment i am
as the stunned slave under the whip”
The first time I picked up Claire Harris’ collection, I read through it three times. To put it simply, her writing moved me.
There is no exact time-frame or structure to this text, making it difficult to describe. Despite returning to this text often, I still have no idea how to classify it. Perhaps it is best described as a poetic collage: it is the length of a short novel, but completely poetic in form and imagery. What I can say is that Drawing Down a Daughter situates itself in the dream-state of a Canadian-Caribbean woman about to give birth. Each of the unnamed speaker’s stories, thoughts, letters, and dreams address her unborn daughter. These entries are majestic. The images along with Harris’ strong command of poetry makes this a particularly special read for those who love the uncertainties of post-modernist literature and poetry.
- Mad Shadows, Marie-Claire Blais (1959). Published in French as La Belle Bête.
“In the lake she was able to forget about the scars that covered her back. When she swam her limbs relaxed, one by one, and her body drank the bliss of adolescence.”
Though the English translation simplifies some of complexities of the French original, Mad Shadows remains a golden example of Québécois fairytale: it’s Grimm brothers’ meets 19th century gothic meets contemporary feminist manifesto.
Written by Marie-Claire Blais just prior to the secularization of Quebec, Mad Shadows shocked Catholic communities with its strong depictions of religious violence. Each character immerses him or herself in Catholic sin and offers no semblance of remorse. This radicalization of sin is the reason some criticize the novel as being “too simplistic” and “too allegorical”; however, I do believe Blais offers more depth than these reviewers suggest. These reviews fail to consider the intergenerational power relations between the protagonist, Isabelle-Marie, and her mother, Louise; or, the strong depictions of the mental institution, where Mad Shadows’ male protagonist, Patrice, stays. These psychological threads combined with the overwhelmingly strong feminist undertones not only affirms Blais’ talent as a complex storyteller, but also one who was well before her time.
- 1949, David French (1989)
“There are black flags flying over Newfoundland this very minute. There are people right now sitting around their radios, knowing their lives are about to change. People who feel they had no real say in the matter. And yes, grief doesn’t need to call attention to itself to be grief. And it doesn’t need the trappings of grief to be real. But for those who can’t speak, or won’t, the sound of that flag in the wind may be all they need to say. And far more eloquent than words.”
David French was a fairly popular Canadian playwright, perhaps best known for his play, Jitters; however, I have a soft spot for his Mercer Family series. 1949 is a particular favourite of mine for its mix of sharp dialogue, humour, and historical complexity.
This short play takes place on April 1, 1949, the day that Newfoundland joins Confederation. With each character posing a different perspective on this historical moment, the play offers a layered picture of this historical moment, in all its loss and potential. It’s a fantastic read for those looking to learn more about Newfoundland’s history with Canada.
- Hetty Dorval, Ethel Wilson (1947)
“‘Can we often see that?’ she asked. ‘Will it ever come again? Oh Frankie, when we stood there and the geese went over, we didn’t seem to be in our bodies at all, did we? And I seemed to be up with them where I’d really love to be. Did you feel like that?’
That was so exactly how the wild geese always made me feel, that I was amazed. Perhaps Mother and Father felt like that because they, too, dearly loved watching the geese passing overhead, but somehow we would never never have said that to each other – it would have made us all feel uncomfortable. But Mrs. Dorval said it naturally, and was not at all uncomfortable, and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to agree with her without confusion and apology.
Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval offers vivid descriptions of small town dynamics, local mystery and scandal, arguably comparable to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Since Alice Munro is among my top five favourite writers ever, I do not say this lightly.
As with Munro’s iconic text, Hetty Dorval is a coming-of-age story about a young girl navigating social and religious pressures alongside family expectations. Set in a small town in British Columbia, the 12-year-old protagonist, Frankie Burnaby, develops a fascination with the new neighbour in town: Mrs. Dorval. Mrs. Dorval is a beautiful and charming widow whose life as a single woman stirs town gossip. Despite the town’s disdain, Frankie develops a complicated friendship with Mrs. Dorval that she returns to throughout her life. Between nuanced town relationships and mesmerizing descriptions of Canadian land, Wilson’s short novella remains an understated Canadian classic.
- Islands of Decolonial Love, Leanne Simpson (2013)
“remember: to feel joy, you first have to escape.
there’s an old nishnaabe story, from the beginning of time, where seven grandparents who live in the sky world, take a young child from his parents and raise him in the ways that the earth’s people have forgotten. they teach him stories, songs and ceremonies and eventually he is sent back to earth to share these ways with his people. i never really liked that story, because my heart gets broken when they take the boy away from his parents, and i only ever listen to the rest in a nervous holding pattern, lost in how lonely that boy must have felt, lost in a world where he was always the only one.”
