2003 Margaret Laurence Lecture


"The Writer’s Life: Geography as Inspiration"
by Alistair MacLeod

On May 23, 2003, Alistair MacLeod delivered the 17th annual Margaret Laurence Lecture at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. With his customary humour, MacLeod charmed the crowd that day with stories about Cape Breton, his family, and his experiences as a writer. The lecture, like his writing, was eloquent and captivating. It was alsosurprisingly for a 45-minute lecture – unscripted. The Writers’ Trust had arranged to record the lecture, however, the recording device malfunctioned and MacLeod’s performance that day was lost forever.

In 2010 when the Writers’ Trust was preparing to publish an anthology of the lecture series there was an obvious problem. A phone call was made to Alistair and a request that he compose a new lecture, to reconstruct what he said that day seven years prior. Since he famously published sparingly this request was thought to be a longshot. Several options were offered in the hope that they would make it easier for him to say yes and ensure that some sort of content could appear in the anthology. Perhaps we could send someone to Windsor to conduct a Paris Review-style interview with him? Perhaps he had a similar lecture in a drawer that we could insert? Alistair continued to listen patiently as the request became embarrassingly desperate. He inquired about our deadline. He asked for a mailing address. And then he declared that we could expect to receive something. Several weeks later a manila envelope arrived containing a dozen pages of Alistair’s cursive writing. The text was transcribed and would later appear in A Writer’s Life (McClelland & Stewart, 2011, p. 263-269). 

This lecture is entitled “The Writer’s Life: Geography as Inspiration.” I’d like to talk a little bit first about geography and then about how it affects a writer’s life and how it has affected many great works of literature. (The geography doesn’t have to be positive.) I may also talk a little bit about my own personal relationship with geography; perhaps how it helped to make me who I am, even in ways over which I had no control.

All writers, as all people, come from a specific place in a specific time. As children, we are born into a specific geography. When we look through whatever windows (openings?) there are, we see what is before us. We may see the ocean, we may see forests, we may see icebergs, we may see sand, we may see herders following their flocks of sheep and goats, we may see looming apartment towers. We eat whatever is given to us. We may eat codfish, we may eat porridge, we may eat blubber, we may eat French fries from McDonald’s, we may eat Kraft Dinner, we may eat tortillas. We may subsist on milk and cheese from our family’s animal herds. In our early years we eat whatever is given to us and in the years before choice, we seldom complain. (We may also experience certain dietary rules and regulations – “We don’t eat that,” “We refrain from eating such and such on certain days or for certain periods” – based on the religion of our geography.)

Our first acquaintance with language comes from our parents or caregivers. We imitate their words, their accent, their dialect. The naming of things (nouns) comes from their geography: what they see before them and around them. (These are mountains, this is a camel, this is a kayak, this is a crocodile, this is a crow.) Occupations are often dictated by geography. People who live by the ocean may seek their sustenance from it. People who live on the pampas may become gauchos. People who live in West Virginia or Kentucky may seek employment in coal mines because there is nothing else. Mountain climbers and mountain guides come from regions where there are mountains. (Sherpas don’t come from downtown Ottawa.) Hockey players rarely come from Patagonia. Hockey players rarely come from Kenya, but many marathoners do. People who live in certain geographies develop different immune systems, different lung capacities; pigmentation differs. Geography very often dictates who we are and what we do.

There is also, in addition to mountains and deserts and oceans (physical geography), political geography, religious geography, racial geography, gender geography, tribal geography, and on and on. If you are a certain colour or religion, you had best not go into a certain neighbourhood, or be found on a certain side of the wall, be it a physical, historical, or psychological wall. If you come from a certain tribe, you had best not be found in an area dominated by another. You had best not apply for a job there or maybe even try to apply for a passport. If you are from the South of Sudan, be careful of those from the North – if from the North, best not be found alone amidst those from the South. If you are from a certain caste in India: “Do not go there – do not even try.” If you are a young woman in a country such as Afghanistan and you do not choose to wear a burka, be warned. If you are a young woman in an area controlled by the Taliban and you choose to read or write, be careful – you may have acid thrown in your face, you may be stoned, you may be killed. And this is real. These are the various geographies into which people are born. You may be born into a home in which certain food is eaten and certain political and/or religious attitudes are expressed and the ocean or the wind is in your face all of the time and you may hate it. And probably, in Canada, when you are seventeen, you may say, I am going to get out of outport Newfoundland, or rural Quebec, or the Ottawa Valley, or interlake Manitoba, and I am never going back there because I dislike it so much. But you will always carry within you what happened in your original place. You will always be affected one way or the other by the kind of geography which helped to make you what you are. And it may be positive as well as negative. If there are people trying to get out of Cape Breton, there are others trying to get back. In parts of the world, if you don’t like your geography, you can move. In other parts of the world, movement is difficult, if not bordering on the impossible.

