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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, MAY 26, 2017
Several months ago, I was assigned to review two recent novels by Stephen Henighan: Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives, released this spring, and The Path of the Jaguar, published late last year. I read both books, taking notes on the public deployment of race and identity in Canada as depicted in Mr. Singh, and larger questions of representation in both books, given both of Henighan’s protagonists are of a different race than him.
Then, Hal Niedzviecki published his editorial in the Indigenous issue of Write magazine, in which, among other things, he erroneously conflated cultural appropriation with writing about people of other cultures. My ultimate assessment of Henighan’s books has not changed, although the immediate context for talking about them certainly has.
Henighan is a writer, literary translator and academic who also teaches Latin American literature and culture at the University of Guelph. Although he has published three previous novels as well as three collections of short stories, he is likely best known (perhaps notoriously so, in some circles) as a critic. In considering his latest novels, I consulted two of his essay collections: When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (2002) and A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (2008).
In an essay published in the former, “Free Trade Fiction, or the Victory of Metaphor over History,” Henighan skewers two novels of the 1990s, the success of which typify for him the problems of English-Canadian writing of the time: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. Henighan’s issue with these novels is their treatment of the Holocaust: The English Patient, a novel that looks toward life after the Second World War, ignores the genocide, he argues, whereas Fugitive Pieces aestheticizes it. So laden with metaphors are these books, Henighan says, it distracts from the appalling ahistoricism.
Recounting the events of the past few weeks is beyond the scope of this review. What I want to emphasize is our own historical moment: We, too, write in the context of genocide, and for those who are not Indigenous and write in public in this country (myself included), we need to consider the implications of that. Centuries of theft and erasure give rise to misinformation and unexamined assumptions – good intentions and the injunction to “write what you don’t know” can’t teach us how to write in this moment. Only education and serious self-critical work can. (One extremely accessible guide is Métis educator and writer Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, published last year.)
It’s not an easy time for a nuanced discussion of these two novels. CanLit has seen three major controversies in six months: the UBC Accountable letter (in which dozens of prominent authors were seen as rushing to the defence of Steven Galloway), the questions surrounding Joseph Boyden’s ethnicity and now Niedzviecki’s editorial. It has been a disillusioning experience for many. Taken together, these controversies could suggest that Henighan is right, and CanLit is controlled by a cabal of powerful writers who pay lip service to diversity but care little for marginalized writers, which is one of the takeaways of Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives.
As R.U. Singh tells you in the novel’s opening pages, he was meant to live a life of leisure befitting the English gentry: a county squire, his days spent in novels. Too bad he’s his father’s fifth son and must make his own way in the world. Also too bad he was born in 1950s Bombay, far from his imagined Victorian idyll.
After several false starts, Singh finds himself in Southwestern Ontario, a life of loiterature within his grasp, having stumbled upon a party of the Canadian literati, one of whom takes him under her wing. Although he finds Canada initially disappointing, he is happy to find the country’s writers provincial and Victorian in their aesthetic. But Singh’s new prestige depends on his good-minority status, and he’s not what his new friends would like him to be.
Some background: A decade ago, Henighan wrote about “the public manipulation of race” he saw at work in CanLit’s highest echelon at the 2006 Giller Prize – “the Wasp cultural establishment’s need to diversify its ethnic alliances in order to shore up its dominance in the 21st century.” Specifically, he was referring to Margaret Atwood’s advocacy for eventual winner Vincent Lam, although his larger point was about the literary establishment’s use of “strategic tokenism” to avoid talking about race.
Good satire punches up, not down, and Mr. Singh follows the rule. It’s true, Singh is far from innocent: Despite not being Sikh, he’s happy to give that impression if he cuts a more “picturesque” ethnic figure in a turban. But he’s hardly the villain. His Hindu cousins in Toronto’s suburban towers might be horrified at Singh’s head wear, but no one in the Canadian media or publishing elite cares much to ask. “I was the brown-skinned bearded man in a turban for whose rise into the Canadian spotlight they could take credit,” he says. Singh has his uses, until his fall.
