It is the most obvious of observations, that as humans we are entangled—by intimate experiences such as parenthood, death, love, and by commerce, culture, politics. And today we are entangled as never before—by the global consequences of our actions, small and large. A dolphin in captivity is taught tricks to please a human audience and then, once released, teaches these skills to wild dolphins an ocean away. A dam built in Egypt, India, or China affects the water table so greatly as to change the tilt of the Earth’s axis. Never before have we been so complicit in the fate of the human species entire; nor has our fate been so entangled with the fate of the planet. And now, of course, another entanglement: in the local high street of the Western world, in the length of two blocks, about a minute’s walk from home, the shopkeepers come from everywhere—Italy, Estonia, Mexico, Thailand, Britain, India, Germany, China, France, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Spain, Poland, Jamaica, the Czech Republic, Japan, Greece. At the local milk-mart, the man behind the counter reads Goethe’s Faust in Korean.
Though this kind of multiculturalism through labor migration or political exile has become commonplace, one question never loses its poignancy, no matter how often it is asked: Do we belong to the place where we are born, or to the place where we are buried? When one is dispossessed of everything—home, country, landscape—what is left? Language, memory, one’s own body. Not too long ago—an instant ago, in terms of evolutionary history—we knew one thing with a fair amount of certainty: the place where we were born would likely be the place where we would die. The simple fact that for billions of people this is not so is one of the most significant changes of our age.
We are marinated in our childhoods, in the places of our earliest memories. Even when a writer decides never to write overtly about his childhood—perhaps the food of that childhood is too hot and burns the tongue, or is too cold to be eaten with pleasure—nevertheless, for a writer, it is a metaphorical meal that must be eaten, even if only in private.
Of course, we need not move an inch to wake up one morning and find ourselves to be migrants, or for a writer to find himself, overnight, a foreign writer. This is military occupation, the re-stitching of borders.
In Canada, we have been politically stable enough to be able to define a national literature by way of geographical region: Arctic, prairie, east and west coasts, the looming wilderness. In some sense, this definition has not changed. Two great themes weave through our literature—our relationship with the wilderness, and the immigrant experience. These themes were combined even in the beginnings of published writing in this country, and this continues. The changes now, in global influence and global consequence, in a global witnessing, will of course change what there is to say, and how we say it. But will it change how we read? What will a national literature mean to a society that reads globally with ease, absorbing novels online and downloading instant translations of books? Despite the new ease with which we cross borders and enter the experiences of others, some truths will not change: love finds us wherever we are, a child is born in only one place, the ground where we bury our dead becomes sacred to us; these places do not belong to us, we belong to them. And where does a writer metaphorically wish to be laid to rest? In a book, in a reader. Not laid to rest in terms of immortality, but in terms of common experience; laid to rest in this common ground. A writer may be born in one place and write in another—but who claims him? The reader—who may live in a very different place and in a different time. In this sense alone, perhaps, globalization cannot be considered a new idea.
A national literature is made not only by writers, but by readers. Recently, a project was launched in Toronto to “bookmark” the country; passages of Canadian literature, set meaningfully in real locations, will be commemorated in those actual locations. We can cross an ordinary bridge or an intersection and read a passage describing a fictional event that takes place where we stand. Where we stand, there is a story. And perhaps that is the simplest, and most privileged, definition of what a national literature is.
When people are dispossessed, a national literature can reside in a single voice. What makes a home for words is a reader; and what makes a home for a reader is words. When the dead cannot be laid to rest in ground that remembers them, sometimes literature is the only grave we have. And that grave is one way a migrant claims a place in his adopted country—a place, ironically, for the living.