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Interview with Jane Urquhart

by Menaka Raman-Wilms

This month, the Ottawa Review of Books' Menaka Raman-Wilms spoke with celebrated Canadian author, Jane Urquhart, whose latest book, A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects, was published by Harper Collins in October 2016.

ORB: Why were you interested in telling Canada’s stories though objects?

Jane: I’ve always been interested in how objects outlive us. Objects really have quite a lot to say about us, and about our cultural surroundings, really about our time here on earth. And they have stories themselves, when you look at whose lives they move through.

I also knew that it was important for me to take a look at things that I would now call works for art, not objects, that came through our Indigenous communities. I had a terrible time trying to decide how to curate that part of the book. The first artifact, legging, was something that I had actually written about a very long time ago for a program on CBC. But I’ve never been able to forget it – it was so moving, and so heartbreaking, it just stayed with me all those years. I knew it was going to be the first object in the book right away.

ORB: One of the objects you wrote about was ‘books.’ How do you see our literature having a hand in shaping our national identity?

Jane: I think it’s important to recognize the fact that we didn’t study our own history for a long time. The books I was referring to there were my grandmother’s schoolbooks, and most of what she was reading was from the British empire. We were kind of inundated; even the literature she was reading was almost exclusively British, including the poems that were about Canada.

So I think that the fact that we didn’t have official literature or official history for a long time, it really left things open to the creative mind. Unlike Americans, we don’t have a solidified sense of who we are, and so many different stories told through recent Canadian literature have really helped us to understand our diversity, and the fact that we’re a work in progress.

ORB: This book intertwined your own family stories with that of other Canadians and other national narratives. Was the experience of writing it personal in a different way from writing fiction?

Jane: Yes, and that was a big surprise. In fact, I walked into this book without knowing that I was going to walk into this book. I’m pretty sure it began with the cherry tree, with the history of Japanese Canadians. I always found it astonishing that as a child I stood there in this remote part of northern northern Ontario and I watched this float with Japanese women as part of the coronation parade for Queen Elizabeth II. I started thinking about the cherry tree in the backyard of the Joy Kogawa house and all the families who were put in camps, and how shameful and terribly sad that is. And how bizarre it was to remember yourself standing as a 4-year-old watching that parade go by, and how touching it was, really, that those women would have wanted to participate. So my own memory became a part of it. It went from there.

ORB: There is a kind of larger-than-life, almost magical quality, to a lot of these stories. Was that something you thought about when writing the book or choosing the objects?

Jane: No, not really. I’m pleased that that’s how it translates, because I wanted the pieces themselves to have a kind of prose-poem feel to them. It occurred to me at one point that fifty, well, really, no number of objects, would ever be enough, so that’s why I used the Stevenson couplet for the beginning: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” The world really is so full of interesting things, and my hope is that readers might find their own things and unpack them a bit. We can’t be present on earth and not be intertwined with the things around us.

ORB: What do you see as our nation’s challenges in the coming decades, and what are some of the bright spots for Canada?

Jane: I think the challenge will be to hear all the voices. We have so many voices in Canada, and I hope we can hear everyone in an individual way rather than develop stereotypes. I think it will be a challenge to listen to all the voices with respect and understanding, but I hope that we find ways to do that, because it’s so fascinating. It’s so life-enhancing.

And for what I see as the bright spots: of course we’ve got all the same kinds of problems as the rest of the world, but because we’re without a structured historical narrative or a structured sense of self, we’re very adaptable. I think Canada is a very adaptable nation. And I believe that that will strengthen us more and more as time goes by.

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