Every fall the western flight of snow geese comes winging down the coasts British Columbia and settles in the marshes of the Fraser River Delta near the George C. Reifel Waterfowl Refuge; in spring the great flock takes for the Arctic, but every year a few more stay behind to nest in the enclave of predictable weather, free corn and immunity from hunters.
Writers one encounters in British Columbia tend to be rather like this, migrants with varying habits. Reversing the snow geese pattern, they find their way at spring to the Coast. In the fall, the wandering writers have vanished, all except the few more each year who stay behind to enjoy the Pacific amenities, one of the chief of which is certainly the opportunity to mingle with painters, potters, fishermen, marine biologists, Doukhobors, Sikhs, Chinese, and other interesting human kinds, and largely avoid the much less interesting company of other writers.
Literary life in British Columbia is largely dominated by people who are not native British Columbians. Compared with the writers’ worlds of London, New York, or even Toronto, it is pretty resolutely centrifugal.
I suspect matters may be different with poets, but with novelists and other prose writers, the preponderance of migrants among the really good writers has been startling.
When I first arrived at the end of the Forties, who were the novelists by which the province was most known outside its borders? Expatriates, all of them. Ethel Wilson, born in South Africa and English-educated; Malcolm Lowry and Roderick Haig-Brown, both born in England. Turvey appeared shortly afterwards, with an authentic British Columbian hero, and then one realized that even Earle Birney came from over the Great Divide. And Margaret Laurence. It was not until Sheila Watson published in 1959 her marvelous fantasy of the British Columbian drylands, The Double Hook, that one recognized a local-born prose writer of the first order. And Sheila Watson has gone away, and not yet published another novel.
The BC literary scene of 1973 is a similar situation. The best British Columbian novels to come off the press in the last year or so are Mrs. Blood by Audrey Thomas, a shattering bio-psychological testament; Alice Munro’s Lives Of Girls And Women (set in her unchangeable mental homeland of Ontario); and. following at some distance, C. J. Newman’s A Russian Novel, John Mills’ The Land Of Is, and Robert Harlow’s Scann. But of these five, Harlow, who looks as though he may yet take up Sheila Watson’s task of giving the province a mythical dimension beyond the
Indian past, is again the solitary native.
Turn to drama: the same holds good. A very high proportion of the good new Canadian plays are being written in BC and produced and printed on the Pacific Coast but, except for Eric Nicol (Pillar Of Sand is his most recent and ambitious play), the dramatists have been in astonishing majority from the prairies: George Ryga (whose Ecstasy Of Rita Joe has sold 9,000 copies in Talonbooks’ local edition); Beverley Simons (her Crabdance up to 3,500 copies with the same publishers); Herschel Hardin (whose Esker Mike & His Wife, Agiluk, is about to appear).
What I find extraordinary — in what is at first sight a very expatriate literary scene — is the extent to which most of these writers from outside have not only lived their way deep into the peculiar Coast existence, but have also given it a vividly true expression. If I were asked to pick a handful of books that best conveyed the feel and body of life in British Columbia, I would inevitably find myself including Ethel Wilson’s Love And Salt Water, Malcolm Lowry’s recent posthumous novel, October Ferry To Gabriola, Roderick Haig-Brown’s The Measure Of The Year, Birney’s Turvey and, together of course with The Double Hook, some of the yet-unpublished fiction which Audrey Thomas is writing out of her life in the Gulf Islands. Those, with a good anthology of local verse like Contemporary Poetry Of British Columbia, edited by J. Michael Yates (another migrant), would give anyone not only a good idea of British Columbian writing
George Woodcock is a Canadian writer and essayist
at its best, but also a first introduction to the distinctive sensibility of the Pacific Coast, the writers’ complex responses to an extraordinary environment.
The BC literary life tends also to be fissiparous in nature, rooted in particular natural settings and not organized into the rigid kind of world of publishers and mass media one finds in the large centres. There are no real trade publishers on the Coast. Instead there is a pattern of dedicated small presses like Talonbooks (David Robinson) and Blewointment Press (Bill Bissett) in Vancouver and Sono Nis (J. Michael Yates) in the remote Queen Charlotte Islands; I identify the presses with their bestknown personalities, but most of them are cooperatively run, as is much of the other more fugitive publishing going on in the province, the most handsome of it produced by the master printer of Victoria, Charles Morriss, and the rest by a variety of means varying from Bill Bissett’s smudgy Gestetner to Talonbooks’ splendid designs and magnificent presswork which Gordon Fidler provides.
All this means that much small publishing is going on, but for a little press like Sono Nis to produce a thick novel like Robert Harlow’s Scann is rare indeed. The University of British Columbia Press brings out some critical books; Grays Press on Vancouver Island has taken a lead in publishing local history, while the slight cost of printing plays has allowed the Talonbooks series to flourish. There are also some solidly established literary journals (Canadian Literature, Prism International, West Coast Review, Malahat Review and Canadian Fiction Magazine). But most prose writers still find they must continue to find publishers for their books in Toronto or farther afield.
I would say British Columbia is a good place for a writer if he knows what he wants to do, and can do it without the support of a literary setting.
But what about the ambitious young? There is nothing much for them here to fill the intermediate time between winning spurs in little mags and establishing themselves as writers, and perhaps that is why the people who write well from the Coast are mainly migrants from over the mountains who have chosen to get away from big-time scenes. The talented and ambitious young British Columbians also migrate, in the other direction. Sometimes they come back; more often not. But a writer’s place is not where he was born; it is where he works, and that is why a Pacific literary sensibility, which began to come into being when Ethel Wilson published her first novels about the Coast, is often a complicated matter of filtering the experience of the region through strange and astonished eyes. ■
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