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ARCHIVED - Canada: A Literary Tour

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Literary Landscapes

The West Coast

Shifting the Nation's Perspective
by Erica Kelly, University of Western Ontario

White stamp with a colour illustration of trees on a rocky coastline and a Canadian flag in the top left corner

Postage stamp depicting a coastline view in Chemainus, British Columbia, November 16, 2006


Inhabitants of the Canadian West Coast pride themselves on the fresh perspective they bring to the rest of the nation: British Columbia artists often serve as harbingers of change, marking trends that later find their way east. In the early 1960s, a group of University of British Columbia students formed a collective aimed at representing the local poetry scene. Frank Davey, George Bowering, Fred Wah, and later Daphne Marlatt and Lionel Kearns, among others, formed TISH, a magazine "obsessed," their first issue claimed, "with the possibilities of sound." Such community-rich and conversational work has become a strength of the West Coast arts scene.

West Coast literature challenges audiences to consider new perspectives on their place and time. In her poem, "The Artefacts: West Coast" (1971), Dorothy Livesay writes: "History the young say / doesn't make sense / and what can I say / in rejoinder?" Much West Coast writing considers this question, and in response, resurrects pieces of history sometimes troubling to the national narrative. Both Livesay's own "Call My People Home" (1950) and Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981), for instance, document the forced relocation of West Coast Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. George Bowering's Burning Water (1980) questions the authority of both historians and mapmakers, as does Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach (2000).

Black book cover with title in large, white print, and a colour painting of totem poles and a village

Klee Wyck, by Emily Carr, Toronto: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942


British Columbia's natural beauty and abundance is reflected in the region's vibrant cultural scene. Painter Emily Carr writes of the spirit of the coast in Klee Wyck (1941). These descriptions are marked by Carr's admiration for the energy she sees: "Above the beach it was all luxuriant growth; the earth was so full of vitality that every seed which blew across her surface germinated and burst." The geography and lifestyle offered on the West Coast inspire fierce loyalty among residents. Poets Jeanette Armstrong, bill bissett, Gary Geddes, Phyllis Webb and Rita Wong, and novelists Jack Hodgins, Audrey Thomas and Ethel Wilson, among others, highlight their ties to the Pacific Coast. In this space where, as Earle Birney says, "Dawn comes grey as a gull's wing," rain is abundant, and so is pride of place.