Tempering the bite of the satire is that Henighan’s novel opens several decades before the present. Singh comes to Canada in the 1970s and his disgrace – a long time coming – still predates the era of the Twitter notification. The temporal distance means Henighan does not comment directly on racial diversity in CanLit presently, although whether you are bothered that a white author places his critique in the mouth of a brown man likely depends on whether you agree with that critique.
The story of a young Mayan woman attempting to preserve her language and culture despite narrowing possibilities in the years following Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, The Path of the Jaguar arguably drives closer to our current anxieties around appropriation, although I found it featured the more thoroughly depicted protagonist. That might be because of the novel’s sincerity or that Amparo Ajuix’s desire to pass her culture and Cakchiquel language to her children is this novel’s constant, where R.U. Singh adopts new identities with changes in the wind.
Henighan is a long-time student of Guatemala and its literature, from his academic study nearly two decades ago of Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias to the journalism and literary work of Francisco Goldman and the changes heralded in 1996 by the end of the civil war, including the political movement for Indigenous rights.
The Indigenous peoples of Guatemala represent a significant portion of the population, roughly equal to the ladino, or people of “mixed” Indigenous and European ancestry – although the term ladino is also a marker for someone who has adopted Hispanic culture, including Western dress and the Spanish language. Despite this demographic equality, when The Path of the Jaguar opens in 1997, the ladino bourgeoisie is undoubtedly dominant, so much so that to speak Cakchiquel is considered shameful, a sign of backwardness. Amparo is a proud Mayan, but life in peacetime presents new challenges to Mayan culture: strife between evangelicals and Catholics in her village, increasing dependence on tourism in Antigua, financial insecurity that threatens to disband Amparo’s family.
A novel written in English about a country where Spanish dominates can only convey so much of a language’s worldview, although The Path of the Jaguar tries. On learning Cakchiquel, Henighan wrote in 2003: “To study a Mayan language is to bump your toes against the threshold of a universe that is local, specific, conservative yet ritualized. There are small, rewarding revelations. The fact that the same expression, käk winaq, describes both ‘foreigners’ and ‘Spanish-speaking Guatemalans,’ exposes Mayan marginalization.”
For part of the novel, Amparo is employed as a Cakchiquel tutor to a visiting Canadian manager of a language school, Ricardo, who I think we can take as a stand-in for the author. Try as he might, Ricardo can’t pronounce the word b’alem, “jaguar.” Canadian language teachers don’t know everything and Ricardo doesn’t really know Amparo’s life. Henighan is aware of his limitations in trying to tell this story.
Early in The Path of the Jaguar, we see Amparo in El Tesoro, the bookstore where she works. Perusing the shelves, there are books by ladinos, by foreigners who study Mayan tradition, even books written in Quiche, but nothing by someone like Amparo. “Are there no Cakchiquels who write?” she asks. “No Mam or Tzutujil?” The meaning from that passage is clear: The Path of the Jaguar, as well informed about Guatemalan life as it may be, is not that book Amparo is looking for. Henighan’s place in the bookstore is as one of those “gringo professors who bought fat books on Guatemalan history that cost a month’s wages each.” The Path of the Jaguar is not a fix for the lack of Cakchiquel books on the shelves, but it gives a reader some idea of why we might want one.
— Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail
geist magazine, issue #103 winter 2016
This past December longtime Geist columnist Stephen Henighan did a promotional tour of western Canada for his latest novel, The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown Press). Path of the Jaguar follows the goings-on of Amparo Ajuix, a young Mayan woman who lives in a small village near Antigua and struggles with the in-between nature of her life: as a Native person, she feels she can't be accepted into Spanish-speaking Guatemalan culture, but she has lost touch with her Cakchiquel-speaking roots; she's Catholic, but believes in traditional Mayan gods; and she runs a savings cooperative for women, but it's upsetting the more traditional older women who run the market where she sells her handicrafts.
