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RECURRENT VOICES: Michael Kluckner

June 16, 2016

By Michael Kluckner

I’ve always believed that I write in a neutral tone. “Mostly believed” is probably more accurate, as a book called Paving Paradise that I wrote in 1991 was pretty much a rant from cover to cover. By neutral, I mean that I try to lay out the facts (at least those facts I choose to lay out) and let the reader decide, without coaching, whether a situation was odious or racist or objectionable in some other way.

I have been musing on this because of a recent writing project which caused me to look back into Martin Robin’s two-volume history of BC-  The Rush for Spoils: The Company Province 1871-1933 (McClelland and Stewart, 1972) and Pillars of Profit: The Company Province 1934-1972 (McClelland and Stewart, 1973). Robin was an associate professor of political science at SFU and his clearly articulated left-wing stance made him a good fit in what was then a very radical campus. I remember Joe Lawrence, the proprietor of the excellent Lawrence (used and antiquarian) Books at 41st and Dunbar, suggesting them to me more than 30 years ago as an antidote to the “more comfortable” version of history presented in Margaret Ormsby’s writings.

Robin definitely flew his flag, using politically charged, colourful language different from Ormsby or, later, historians like Jean Barman. As a relatively subtle example, here is his description of B.C. Premier John Oliver: “A self-made man of rustic demeanour and habits, Oliver constantly paraded his humble origins as a mark of high honour.” (The Rush for Spoils, p. 178) Compare this with Barman: “In dress and manner this self-made Fraser Valley farmer put forth the image of the rustic sage, a proponent of simpler values in an increasingly complex age.” (The West Beyond the West, University of Toronto Press, 1991, p. 236.) My favourite Robinism concerns the land-dealer and political thunderbolt General A.D. McRae: “a determined man with a thick, heavy voice, hooded, glaring eyes and a full, threatening mouth, [who] had done very well for himself before his momentous decision to purify the fetid world of Coast politics.” (The Rush for Spoils, p. 194)

Which history book do I think is more legitimate, based solely on the language? My upbringing points me toward favouring the calm and measured tones of a Barman or Ormsby. I would never accuse Jean Barman of being dispassionate in her writing, just more subtle than, say, Martin Robin or Stan Persky or Donald Gutstein, but is it possible to be too dispassionate?

I wrote a historical note at the end of my graphic novel Toshiko, which is set in B.C. during WWII and focused on the Japanese-Canadian evacuation and internment. Graphic novels (that is, long-form comic books) appeal principally to a youthful demographic, and are perhaps a way to kick open a door into some historical understanding for people who might never crack a traditional text-driven history book. The historical note was straightforward, a “just the facts ma’am” elucidation of the events of the first half of the 20th century pertaining to Japanese Canadians.
“Redress for the survivors of this experience…” my historical note ended. I looked at the words on the screen and wondered whether I seemed too aloof and indifferent – whether the sentence needed an adjective or two to indicate that I was moved by what had happened. Would my readers think that I ought to be giving an opinion, making a statement beyond what the characters were saying in the graphic novel itself? Didn’t the facts just speak for themselves, and wouldn’t readers know the experience was grim and be able to deduce my point of view?

In the end, I added the adjective “scandalous” so the sentence began: “Redress for the survivors of this scandalous experience…” I’ve wondered ever since whether it was the right thing to do, and will reflect more on that, and the matter of voice and appropriation, in a later post.