George Melnyk – Literary History

interview by: paulo da costa and Nelson Wight

 

George Melnyk, considered an authority on regionalism, has published seven non-fiction books dealing with Western Canada. His most recent titles include The Urban Prairie, Beyond Alienation and Riel to Reform. He has just published the first volume of the Literary History of Alberta. In the 1970s he founded the NeWest Review and the NeWest Press in Edmonton and went on to become the executive director of the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts. Filling Station talked to George Melnyk the week preceding the April launch of his Literary History of Alberta.

 

paulo da costa: What inspired you to tackle a project of such magnitude?

George Melnyk: Well, actually I’m not sure. It’s been so long that the beginnings, the exact details of how it all happened, have become mythological. Back in 1993, I think, a friend of mine told me about a project to fund a bunch of new books about the history of Alberta. It was called 2005 Alberta Centennial History Society, or something like that. And they were a bunch of academics who wanted to commission a bunch of books. And so I applied the first year to do something on art in Alberta, because back in the 70’s I had done some art criticism and was very interested in the subject. But they already had other people who were doing that, so the idea came forward–I’m not exactly sure where, it may have been from them–but what they needed was a literary history of Alberta. I applied and it was approved. I was funded by two agencies: this Centennial History Society of Alberta, which gets it’s money from the Alberta Historical Resources Fund; and from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. So, between the two there was about enough money to fund three years of work. This is now the fourth and final year and I am pretty well self-funded; there hasn’t been much money. The idea originally had been to do one volume. I really didn’t know anything about the literary history of Alberta. I thought one volume would be plenty. But it wasn’t. There was a natural break after W.W.II between the earlier period and the current period, the last half century. And the natural break was that most of the writers–90% of the writers–who began writing before W.W.II were deceased, while the majority of the writers who began writing after W.W.II are still living, although some are very old.

pdc: Besides expecting that one volume would do, what other surprises came along as you were researching?

GM: I think the major surprise was the richness and depth of the material that I didn’t know about. I was amazed to realize that there were hundreds of writers to talk about in the pre-W.W.II period. And there were double that number in the post-W.W.II period, a large number. Also a surprise was the variety of the writers that were covered, the different genres that Albertans know. I think those were things that pleased me. One of the interesting things in the post-1900 period, the first half of this century, is the large number of women writers that played such an important role in our early history. I think that was news to me.

Nelson Wight: Did a favourite author emerge from the research?

GM: There are favourite authors from each period. I think, for example, in the exploration period–the exploration / territorial period– William Francis Butler, who wrote The Great Lone Land was an important book for me. And, of course, it was an important book for the west. I liked him as a writer. In the first half of the 19th century, another favourite is Howard O’Hagan, a short story writer and novelist; he’s outstanding. I also liked many non-English writers, like the Ukrainian novelist, Kuriak. It’s not that I think his writing is great, it’s just that he writes with such incredible detail, he kind of brings you into the scene in a sociological way. I think my favourite writer of the first half of the 20th century was George Bugnet. And Bugnet’s novel The Forest is a really great work. I’m sort of drawn to him because I see certain parallels between my own background and his background, even though I’m not French. He was an immigrant, and I was an immigrant, so I come from an outsiders point of view to Canadian literature and to Alberta writing. And secondly, his kind of philosophical interaction, almost mystical interaction with the natural environment, which I think is very important for immigrants. When people come to a new landscape, I think they have to have some kind of mystical experience with it to bond. Because they didn’t grow up with the new landscape they have to have some special kind of epiphany. I think that’s very important. I’m very drawn to a number of the landscapes in Alberta and I think that comes out of being an immigrant.

NW: So does that define the literature, or is there something that defines the literature as Albertan?