On his Vancouver stop, Henighan read at The Paper Hound bookhop. The reading brought up much discussion around voice appropriation, identity politics, the role of the writer and the role of the reader and it carried on late into the evening.
— Geist Editors
washington independent review of books, october 27, 2016
A Mayan woman adapts to the changing times in this well-researched novel set in post-civil-war Guatemala.
A few years ago, I read a short story called “My Soul Will Be in Paris,” by Stephen Henighan. The story’s protagonist is Castillo, a “Ladino” poet from Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who moves to Paris during the Roaring Twenties. Castillo is small and dark-skinned, and lingers on the outer edges of the Latin American and French artistic elite.
The introspective atmosphere of the story, evoked by Castillo’s overwhelming feelings of inferiority on one hand, and his hopeful lunge for transcendence on the other, held my attention, to say the least. But it was the surprise ending, a subtle, and, in retrospect, obvious revelation — the final turn of the wheel — that made this story so memorable and unsettling, laying bare my own complicity in Castillo’s faulty assumptions and cultural naiveté.
Henighan’s latest work, the novel The Path of the Jaguar, takes on the familiar territory of refracted cultural identity. The book’s heroine is Amparo Ajuix de Hernández, a Cakchiquel (Maya) woman who lives in a mountain village above Antigua, Guatemala. Like Castillo, Amparo must cultivate her identity among various cultures and traditions in order to survive, despite the fact that she, unlike Castillo, finds meaning and wonder in her indigenous heritage.
Amparo’s husband, Eusebio, is Ladino: a person of indigenous (or mixed) ancestry who has assimilated into Hispanic culture. Historically, this tradeoff brings economic advantage, elevating Ladinos in the social order. But because Amparo’s family is relatively financially secure at the outset of the book, and because Amparo has more ambition than her husband, the couple lives matrilocal, in her community.
For now, Amparo’s conflict is clear: While keeping her husband’s insecurity at bay, she must balance the competing needs to protect her culture, raise a family, and succeed in work outside of the home.
The tensions between Amparo and Eusebio are explored and telegraphed through other conflicts in the village, with community members divided along religious lines (Catholic, Protestant, and Maya cosmology); along generational ones (the younger women want to revive the Cakchiquel language, the elders are less eager); and along other messy and disparate ideological rifts, such as the place of women and the hazy, ever-contested boundaries around ethnic belonging.
Henighan is no stranger to the collapsible nature of identity. He was born in Germany to non-German parents whose ethnicities split in three directions. His family lived in several countries before immigrating to Canada when he was a child. From Henighan’s Twitter feed, there are examples of fluency in all (or most) of the romance languages; elsewhere, he writes essay passages in German and Quiché. With The Path of the Jaguar, Henighan also demonstrates a foundation in Cakchiquel.
Fans of Henighan’s writing might hope these elements place The Path of the Jaguar beyond reproach from the far literary left — with its well-meaning, ahistorical prohibition over the use of culture — and simultaneously far away from classifications on the far literary right, with its petulant style that carries more than a whiff of insensitivity.
One gets the sense of Henighan’s own dislocation as the gateway to his empathetic, and thoroughly researched, cross-cultural literature. And while Amparo’s struggle is most certainly particular to her history, in the face of lost traditions (what Henighan has termed “the Afterlife of Culture”), Amparo’s experience lends itself to the universal reality of identity under pressure.
Amparo’s mentor, Don Julio (yet another Ladino and the owner of a bookstore where she once worked), has some advice: “This tension’s always going to be there. To make your culture advance you must give up part of it. If you live your life as the mother of many children, you’ll maintain your customs in a state of weakness. And in the future that’s not going to work. Your children will go to the maquilas or to the north and your culture will be lost. It’s only by compromising with the modern world that you’ll spare part of that richness.”
