In Margaret Atwood's "The Martians Claim Canada", Martians looking to visit New York, famous for its many musicals, touch down instead on "a chunk of rock in the boreal forest somewhere on the Laurentian Shield."
The only thing around to tell them where they are is a mushroom, an Amanita muscaria, which happens to somewhat resemble the visitors themselves. They're able to speak with the mushroom, but getting an answer to the simple question of "where" they've landed turns out to be somewhat tedious.
"'If the memory in question is short, this might be a place called Canada,' says the Amanita. 'Longer, it might be a place called New France, more of less, maybe, if people got up this far. Longer than that, it might be a place called Turtle Island. Longer than that, it might be a place called Laurentide Ice Sheet. Longer than that, it might be a place called Laurentia, otherwise known as North American Craton. Longer than that, it might be a place called Molten Blob of Magma."
The Martians soon get bored with all the talk of how people define and redefine a place, taking it for themselves, taking it from other people, having fights about it. They want the musicals they've come in search of. They want "Canada: The Musical."
"'There isn't one,' says the mushroom, 'because for the musicals you need to have a story. You need to decide how the story should come out -- what's the finale? But in this Canada place, they've been arguing about the story for a lot of years... There are a lot of stories, and all of them are true in their way, but not all of them would give you a rousing hurrah finale, plus dancing."
"The Martians Claim Canada" is a light, cheeky exchange -- not Atwood's best work, by any stretch of the imagination -- but in the centre of Granta 141: Canada, it offers a sort of explanation or excuse or excusal of the problem that hassles any collection that dares suggest it represents Canada as a whole. A molten blob of magma is easier to put your finger on than this country.
Granta 141 doesn't read like a themed issue, but rather like a regular issue of Granta in which all the contributors happen to be Canadian. This absence of design was by design. Guest editors Catherine Leroux and Madeline Thien -- who met at the 2016 Giller gala, where Leroux was shortlisted for The Party Wall and Thien would win with Do Not Say We Have Nothing -- wanted to let the work describe some idea of what Canada is instead of having some idea of what Canada is describe the work. They put out an open call for submissions.
"We didn’t want to be the determining factors in what would be included in the issue," they told Steven W Beattie for Quill and Quire. "We wanted to be as open as possible to what came. And as a way to grasp l’air du temps. Not to be the lens through which everything would come, but just see what came, what people had to say.”
What came, what people had to say, ranges from non-fiction recounting the tragic escape of three boys from a residential school and the complicated legacy of that history, to a collection of photos that reflect the "integrity, strength, resourcefulness, hard work, family and play" from that same period, complicating that image of pervasive grimness, to stories about a girl who can remember all creation, a man in an ever-deepening relationship with a rabbit, and cloud seeding. There's work from both solitudes (though Leroux's introduction represents the only unstranslated French), and from authors across the spectrum of their careers.
There's nothing about the collection that screams Canada in any tangible or traditional way. Douglas Coupland's "The Canada Pictures" might come the closest. A series from 2002 featuring photographed dioramas, Coupland was after "objects that, in some way, evoked a sense of Candianness, whether they came from [his] "parents' basement, thrift stores, dumpsters or -- well, anywhere, just as long as they didn't conform to the flag-waving nationalistic imagery that had been leaf-blowed at [Coupland] since kindergarten."
If these objects -- bacon hung over a snow shovel, next to a box of Captaine Crounche -- once went against the hoary, Queen-on-the-classroom-wall notion of national identity, over time they've themselves become, as Coupland reflects, a commercial idea of Canada -- part of the country's "brand."
Any attempt to summarize or brand Canada can only become another entry in the long list of attempts to "claim" Canada, as the Amanita muscaria explains what claiming is to the Martians. "'In this specific instance... some people with a flag sailed over the ocean blue, and when they got to this side they stuck the flag in the ground -- it was on a pole -- and said, "I claim this land for France." Then they made a speech and wrote things down, and said the whole place was theirs, including all the fish, trees and animals, and the people who were already there.'"
There is no attempt in Granta 141 to harmonize the country, to plant flags or stay on brand, to collect the whole of its history in a final, Martian-pleasing song, and that's why the project succeeds. The collection that resulted from Leroux and Thien's open call was, in Thien's estimation, "combative," "ideas in collision."
"I cannot think of another way to attempt at defining this country," Leroux told the Globe and Mail, "or any country, than going for this sort of polyphony, however dissonant it may be at times."