GM: Well, what I discovered is that there are a number of Alberta literatures, there’s not just one. And the whole idea of the book is for readers to look at Alberta writing as a kind of multi-lingual reality, having a multi-national, multi-cultural perspective, that it’s not just one thing. So in the same way when I think of Alberta I think of a mountain literature, determined by a mountain landscape; I think of a forest literature which comes from northern Alberta; I think of a kind of prairie, agrarian literature we could get from the parkland area of central Alberta; and then, of course, you have the ranching literature, the cowboy stuff from southern Alberta. This is for this early period. There are different things in the later period. I think that there’s probably half a dozen literatures from this one province alone, just in terms of the material that people are writing about.

pdc: In your introduction there is a statement that piques my curiosity. You say that Alberta’s literary history is moving towards a global synthesis. Can you expand on that thought?

MG: I think the word global is extremely important, because it comes from the concept of the circle around us. And when I started working on the history, what I brought with me was my present; that is, all historical works are really figments of the imagination of the present. They are about the past, but they are written from the present perspective. And so when I started thinking, in the introduction about where this whole thing was going, before I knew anything, the concept of things coming round again was extremely important. And I felt that in Aboriginal, oral culture, which begins the book, the roundness of things, the circle is a very important symbol. And [it is] at the end of the twentieth century, when we went to this whole kind of linear European tradition of various kinds, that I see us coming round at the very end again by having people of different racial, national and cultural backgrounds coming to an actual dominant position in our literature in the 1990’s. The new young writers that people are looking for (who are interested in) are writers who are originally from India; there are a number of writers like that. It’s part of the new kind of diverse-natured Canadian society and we participate in that. For me that was a kind of return to what was going on three-hundred years ago before the Europeans ever came, but in a different way, of course, because most of it is written in English. But it’s not sort of Anglo, European-Canadian stuff any more. I mean that’s there, but it’s only a part of the picture. That’s where the idea of the global synthesis is coming around. And part of the global synthesis is also part of the information age. That’s extremely important that the information age is really an imperialistic age, in which a particular technological culture coming out of the United States, not out of Japan, not out of China, not out of Europe, but coming out of American computer-driven information systems technologies and tele-communications and all the rest of it. That’s the global system that’s impacting all kinds of countries all the time. And that is primarily dominated by the English language, that the English language is the great imperial language of our time. But the people who are participating come from other cultures, other languages, other realities. It’s like Imperial Rome: you’ve got this one culture–dominant imperial culture, this patina over top of everybody. It covered the Africans, it covered the Jews in Palestine, it covered the Greeks in Greece, it covered the Gauls in France and in Great Britain. There were all of these cultures that existed, national cultures, but they were elites that–because they were part of the Imperium–they all fit in with the Latin world; and now all of those cultures have to fit in with the English world, through information technology. Much of the software, 90% of the software that runs the computers around the world, comes out of American culture, out of American thinking, American games, and so forth. Do you know what I mean? We have the same thing happening in Alberta. We have this kind of global synthesis where we have the English language dominating, but the writers of it all come from different places and different languages and different traditions. That’s what I mean by the global synthesis.

pdc: In the future, do you see these diverse thinking patterns and modes of viewing the world, expressed through the language of the dominant culture, shaping the English language itself?

