Wednesday, 6 May 2020

CanLit and Vietnam

A new website promises to be an archive for Canadian writing about the Vietnam war, much of which has never been republished since the conflict. Robert McGill, who developed the site, explains the context behind such work.  
While the war angered Canadian writers, the years of the conflict were very good to Canadian literature. In fact, they were arguably its golden age. In 2006, when the Literary Review of Canada named the 100 “most important” Canadian books, thirty of them were ones published between 1964 and 1975—an astonishing number, given that the list covered over 400 years of history. The Vietnam War decade’s overrepresentation is less surprising if one considers that there was a surging interest in all things Canadian as a result of the country’s 1967 centenary, leading to an unprecedented boom in publishers, books published, and books sold. As it happens, many of those books addressed the war.

Canadian artists of all kinds, from musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot to visual artists such as Greg Curnoe and Joyce Wieland, took on the Vietnam War in their work, but it was writers who most pervasively tackled it, not least because there were so many newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers to disseminate what they wrote. An indication of Canadian writers’ feelings about the war was offered in the 1968 bestseller The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S., edited by the poet Al Purdy. Purdy claimed that one of his aims in producing the book had been to discover whether Canadian writers thought the American military presence in Vietnam was “just and honourable.” As it turned out, among the fifty contributors—including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Michael Ondaatje, Farley Mowat, and Mordecai Richler—nobody suggested it was.

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