What is Canadian Literature?

What is Canadian literature? What is a Canadian novel? I am not going to be so foolhardy as to attempt to define these terms; many have wandered into this wilderness—and returned, what else but bewildered if they were honest, or with simplistic or outdated notions if they were naive; this is hardly surprising—the country is changing around us even as we speak, stirring up a host of conflicting ideas and interests, and to look for an essence, a core, a central notion within that whirlwind is surely an illusion. To define this country or its literature seems like putting a finger on Zeno’s arrow: no sooner do you think you have done it than it has moved on.

—M. G. Vassanji, “Am I a Canadian Writer?”

A Canadian wilderness.

Titkana Peak Overlooking Hunga Glacier, Mount Robson Park, B.C. (1913) by Charles D. Walcott. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image: Walcott 985.


It may seem strange to open a guide to Canadian literature by describing it as a shifting wilderness and a bewildering whirlwind. However, M. G. Vassanji’s comment serves as a warning to stay away from rigid, categorical thinking. There is no central idea, no easy essence, that binds Canadian literatures together.

However, there are numerous ongoing conversations surrounding Canadian literature, drawn out of the diversity of people, lands, histories, and stories in which they live.

This guide sketches out these dynamic conversations, which offer many possibilities for deeper engagement with Canadian literature.

Works Cited

  • Vassanji, M.G. Am I a Canadian Writer? Editorial. Canadian Literature 190 (2006): 7–13. Print. (PDF)