GM: I think this will change the English language. But what I have discovered, for example, is that it’s an imperialistic relationship between the dominant American-based English and the other cultures. The sub-cultures of American culture–the street talk, the rap, black, ghetto talk–which come out of the United States (it doesn’t come out of any other place, it comes out of the U.S.) then is absorbed into the language through popular music, through the media, and into the popular culture around the world. So a kid in Paris or a kid in Lisbon is going to say “that’s cool,” or my son. Now that word came from American sub-culture and then became globalized, as it were. But in the literary world, and this is a problem about the writers who are writing this stuff; you would have to go into some analysis about the writers in the 90’s in Alberta–the ones from India, the ones who aren’t white, the ones who are Aboriginal, to find out if they are strong enough to take their cultures and try to change the dominant culture in the language. You would have to study each of these writers. Because it is a battle, it’s a war between the great imperial culture which is constantly changing and evolving, and these other cultures. Now I think in the immediate future, the next twenty or thirty years (now predictions are a terrible thing because I’ve often been wrong; I mean it’s bad enough when you go wrong about looking at the past but . . .) I think as American culture becomes more diverse, especially through Spanish coming in and Spanish going out. For example, now 40% of the population of California which is equal to the pop. of Canada is of some Spanish speaking background. Now I’m sure that there are in the lingua of Calif. a lot of Spanish words now that everybody uses, it just kind of filters in. Now how that gets into the writing I’m not that sure because I don’t know that literature. Eventually through American Imperialism that could become a global language. Those Spanish terms which came from one kind of thing could then move through California into dominant English and become a kind of expression that we use. The problem is that a lot of this street language (the colloquialisms, and all that sort of stuff ) are constantly changing; they change every few months. That kind of language is modified so fast that it doesn’t even have a chance to get into English, or if it does, it becomes a kind of freak, which actually comes into literature. But we don’t speak that way, I mean two years later, no one talks that way. It becomes a historical artifact. We’re going to have to wait and see. I mean, I’m not sure. I personally would like English to change but it’s also a very malleable language, because it can absorb so much. Some of the problems with other European languages is that they can’t. The artificial constructs where English can create a single new word in 4 or 5, 6, 7 letters, in other languages you get this complicated concept, you know, hyphenated concept or three or four words strung together to mean what we say in one word. The other languages are inefficient. And English is very efficient vis-a-vis technology and the computer language. Anyhow, I’m not a linguist and I cannot really deal with that in any great depth, but I would like English to become, if it is truly a global language, it will then be quite a different language than the formal literary English, that, let’s say, came out of the 19th Century British novel or even American.

NW: Can I ask you about your predictions or your dreams for what might come from this? I mean you’re beginning, you’re setting the standard and starting, I suppose, a legacy (perhaps) in writing the first literary history of Alberta, and I’m wondering what you hope will come out of that, being that it is a foundational work.

GM: Actually, I do have some aspirations for it, but they are not personal aspirations, they are aspirations for the writing community of Alberta. I have been involved as a magazine editor, a book publisher, as a writer and so on for 25 years; most of my adult life has been spent in Alberta, being part, in one way or another, of the literary scene. And I am hoping that the participants in the literary scene will pick up the Literary History of Alberta and read about all of these different writers that they probably don’t know about. And then use that to influence their own writing, and say, “o.k., there is a lot of interesting things in the past about Alberta history which I could then bring into my poetry, or into my fiction.” And I think that’s what I’m hoping, that it will somehow enrich the lives of writers, so that they will think about this place in a slightly different way when they’re writing. I guess, someone who is studying creative writing here, will always be (I’m sure, by their teachers who are themselves accomplished writers) comparing] their work with what’s happening broadly in the world of literature; what are the latest trends, what’s hot today in terms of style, how do you keep on the cutting edge and that sort of thing. The view is always well, “What are the Americans, what are the British, what are the hot Central Canadian writers doing?” –you know it’s all part of the elite, to be with it. I’m trying to balance that. Rather than a horizontal dimension about what’s happening now, I’m looking at the past and putting a vertical dimension in it and saying, “go back into our past and see if there is anything there which gives you new insight into your own creative energies and your own topics; it’s o.k., it’s fulfilling enough (I mean this is the radicalness of it) to be an Alberta writer and nothing but an Alberta writer.” If you are only known here ( 2 or 3 million people live here, chances are that you will be known some place else too). But the idea that there’s enough rich material and issues to be looked at and stories to be told and that comparing yourself with the past is just as important as comparing yourself with what’s happening at the moment in the rest of the world. Before this book came along there was no past to compare yourself to. It was a complete blank for most people except for a few specialized scholars.

pdc: I see this book giving us a sense of rootedness, so that from the strength of roots we are not at the mercy of those horizontal winds that will blow you …

GM: Make you trendy, you just get trendy.

pdc: We can draw strength from those roots and bloom.

