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Pioneer or invader? Nationalism in contemporary fiction

By Leslie Vryenhoek | Nov. 20, 2007

In pursuit of his PhD, Mark Anderson has been reading contemporary novels that present historical events and figures in a fictional context. At the next St. John’s Public Lecture in Philosophy, he’ll argue that this literature is deeply nationalistic, and poses a danger when readers mistake fiction for genuine history.

Mr. Anderson, a PhD candidate in Memorial University's English Department, is focusing his research on literature in post-colonial nations that don’t fit the “post-colonial mold” because, as he succinctly puts it, “the white people didn’t go away.” These include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant has allowed him to travel to these countries and glean a deeper understanding of them.

In direct opposition to what most post-colonial theorists have said about recent books that explore the colonial past, Mr. Anderson believes they are not apolitical; rather, he’s found a kind of insidious flag-planting in them.

“They’re written by settler writers for settler readers who want to feel better about their claim to what is essentially stolen land.” Mr. Anderson is focusing on widely-read and influential novels such as Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, a book he admires as a work of literature, although he noted: “You get the impression, reading it, that all the Scottish did was improve the lives of aboriginals by offering them the great clan system.” 

There are more disturbing examples, such as a New Zealand novel in which the author has the greatest Maorian general apologizing to the settlers. And in many of the works, Mr. Anderson has discovered a tendency for the writer to forge a cozy relationship between the settler heroes and the aboriginals – if aboriginals appear at all in the story.

Mr. Anderson said he is also looking at how contemporary aboriginal fiction writers use history as a weapon against a society largely controlled by the settler culture.

As a novelist, he said, one can “problematize the history you don’t like, and you assert the history you do like.” The real danger, he believes, is that these novels have come to represent a “coffee table history” for readers.

“It’s a nice, easy way to get your history – but it’s not history,” he said, adding that  in order to be an aware reader, one needs to consult several historical sources to discern what parts are accurate, and what is fictionalized. “But who has time to do that?”

Mr. Anderson will deliver Pioneer or Invader? Nationalism in Settler Fiction on Tuesday, Nov. 27 from 8:30-10 p.m. at The Ship Pub (off Duckworth Street).  All are welcome to join the discussion (over age 19).