111 West Coast Literary Portraits. Photographs by Barry Peterson and Blaise Enright. Text by B.C. authors. (Mother Tongue, 256 pages, $48.
The woman on the cover is instantly recognizable as Alice Munro, one of Canada’s literary treasures. One tends not to think of her necessarily as a West Coaster, but we are assured she still lives in B.C., as well as in Ontario. We are also reminded that she and former husband Jim Munro founded Victoria’s Munro’s Books, one of Western Canada’s finest independent bookstores.
Munro’s cover pic is your invitation to dip into this handsome coffee-table volume of 111 black-and-white photos shot from 1997 onward by B.C. photographers Barry Peterson and Blaise Enright. Accompanying the photos are snippets of the authors’ writing, the most satisfying of which – for a book designed like this with two facing pages per author – are snatches of poetry. A few of the writers are no longer with us, so one is grateful to the photographers for having captured them in occasionally unusual settings (Al Purdy posing with a dinosaur mural) while they still had the opportunity to do so.
An aim of the photographers was to show the writers in their “personal spaces.” That serves to give us often illuminating, sometimes mystifying glimpses of them away from their desks. When we see Andreas Schroeder and Ronald Wright posing with their motorbikes, we know what these guys like to do in their spare time. But what in god’s name is Peter C. Newman doing sitting on a staircase with a bunch of toy penguins? There may be a reference to it somewhere in his 773-page biography, Here Be Dragons, but I’ll be darned if I can figure it out. Google doesn’t seem to know the answer either.*
The book is a celebration of the nationally and internationally recognized (Munro, Newman, George Bowering, Lorna Crozier, Jack Hodgins, W. P. Kinsella, Joy Kogawa, Patrick Lane), the locally well known (Stan Persky, Meredith Quartermain), and the emerging (Gurjinder Basran, Daniela Elza). It proves that British Columbia, as Alan Twigg notes in the introduction, has gone from literary backwater to planetary hotspot in 60 years, with more than 10,000 authors now listed in the B.C. BookWorld database.
Perhaps inevitably, there are notable omissions (Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, David Suzuki), and the emphasis is more on people who write prose and poetry than those who pen plays. But this book makes for a great beginning. Congrats to Salt Spring Island’s gutsy independent press, Mother Tongue, for taking it on.
*I’ve since been told that Newman wanted to pay tribute to his then publisher, Penguin. I should have guessed that.
I’ve also been told that not every author contacted would agree to be photographed for the project. Understandable. Some crave the limelight, others shun it.