Amparo’s journey covers the first eight years after Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996), and by the end of the story, much has changed in Antigua and the surrounding communities. The foreigners who once came to Guatemala as aid workers, those who bought goods and paid to learn Mayan languages, give way to volunteer tourism, a devastating sap on local jobs.
“She had done all that a woman could do: she had educated herself beyond anyone’s expectations; she had worked for Don Julio, she had become a teacher; she had founded a savings cooperative; she had run her weaving stall. She had tried every means available to improve her life and those of her neighbors. She had ransacked the resources of Antigua, where money and opportunities were more plentiful than elsewhere in the country, and still she was sliding backwards.”
What is the way forward, for Amparo? Is she — like the jaguar on her handmade bag, like Castillo, like Henighan, like so many of us — receding further from her origins? There’s a moving passage dedicated to the idea of a “woman acting on her fantasies,” but we’re reminded, particularly by Amparo’s bold, final act that “any path we choose involves loneliness.”
— Dorothy Reno, The Washington Independent Review of Books
FREEFALL MAGAZINE, VOL. XXVI NUMBER 3, FALL 2016
Imaginative investment and writing across cultures: an interview with Stephen Henighan
* voice appropriation
* CanLit criticism: failing to evoke people/place/language of Canada
* exposure & discoverability of books by small presses
Stephen Henighan's fourth novel, The Path of the Jaguar, was published recently by Thistledown Press. Henighan is also the author of three short story collections and half a dozen books of non-fiction. Among his better-known works are The Streets of Winter, North of Tourism, When Words Deny the World and A Report on the Afterlife of Culture. He is a columnist for Geist magazine and General Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series. Henighan has been a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Canada Prize in the Humanities, among other awards. Jeremy Luke Hill interviewed him in Guelph, Ontario.
Jeremy Luke Hill: Considering your well-known and sometimes controversial opinions on the subject of voice appropriation, and considering that the protagonist in The Path of the Jaguar is an indigenous woman from rural Guatemala, I couldn't decide whether it was better to deal with that issue right from the beginning or just leave it entirely unmentioned.
Stephen Henighan: Yeah, let's start with that. It is the elephant in the room.
JLH: Okay, so how does your perspective on voice appropriation influence the way you write a character like Amparo?
SH: When I’m writing fiction, I’m not thinking too much about theories of fiction. It’s true that if I were a strong believer in the doctrine that’s called “voice appropriation” I would not have written a novel like this, but when I’m writing the novel, I’m not thinking about that.
I think that all of us have a range of stories we can tell, and they’re not necessarily dictated by pigmentation or where we are from. They’re more dictated by imaginative capacity as it intersects with experience. The Path of the Jaguar is one of the stories I can tell. That doesn’t mean I can tell every story about a Guatemalan woman. There are lots of stories about Guatemalan women that I cannot tell.
For example, one of the big issues right now that more Canadians should be aware of is the impact that Canadian mining companies are having on a lot of communities in Guatemala. This is truly terrible. It’s an issue that desperately needs to be publicized in Canada. I’d almost rather have written a novel about one of the communities that’s being destroyed by Canadian mining companies, but I can’t do it, because I didn’t have that experience. I don’t know that part of the country. The Mayan language I studied is from a region of the country that’s been relatively unaffected by the Canadian mining invasion so I don’t know the culture of the people who are suffering from this.
My experience comes from a little earlier, so what you get in the novel is more the post-war years, about the whole gradual disillusionment after the initial high of the Peace Accords that put an end to Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war in 1996, and about the gradual infiltration of globalization into a traditional community that’s trying to reassert itself, trying to recohere after the war.
If you don’t know how to write about a certain culture or society or range of experience, then it will come through. All you can do is let everybody write what they want and then point out the works that are obviously thin, caricatured and unconvincing. I mean, you can’t censor W.P. Kinsella and tell him he shouldn’t write condescending stories about Frank Fencepost and his friends. You can just point out that the stories aren’t very good. And that’s what will happen. If people aren’t imaginatively invested in a community, the stories won’t stand up to attentive reading, and they’ll disappear more quickly.
