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Madeleine Thien and Catherine Leroux discuss putting together the Canada issue of Granta

Madeleine Thien is a guest editor of the most recent issue of Granta.

Babak Salari

When the editors of Granta, one of Britain's oldest and most prestigious literary magazines, announced that a forthcoming issue would be devoted to Canada, guest editors Catherine Leroux (The Party Wall) and Madeleine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing) received more than 1,000 submissions, in both official languages. Next week, Granta 141, featuring new fiction, reportage, memoir, poetry and photography by both new and established Canadian writers and photographers, arrives in bookstores. Ahead of publication, the guest editors discussed the new issue with Granta's deputy editor, Rosalind Porter.

Porter: Late last year, Granta began to think about doing a special guest-edited issue on Canada. In that time, the two of you have read something like 1,000 pieces of fiction, memoir, reportage, poetry, plays – and various other genre-defying things – to select the 25 pieces and three photo essays that will appear in the issue, plus about 15 others which we will publish on Granta.com. How unexpected was the experience of reading so much new work by Canadian writers?

Thien: In some ways it was the best part, even though it was the most difficult. We read and re-read for months. But it was exciting, because we were continuously arriving in a new place or way of thinking. I was reading blind, without knowing who the author was, and now and then I'd come across a piece that made me forget I'd been reading forever, a piece that was just so quietly or flamboyantly surprising, that had an acuity you couldn't turn away from. I remember the first story that jumped out like this and it was Krista Foss's remarkable story about weather manipulation, Cloud Seeding. I had never read Krista before but now I'm a fan for life.

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Leroux: It also taught us different ways to look at a piece. For instance, we started considering "the afterglow" of certain texts when we realized that some stories just stuck with us even if they didn't have that much impact on us on first read; they followed us everywhere for days and weeks. In this galaxy of submissions, it turned out to be a good way to discern which pieces were important or what long-term effect they would have on readers. This was one of the positive aspects to having this short and intense submission period at the very beginning of the process – it gave us time to let everything we received settle, sit, simmer. Rosalind, I know Granta has had guest editors in the past – what is it like for you and your team to hand over editorial responsibility for the magazine to outsiders?

Porter: Relinquishing creative control over something that we exercise so much control over is definitely a mental adjustment, but it is very liberating to be shaken out of our habits and forced to see how Granta can change shape in the hands of others. I suppose the adjustment was further complicated for me by the fact that I am Canadian and had genuinely unintentional but preconceived ideas of what the issue might end up looking like. And because so much of the Canadian writing I read is limited to English-language books published in Britain – taken on precisely because the publishers here feel they will appeal to readers who aren't Canadian – my preconceived ideas proved to be pretty boring. I was delighted to be so surprised by the end result. I love how subtly experimental much of the writing in this issue is.

Leroux: Yes, my love for experimentation was an inclination I almost had to fight while I was reading the submissions. I love being unsettled by a story, I love those few minutes where you need to find your sea legs in a universe where the rules are slightly different, like in Alain Farah, Gary Barwin or Alex Leslie's writing. But I did not expect to read such a wide range of audacious work. Canadian writers are bold! So it was a fascinating process to learn to look at a story more broadly and find a balance between my personal taste and what would appeal to others. More than anything else, I think from the start we were guided by a strong desire to find pieces that challenged the country's status quo: dissident, powerful, incandescent voices.

Thien: We were always a bit off balance, trying to see what the issue could be. Granta gave us the resources to commission non-fiction and photo essays but, for many reasons, and not due to any fault of the writers, the three pieces I commissioned were never completed. In hindsight, I think I was subconsciously building work around these pieces, which I hoped would look at some very difficult questions. They're at the heart of the issue, invisible to everyone but us. Looking back on everything we read, I think that violence and desire, both personal and societal, are part of the turbulence of new Canadian writing, and these fault lines are very vocal, very powerful, in the poetry, from Dionne Brand and Karen Solie to Armand Garnet Ruffo and Benoît Jutras.

Porter: I agree. Reluctant as I am to actively look for common themes or trends in Canadian or indeed any country's, literature, as so often much of what individual writers are doing gets overlooked in favour of overly simplistic categories capable of "branding" national literatures – I guess I'm thinking specifically of Latin America's magical realism, the lyric tradition in Ireland, the idea of the Great American Novel, Nordic Noir and, of course, that old chestnut "CanLit" – there is definitely a kind of disturbance, both private and public, at the heart of much of the work in this issue. There is also a lot of humour, and much of it is pleasingly dark. Alexander MacLeod, Lisa Moore, Anakana Schofield, to name just three.

Thien: I agree completely about the humour! Sometimes absurd, playful or waiting like a knife.

Leroux: It was interesting to see how the question of language organically emerged as a central theme, without us having planned it. I, of course, was commissioning French pieces to be translated into English, so I was automatically sensitive to the issue – one could say being a francophone in Canada automatically makes you sensitive to the issue – but I was surprised to see how the topic arose regardless of the writer's background, whether it is France Daigle describing the erosion of French in Acadian communities, Souvankham Thammavongsa telling the story of a child torn between her mother tongue and the dominant language or Naomi Fontaine discussing the survival of Innu-aimun. The many idioms spoken in this country seem to act as tectonic plates, with lines of friction between them that generate the violence and desire Madeleine was describing. There is a lot of effervescence there, a lot of courage, a lot of light. Translators have always known this and are experts on balancing on those lines.

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Thien: Yes, there is a lot of courage, both political and aesthetic. I had this sense that Canadian writers are trying to hold language up in the air, language as a form of desire and questioning, while walking along a cliff edge. I was moved again and again by the willingness to take risks with structure and even to look beyond language. A number of writers turn to photographs, drawing and illustration.

Porter: How much – if indeed any – pressure did either of you feel to somehow epitomize Canada, in all its complexity, through the writing in this issue to both Canadians and to Granta's international readers, who will be familiar with the old guard – Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Marie-Claire Blais – but not necessarily with, say, Anosh Irani or Fanny Britt?

Thien: I think our approach was to be led by the writing that came in. Canadian literature is restless by nature, and I do think that literature, in the ways it responds to time passed and/or imagined, somehow glimpses the future before we do. Nadim Roberts's commitment to Bernard Andreason, not merely as a subject or story but as a friend and collaborator, taught Catherine and me to look beyond ourselves and to reach out to editors and readers with deeper intimacy with the North. I think Nadim's reportage foretells something about the ways we're changing, the different ways we're learning to listen to and live alongside each other's stories. It moved Catherine and me to realize, when we decided on the running order, that we had begun in the North in 1972 with Nadim and Bernard, and that we ended there – or began again – in the present, with Naomi Fontaine.

Leroux: On the French side, a bit of nudging was necessary to make the authors aware of the call for submissions, as Granta is not as widely read by francophones. This nudging was very much guided by our desire to offer the widest possible range of writing to international readers. So we reached out to established writers as well as emerging authors and tried to assemble a collection that is diverse, sometimes conflicting in style and sentiment.

Porter: And so often that conflict complements the pieces, in that they play off one another and mutually illuminate aspects of themselves that otherwise might be invisible if they were read in isolation.

Leroux: I cannot think of another way to attempt at defining this country, or any country, than going for this sort of polyphony, however dissonant it may be at times.

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