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  • Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction
  • Glenn Willmott
Herb Wyile . Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. viii, 328. $26.95

This book is an excellent resource. Fronted by a substantial introductory essay, it presents eleven interviews with contemporary English-language writers in Canada: two previously published interviews with Jane Urquhart and Thomas Wharton, along with nine new interviews with Joseph Boyden, George Elliott Clarke, Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston, Heather Robertson, Fred Stenson, Margaret Sweatman, Guy Vanderhaege, and Rudy Wiebe. The selection omits some authors whom Wyile considers already well represented in published interviews, and is otherwise guided by the desire to survey authors of diverse regional backgrounds who write generic historical fiction. I say 'generic' not in the casual sense of 'traditional' or formulaic, but in a technical sense, to indicate the broad but strategically restrictive idea of historical fiction [End Page 186] that Wyile uses to refer to writers who 'focus on public history – that is, key episodes in Canadian history, particularly episodes whose representation involves engagement with historical documents and sources (Smallwood and Confederation, the Winnipeg General Strike, the Riel uprisings) but also involves elements such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, and postcolonial considerations.'

Wyile's words here introduce the problem with which his interviews explicitly grapple: it is not always easy work to construct notions of 'key episodes' that belong to what he will elsewhere call unifying, national historical myths, that are really puissant as such, or felt to be so central to cultural imagination, across Canada, that are the reference points of a Canadian genre. (In terms of a living ideology, is Smallwood a key to a unifying national identity in Winnipeg, or Riel to that in St John's, or either in Victoria?) Moreover, among authors interviewed, only some write about figures or events even of this scale; many focus on histories that never registered as a national myth or heritage in the first place, and belong to public record in a local or archival sense quite distinct from that. Wyile confronts this problem in the first interview of the volume, when he observes that the historical events at the centre of Vanderhaege's last two novels are 'relatively unknown.' Vanderhaege seems to agree, calling the Belly River battle and the Cypress Hills massacre 'little-known events that have been effaced,' in part by a centralist national history. Thus, throughout, the working definition of historical fiction appears much broader than that ostensibly guiding selection of authors. How far past must the past be, to be historical? How widely public or publicly remembered must a generic figure or event be? Ironically, the volume may imply the insignificance of the generic concept of the historical novel, and rather its twentieth-century explosion into a variety of historicized literary forms, of which autobiographical fiction, fictional life writing, and poetic memoir (for example, Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, or Fred Wah's Diamond Grill) and any fiction of everyday life set in the past (for example, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony, or Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma) would also be included.

If Wyile's generic framework and author selection is arguably somewhat artificial, it is neither injudicious nor unsuccessful. The interviews bring out an engaging diversity of ideas about history and about the proper or improper literary representation of history, on the part of contemporary writers. They delve substantially, as promised, into class, race, ethnicity, gender, and post-colonial issues, as well as questions of hegemonic nationalist as opposed to alternative representations of history, and the commodification of historical fiction itself. Wyile's questions are probing and connection-building, and [End Page 187] he elicits detailed, sustained, thoughtful answers. Moreover, while the topic is historical fiction, its problems and possibilities, the interviews range across matters intrinsic to each author's work; they are fertile ground for readers not drawn by genre interests, and a must-read for scholars dedicated to any of the eleven writers. Wilfrid Laurier University Press has published the volume in...


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