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Invisible city

There’s a noticeable gap in the national literary scene: novels set in urban Halifax. Sean Flinn reads between the lines.

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Launched earlier this year, a slim volume of short stories and poems by local writers (or ones with Halifax connections), aptly called To Find Us, hit two important marks.

First, thanks to the book’s editor Sue MacLeod, HRM’s inaugural poet laureate, the book proves new writing happens in this city, about this city.

Second, the book is a reminder that the first point has to be made at all. The contemporary city side of Halifax, from downtown to the north end to Clayton Park, remains an underdeveloped body of work.

There are examples from recent past: Lesley Choyce’s 1998 novel World Enough uses Burnside Park as a major setting. Charles Crosby’s first novel italics, mine throws a thin veil over downtown. Carol Bruneau’s Berth does a great job of enlivening the impact of the harbour and military on city life.

Sadly, such books appear more rarely than an avid reader living here would like. And these books—when they do appear—should be embraced by readers across the country. But the infrequency lessens the chance for a breakthrough of a Halifax-based contemporary fictional work to the national stage.

Right now, as Atlantic Canada’s biggest city, Halifax falls far short of the mark as literary capital of the region; that honour goes to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Halifax doesn’t even make a strong link in the literary community from coast to coast.

But it could and, arguably, should.

Taking a broad view, sitting in her NSCAD office (where she teaches critical writing), Carol Bruneau says, “In Canada, despite the fact that most people do live in the cities, Canadian literature is still fixed on small-town experiences or rural experience.”

Indeed, the breakout books from Nova Scotia reflect that experience; fine novels like Christy Ann Conlin’s Heave, Lynn Coady’s Saints of Big Harbour and Leo MacKay’s Twenty-Six. Next to Cape Breton, not to mention Newfoundland, Halifax just doesn’t provoke the imagination the same way.

“We’re still attached to the mainland,” says Bruneau. “It’s not exotic. It’s sort of joined at the hip, right? A big problem is the way culture here is legislated.”

Living in Nova Scotia can feel like living in a tourist state—either you’re with the tourists, or you’re considered some kind of evildoer. “Nova Scotians battle this thing—fiddles and apple dolls and fish. That’s the image the province projects,” Bruneau says.

For Bruneau, this image inhibits other forms of expression besides fiction, including music and visual art, from reaching an audience in Atlantic Canada and across the country, especially Toronto, where the publishing industry is concentrated.

Mary Jo Anderson, owner of Frog Hollow Books and co-organizer of the fledgling Halifax Writers’ Festival, agrees with Bruneau. Anderson admits tourism’s view of Halifax leads to “a real danger that this place is seen as a slower-paced, nice little town.”

Anderson’s business has not been hurt by the lack of fiction set in this city, she says. But she does lament Halifax’s invisibility in fiction, pointing out how this city “screams out for a contemporary mystery series,” given it’s a port city and has a busy nightlife.

Vagrant Press, a recently launched fiction imprint of Nimbus Publishing, will avoid “genre fiction,” according to managing editor Sandra McIntyre. This past spring Vagrant released its first two titles: Lesley Crewe’s novel Relative Happiness, set in Cape Breton, and Maclean, by Allan Donaldson, set in small town New Brunswick.

“Both the novels were amazingly written,” McIntyre says. The strength of the storytelling overrode place, according to McIntyre.

But, she adds, Crewe’s next book sets down in today’s Halifax. “She really nails down the life,” McIntyre says. “You get a sense of the everyday. You get a sense of the neighbourhoods,” even the “money made” and other economic realities.

McIntyre has faith in new voices emerging. So too does self-proclaimed “son of Clayton Park,” musician and writer (of the novel Safety of War) Rob Benvie. His book is partially set in Halifax, before the middling ad-copywriter protagonist ends up on the wacky, possibly wicked Chaos Farm. (It tickles to read a short line describing the hero walking past the Oxford Theatre.) In all his writing, he says, he tries to remain conscious of Halifax’s duality; how, for example, there are pockets of progressive communities in a largely conservative province.

Like McIntyre, who blames the “superficial” view of Halifax tourism creates, Benvie says, “It drives me crazy how off the mark most popular depictions of Halifax are.” Benvie awaits word on a novella manuscript he recently submitted to a publisher “that is very explicitly about Halifax, very much of the places I used to hang out. I even got Spryfield in there.”

Though he visits often, and plays gigs here (as Tigre Benvie), the writer doesn’t plan to move back.

This doesn’t surprise Jane Buss, executive director of Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. “There’s not much work in this part of the country,” she says bluntly. “And that, I suspect, may have something to do with the paucity of a thriving ‘urban’ fiction in Halifax.”

So, she continues, students from here and away come to one of several Halifax universities, and then leave after realizing “there’s no work to stay on for.”

Though Buss decries the state of provincial funding to Nova Scotia publishers, especially hard considering the expense of producing fiction, she shares McIntyre’s hope that soon she’ll be reading more new voices from “underground” scenes. Buss also looks forward to hearing more from the African Nova Scotian community.

And one can hope time passes quickly between now and spring, when new fiction pops up. Wait to evaluate Dartmouth writer Elaine McCluskey’s The Watermelon Social, published by Gaspereau, which peers into HRM’s suburban soul in a series of short stories, or Stephen Kimber’s novel Reparations, published by Harper Collins, a story set in the here-and-now about two friends, one black and one white, who face off against each other in a courtroom.

Hope is good, especially at the holidays. Books make great gifts, especially those, as Sue MacLeod writes in her introduction to To Find Us, that allow the city “to be inhabited fully. To be known.”

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