The second question posed to the panelists was, “How does your title relate or connect to the culture or heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador?” The answers cover a plethera of topics found in most discussions on NL Lit: identity, characterization, outport life, and landscape, but in surprising ways. Dave Sullivan says that West Moon presents strong characters, ones that aren’t “weak, stupid or backwards” like in other theatre performances. Michelle Butler Hallett posits that the illusion of identity, a broad stroke idea that leads to racism and misogyny, is not why we love Straight Razor Days, but rather it’s the books universal appeal that makes it amazing. Roger Maunder boldly admits that Inside doesn’t really connect to our culture. Angela Antle reflects on Annabel’s connection to Labrador, a large piece of our province that is often forgotten in literary discussion, and Jerry Stamp focuses on the connotations of the word Galore.
Dave Sullivan: Throughout West Moon, the history is weaved elegantly and intelligently. There are no lines that scream foolishly “mind the time we was on hard times.” None of the characters are presented as weak, stupid or backwards — an all too common occurance in much of Newfoundland and Labrador’s theatrical landscape. Pittman allows the reader/theatre-goer their own opportunity to develop opinions on the state of affairs in the outport town of St. Kyran’s without pounding over the head with square rolling pins and dried codfish.
Michelle Butler Hallett: A cliché about Canlit is that all Canadian stories are about identity. This assertion, always made very seriously, tells me a lot about a national doubt, a clammy terror: cover the mirror. That Canadians have to announce their stories are about identity tells me there is no one Canadian identity, however desired. No more should there be. Coming from descendants of white Europeans, especially the British, such desire for homogenous identity slithers quickly into sticky imperialism and colonialism and metastasizes into the racist, misogynist mess we’re trying to fix now – when we can bear to recognize and acknowledge it. Are we deluding ourselves in Canada, saying we’re writing about identity while in fact running away from those questions and instead writing about what we wish we were?
Identity is a big deal in Newfoundland and Labrador, too, but it starts from a point, however problematic, of certainty: ‘I am’ is often a statement, not a question. But I see other questions, and many doubts: Confederation, Commission of Government, Big Land versus Island, town versus bay, how the Europeans got here and fought to stay here, wrenching economic change and simultaneously maddening economic repetition as NL weans off cod only to lean on oil and hydroelectricity, and colonialism of the mind, that poisoning of outlook and thought that permits widespread complicity and the understrapping of objectification. Two examples of many: Europeans attacking Beothuks in the name of ‘settlement’, and Church-protected paedophiles abusing orphans in the name of ‘charity’.
But for the love of God, all stories are about identity at some point. Who wrote it? When? Why? And for whom? Who’s the protagonist, and what does he want? Why does she need it, and what’s in her way? Odysseus’ travels are what and who and why he is. Hamlet’s upset because his external identity has been usurped, throwing his internal identity into dangerous flux. Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II won’t behave as the others think a king should; defiance and anger over identity and its power spur gruesome events. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s D-503 and I-330, like George Orwell’s Winston and Julia, long for the freedom to refuse the identities imposed on them by tyrannies and instead define their identities themselves. Sentience, the first and deepest need for story, means consciousness, means gathering round the fire or painting on the walls, first to say ‘I am’ and then to ask ‘But who, and how?’
Straight Razor Days hits a sweet spot you find in some of the best writing out there; that is, its settings and imagery are highly specific and immovable – Newfoundland’s topography is everywhere, from the haunted Barrens to the laughable Pussy Rock – yet its themes are universal. Flannery O’Connor achieves this, with stories that could only be set in the American South of the 1950s but resonate with any human being. Ditto David Adams Richards and his Miramichi, and Alistair MacLeod and his Cape Breton.
Roger Maunder: It doesn’t. Inside is a term that prisoners all over the world identify being in prison. The title doesn’t relate to just Newfoundland and Labrador other than this is where the story takes place. It’s in relation to the Pen. So, since it’s a book from a Newfoundlander and it is based in NL and Lab, I guess we could say that the title relates to the inside of the Penitentiary and that Inside relates to that. That no one really wants to go there. Unless it’s something that’s part of your culture, as it is in the case of Myrden, the main character and his pals.
Angela Antle: Annabel is the great Labrador novel. Kathleen Winter has crafted a storyworld populated by dark spruce, teacups in kitchen sinks, smokey trapper cabins, the musky school gym and antiseptic hospital rooms. Her characters are richly rendered dreamers with flaws. They all love Wayne but they’re all tied to their own version of the truth. The father figure Treadway expresses his love for his son be passing on his knowledge of the wilderness and teaching Wayne to read the weather, to understand animal behaviour and to appreciate Labrador’s natural world. His mother Jacinta and her friend Tomasina work hard to help young Wayne and his friends nurture their fragile dreams in Labrador’s sandy soil. They succeed by creating a rich fantasy life that does eventually sustain the young people and show them the pathway to adulthood.
Jerry Stamp: The term Galore is not specific to Newfoundland but it has always been a word I have heard used to describe a bounty of any kind. If you have lots of something then you have “something galore”. To me the use of the word embodies the sort of sarcastic or humourous approach many Newfoundlanders & Labradorians have always taken when describing things in a nebulous matter. It is akin to saying I’ll be there “now the once”. It doesn’t really specify anything yet is widely accepted as ok. If I have books galore it means I have what I consider lots of books. Is that tens? Hundreds? Thousands? You’ll never know. But it still gives an opinion. I think I have lots…therefore I have lots.
More on the panelists:
Dave is a writer/actor from St. John’s. A graduate of Grenfell Campus, Memorial University’s Theatre Program, Sullivan has performed on stages throughout the island, country and internationally.
Michelle Butler Hallett has published four novels in just six years. Buy her books at your local bookstore, Amazon, Chapters, or directly from the publisher, visit her blog and find her on Facebook.
Roger Maunder is a writer, actor, director, and filmmaker living in St. John’s. Learn more about Roger by visiting his website. Buy his novel Mundy Pond at your local bookstore, or from Amazon or Chapters.
Angela is an independent TV and transmedia producer living in St. John’s. She schemes with artists of all sizes and shapes, still buys books and co-chairs the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – now in it’s 24th year!
Jerry Stamp is an award-winning, impressively tireless musician who’s played with some of Canada’s finest. Buy his music here, and look for him on Twitter, Facebook, and Soundcloud.