Most of my friends, especially those I got to know when I lived in Newfoundland, know that I have a complicated relationship with the island where I was born and raised. Even when I lived there, I had a complicated relationship with it. I’ve long felt alienated from the nationalist sentiments that dominated my school years there as the oil boom jump-started its economy for, really, the first time in its history. That was a product of my distaste for the oil industry and the fast-money damn-the-consequences culture it creates. The cultural identity of the island was very much cobbled from its rural lifestyle, which, having lived in the capital St. John’s for all of my time there, alienated me from that identity.
Yet one of my longest-gestating projects is A Small Man’s Town, which is currently transforming into my book of short stories about young people’s life in St. John’s as it becomes a confident, quite possibly arrogant, boom town. It has an autobiographical tinge to it that anyone with even a slight ability for critical reading will detect. Some characters are assemblages of people I knew on the island, some incidents recall activities I took part in.
There are scattered cameos from a reggae band called Lazypants and a communist-themed surf-rock band called Red Square. Anyone who partied in downtown St. John’s in the early 2000s will have danced their faces off at shows by the reggae band called The Idlers and the communist-themed surf-rock band called The Kremlin. One story focusses on a protest against the war in Iraq at the main Memorial University campus that fizzles out after one speaker gets stage fright and another praises Al Qaeda and the Mehdi Army for opposing the imperialism of the United States.
In real life, I covered a successful and impressive protest against the Iraq War that marched from Bannerman Park to City Hall, where I took some of the better photos of my youthful career in journalism. It was impressive precisely because it only brought out close to a thousand people, but that was enough to block Duckworth Street for nearly 20 minutes of marching.
So with this in mind, I am greatly impressed by the work my old friend, and my co-worker in that phase of youthful journalism, Michael Collins, has done so far on his blog about the literature of Newfoundland, entitled The Page “Newfoundland Literature” Does Not Exist. Michael is completing his doctorate in literature studies at University of Toronto, and has become a brilliant advocate for the art of an island about which I remain ruefully ambivalent. He comes from Placentia, one of the larger rural communities of Newfoundland, with a population of a few thousand. He knows more folk songs by heart than most Newfoundlanders his age know the titles of folk songs. Anyone else who cares about Newfoundland culture should be glad that he and his work exist.
I mean, I’m naturally glad he exists. He’s one of my oldest friends. I’d be terribly upset were he to stop existing.
But aside from all these memories cascading through me like a bad reference to Proust, I write to praise Michael’s blog, which is not only a celebration of Newfoundland as a source of literature, but a place for critical reflection on the greatest works about the island, its culture, history, and people. Michael calls Newfoundland's a minor literature, a concept Gilles Deleuze developed to describe creative voices that are pushed outside their mainstream, and find their most original expression from the margins of their world. Such literatures are remarkable precisely for twisting the ordinary and the popular into strange new shapes. This may be through linguistic invention, a destabilized narrative, a casual relationship with the fantastic, or a thousand other injections of ordinary weirdness. His recent post on Bernice Morgan’s Random Passage is particularly enlightening, and helps to make the case, which I would uphold, that Morgan’s novel, combined with its sequel/completion Waiting for Time is the greatest work of Newfoundland literature ever written.
The book tells the stories of a small community called Cape Random, an assemblage from the communities that form Morgan’s own heritage. It depicts the culture of Newfoundland as arising from economic rejects and outcasts of the British and Irish cultures who first colonized the island, whose hardscrabble and barely survivable rural coastline effectively became a dumping ground for the forgotten and undesirable people of a colonial culture.
At the same time, the precise history of the place and the nature of the story itself remains in flux between multiple narrators, blurring the division we too frequently take for granted between history and memory. What Newfoundland truly was, even in its actual existence, becomes a function of what it is now: a place about which we tell stories to weave into the echoes of those who once lived so that we can have a past, a history, and a cultural memory.
Michael’s account of Random Passage in its cultural and literary power gives much more detail and depth than I could right now, but I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to check it out. Lately, I seem to have attracted a few more politically-minded readers. But this blog isn’t solely about politics. It’s about me, my work, and my own history. And today’s post is about what my friend is creating, an account of Newfoundland literature that represents its true depth.
As for me, I hope that I can eventually get A Small Man’s Town fully revised and published, so that it can contribute to the tradition of Newfoundland literature. Its stories carry their own ambiguous relationship with the island and the city in which they take place. Some characters are proud Newfoundland patriots. Some are desperate to escape. Some are afraid to leave. In all cases, the effects of that island and their life on it stay with them, because I wrote the book about the island, so of course they do.