Some five decades ago, when Jane Urquhart was studying English at the University of Guelph, there was one lonely anthologized textbook to supplement learning for the university’s solitary course in Canadian literature.
“There was one half-year course – but it was not encouraged. But that kept (Canadian literature) in a special place, too. It was easier to think of it as anti-establishment than it was to think of anything even resembling canonical. Most people would just laugh it out of the room, if you bought it up,” said one of Canada’s best-known authors.
Urquhart, who started publishing in the era of Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and Dionne Brand, among others, today sits in the canonical literary space of Canada. And come January, she will join the Western community as the 2019-20 Writer-in-Residence, following Cherie Dimaline.
Western houses Canada’s longest-running Writer-in-Residence program, which was established in 1972. Among its alumni are Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Joan Barfoot and André Alexis, just to name a few. The Writer-in-Residence works to raise the profile of literary activity in the community and enriches the local cultural scene, often engaging audiences with little previous literary experience.
“We’ve come a long way,” Urquhart, DLitt’14, said of Canadian authors. “When I began publishing, I was very much aware that this was a developmental period. We were making something where there hadn’t been anything before, with space for many different voices and points of view to be heard.”
For Urquhart, before she even started to write, reading was a rebellious task. As a teenager, she dove into beat and modern poetry, first reading Allen Ginsberg under her desk in class, then moving on to Ezra Pound. She liked William Carlos Williams. Indeed, she was drawn to the technical poets, the difficult poets whose lines she fought to infiltrate.
“(Modern poetry) seemed like a very anti-establishment thing to do at that point, and not only anti-grown-up establishment but anti-teenager establishment. I fancied myself as a romantic loner or something like that,” she said.
“They gave me a whole, huge notion of life lived beyond the confines of middle-class Canada at the time. I was desperate to get to it. But I always felt it would be likely that, by the time I was old enough to be released into a world like, I wouldn’t really want to hitchhike back and forth across the country. That, of course, turned out to be true.”
Urquhart started writing, first poetry which she found formulaic, sort of like math. She moved on to prose, weaving in tales and legends, things she heard when she was a child from those in her extended Irish family, those “who talked about the past carried their ghosts with them, and if they didn’t, they invented them.”
She is the author of eight internationally acclaimed novels, among them The Whirlpool, the first Canadian novel to be awarded France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; Away, winner of the Trillium Award; The Underpainter, winner of the Governor General’s Award and finalist for The Orange Prize in the UK; and The Stone Carvers, a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s Booker Prize.
Urquhart has also written a collection of short fiction, four books of poetry, and a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery. She was editor of the most recent Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Her work, which is published in many countries, has been translated into numerous foreign languages and she has received numerous awards nationally and internationally.
Reflecting on her creative process, she sees it as different for men and women. Particularly those of her generation.
“It took a lot to give oneself the permission to have a protected space or have a protected time for writing,” Urquhart said, echoing Mavis Gallant who likewise saw the difficulty in justifying something that seemed so frivolous for a woman, “writing things that never happened to people that never existed.”
For a woman to do so, and to say she was contributing to a larger culture, would have been laughable, she noted, particularly given the lack of a proper, established canon. For a woman to think she could make money writing was even less promising.
“It never crossed out minds we would ever make any money – that would include Margaret Atwood. There was no expectation of a mainstream audience. The definition of success was very different; you imagined your peers as the people receiving your work,” she noted.
“I had been surrounded by readers my whole life. But because there was so little Canadian literature, you could never imagine yourself in a space where you would go look up your name and then, there were cards in the library that showed one of your books was actually there.”
“Marvelous editors” who took interest in Canadian literature in small and large presses at the time made all the difference, Urquhart explained. Better distribution, an increase in the number of Canadian bookstores, events and coverage afforded by the CBC to budding and established writers can be credited for establishing the canon, she added.
She is excited to return to southwestern Ontario, and to Western, where she received an honorary degree and her husband worked as the first Artist-in-Residence and first director of the McIntosh Gallery.
“I love being in touch with young people; they keep you grounded and in focus in a way that cannot possibly happen in any other format.”
Urquhart will be on campus, taking appointments, and looks forward to working in and with the literary community in London. There are “lots of surprises in store” for her residency.