Blanket statements like, “Can you write a story about the Maya?” are meaningless. The question should be, “can you write a story about this specific Mayan woman at this specific time?” Years ago there was a conversation about this between André Brink and Nadine Gordimer. Brink was a writer who was very rooted in the Cape Afrikaner community, which is a very narrow community, and he wrote about it quite devastatingly. Brink felt that he couldn’t write about black South African characters, yet Gordimer, as an urban Jewish writer who had been very politically involved and had gone into a lot of different communities through her political work felt very strongly that she could write about male black South African communists of her generation, because she’d worked with them for decades. She was very clear that she could not write from the perspective of a teenager protesting in Soweto, because she didn’t know that generation very well.
I think the key is to get away from the labels, to get away from defining everybody by pigmentation or supposed cultural group, and to look at the intersection between imagination and experience and see what that enables a particular writer to do.
JLH: I want to follow up with something there. You talked about being “imaginatively invested in a community,” which is an interesting idea. Most often when people talk about these questions, the conversation ends up being about authenticity, about writing authentically, but you’re suggesting that writers need imaginative investment rather than authenticity, however that would be defined.
SH: The quest for authenticity is grossly misplaced when we’re talking about fiction. Fiction certainly needs to be believable in a certain way — Mario Vargas Llosa said that novels are lies that tell the truth — but to say, “This is exactly what someone from this community is like,” well, maybe it’s what one person from that community is like, but it isn’t what everyone from that community is like. Within even the most tightly knit traditional communities there are huge variations of emotional reaction, personality, temperament, so yes, what you’re looking for is a kind of ability to sink your imagination into a world and make it real. Whether a sociologist would say, “That’s exactly what our studies predict,” shouldn’t interest a fiction writer very much.
What really counts is your experience in a place. And I think this liberates everybody, because the flip side of the “voice appropriation” dogma is that a writer of colour of a particular social background gets told they can only write about their own background. If that person has lived her whole life in downtown Guelph then, regardless of her background, she may want to write about downtown Guelph in 2016 rather than about the culture her grandparents possessed.
JLH: You mention that you’d almost rather have written about the issue of Canadian mining companies in Guatemala, which ties into something I want to ask. In When Words Deny the World, you’re quite critical of Canadian literature that is set in distant times or places, that fails to evoke the people, place, and language of Canada.
SH: So why have I written a novel set in Guatemala in the 1990s with almost no Canadian characters?
Because I think it’s important to live your contradictions. Whatever I may have written in When Words Deny the World, it wasn’t a program for my future writing. It was a criticism of what was happening in CanLit at that time. In fact, a first draft of The Path of the Jaguar was much more about Canadians than it was about Guatemalans. But early readers told me that the Canadian characters weren’t believable and the Guatemalan ones were. So I decided to massively reduce the Canadian characters and stick with the Guatemalans. You have to go with what is coming out sounding believable. And if it’s any consolation, I have another novel coming out next year, called Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives, that’s entirely about Canadian society — as described by an outsider, of course.
JLH: One of the things that struck me most forcibly in The Path of the Jaguar is how it explores fictionally some of the same arguments about globalization that you make in the opening pages of A Report on the Afterlife of Culture. Was this a conscious aim for you in the novel, or was it a case of your ongoing preoccupations emerging more or less unintentionally through both forms?
SH: I spent a lot of time in Guatemala. Some of it came out as essays, some of it came out as fiction. You can see that I was writing about Guatemala as far back as the title story of North of Tourism, a book that was published in 1999.
When I look at my generation, I see that we lived twenty to thirty years of our lives in the Cold War, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we’ve lived the second half of our lives under globalization. I’m increasingly aware of that division as a rift in our consciousness. I was aware of it as far back as The Streets of Winter, which is about how globalization came to Canada. The Path of the Jaguar is really a part of an ongoing exploration of how globalization infiltrates people’s lives.
