There’s something uncanny about seeing a place near home represented between the covers of a book, whether it’s your hometown, region, current city, or even as broad as your country. You’re almost incredulous to see it named explicitly, as though the writer could not possibly have meant the same place that you lived. But then, as you see it depicted, not only faithfully, but with a keen sense of insight from the writer, you recognize it (as only an insider can), and you know the writer could not have meant any place but here. Then again, it seems strange — not quite real — to see your home in print, especially if it’s only a small city, or a virtually unheard of rural region.
I was reminded of this as I’ve been moving my books into my new home office, and rearranging them on the shelves. It happened that my Canadian literature (“Canlit”) found a place around eye-level near my desk. And so I’ve been looking at it a lot lately.
For me, Canlit offers that keen sense of home that other literature cannot.
I’ve lived in the USA, and recognized some of the regions there that I’ve read about. But the red rocks of southern Utah, the desert of Arizona, are entirely foreign places to me. I’ve been on a literary study abroad to the UK, where I visited the (mainly British) literary landmarks that have been part of my imagination for a long time. I hiked the moors of the Bronte sisters, took a boat in Arthur Ransom’s Lake District. Some of these places felt almost familiar: the natural world around me strangely reminded me of where I grew up in Canada (we share some of the same flora and fauna . . . I even saw a flock of Canada geese while there!). But it was utterly new to many of my American fellow travelers.
While on that study abroad, I happened to discover that the owner of a small bookshop near the rural hostel where we were staying, also taught at one of the near-by universities. When I casually asked — as I was buying my books — what he taught, he told me Canadian literature. There was an immediate connection, not only because I was proudly Canadian (and you’re never more aware of your nationality when you’re living or else traveling in a different country, and I was doing both: a Canadian, living in the USA, on a study abroad in the UK with a few dozen Americans). I’d also studied Canadian literature in my undergrad. When I stepped out of that bookshop, I was elated beyond belief to have found a sense of home, halfway across the world in this home away from home.
But the UK wasn’t really “home” for me. I was only there for two months after all, and traveling considerably at that, often only staying a day or two in any given hostel.
I was later asked by one of my professors what it had added to my reading experience to visit the literary landmarks of the places I’d read about in the UK. I wasn’t sure that I could substantiate it as a critical response. But what was the more profound experience, I think, was to find those unexpected recognitions of home.
How much more so in a literature of your own.
The other day, mid-organizing my shelves of books, I decided I would read a Canlit book. After all, this was my own literature, and it had been awhile since I had picked one up. I chose a book that I’d not read before, but knew from my quick perusal of it when I saw it at a local library book sale, that it was about the current city I’m living in.
As I opened it up and began to read, I recognized not only the city, but particular parts of it as well. And while the book was written over half a century ago, I still could recognize the religious and linguistic characteristics that the writer so poignantly identified. And, like being asked by my professor that unanswerable question, I still do not know why literature in which I recognized home gratified me so much.
Was it because I could say Yes, yes that’s how it is?
Or is it something deeper than that?
As I reflect now, I was asked that question, not as a literary student, but as a creative writer. As a reader, I am in a way visiting a place (sometimes for a long, extended visit, where I feel entirely welcome; but still, I am after all just visiting); as a writer, I’m living in it.
When I see home depicted in fiction, I am living it a second time. And perhaps this keen recognition of home touches the writer in me. I see a place depicted that, to me, is the norm. Ordinary. And yet, it’s written in an extraordinary way: aspects of culture summed up in sweepingly beautiful prose, concise and accurate.
And someone thought it was worthwhile writing about, and were talented enough to do so beautifully, insightfully. Maybe it touches so close to home when I see home depicted — whether as broad as my own country, or as near as a close neighbourhood — because I realize that I could be writing about this place, too.
Question: What is it about reading your own place in literature that is so deeply gratifying?