GM: See the history itself as a work of writing is simply historical writing, but if it inspires a creative writer, someone who can make a great interpretation, like some of the writers of the past did, of what it means to live here, then it will have done a great thing. Not that its writing is inspirational, or anything like that, it’s because the story it tells gets somebody who is a great writer worked up about writing about these sorts of things. I mean, Nelson, when you brought in that local history, that was a sort of inspiration that came out of doing the course, right? It’s something that was seen as a personal, local, family thing and nothing more. But, as I told you in the class, that particular account is material that, if some creative writer wanted to get an MA or Ph.D. in English could build a novel on that work; take that one work by that guy and the story of that person’s life is an inspiration for somebody else to do. That’s what I’m getting at; that’s the way I see this book working. It tries to make the past somehow relevant to the present. If it achieves that it will change the future, because it is the present that will change the future. And that makes the whole project worthwhile. Now what’s interesting about – the great divide between volume 1 and 2 – is that the story of volume 1 is not known. The story of vol. 2, which begins with W.O. Mitchell, is vaguely known. The majority of people in vol. 2 are living today and are known today. A number of them have ongoing careers. They are two completely different history books. Vol. 2 is not bringing forth a great deal of info. which people who are interested in writing would not vaguely know. People know their names. The role here is validation of what is, of the last 50 years, and a showing that it’s o.k. to live here and write out of here and to do things out of this place, and that you can achieve important things as a writer doing that, and it just lists a large number of people doing all kinds of different literary things. And it shows a richness–there isn’t much depth because there isn’t all that history there, it’s only dealing with 50 years, it’s even structured differently (it isn’t a historical structure at all, it’s a structure based on genre). It basically gives people a validation for being writers out of this place, and that’s important, because we live in a hinterland; we live in a literary hinterland. We are not at the center of literary life, not only in the country, but certainly not on the continent, certainly not in the world. I mean the centers of English language, literary life, are London and New York. I mean, that’s where all the prizes are awarded and that kind of stuff. As a society of hinterland writers, we have to deal with all the inferiority complexes that that conduces, and this is one way of indicating how much is going on here. Now, where in vol. 1 I can make judgments about what is valid or not–because there is distance; you have 50 or 150 years to look at, and you know where it all fell into place in history, what other people said about it–but it’s not easy when it’s contemporary. So I am more careful. I’m more cautious of what I say about people, because it’s about the living. And people want to know “how much did they get, why did `so and so’ get a page and I only got half a page.” This kind of stuff. In a sense, vol. 2 isn’t even really a history at all; there isn’t enough distance. It’s called history, because it has this sort of patina of history about it, but if someone 50 or 100 years from now was going to do the same period from 1946-96 which is vol. 2, would they include all the people that I mentioned? I don’t think so. Some of those people, their writing would have disappeared off the face of the earth. But, they are writing now; they are contributing to the culture. The second vol. is supposed to – it’s something that celebrates what we are now, where vol. 1 celebrates what we were.

NW: You know how in class I mentioned what Ted Blodget had said about the `forgetting of the past’, and I wondered if you see that too. I mean, for instance, in the class in which we studied this text of yours, there were only 6 people interested in studying Alberta’s literary history. And I am wondering if you are discouraged and see that as a lack of interest in our history.