There are different branches to that exploration, obviously. The opening essay of A Report on the Afterlife of Culture is a more direct, head-on tackling of the problem, because it’s an essay, but even as I’m imagining people purely in terms of being characters, I still see them in that context. I’m aware of it, and the more closely you observe things around you, the more aware of it you become, so the novel isn’t a direct transcription of the ideas in the essay. It was more of a continuation of my developing themes.
JLH: How does developing that theme fictionally allow you to explore it differently than through the essay form?
SH: The difference in The Path of the Jaguar is that you see the issues through an individual’s struggles, and you can distill them into dramatic moments. You also don’t get the sweeping generalizations. You can put the sweeping generalizations into the essay, but in the novel they become scenes and moments, and that can make them far more vivid.
I think the character of the protagonist Amparo is interesting because she’s in a culturally ambiguous position. She defines herself as Maya, and yet she’s aware that her mother didn’t always speak to her in the Cakchiquel-Mayan language. She’s as comfortable or more comfortable in Spanish. She’s very much connected to the outside world. She realizes that any success she’s going to have is going to come from the outside world, yet she maintains her stall in the market where she sells her weaving. I think that kind of divided life is emblematic of the lives that a lot of us live, where we’re maintaining some traditional aspects of our culture, and at the same time, in order to survive or to have new opportunities, we have to enter into this much more diaphanous, amorphous globalized world. In the case of Amparo, she’s living in her ancestral village, but she’s just a short bus ride from a major tourist centre, where she can meet people from all over the world. The contrast between the traditional and the globalized world is twice as sharp because of that proximity.
JLH: You wrote When Words Deny the World in 2002, though some of the essays dated from much earlier than that. You then published A Report on the Afterlife of Culture in 2008. What is the biggest difference between Canadian literary cultures you critique in those books and the one in which you’re publishing The Path of the Jaguar?
SH: I wouldn’t try to write a book like When Words Deny the World today. I wrote that book because I thought I had an original insight into the impact of globalization on Canadian literature. Today, by contrast, I don’t feel that I’m the person who is most attuned to what’s happening right now.
There are some differences I do see. For example, the publisher of The Path of the Jaguar, Thistledown Press, one of the quality small literary presses in Canada, is excluded from Chapters, as are a lot of small presses. In most cases this happened because Chapters refused to pay them for the books they sold, which led to a legal dispute, and the smaller presses didn’t have the money to pursue the legal dispute, so they withdrew. My publisher now survives by selling books in independent bookstores, online, and by producing books that will be picked up by high schools and community colleges in Western Canada. This is true of increasing number of smaller presses.
Another change is that book review culture hardly exists anymore. Review culture mattered when every major paper had a four page book section, which published 800-word reviews of any halfway decent novel, and you got a different review in each city because a different freelancer was assigned to write it. Now most newspapers don’t even have reviews. If they have reviews, they’re very short. The only big reviews are of books by American movie stars or well-connected journalists.
Most reviews are now online. I’m not saying that’s worse, but they’re usually not well edited, and it’s difficult for people to find. What I mean by that is that Jane Smith, flipping through the Saturday paper, even if she wasn’t a habitual reader of the book section, would be confronted by the faces and the names of writers and books. Jane Smith no longer has to be confronted by the author who has just published a novel, because she goes online and reads only what’s of interest to Jane Smith, maybe how to raise chickens in south-eastern Ontario. So reviews are a much more questionable enterprise now because they’re not getting read by what used to be called the general reader. Search engines ensure that everyone is fed a steady diet of what is already identified as their principal interest.
JLH: And if they do read reviews, they’re all reading different reviews on different sites, so it’s difficult to build an ongoing conversation.
