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Canada's Literary Legends: A Journey Through Canadian Literature

Get to know Canada through some of its most renowned writers by diving into the world of Canadian literary legends.
Jennifer Olson
· May 24, 2024
Canada's Literary Legends: A Journey Through Canadian Literature

If you want to understand a country, explore its literature. As a celebrated national asset, Canadian literature reflects diversity and individual narratives that capture pivotal moments in the country's history and cultural evolution.

Despite its rich heritage, Canadian literature faces challenges, including dwindling arts funding and the consolidation of publishing houses. Unfortunately these challenges are all too common in other countries as well. Support and promotion for Canadian literature is imperative to preserve Canada’s cultural legacy and also to provide a platform for diverse voices.

There are so many profound authors to explore, and we’ve compiled a list of some of the heavy hitters who have made sweeping strides in revolutionizing Canada’s literary imprint.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

The achievements of this Canadian author has put Prince Edward Island and Green Gables Farm on the global map forever.

Lucy Maud Montgomery (pen name L. M. Montgomery), is a Canadian legend best known for her series "Anne of Green Gables" (1908). Montgomery was prolific in her writing; over the course of her life she published 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays.

Montgomery was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1935. Her works, diaries, and letters are studied worldwide, and the L. M. Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island is dedicated to her legacy.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Eleanor Atwood is a multifaceted Canadian literary figure whose prolific works include poetry, novels, essays, children's literature, and more. With an impressive repertoire of 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 nonfiction works, and several collections of short fiction and children's books, Atwood is truly a literary powerhouse.

Her dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), has garnered widespread acclaim and holds its place as an important contribution to contemporary literature. Atwood's accolades include two Booker Prizes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Governor General's Award, and prestigious international honors such as the Franz Kafka Prize and Princess of Asturias Awards.

Atwood's influence extends to her environmental activism and her role as the inventor of the LongPen device, revolutionizing remote robotic writing.

Atwood’s writing explores themes ranging from gender and identity to religion, myth, language, and climate change, drawing inspiration from familiar myths and fairy tales.

As a founding figure of the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Writers' Trust of Canada, Margaret Atwood's legacy in Canadian literature is indelible.

Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese was an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) novelist, journalist, and mentor. As a prominent Indigenous writer in Canada, Wagamese received several accolades, including the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize (2013) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award (2015). His important works address the historical and contemporary socio-economic issues facing Indigenous communities in Canada. Themes of Indigenous identity, culture, and truth and reconciliation are woven throughout his writing.

Alice Munro

One Canadian writer transformed the entire short story genre with her fresh narrative style standing out with its nonlinear progression and interwoven short fiction cycles. The late Alice Munro is a renowned short story writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013.

Many of Munro's stories were set in her native Huron County in southwestern Ontario. Her stories are a reflection of complexities of human nature, written with clarity and a straightforward prose style.

In recognition of her lifetime achievements, Munro received the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. She also won Canada's Governor General's Award for Fiction three times and received the Writers' Trust of Canada's Marian Engel Award in 1996 and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for "Runaway" in 2004. Munro largely retired from writing around 2013 and passed away at her home on May 13th, 2024.

Thomas King

Literature has always been a way to expose minds to different ways of thinking, living and experiencing, and hopefully along the way, encouraging empathy for diverse human backgrounds and histories. One author has ingeniously shared and portrayed the Indigenous experience throughout the scope of his work.

Thomas King has been writing novels, children's books, and story collections for over 40 years. His notable works include "A Coyote Columbus Story" (1992) and "Green Grass, Running Water" (1993), both nominated for Governor General's Awards, and "The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America" (2012), which won the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize. His novel "Indians on Vacation" (2020) won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2021.

In 2003, King delivered the Massey Lectures titled "The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative," becoming the first lecturer of self-identifying Indigenous descent. His works explore Native experiences across various domains to understand North America's relationship with its Indigenous peoples. These lectures are definitely worth a listen and it's the responsibility of all Canadians to learn about Indigenous history and the modern First Nations experience.

