Thursday, 3 May 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jake—Canuck or Yank (and Does it Matter)?

   A reader who did not care much for Location overall also didn't like Jake in particular; he wondered why I'd chosen to make Jake a Canadian (because, the reader said, Jake "seems American"). 
   At no point does the novel identify Jake's nationality (he grows up in a vaguely defined small town, attended and dropped out of a fairly non-specific university, and bailed on a work-study commerce co-op program with a company that has offices all over the world). And that means the reader assumed Jake's nationality rather than finding actual evidence indicating it. Never mind that.
   What interests me is the idea of a character that "seems American." Built into the comment therefore is the idea that Jake does not seem Canadian. Implied there too—I believe—is the notion that there are unique and set national characteristics—that, were we to line up a handful of people in a room and watch them interact (with no tell-tale accents to guide us), we'd quickly, easily, and accurately divide the room into American and Canadian.
   Jake is a self-serving dick for much of the novel. He takes what he wants because he believes that doing so is both his right and his prerogative. Are those qualities only seen south of the Canadian border? Doubtful. Conrad Black, anyone?
   The stereotype of Canadians being nice, polite, even-tempered, and unassuming (with Americans being loud, aggressive, arrogant, and self-righteous) is something that floats around—normally assumed and unchallenged—in daily life. Amongst other purposes, that moral high ground makes us feel good, superior even to the superpower a few kilometres away that dwarfs us. 
   A literature that accepts those mythic national qualities as an accurate reflection of reality—or as empirical fact—is to my mind being both lazy and propagandistic. 
   All Canadians as nice, fair, and even-tempered? Yes, Paul Bernardo and Robert Pickton clearly embody those legendary Canuck qualities. The Canadian as unassuming, the modest quiet cousin to the loud, life-of-the-party Yank? Right, just spend a half hour with the cast of The Real Housewives of Vancouver.

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