SH: Yes. Mordecai Richler wrote an essay years ago about living in London in the 1970s, where there were five good weekend papers. Richler said that before anyone started buying your novel, it needed to get reviews in three or four of them. It’s hard to think what the equivalent of that would be today. It’s all very well for someone to say something nice about your book on Goodreads, but their comments are susceptible to being written off as logrolling or friends doing each other favours. It’s difficult to know who to trust. With newspaper reviews, although you got very snarky reviews sometimes, you developed a sense that so-and-so’s value judgements are those I generally concur with, or dissent from. Now it’s harder to know who is offering a rational — I won’t say objective — but an informed and rational perspective. It’s harder to establish the contours of debate.
It’s also harder to get books out there now because books have an even shorter exposure time than used to be the case. Some books get huge reviews in The Globe and Mail, and then you never hear about them again. It used to be that if a book received that kind of review, you’d then see a review in your local paper, and then you’d see a profile in a magazine, and then you’d catch the author on the CBC. Publishers are still trying to use that media-blitz promotional strategy, but the whole media-scape has become so fragmented that it doesn’t really work anymore.
JLH: Besides writing fiction, you also write criticism, translate literature from several languages, serve as the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, and teach Latin American Literature at the University of Guelph. How does being involved like this more broadly in the production of literary culture influence your fiction?
SH: In recent years, thanks to the Biblioasis International Translation Series, I’ve become known in places I was never known before, particularly in literary circles in exotic locales such as New York and Berkeley. But I’m known there as the editor of a translation series, which is not an identity I would ever have imagined as mine. I’m currently trying to educate my new fans that I’m mainly a short story writer and a writer of novels.
After When Words Deny the World, various people, particularly in downtown Toronto, pretended the four books of fiction I had published at that time didn’t exist, and started referring to me as a “critic”. An oddly similar thing is happening now in the United States, where I’m a “translator and translation editor.” This may be part of the fragmentation of our era, but I’d like to integrate my fragments around what, for me, is the core of my identity, namely being a writer of fiction. That’s what I do when I wake up in the morning.
All of these activities do thread together in certain ways. My reading is an influence on what I think fiction does in a society. My reading of literature in other languages makes me aware of writers that I’d like to bring into English. The only place where I really feel at home as a “critic” is in my academic career, where I’m a critic of Latin American literature. Two years ago I published an 800-page book on Nicaraguan literature, Sandino’s Nation, which is more serious and better researched than anything I’ve written about Canadian literature.
JLH: Do you see your novels as having a kind of trajectory one to the other?
SH: My original desire was to write big novels about Canadian society, which is odd because I don’t really know much about Canadian society. My first novel, Other Americas, was a rural variant on that sort of novel, and The Streets of Winter was a Montreal variant. But The Path of the Jaguar goes in a different direction because in recent years I’ve realized I cannot write fourth-generation Canadian WASP males. Even though I immigrated to Canada at the age of five, which is an impressionable age, I’ve still lived almost twenty years of my life in other countries. Canada for me is almost another foreign country to explore. So when people say, “You’re Canadian and you’re exoticizing other countries,” well, I’m exoticizing Canada too!
I’m now writing more consciously from the vantage points of people who are in positions in between, who don’t fit into their societies. I always did that, of course, as far back as The Places Where Names Vanish and North of Tourism, but I think The Path of the Jaguar illustrates that I’m much more aware now of this dynamic as being the means by which I’m most likely to create believable characters. If I try to masquerade as an old-stock Canadian in order to write the great Canadian novel about society as it was where I grew up — a farming community in Eastern Ontario — I’m not believable. For many years I thought I should be the voice of the region where I was raised, but now I realize that my not fitting in there was more important than the nature of the area itself. Accepting this raises the issue of imaginative sympathy, opening the door to the possibility that in some cases — not all cases — I might be able to write persuasively from the perspective of someone who doesn’t look like me. We should all be able to do that. If we can’t write from the perspectives of people who are different from us, then, in the tossed-salad societies we live in, we can’t write anything at all.