King's writing blends oral storytelling with traditional Western narratives, often using a conversational tone. His style always incorporates anecdotes and humor, and conveys serious messages reminiscent of Native American trickster legends.

Farley Mowat

Farley McGill Mowat, OC, was a Canadian writer and environmentalist whose impact extended far beyond Canada. His books have been translated into an impressive 52 languages and over 17 million books have been sold worldwide. Mowat gained widespread recognition for his detailed portrayals of the Canadian north, notably in his acclaimed books "People of the Deer" (1952) and "Never Cry Wolf" (1963) which was adapted into a successful film in 1983.

Mordecai Richler

Some authors show equal fortitude in both fiction and non-fiction. Mordecai Richler’s non-fiction works shine light on the Canadian Jewish Community and Canadian vs. Quebec nationalism. His 1992 essay collection "Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!" sparked a lot of controversy for its critique of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Richler is best known for his novels "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1959) and "Barney's Version" (1997). His novels "St. Urbain's Horseman" (1970) and "Solomon Gursky Was Here" (1989) were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Richler also authored the popular Jacob Two-Two children's fantasy series.

Yann Martel

Whatever books you are currently reading, put them down and pick up Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”. It is so well-written that you don’t want to waste another minute of your life not having read it.

Martel is best known for “Life of Pi” which won the Man Booker Prize and became an international bestseller, published in over 50 countries. The book has sold over 12 million copies globally and remained on bestseller lists such as The New York Times and The Globe and Mail for over a year. "Life of Pi" was adapted into a film by Ang Lee, which won four Oscars, including Best Director, and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

Martel has also written several other novels, including "The High Mountains of Portugal," "Beatrice and Virgil," and "Self," as well as a collection of stories titled "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" and a collection of letters called "101 Letters to a Prime Minister." His work has earned him numerous literary awards, including the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the 2002 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.

Although Martel’s first language is French, he writes his books in English.

Rohinton Mistry

Another brilliant mind helps to increase awareness of the trials and tribulations of cultures outside of dominant western culture.

Rohinton Mistry CM (born 1952) is an Indian-born Canadian writer who has been the recipient of many awards including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2012. Each of his first three novels was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His novels to date have been set in India, told from the perspective of Parsis, and explore themes of family life, poverty, discrimination, and the corrupting influence of society.

Michael Ondaatje

The man behind “The English Patient” film, Philip Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Ondaatje's literary career began with his poetry collection "The Dainty Monsters" in 1967, followed by the critically acclaimed "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" in 1970. His novel "The English Patient" (1992), which was adapted into a film in 1996, won the 2018 Golden Man Booker Prize. For two decades, he played a significant role in encouraging and fine-tuning new Canadian writing through his commitment to Coach House Press (circa 1970–1990). His editorial contributions include the journal "Brick" and the "Long Poem Anthology" (1979).

Douglas Coupland

As prolific as he is diverse and thought-provoking, Douglas Coupland has become a household name in Canadian literary circles. Coupland is known for his debut novel "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" (1991), which popularized terms like Generation X and McJob. He has authored 13 novels, two collections of short stories, seven non-fiction books, and various dramatic works and screenplays for both film and television. Coupland's literary contributions extend to columns for the Financial Times and regular writing for The New York Times, e-flux journal, DIS Magazine, and Vice. His notable novels include "Worst. Person. Ever." (2012) and "Player One – What Is to Become of Us: A Novel in Five Hours," which accompanied his 2010 Massey Lectures. Coupland has received nominations for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize for his works.

Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and memoirist whose work has left an impact for many. Notably, his 2007 novel "The Book of Negroes" delves into the history of Black Loyalists resettled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War. His 2001 memoir, "Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada," offers deep insights into racial identity. "The Book of Negroes'' was adapted into a TV mini-series in 2015 and became widely known and highly-acclaimed. Hill's repertoire includes ten books spanning non-fiction and fiction, many of which have been translated into multiple languages for international publication. In addition to his literary contributions, Hill served as chair of the jury for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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