canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Plains Text: The Literary Scene in Winnipeg and Beyond

by A. J. Levin

Literature in Manitoba is older than the province itself. Ill-fated Hudson’s Bay Company governor Robert Semple, who met his end in what is now Winnipeg’s West Kildonan neighbourhood, published several books at the beginning of the 19th century.

One of the few preconceptions outsiders have of Manitoba, and, especially, of Winnipeg – after the visions of boring topography, blizzards, mosquitoes, and flooding – is that of a vibrant arts scene. In part, this is a feature of necessity, as the next sizeable community in any direction is Minneapolis/St. Paul, hundreds of kilometres south of here. But something in Manitobans’ temperament leads to a sort pf artistic collectivism; perhaps it’s the long, cold winters, or perhaps the ethnic and religious groups that make up the province.

Multiculturalism here is much older than Toronto’s vaunted mix of peoples. Even before Winnipeg was a city, the Red River Settlement of the 19th century saw French, Scottish, English, Swiss, Irish, Métis, Cree, Anishnawbe (Saulteaux/Ojibway), and others living in relative harmony. Later influxes include Icelanders, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Mennonites, Germans, Dutch, Hungarians, Chinese, Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, and, since the 1970s, Vietnamese, Filipinos, South Asians, and others. Many of these cultures have made their mark on the literary landscape.

One of Francophone Canada’s great writers, Gabrielle Roy, was from here, and Louis Riel was a poet as well as a statesman. The work of French-speakers from Lower Canada and Francophone Métis – who, until after Manitoba entered Confederation, formed the majority here – continues. Current Franco-Manitoban writers include J. R. Léveillé, Laurent Poliquin, and Simone Chaput. There are several Francophone presses here, mainly concentrating on poetry.

Aboriginal writers here include Beatrice Culleton Mosionier and Ian Ross, also known as "Joe from Winnipeg" (though the actor/author comes from McCreary, a tiny community far from the provincial capital). Pemmican Publications, which is affiliated with the Manitoba Métis Federation, gives voice to many Aboriginal writers from Manitoba and from farther afield.

Those of British and Irish stock have also contributed to the literary landscape. Sinclair Ross, Presbyterian minister Charles Gordon – who wrote under the name Ralph Connor, Douglas Durkin (with his Norwegian-born wife, Martha Ostenso), poet Dorothy Livesay, and, more recently, non-fiction author Jake MacDonald and children’s writer Martha Brooks are good examples. Americans have also influenced the province, notably poet George Amabile and the much-admired Carol Shields, winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

Other notable writers – John Marlin, a Hungarian; Jewish writers Adele Wiseman, famous for her parable The Sacrifice, and storyteller Sheldon Oberman; and Frederick Philip Grove, a German – have come from various backgrounds. Manitoba has also produced several of the best writers in the Icelandic language, especially poets.

Wanderers of all backgrounds comprise a startling percentage of Manitoba writers. Winnipeg especially functions as a vestibule for writers, some (like Sylvia Legris, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize) leaving here for better things, others arriving here – usually for a university post – and stay for anywhere from months to several decades. Among the latter group are poets Dennis Cooley, originally a Saskatchewanian, and Robert Kroetsch, a former Albertan.

No group, though, has been as prominent in the province’s literature as the Anabaptist group known as Mennonites. Sci-fi author A. E. van Vogt, humorists Paul Hiebert and Armin Wiebe, Giller-winning novelist David Bergen, Governor General’s Award–winner Miriam Toews, short-story writer and novelist Sandra Birdsell, and poets Di Brandt and Patrick Friesen all come from a Mennonite background. There is even a Mennonite literary magazine, Rhubarb, here.

Several generalist magazines, such as The Beaver and Border Crossings, are based in Winnipeg, while specifically literary magazines include Prairie Fire and Contemporary Verse 2, both located in the Artspace Building, a hundred-year-old former warehouse in the Exchange District near Winnipeg’s famed Portage and Main. Also in this building are the Manitoba Writers Guild, the organizing body for the province’s authors; several photographic and film groups; the provincial book publishers’ organization, which publishes Prairie books NOW, a survey of new books in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta; and an art-house cinema. The concentration of these bodies in a small area together with inexpensive artists’ studios and several other publishers lends the feeling that Winnipeg is an artistic capital.

Among the other book publishers here are the closely associated J. Gordon Shillingford and Signature Editions, publishers of, among other things, poetry and non-fiction; Turnstone, best known for its literary poetry and fiction; the University of Manitoba Press, specializing in academia; and trade publishers Great Plains and Heartland. Closer to the lowbrow end of the scale, Manitoba was the birthplace of Harlequin Romance novels and of one of the two founders of Reader’s Digest, though neither company is headquartered here.

Besides the downtown Exchange District, locally owned bookstore/café mini-chain McNally Robinson, which also has retail outlets in Saskatoon, Calgary, and New York, is a nexus of literary life. The founder of a previous independent bookstore, Mary Scorer, was a UK-born publisher as well. Her company, Peguis, now Portage & Main Press, is the oldest private publisher in the province and the biggest here. Portage & Main concentrates mainly on educational titles.

As much as Manitoba’s literary scene is concentrated around a few locations, it is also tied to times. While McNally Robinson has weekly – at times, near-daily – readings, literary attention focuses on the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, also known as THIN AIR.

The festival largely occurs in a few venues in Winnipeg – The Forks, a several-thousand-year-old meeting place; the McNally Robinson stores; one or more of the three universities in Winnipeg; Artspace; and the newly renovated city Millennium Library, formerly the Centennial Library. However, unlike most other literary festivals, this weeklong celebration of the book includes events in Brandon (Manitoba’s second city, at about 40,000 souls) and in smaller centres such as Portage la Prairie; the predominantly Icelandic lakeside community of Gimli; and Neepawa, best known as the long-time home of Margaret Laurence, arguably the best writer Manitoba has produced.

The spread-out nature of the festivals is a boon to smaller centres in the province. Winnipeg has the advantage of being the political, financial, historic, and literary capital of Manitoba. Smaller centres such as Brandon, Thompson, and The Pas often have university campuses and arts councils, but lack the critical mass of population to support a vibrant arts community.

The 2006 THIN AIR instalment saw an eclectic mix of fiction writers, memoirists, poets, children’s authors, and celebrity cooks from across the country and from France. Francophone and bilingual Canadian writers are not segregated as they might be at other literary events, but are integrated into the festival proper. Perhaps it is because of the geographic, cultural, thematic, and linguistic diversity of THIN AIR that Ontario writer Rachael Preston – herself associated with Hamilton’s literary festival – calls this the "festival of festivals."

While events are concentrated around a week in late September, the Winnipeg festival, like its Toronto counterpart, has a reading series throughout the year.

The peripatetic A. J. Levin is the author of Monks’ Fruit (Nightwood, 2004), a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. He has written for Books in Canada, Literary Review of Canada, The Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Born in Winnipeg, he subsequently lived in Montreal, Toronto, Mexico, and England before his recent return to Manitoba. He lives in Winnipeg, where he is an editor with Contemporary Verse 2 and for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Manitoba (Great Plains, 2007).







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We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.