Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

James and the Giant Peach of a Blog

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James and the Giant Peach of a Blog

Writers can't read everything, so it is important to find bloggers we can trust to do the kind of analysis that assists us in our work. While there are many excellent longstanding Canadian book bloggers, I want to showcase some new voices and support the blend of the literary and the academic that I've found in two exciting relatively new Canadian bloggers. First up is James Onusko with his blog at I asked James These Questions Three:

1.When we first met, I was fascinated to discover a rather rare thing: a man with both a deep academic appreciation of adult Canadian literature and an historical interest in the study of children. Starting up a blog and a writing career with a young family while finishing up your PHD, must be a truly daunting experience. Can you please address what has been your biggest challenge and your best surprise so far?

Thanks for the kind words Dorothy. Interestingly it hasn't been as daunting as one might think - although on paper it might read that way. After graduating with a BA in History and English, I spent a number of years working in the private sector and eventually became a senior manager. While I enjoyed this work, intellectually, it simply was not enough. I completed my MA through Athabasca University while working full time over a 2-year period. To be honest, that might have been a greater challenge in this entire process, especially from a time management perspective, than working on the PhD, beginning to write and to review literature. At the PhD level, the biggest challenge has likely been harnessing my love of reading and focusing on what I need to be reading for my studies. I can get so easily distracted by some of my favourite magazines (The New Yorker, Canadian Dimension, The Walrus), online sites(,, exceptional novels and so forth, that at times I have to restrict some of my days to my research exclusively. My best surprise so far has been how excited my children have been about what I do. I truly believe that it has helped to stimulate an even greater love of reading than they might have had otherwise - they see me reading and writing constantly.

2. When you invited me to speak in Peterborough last fall, I was struck by the strong sense of community at Trent. For the sake of exploration, I¹d like to turn that concept on its head. Is that traditional sense of community both a strength and a weakness when it comes to the development of modern divergent voices in Canadian literature? Is the academic community a stepping stone, or a barrier to change, or both?

Those are some great questions that likely need much more time and space than I have here, but here is a brief response. I think that without question, there has been a tendency from many critics to feel a need to tend to the laudatory rather than the negative when reviewing Canadian literature, regardless of genre. When you look back at the 'Godfather' of Canadian literary criticism Northrop Frye, even when he was unimpressed with a writer, he always seemed to find something positive to note or to colour his commentary with language that was rarely offensive or combative. Because the writing community, until relatively recently, has been quite small, at least on an international scale, reviewers often knew writers personally and this unquestionably influenced their criticisms. Additionally, it has taken a number of decades for our present multi-vocal landscape to take fuller shape. While women have been writing since before Confederation, women writers really did not begin to ascend to national prominence until the post-World War II era. Our First Nations writers have been under-represented in a national 'canon,' and only in the past twenty years has this really changed with writers such as Thomas King, Eden Robinson, Thomson Highway coming to the fore. In this same time frame, writers born outside of Canada such as Ondaatje, Mistry and Hage have become mainstays of Canadian literature. They have all served to push the traditional bounds of Canadian Literature - to the benefit of all of us. The academic community is very much a part of the 'real world' and I have never really fully understood the idea that it is an 'Ivory tower'. I can appreciate that some may view it that way, however, it is always part of the larger community that it serves. I think it is both a stepping stone and a barrier. I think the professors, instructors and most importantly, the students that embrace the energy that infuses all institutions of higher learning, are tremendous agents of change on several levels. Conversely, many in the academic community have very real concerns about the views they express, whether they be political, social, and so forth. Fear is always a barrier and many in the academic community work within this broader context, making the advocacy for change a difficult position to take.

3. I'm not sure if you've seen Woody Allen's amazing movie Midnight in Paris, but in a beautiful homage to that city he posits the idea that sometimes we're so nostalgic for what we believe to have been the better days of a "Golden Age," that we miss what is wonderful about our own. Is there a lesson here for how we see Canadian Literature?

I haven't seen that one Dorothy, but it is on a long list of movies that I need to watch sooner rather than later. That theme is an important one in myriad contexts. It is interesting that I had a brief discussion with a professor while reading for my comprehensives. We agreed that the early 1970s through the late 1990s has become an era that has been held up as a "Golden Age" by many with the Munro, Richler, Ondaatje, Atwood, and Cohen being some of the most prominent. An earlier time that featured Leacock, Grove, Callaghan, Pratt, and MacLennan continues to hold the imagination of many academics as well. I don't know that continuing attention on these writers and their works necessarily takes away from how we view contemporary writers. I think it always takes some time to see what texts and by extension, which writers, will have staying power. Some works seem to stand the test of time more than others and predicting this is always imperfect. I think the key to all of this is understanding that tastes change over time and that it is not a zero sum exercise. One can enjoy Lyon, Endicott, Boyden, Robinson, and Hill while continuing to read and admire Margaret Lawrence, Pauline Johnson and Susannah Moodie. Unquestionably, Canadian Literature has become a significant force on the international scene. Going forward, writers will necessarily be buoyed or weighed down by this - from my perspective, the choice is theirs.

Thank you to James and I know that I'll keep reading everything he writes about what he reads!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page