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Canadian Literature in English  
 
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Since the 1960s, Canadian gay and lesbian writers have produced a vibrant body of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.

The Problem of Identity

Canadian gay literature is almost a contradiction in terms. Frequently written by authors born in the United States and published there as well, it is difficult to distinguish from writing in more dominant English-speaking cultures. Caught between the traditionally overwhelming influence of British culture and, more recently, the powerful stranglehold of American literature, the Canadian voice (gay or straight) is hard to hear.

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Marginalized, outnumbered, and patronized (when it is not simply neglected), this voice is often, not surprisingly, ironic. Even within the Library of Congress classification system, Canadian literature has an ambiguous place. In some libraries, it is still "PR," that is, a subspecies of Commonwealth Literature; and in others it is now "PS," that is, a subspecies of American.

To be a Canadian writer of any kind, in other words, is to be "queer" in a world where the definitions are made elsewhere.

Like the mainstream heterosexual literature of Canadian culture, Anglophone gay literature is also extremely balkanized, with the result that what is published by a small press in British Columbia or Saskatchewan is often unknown in Toronto, let alone in Halifax.

Nonetheless, this literature would not exist at all were it not for these same small presses: from Blewointment, New Star, Arsenal Pulp, and Talonbooks in British Columbia, to Stumblejumper in Regina, Blizzard in Winnipeg, Catalyst, Coach House, and Women's Press in Toronto to Gynergy in Charlottetown.

Of the three major cities (Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver), Toronto (the largest) has produced the greatest amount of work. Thanks largely to the influential run of the now-defunct gay newspaper, The Body Politic (1971-1987), Toronto has also appropriated the national Anglophone voice.

Perhaps there is poetic justice in this development in that Oscar Wilde's constant friend, Robbie Ross, came from Toronto. In the absence of any Anglophone hero equivalent to the Québécois writer Emile Nelligan, Robbie Ross might be thought of as a kind of inspiring genius of Anglo-Canadian gay literature.

Although no Canadian writer has ever taken up his story, Jim Bartley's interesting play Stephen and Mr. Wilde (1993) does at least deal with Wilde's famous visit to Canada in 1882.

Another early chapter in the history of Anglo-Canadian gay literature centers on Walt Whitman's visit to Canada in the following year. The influence of Whitman's visit was the subject of a gay conference in Toronto in 1980 and became the subject of the film Beautiful Dreamers (1989), directed by John Kent Harrison.

Such conferences as this one and the "Doing It" conference two years later have served to put gay literature on the map in Canada in a way that is very un-American. Canadian gay and lesbian writing speaks to that element in the national soul that is looking for an identity, as if it summarized articulately the national quest for definition.

Michel Tremblay, who wrote the libretto for an opera about Nelligan, wrote Hosanna, a 1967 play about a drag-queen's leather fantasies, that was read in Canada as an allegory of Francophone-Anglophone relations before it was recognized as a gay play.

This concern for finding a distinctively Canadian identity, explored by such heterosexual critics as Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood, may well explain the solidarity of many heterosexuals with many gay issues in Canada, not least censorship and personal freedom.

The Emergence of Canadian Gay Literature

Canadian gay literature only began to appear in the 1960s. The first gay-identified book of poetry published in Canada was E. A. Lacey's Forms of Loss (1965). Like his gay Canadian poetic contemporary, Daryl Hine, however, Lacey has spent most of his writing career abroad, a situation understandable in the generally climate of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Given that Canada's "Stonewall," if it can be said to have had one, was the Toronto "riot" in response to the police raids on the baths in 1981, it is not surprising that the emergence of a widespread gay and lesbian literature is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Nor is it surprising, given the late development of gay and lesbian literature, that one of the best gay Canadian short stories, "The Turkey Season," is by the straight writer, Alice Munro, or that the most powerful piece of Canadian is in the first chapter of The English Patient (1992) by the straight novelist Michael Ondaatje.

Although Canada has produced a gay painter of unquestionable international distinction, Attila Richard Lukacs, it has yet to produce the equivalent Anglophone writer.

The best-known gay writer in Canada, Timothy Findley, has not until recently dealt openly with gay subjects in his fiction. Findley's early novels have, admittedly, the fey quality of Truman Capote: a feyness that is evident in the work of many subsequent gay Canadian writers in all genres. If there is nothing particularly Canadian about the distinction between soulful winsomeness on the one hand and sexual realism on the other, nonetheless, a great deal of Anglophone gay writing in Canada seems to fall into one "camp" or the other.

Certainly, realism characterizes the first gay Canadian play, John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes, and Scott Symons's graphic novel Place d'Armes, both published in 1967, the Wunderjahr of the Canadian centennial.

The no-holds-barred quality of Symons's novel, like the hard-edged prison reality of Herbert's play, announced unmistakably a new subject and a new audience. Both works were succès de scandal at the time.

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