301 Moved Permanently

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Lives Abroad: CanLit classics set overseas

Mark Sampson’s new novel, Sad Peninsula, is set in Korea. In this list, he shares some CanLit classics set abroad. 

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Sad-Peninsula

Every act of fiction is, at least for me, a voyage into foreign territory. Even the most autobiographical piece can possess shadowy corners and unexpected landscapes. That’s part of the appeal: every work of the imagination is an undiscovered country. But this is especially true with expatriate writing, when an author is either living in or writing about a country or culture that is not his own. When I began working on my new novel, Sad Peninsula, set mostly in South Korea, a country I lived in for two and a half years, I was very cognizant of the expatriate tradition of which (I hoped) my book would become a part. From Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Anthony Burgess’s Malayan trilogy to the short stories of Somerset Maugham and the best works of Hemingway, this genre has proven time and again that foreignness is a double-edged sword. As writers, we can gain incredible liberty when we put distance between us and our home countries. But we also face the challenge of capturing our new locales with originality, accuracy, and sensitivity.

Canada has its own rich tradition of fiction from aboard, and one I leaned on heavily during the writing of Sad Peninsula. My single biggest difficulty with this book was that one of my protagonist’s experiences were about as far removed from my own as one could imagine: she’s female, she’s Korean, she was born in 1928, and she spent the last two and a half years of World War II in a Japanese rape camp. Thankfully, I had read widely through Canada’s canon of literature set in Some Other Place, and found these books immeasurably inspiring as I mapped out the foreign terrain—both literal and emotional—of Sad Peninsula. Here are seven such books by Canadian authors that I feel either influenced my new novel or share some kinship with it:

This Side Jordan, by Margaret Laurence

Laurence was a huge early influence on my literary writing, the first author to teach me how one could take several emotional or thematic strands and weave them into a powerful whole. While this talent reached its fruition in her well-known “Manawaka” cycle of fiction, it is also on display here, in her first novel, set in 1950s’ West Africa as the nation of Ghana gains its independence from Britain. In this rich tale of duplicity and rising nationalism, Laurence puts on an absolute clinic of how to inhabit the hearts and minds of people from different cultures than your own.

Book Cover The Ash Garden

The Ash Garden, by Dennis Bock 

No other novel had a larger influence on Sad Peninsula than this one. Bock’s masterpiece has multiple protagonists and, at its heart, a young Asian woman left deeply scarred by the brutalities of war. Emiko is a damaged but wholly compelling character, a Japanese girl who survives the bombing of Hiroshima only to be forced to relive her traumas over and over again. Bock writes with enchanting brilliance here and lends a whole new perspective on one of the 20th century’s most chilling events.

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant 

No article on Canadian expatriate writing would be complete without a nod to the recently deceased Gallant, a master of the short story and someone whose body of work was utterly consumed with capturing the nuances of life abroad. Paris Stories shows Gallant at her most whimsical (the collection contains two of her hilarious Grippes stories) but also at her most astute. No one was able to capture the alienation—and the freedom—that comes with the expat lifestyle quite like her. Our literature is all the richer because she chose to write from somewhere else.

The Time in Between, by David Bergen

I love this novel for the statement it makes about Vietnam: that our North American notion of that country, defined almost entirely by its 15-year conflict with the United States, is but a small fraction of its culture, history, and identity. I especially appreciated this as I wrote about Korea, another country torn in two by the machinations of the Cold War. Bergen is a careful and sensitive writer, and he works hard in this book to illuminate Vietnam in all its beauty and mystery. Anyone who has lived in Asia will find many familiar tropes in this Giller-winning novel.

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Speaking of Giller winners, Esi Edugyan’s 2011 novel about a group of black musicians recording jazz in Nazi Germany and France does a remarkable job of capturing the tension and fear one can feel at being in unfamiliar and unwelcoming terrain. This novel is about many things—the terror of Nazism, the golden age of jazz, the issues that arise from miscegenation—but it is also about statelessness. It is about finding a way to belong in a world that seems wired to be hostile towards you.

Cocksure, by Mordecai Richler

Richler was no stranger to alienation. As fellow author David Bezmozgis once pointed out, our most cutting satirist was thrice an outsider: a Jew born in predominantly-Christian Canada, an Anglo born in Quebec, and, for much of his early adulthood, a Canadian living abroad in England and France. Far from being hamstrung by this foreignness, Richler was able to channel his interloper status to great effect, especially during his expat years. Cocksure is the culmination of that period for him, a brilliant send-up of London in the swinging sixties and the pure absurdity of its film and television industries of the time.

The Tomorrow-Tamer, by Margaret Laurence

Laurence’s writing is so nice I have to mention it twice! While best known as a novelist, she was also a very accomplished short story writer, and this collection was her first. Like This Side Jordan, the stories here are set in 1950s’ West Africa and are some of the most raucous and colourful writing she ever did. One thing stands out among these stories, something that all expatriate writers should pay attention to: Laurence wrote with incredible sensitivity, generosity of spirit, and compassion in these pieces; and as a result, the Africa of the time comes to vivid life on every page. These small jewels are how writing from abroad can be done.

Mark Sampson’s second novel, Sad Peninsula, has just been published by Dundurn Press of Toronto.  He also has a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep, forthcoming in the spring of 2015. His short fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews have appeared in many journals and magazines across Canada. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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