It has been said that people write about what worries them. If “worry” is too strong a word, one might say that people write about what they “think” about. And people worry/think about different things depending on their geography. Everybody in Canada (with the possible exception of those in Victoria or Vancouver) worries about winter. Most Canadians in November, or earlier, are running around doing all kinds of pre-winter things: getting antifreeze, winter tires; checking their furnaces; putting plastic on their windows; buying mitts and gloves, and shovels and salt; putting insulation around their pipes. Why are they doing this? Because if they do not, winter will cause them great discomfort or even kill them. Canada has no comfortable South. Nobody in New Orleans or Miami or San Juan or Acapulco engages in any of the above activities. Winter will not kill them, but perhaps some other regional particularity will.

In countries as vast as Canada and the United States, the geography varies and so do the worries. (In the United States, there is a strong difference between those who live in the geographies of Montana and North Dakota and those who live in Louisiana or southern Alabama.)

In Cape Breton, where I grew up, members of my family were engaged in coal mining. In times of labour unrest, the initials UMW (United Mine Workers) resonated through the atmosphere. (Would the UMW support the strike or not? Was the UMW’s headquarters in Pennsylvania too far away to be interested in Cape Breton? etc., etc.)

People near the ocean think/worry a lot about DFO (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans). DFO regulates fish quotas, the seal hunt, the length of fishing seasons, the mesh sizes of nets, the number of lobster traps, the establishment of marine zones, etc.

Where I live now, in Windsor, Ontario, the major industry is the manufacture of automobiles. In addition to the decisions made by the manufacturers, the input of the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers Union) looms large in most manufacturing decisions.

Yet, if one were to go to the Prairies and shout “UMW!” or “DFO!” or “CAW!”, with the exception of a few specialized locations, the shouts would fall largely on disinterested ears. The “worries” of such an area would focus instead on the decisions of the Wheat Board, the price of oil, the Hog Marketing Board, the perils of the softwood lumber industry, the fear of mad cow disease, etc. In a country the size of Canada, the concerns are often regionally specific. Yet nationally, all Canadians, presumably, love their children, don’t wish to be murdered in their beds, yearn for financial security, and hope for the healing power of love.

Canada, we are told, is 4,726 miles in width. It consists of different settlements with different histories, different attitudes, and yes, different worries. It would be impossible to write the “great Canadian novel” because such vastness contains so many differences. The Inuit are supposed to have their twenty-seven words for snow. If this is so, it is because they are in it all the time. (The Bedouin in the desert probably don’t even have one word for snow – but, perhaps, many words for sand and its movements.) The people of Quebec have been in their landscape for as long, in some cases, as twelve or thirteen generations. They are largely of one racial stock, one language, one religion, and they have been in a certain climate for a long, long time. “My country is a country of winter,” as Gilles Vigneault says. They are distinct. The people of Newfoundland are largely the descendants of West Country English or Irish ancestors. They represent 96 per cent of their province’s population. 40 per cent of the population of New Brunswick is still classified as rural. In the western provinces, many of the people are descended from “all the little Europes,” as the poet Peter Christensen tells us, and, of course, the Aboriginal peoples have been here since “time immemorial.” Yet over one half of the population of Toronto, Canada’s largest city, was not born in Canada. These latter see the images of Toronto, largely urban, but they also carry within them images from their original homelands; from Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Somalia, Pakistan, etc. Generally they have not been in a kayak or participated in an Alberta cattle drive.

The writing that comes out of the regions generally reflects the images of the region. In the early English/Scottish ballads, all of their early comparisons come from the images provided by geography. These are primitive but generally accurate: “hair as black as the raven’s wing”; “nut-brown ale”; “milk-white skin”; “sharp as the thorn.” (They never say “white as a polar bear” because they have never seen a polar bear!)

