Quick! Pick fifty things to sum up Canada and its history…go! Could you do it? One of our country’s most beloved novelists did, although she had a couple of years to think about her decisions. On October 20th, 2017 Jane Urquhart, a renowned Canadian novelist, spoke about her most recent book, A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects. The book is exactly what it says on the tin, which is a pleasant change from some novels that sport thrilling titles that have nothing to do with their content. Urquhart actually discovered the title when she was reading through some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry in which he writes, “The world is so full of a number of things, / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
Urquhart was present at Library and Archives Canada on that rainy Thursday night to give her talk entitled, Stories about Canada with Jane Urquhart, arranged by the Ottawa International Writers Festival. I was in attendance, along with several of my colleagues from Carleton University because in lieu of a lecture that night our professor decided to hold our class at the event itself. Instead of discussing past Giller Prize winners, we listened to Urquhart actively discuss Canadian Literature. The evening was a real treat, especially for our class since Urquhart herself has been on the longlist for the Giller as well as the shortlist. She has also served on the jury for the prize committee. Although her focus remained on the objects she wanted to share with us we were all cognizant of being in the presence of such a formidable literary personality.
The amazing thing about the festival is that it humanizes (and promotes) great writers. For some people these types of short talks, book signings, and discussion panels are the only way to expose them to Canadian Literature. Urquhart’s A Number of Things sounds like the perfect starter book for a newcomer to the CanLit genre. It’s full of short essays that read almost like short stories about fifty different objects that represent Canada in all of its glory and its failure.
Her talk made me think about what type of objects I would pick to represent my Canada. Would I pick a canoe? (Apparently, that’s an almost non-negotiable selection). Would I select a representation of an animal? (Which one? The beaver? The Canada Goose? A duck?) Who are we as Canadians? What best represents us? I don’t know the answer to those questions. Urquhart herself was candid about the fact that she could have chosen thousands of other objects to include if she’d had the space in the book. So, I’m curious, what would you pick to define Canada? I think the only advice I can really give is that you had better include, “[A] number of things” just like Stevenson’s poem suggests.