The new Canadian classics you should be reading right now
Kamal Al-Solaylee makes the case for expanding what counts as a “Canadian story”
There’s a common idea of what a “Canadian novel” means. Critics and publishing houses assign labels such as “iconic” to certain writers and “classic” to some of their books. But by and large, “classic” is code for white, written before 1967 and, Montreal narratives aside, mostly rural. All this despite shifts in demographics and several cultural revolutions over the last few decades, which leaves books from queer, culturally diverse, and (younger) women writers still fighting for their place at the Canadian literary table. To correct that, I’m offering up a shortlist of five recent works of fiction, set within and outside our borders, that dares to redefine our literary taste and national identity. To me, these titles have more than earned their places as future Canadian classics.
Set in India before, after and during the 1984 Hindu massacre of Sikhs, Helium is a masterful blend of history, tragedy and unfulfilled passions. It follows a Cornell University professor who returns to India to reconnect with the widow of his late mentor. The most Canadian thing about this book is the freedom its author has, not just to set his story between India and the United States, but also to connect it to the atrocities of the Second World War. Furthermore, the sensibility, the anger and the desire to understand political extremism are as Canadian as the author’s Toronto home address.
This collection of short stories captures the aches and joys of the Mizrahi communities of Israel, a group that has traditionally been under-represented as part of the Israeli historical narrative. The mostly contemporary stories vary in setting between the Middle East and Canada—and, for that matter, war and peace—but the space between the here and there, the now and then, is where Tsabari’s characters come to life.
Mention Montreal-based Rawi Hage and most readers will immediately cite his breakthrough debut novel De Niro’s Game as his best. To me, this third novel, which is set among the world of taxi drivers in a city that’s understood to be Montreal (but never revealed as such), is the more complex, bewildering work. Fly, the protagonist, is the quintessential migrant worker who keeps our cities moving, literally and symbolically. His struggles are part existential, part physical and all too familiar for a Canada whose economy has become addicted to cheap migrant labour.
The horrifically sad note on which this novel begins (a father forgets his baby daughter in a car on a scorching summer day) gives way to a beautiful and very Torontonian love story that crosses between the South Asian, queer and Portuguese communities. You can almost hear the rattling of the College and Dundas streetcars as Doctor brings her characters—and this glorious city—to life. If in twenty years someone asks me what Toronto was like at the beginning of this decade, I’ll respond: “Read Six Metres of Pavement.”
Very few writers have Amber Dawn’s talent for combining realism, allegory, raw sexuality and innocence. The Vancouver based writer’s debut novel follows a young woman as she navigates a secret underground world of magicians and prostitutes, among other real and fantastical denizens. I chose this one because it makes a gorgeous literary statement about the nature of community and chosen families that anyone who has moved from one country or city to another would recognize immediately. ♥
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