Language and imagery generally grow out of the region’s landscape and concerns. In the United States, the imagery of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and, sometimes, Annie Proulx often consists of sagebrush, windmills, dry riverbeds, horses. It is very different from the imagery of Simon and Garfunkel or that of Woody Allen – imagery based largely on New York City, featuring Central Park, neon lights, etc. In the same manner, the imagery of W.O. Mitchell and Guy Vanderhaeghe is quite different from that of David Adams Richards or Donna Morrissey.

I think my point is that literature often comes from places where the various kinds of geographies have an effect upon the central characters. Such works could not come from anyplace else. The work of James Joyce could only come out of the Ireland of its time. It couldn’t come out of New York or London or Calcutta. Wuthering Heights could only come out of those Yorkshire moors – with those birds, those plants, that wind, snow, and isolation. It could not come from London or Cambridge or Oxford. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart could only come out of a certain African milieu. Pre-Apartheid South African literature uses the particular imagery of its landscape as it reflects on apartheid (its major “worry” or idea). In Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, we encounter the “super-smart” man living amidst the various geographies of his home. Here are the mountains, the sheep, the shepherds, the plagues, the riddles, the prophecies, the oracles, the power struggles.

In the literary culture of such a recent country as the United States, great differences exist, depending on the various kinds of geographies explored by individual authors. In the early stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are boys trying to get into their chosen fraternities at Princeton. They worry about having the right kind of white trousers and about denying their more humble Midwest geography. But in the landscape of Flannery O’Connor or, generally, in William Faulkner, the worries are much different. No one, in these worlds, is going to Princeton; and certainly no one in the writings of Richard Wright, the anguished black writer who explored the brutalities of his time, is Princeton bound. Yet all of these authors and their characters are American, trying to live out the dramas of their lives in the landscapes given to them.

The American short story writer Raymond Carver once said that it was the writer’s job to bring the news. By that he meant that the writer’s task was to tell the larger world what it was like to live in a certain place at a certain time. This is why fictional works are often more informative than historical documents. Fictional works contain characters and thus have a human dimension. “This is what it was like to be a child in nineteenth-century England,” the great writers of that time tell us. “This is what it was like to be a little boy,” Dickens tells us in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. “This is what it was like to be a little girl,” George Eliot tells us in The Mill on the Floss.

“These were the issues and this was the geography along the Mississippi,” Mark Twain tells us in Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884. “This is what it was like to be a certain kind of boy in rural Nova Scotia during the 1940s,” Ernest Buckler tells us in The Mountain and the Valley. “This is what it was like to be a certain kind of young girl in southwestern Ontario,” Alice Munro repeatedly informs us. No one is encouraging these girls “to be the best they can be,” but rather the question is, “Who do you think you are?” “This is what it was like to be in love in Quebec at a certain time,” we are told in Maria Chapdelaine and Kamouraska. “This was life on certain streets in Montreal,” says Mordecai Richler, “...and life on the Prairies,” say Sinclair Ross and Margaret Laurence.

Enduring literature, such as that found in the titles above, deals with characters living out their destinies in certain geographies. The same things, the same specifics, would not happen to them if they lived somewhere else. (A black man born in southern Alabama would not face the same situations as a black man born in Nairobi, where almost everyone is black.) Geography matters.

In a country as vast as Canada, our strongest voices seem to emerge from the regions and the landscapes and the worries endemic to specific geographies. It has probably always been so, as I have tried to illustrate. One could draw a literary map depicting “the Atlantic voices”; “the Quebec voices”; perhaps the urban (Toronto?) and rural Ontario voices; “the Prairie voices”; “the B.C. voices”; and, hopefully, with more to come, “the voices of the North.” There is nothing in this that is narrowly exclusive. Certainly one may love his or her husband or wife without hating everyone else.

Yet out of these specific places comes the literature of Canada. It is often specific to its geography, but the best of it is universal in its scope and in what it has to say. Specific geography inspires the author so that he or she might say something universal to the larger world. I think that is what the English poet William Blake, that most universal of men, meant by “seeing the world in a grain of sand” and “eternity in an hour.”

Thank you very much.


MacLoed_AlistairAlistair MacLeod, (July 20, 1936 – April 20, 2014) was an acclaimed Canadian novelist, short story writer, and academic whose 1999 novel No Great Mischief was voted Atlantic Canada's greatest book of all time. Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, his family moved to a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island when he was 10 years old.


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