A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times (By Sheila Heti)


image thanks to thirdi blog


The Globe and Mail—the newspaper I saw my father reading every day when I was growing up—published a profile of me this past weekend. In it, a familiar Canadian story was told: Canadian artist, neglected in Canada, finds acclaim in the States, and only then at home. While there is certainly some truth to this, and a lot of what I said in the piece seemed to corroborate it, I made a point of telling the journalist that my story feels different to me, as does the story of my latest book’s publication, and that I think it’s time for a new story.

Of course, what one says in an interview is always used to support the myth the journalist has—or in this case, that Canada generally has of Canadian artistic success. But it’s not precisely the case that n+1, or the article in the Observer, or the piece in the Guardian, caused the success of the book. Especially in a place like Canada, the ones who facilitate success are primarily the other artists.

While it seems from the article like I have been neglected, the truth is I have had tons of support over the years, more support than any artist could hope for – from writers, painters, musicians and poets.

It isn’t (and I suspect it never has been) the presumed engines of Canadian culture—The Globe and Mail, the Giller Awards, the Governor General’s Awards, etc.—that make Canadian artistic culture. My book was tepidly reviewed in the Globe three years ago. I have never received a Canadian award.

Meanwhile, during the seven years I was working on this novel, Margaux Williamson, my artistic collaborator, spent hundreds of hours reading drafts and giving me notes. I received feedback on drafts from the theatre director Chris Abraham, the novelist Christine Pountney, the artists Shary Boyle and Leanne Shapton, Coach House editor Alana Wilcox, Vancouver novelists Lee Henderson and David Chariandy, former CBC producer and writer Kathryn Borel, the artist Sholem Krishtalka, Geist editor Stephen Osborne, I could go on and on (the poet Ryan Kamstra, the essayist Mark Greif…). Rawi Haage lent me his Montreal apartment so I could finish an edit there. I have never received so much support in my life. These were people with their own work to do. But they helped me. As we all help each other.

The real story about my book and its “success,” it seems to me, is how it was supported by people who relied on their own judgments, without external validation, who influenced its shape.

The years I spent on my book weren’t years spent alone in my apartment, but a time when I spent weeks touring through Europe with the Toronto- and Berlin-based band, The Hidden Cameras (even though I’m a crummy musician, they still put me on stage with an instrument). I worked long hours in Margaux’s painting studio, travelled to the States to meet fellow writers and artists, and participated in the activist projects of Dave Meslin and the Toronto Public Space Committee, all of whom I learned from, whose work and thoughts developed my art and changed its direction.

We live in a place where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

It’s a rich, complex, and intelligently critical world we inhabit: a world that produces great art, and that does not burn brightest when the CBC or the Globe take notice, or when the Americans or Brits do. It’s a world populated by writers and artists who give help and recognition without scoping the horizon for whether the arbiters are near. We are the arbiters. Whether the myth of Canadian achievement includes this world or not, this world exists. It’s true.


Filed under books, guest post, other

15 responses to “A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times (By Sheila Heti)

  1. Thank you Sheila. Your words hit home. Also, you produced a very fine book. It enters my daily life through my reflections – this is like that part of that book – and the phase ‘how should a person be’, a lot.

    I’ve forwarded this post to the artists in my life.

  2. Ah, the merits due a currency of meaning…Well said!

  3. Yes i agree, very well said!

  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2uaAR-zmSY — Here’s a speech by Jackie Burroughs, the late great actor — an earlier tribute to joys of the non-industrial non-starry non-remunerative Canadian art scene. Deanne Taylor

  5. mchristakos

    great piece.

  6. Yes, I’ve had the same experience – it is the encouragement from and collaboration with other artists that keeps me going. Actually, I’ve been thinking about these issues lately, as I still receive more rejections than acceptances when I send out stories or poetry – a cold wind blows almost constantly from the ‘established’ engines of culture.

  7. How refreshingly Canadian!

  8. Pingback: Afternoon Bites: Sheila Heti’s Mythology, Shuggie Otis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Memoir, Seth Fried, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

  9. Suzanne Hale

    Great story and not a fairy tale either. I love the phrase ‘currency of meaning’!
    Where does that come from?

  10. Hello Sheila Heti.
    This is a wonderful piece. So heartening. My husband is Eric Peterson, a Canadian actor. I sent him your writing this morning and it made him so happy and encouraged. Hurray for you!
    On another note, I run an organization that does advocacy for public education. One of our concerns has been the narrowing of the definition of education over the last few years, and the consequent loss of things like the arts and staffed libraries in schools. We think it’s vital that all kids have access to a rich and broadly based education that includes culture, school libraries, Canadian authors and shared understandings about all of our histories.
    I’m trying to find you to ask you if you might be willing to be part of a performance/fundraiser at the beginning of June called Telling Tales Out of School. My email is below, along with our website address.
    But either way – thank you so much for your writing.
    Annie Kidder
    People for Education