GM: I think there is a lack of interest in our history. And part of it – there are a number of reasons – has nothing to do with the literary history itself, it’s a general trend; you are not going to find many students studying Alberta history in general, very few. And I think the interest in history, as a topic, is not that significant. I don’t know if it ever was. If we look at the writers – and I am trying to aim this book to the writing community, to aspiring writers. I think that one of the things that doesn’t interest them as creative writers is exactly history: they want to be part of what’s trendy right now; “teach me what’s hot in writing; who cares about the past, that’s dead stuff! I want to succeed in this world, I want to be avant-garde, I want to be this and that. Looking at the past is very prosaic, very boring and tells me nothing about how to improve my writing style, how to develop all sorts of skills I need.” It seems utterly impractical, utterly irrelevant to the act of writing, or to the profession of writing. And I’m saying, “you’re absolutely right.” A writer doesn’t want to bury themselves in such a history, but I think that if someone sees themselves as an Alberta writer they cannot ignore the existence of an Alberta literary history now. At some point in their lives they have to face it and see what they think about it. But this is just a minority voice. This course isn’t taught in [the Department of] English. This Alberta literary history course should be taught in the English Department, should be taught as part of people who take creative writing, they should do that. But there’s no sense in that.

pdc: Does that mean the divide between literary generations stands stronger, that we are not truly influencing each other within the same historical / geographical communities – we are influenced by electronic language and media arriving from around the world. That by not looking at our past writers, our literary heritage does not follow a historical / geographical continuum?

GM: I believe that actually contemporary writers in Alberta can benefit from knowing something about their literary history in terms of the quality of their creative writing, and I’ll give you an anecdotal example. There is a writer here in Calgary named David Albahari. David has lived in Calgary three years and he has written three novels while here. All of them have some Alberta component. One of the novels – called Man of Snow; – it’s already out in German but not available in English, – was inspired by an experience he had when he went to a museum in Banff several years ago. Looking through the old museum’s guest book, he saw that some Croatian character had come through Banff in 1920 or something. The man had signed his name and comment in this book. And that then inspired David – he had to then imagine, o.k. here’s a bit of history in Banff, imagine this character and put him into a novel somewhere. So there was a novel inspired by this interaction with history. And I think there are 100’s if not 1000’s of interactions with history that can inspire creative writing. Look at Guy Vanderhaeghe’s award-winning novel The Englishman’s Boy, soon to be a big big movie. It’s based on a historical incident at the Cyprus Hills Massacre. That’s how the story began. Here is an outstanding Canadian fiction writer producing a novel being taken by historical incident – now, of course, it’s a novel which is cross-bordered, in Can. and the U.S. The Cyprus Hills Massacre was involving wolfers who were Americans and who came up from the U.S. and participated in this particular massacre in the Cyprus Hills. It didn’t mean he wrote a historical novel because the history part is only one quarter of the whole thing, but I think writers can find all kinds of inspiration. I myself wrote a paper which I gave at a conference at the U of Nebraska a year ago this spring, called “I am Butler: notes for an autobiographical long poem.” And I talked about how I would like to write Butler’s books as a long poem but with a kind of post-modernist perspective. So here I had taken some history and wanted to do more of a poem. Since then I decided I don’t want to do the long poem any more, I’d rather do it as a novel. And what happens then – the physical reality of doing that particular novel–let’s call it, for sake of a working title, “Butler”–because he wrote a non-fiction autobiographical two volume work, and in his autobiography, there is a third trip when he came out west. And he basically kept a diary, and then turned it into a non-fiction book that was extremely popular, one of the best sellers of its day; it went through innumerable printings, right into the 1970’s. It’s a great classic in western Canadian literature. And I thought, well let’s re-write this, because I always believed that autobiography hides more than it tells. And with Butler a lot of it is well, “I did this, I did that, and this is what I saw.” It’s all on the surface. The Butler I’m looking for is the Butler who is internal, the personality that’s always being hidden between the lines. The way I imagined, if I was to do this as a novel, is through… – one biography of the guy, written by a western Canadian by the name of . . . I’ve forgotten his name – there’s another biography, Great Lone Land written by Butler himself in 1871, and then The Wild North Land was the second one. He travelled with a dog, it was a winter travelling thing from Fort Garry up to Fort Edmonton. And then there’s his autobiography when he came back in 1883; he was paid to do some land consortium and he made that trip. So basically the structure is there. You get four non-fiction works, and you turn that into one novel. That’s the raw material for the novelist, to have that information. And that’s a way of using history. Not being a novelist–not ever having written a novel before–I may never succeed in doing this, I don’t know, but if there was somebody who was a novelist, who had a track record as a novelist, and was interested in the topic, they could take the same four books and create whatever their post-modern novel would be like. And then it could push the language, it could push the form further, that’s the point.

pdc What does it mean for you as an immigrant to write the literary history of Alberta?