Unlike Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian or Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, Simpson’s debut collection always seems to just miss making it on ‘Best Canadian Reads’ lists; and, it’s truly a shame. Islands of Decolonial Love’s descriptions of land, urban Indigeneity, and cross-cultural relations capture some of the most beautiful – and heart-breaking – truths about Canada, and the traumas that many Indigenous peoples that still live and breathe at the margins of the land.
Reserves, bars, therapy sessions, and ice rinks are only some of the many spaces Simpson navigates in this collection. Presenting Canadian spaces through a decolonized lens, Islands of Decolonial Love bears witness to the ways colonialism still operates in contemporary spaces.
(Note: I acknowledge Islands of Decolonial Love made it to my “Indigenous Reads” list, but it seems fitting to include it here as well. Forgive me!)
- Diamond Grill, Fred Wah
“Sipping underneath that wet, burned rice after dinner in his gaze is some long night far away on the other side of earth in other eyes and other pots burned hot in the charcoal clay stove flickered light from the lit dry grass under the same stars fields of rice and water Pacific Ocean end of murmured sadness jumped intestinal interstices, bisected, circulated, tongue’s crack, crossed into gut, guttered now between the pages of this book the floating gaze and taste burnt right through to the spine.”
If I had to describe this collection in one word, it would be “internal.” There is something very personal about the way Fred Wah semi-autobiographically recounts his life growing up in British Columbia during the 1950s as a Chinese-Canadian. To do so, his stories travel back many generations, as they retell his grandfather’s work on the Canadian Pacific Railway and his father’s eventual opening of a Chinese café in Canada. Juxtaposed with Wah’s own experiences of racism and isolation in school, Diamond Grill offers a much-needed understanding of Chinese history in Canada and the socio-political complexities of being a hyphenated citizen.
- Volkswagen Blues, Jacques Poulin (1984)
“You shouldn’t judge books one by one. I mean, you mustn’t see them as independent objects. A book is never complete in itself, to understand it you must put it in relation to other books, not just books by the same author, but also books written by other people. What we think is a book most of the time is only part of another, vaster book that a number of authors have collaborated on without knowing it.”
Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues is Canada’s version of a Beat Generation novel. Though it was originally published in French, Sheila Fischman offers a wonderful translation that comes at my highest recommendation.
The protagonist, Jack Waterman, is a struggling writer from Quebec who decides to decides to go searching for his brother, Theo. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker. She is a Métis woman who goes by the nickname La Grande Sauterelle. Together, these two characters travel through the Oregan Trail and confront North American history, art, and colonialism. With stunning descriptions of North American land and eye-opening accounts of our colonial history, Volkswagen Blues is a memorable Canadian read.
- The Second Scroll, M. Klein (1951)
“Certainly I could not look upon those limbs, well fleshed and of the colour of health, each in its proper socket, each as of yore ordained, without recalling to mind another scattering of limbs, other conglomerations of bodies the disjected members of which I had but recently beheld. For as I regarded the flights of athletes above me the tint subcutaneous of well-being faded, the flesh dwindled, the bones showed, and I saw the relicta of the camps, entire cairns of cadavers, heaped and golgotha’d: a leg growing from its owner’s neck, an arm extended from another’s shoulder, wrist by jawbone, ear on ankle: the human form divine crippled, jackknifed, trussed, corded: reduced and broken down to its named bones, femur and tibia and clavicle and ulna and thorax and pelvis and cranium: the bundled ossuaries: all in their several social heapings heaped to be taken up by the mastodon bulldozer and scavengered into its sistine limepit.”
Of all the texts on this list, A.M. Klein’s The Second Scroll is among the most forgotten. To this day, the novella’s praise remains with Canada’s academic literature elite, quietly living within old journal publications, graduate seminars, and dusty university library shelves. Nonetheless, The Second Scroll is one Canada’s finest texts. Reading The Second Scroll is comparable to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time: each word drips with meaning and paints the most vivid pictures and histories.
The Second Scroll centers upon what it means to survive in a post-Holocaust world. Mimicking the structure of the Old Testament, Klein’s five-book novella follows the unnamed Jewish protagonist’s childhood memories growing up in Montreal and hearing secondhand about his Uncle Melech’s struggles in Europe during the Second World War. Now, as a journalist, the protagonist seeks to uncover the full story. Fragmented, painful, and majestic all at once, The Second Scroll belongs on every proud Canadian reader’s bookshelf.