EX­PLOR­ING CAL­GARY’S LIT­ER­ARY LAND­SCAPE

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

In 1983, writer Barry Cal­laghan came to the con­clu­sion that Cal­gary did not ex­ist.

It was for an es­say in Satur­day Night mag­a­zine that found Cal­laghan, the son of Cana­dian icon Mor­ley Cal­laghan, vis­it­ing a Cal­gary that was in the midst of an eco­nomic slump. Ap­par­ently, he vis­ited a gay bar on 17th Av­enue, a cof­fee shop in a neigh­bour­hood fre­quented by pros­ti­tutes and, even­tu­ally, Cal­gary au­thor John Ballem. At the time, Ballem’s Al­berta Alone was the only lit­er­a­ture Cal­laghan could find that “evoked the city in a novel.” Even­tu­ally, he came to the less-than-flat­ter­ing con­clu­sion that “Cal­gary, as a city, does not ex­ist in the imag­i­na­tion. A city that has no imag­i­na­tive shape has no mean­ing, no pres­ence. In a very real way, Cal­gary — though it is cer­tainly here — does not ex­ist.”

“Cal­gary is hurt­ing, and he comes ba­si­cally to try and find whether the city has a soul,” says Shaun Hunter, au­thor of Cal­gary Through the Eyes of Writ­ers (Rocky Moun­tain Books, 304 Pages, $30). “He de­cides prob­a­bly not. He’s just vi­cious, vi­cious.”

As a born and bred Cal­gar­ian, was Hunter per­son­ally of­fended?

“I was!” she says with a laugh. “But then I thought ‘No, do not look away Shaun. Keep your eyes on the page.’ Be­cause that per­spec­tive has value too, right?”

An ex­cerpt from Cal­laghan’s es­say is one of 150 that Hunter of­fers in her sprawl­ing book, which looks at Cow­town through a lit­er­ary lens that goes back 200 years.

Yes, the first ex­cerpt was writ­ten about a time 100 years be­fore Cal­gary be­came Cal­gary. It’s from David Thomp­son’s 1850 mem­oir The Trav­els, which chron­i­cled the Hud­son Bay clerk’s ex­pe­ri­ences with the Pi­ikani First Na­tion on the Bow River in the win­ter of 1787.

Hunter also in­cludes the me­mories of Peter Fi­dler, an­other Hud­son Bay rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Fi­dler’s cum­ber­somely ti­tled Jour­nal of a Jour­ney Over Land From Buck­ing­ham House to the Rocky Moun­tains in 1792 also finds him writ­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ences with the Pi­ikani and at­tempts to cross the Bow at Nose Creek.

“I’m call­ing that Cal­gary’s first ac­tion scene,” says Hunter, who will hold a book launch at the new Cen­tral Li­brary on Sun­day. “This is a sto­ried land­scape. This has been a sto­ried land­scape for mil­len­nia.”

Still, the real cat­a­lyst for the book goes back to Hunter’s post­sec­ondary years in Ot­tawa study­ing Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture.

“I went away to univer­sity and stud­ied English Lit­er­a­ture and ended up study­ing Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture,” she says. “I never say Cal­gary in the canon of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture. It used to be a run­ning joke among my pro­fes­sors and class­mates. The Cal­gary novel. Hah! That was dis­ap­point­ing and fes­tered for quite a while.”

In early 2015, the es­say­ist and aca­demic, who of­ten hosts “lit­er­ary walks” through Cal­gary, be­gan think­ing about her city as it lived in the imag­i­na­tion of writ­ers. Through ex­ten­sive re­search, she be­gan blog­ging some of her find­ings, even­tu­ally dis­cov­er­ing that she had enough for a book. Cal­gary, it turns out, has lived in the imag­i­na­tions of writ­ers for quite some time, of­ten tak­ing on var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions far be­yond our oil and cow­boys.

Hunter di­vides the book into eras, from those fron­tier mem­oirs up to chron­i­cling the 2013 floods. Cal­gary has ap­peared not only in the imag­i­na­tions of our own writ­ers — Fred Stet­son, Aritha van Herk (who writes the in­tro to Hunter’s book), Will Fer­gu­son, Deb­o­rah Wil­lis — but out­siders as well.

On­tario writer Tanya Huff ’s 2009 fan­tasy novel The En­chant­ment Em­po­rium, for in­stance, adopts a some­what mys­ti­cal Cal­gary as its set­ting, a city full of haunted junk shops, lep­rechauns and dragon lords. Cow­town even ap­peared in the writ­ings of Gra­ham Greene (in the 1963 short story Dear Dr. Falken­heim) and Rud­yard Ki­pling (who de­clared it the “won­der city of Canada” after a few vis­its.)

Hunter un­cov­ers Cal­gary through var­i­ous lit­er­ary per­spec­tives. Au­thors such as Suzette Mayr and Rae Spoon write from an LGBT com­mu­nity. Women’s voices in lit­er­a­ture are ob­vi­ously present through­out, but Hunter goes back to cen­tury-old, Cal­gar­y­set nov­els of Is­abel Pater­son and the work of Mar­garet Sadler Gilkes, one of the few fe­male beat cops who pa­trolled post­war Cal­gary.

She in­ves­ti­gates a new van­guard of writ­ers who are es­tab­lish­ing them­selves, and their home­town, as a lit­er­ary force, in­clud­ing award­win­ning short-story writer Wil­lis.

“In spite of all the ef­forts to put us in a box, to give us a slo­gan to put at city lim­its to de­fine us, this city is too big,” says Hunter. “It’s too di­verse. It’s too com­pli­cated to box up and sim­plify. I think the writ­ers’ voices in my book prove that and I’m so glad they do.”

Still, Hunter ad­mits that she didn’t nec­es­sar­ily find the de­fin­i­tive Cal­gary writer — some­one to rep­re­sent our city the way Morde­cai Rich­ler came to rep­re­sent Mon­treal, for in­stance — or even the de­fin­i­tive “Cal­gary novel.”

There are good ones, of course. Hunter men­tions Fer­gu­son’s Giller-win­ning 419 for in­stance, and van Herk’s 1998 Rest­less­ness, which is set in the Fair­mont Pal­liser.

“Maybe I started out look­ing for the Cal­gary novel,” she says. “I did not find the Cal­gary novel. I’m not sure it ex­ists and do we re­ally want it to? The city is elu­sive. It has mul­ti­tudes.”

Shaun Hunter

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