GM: Well, it’s something I never planned to do. I never planned to live in Alberta. I still have a love-hate relationship with the place. I hate the politics, I love the land; you know, that’s pretty normal. But, I think ultimately it means that having lived here for twenty–five years and lived most of my creative and productive life in Alberta, I have become, in a sense, an Alberta writer myself, I’ve become part of that history. And I feel that what I will have contributed to as writer, is to Alberta.

pdc: Everything settles in a psychological sense . . .

GM: This is probably the largest work that I will ever do, this two-volume history. You know, I’ve taken four years for the two volumes – you see volume one was finished in the summer of ’96 – and since the fall of ’96 I’ve been writing volume two, and I’m almost finished that. Each one is about a two year project. And it’s very very tiring. It’s also very hard to deal with scholarship; in terms of literary style, it’s very debilitating. It’s not very creative. You know, volume one has 50 pages of bibliography or something, it’s a huge amount. I had to write all of that. It’s not very inspiring. That’s why my mind is turning now to other kind of creative forms of writing, simply to get that out of my system. But I know that I will go back to it from time to time and see if I continue to be an Alberta writer, I might find out there are lots of incredible stories: biographical stories of all kinds of writers that aren’t known. I am hoping that students of writing in Alberta will eventually go into some depth into all of these people, to find some models for themselves, inspiration people that they would like to turn to. The good thing about the literary history is that it goes beyond Alberta’s stereotypes, it shows that you can write about gays in the 19th century in Alberta if you want, there are stories there on that. You can go beyond the NWMP and the missionaries, and the farmers, and all those stereotypic heroes that the general mainstream society throws up. You can find all kinds of odds and ends, of sub-cultures, of marginal personalities and marginal lifestyles and so on that have been here all the time.

pdc: The voices are there waiting to be re-kindled.

GM: That’s right. There’s one guy that was pretty clearly a pedophile, and who was very famous working as a translator during the signing of Treaty 7. In fact, I walked into one of the high schools in Calgary, and there was this wall mural showing him among all the other greats, and if only these people knew that he was a pedophile. And he wrote some interesting articles, but he never wrote any books, so I never talk about him in the literary history, but I would have loved to have talked about him. Because you have to understand the frontier society. The people who were not themselves mainstream, who didn’t want to be part of society that they belonged in, and felt alienated from the world they came from, they came out here. They came out here for economic reasons; they came out here for social reasons; some of them were thrown out of their families; there were remittance men who, “here is some money, don’t ever come back”; and some came for sexual reasons, you know all kinds of stuff. It’s a mixed bag, and it covers everything. One of the things that I hope to resurrect is the importance of certain missionary figures, and the kind of work they did. Now, someone like Father Lacombe is considered one of Alberta’s greats, but nobody talks about his work as a linguist. But the dictionaries he produced were just amazing, between Aboriginal languages and European languages. Some of these things were 100’s and 100’s of pages. this is an important part of our heritage. We also have an interesting photographic record of some of these writers. There’s a picture of Butler and his dog in 1873 and stuff like that, it’s quite interesting; it’s in the Glenbow. There’s a visual record after about 1850 of people here. That too could inspire writers. Forget about the book, look at that one photograph and away you go; then you can create your own story out of it. And then I think the creative writers will create a more interesting Alberta, a more diverse Alberta, a more multi-cultural Alberta in their new creativity. So, I want to contribute to that global synthesis.

 

 

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