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In search of a distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian writing (Part Four)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted March 21, 2016

This essay is partially based on my article,"Is there a distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian writing?: In search of a fragmentary tradition." Strumien (Stream) (Rocznik Tworczosci Polskiej w Zachodniej Kanadzie) (An Annual of Polish Creative Endeavour in Western Canada) no 8 (2012), pp. 18-24  strumien.ca  That article was based on a draft of a presentation read at the 19th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE) -- Crossing frontiers, staking out new territories (Kalisz, Poland: Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan – Kalisz Campus), April 19-21, 2010.

 There are a number of major issues faced by the Polish-Canadian community which are probably more related to the over-all social environment of current-day Canada, rather than the Polish-Canadian community itself. Canada and the United States today are countries where the various mass media have reached a historically unprecedented level of importance in determining the way in which persons think, create, and live. Living in such a mass-media saturated society, it now becomes almost impossible to even conceptualize how life might have been lived before. To the extent that a certain cultural tendency does not appear prominently in the mass-media, its presence in society is almost certainly going to be minor.

There is indeed some question whether the Internet, with its potential for a genuine pluralism of outlooks, is rather different from earlier media, where the presence of so-called gatekeepers was always quite salient. However, the Internet arrived after over four decades of the very heavy conceptual and infrastructural weight of earlier media, most notably, television.

Canada today is clearly in the ambit of a North American mass-media based pop-culture. This pop-culture quite relentlessly obliterates any distinctive fragment-cultures. This happens especially when they lack a presence in the mass-media and pop-culture, or in the state-supported official custodians of Canadian culture (typified by CanLit), or are unable to generate a certain cultural resiliency on their own. As far as maintaining a literary community, assimilation results in a continually shrinking and disappearing core audience.      

There is the extreme infrequency of even a mention of Polish or Polish-Canadian matters in the mass-media. The author of this article is unaware of any persons who could be identified as belonging to the Polish-Canadian community working as opinion-columnists at any major Canadian newspaper. The author is also unaware of any such persons working as senior editors at newspapers, magazines, or recognized publishing houses. Nor is he aware of any such persons working as prominent literary agents, or being owners of more prominent bookstore chains.

Certainly, no Polish-Canadian writer has reached the prominence of Ukrainian-Canadian author Janice Kulyk-Keefer, who is a major figure in CanLit. She was one of only four core professors at the University of Guelph-Humber Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Along with her Ukrainian-Canadian colleague Marsha Skrypuch, Janice Kulyk-Keefer offers the hope to Ukrainian-Canadians that some important new writers could emerge in the future from that community. The Ukrainian-Canadian community, especially through the Taras Shevchenko Kobzar Literary Foudation, offers a huge annual monetary award for the best book on a Ukrainian theme. Also, the foundation offers, among numerous other initiatives, a scholarship completely covering tuition for the prestigious Humber College Writers' Workshop, for those who are working on a manuscript on a Ukrainian-Canadian theme.

There has almost always been in Polish immigration to Canada, the profound socio-economic problems of substantial poverty and difficulties of adjustment. Whatever the immigrants achieved was achieved through very hard work. Polish-Canadians clearly lack to this day prominent philanthropic figures that can offer many millions of dollars to the community.

The Polish immigrants to Canada usually came from a background of profound insecurity. Given that the writing profession, and, indeed, most endeavours in the arts and humanities, often fail to offer a steady and substantial income, most parents usually felt more comfortable steering their children into more practically and technically-oriented professions.

There are also the problems with Polish community newspapers. They are typically published almost exclusively in Polish and have virtually no "affect" on Canadians of Polish descent.

The publication, Echo, edited by Les Wawrow, in which many articles appeared in English, was probably the only major attempt among young Canadians of Polish descent to try to "ride the wave" of Sixties' change, endeavouring to create a unique amalgam of Old Country rootedness and progressive idealism. However, the publication failed rather quickly.

There has been a chronic failure to develop literary institutions in the community, around which some kind of discussion or literary circles could from. The Polish-Canadian Publishing Fund, publishing books almost exclusively in Polish, is definitely a purely émigré phenomenon. In 1988, the Fundacja Wladyslawa i Nelli Turzanskich (Turzanski Foundation) was established with great fanfare. However, its usual practice has been to invite well-known, well-established authors from Poland to receive its awards.

A very courageous experiment in literary culture and life was the literary-artistic-cultural magazine, High Park, edited by Piotr Manycz. Twenty-five issues were published from November 1992 to December 1998.  The physical and intellectual quality of the magazine was extremely high, and the magazine carried a fair number of articles in English. The magazine could have begun to create an artistic and literary circle around itself.

Further advances in technology could weaken the trends to total assimilation that certain earlier technologies have made possible. Earlier technologies such as television tended to be homogenizing and to intensify assimilative pressures.

The ubiquity of the Internet today creates all sorts of possibilities for remaining in connection with one's ancestral culture.

Also, inexpensive telephone rates, satellite and cable television technology, and air travel by modern jet can maintain such links.

New printing technologies can make publishing far easier. There are also the possibilities of book-marketing through individual websites (using Paypal) or amazon.com – taking advantage of the so-called "long tail phenomenon" – and/or electronic publishing (PDFs and e-books).

However, the arrival of new technologies that could perhaps facilitate the persistence of fragment-cultures, has probably come too late for the Polish-Canadian community. Also, immigration from Poland has now slowed to small trickle.

The concept of a Polish-Canadian literature in Canada is rather problematic. There is a greater presence in terms of all of the varieties of writing carried out by émigrés and Canadians of Polish descent, but they still do not amount to much on the Canadian literary, journalistic, and academic scene.

The result of this is that the Polish-Canadian community -- beyond those persons who arrive as immigrants (and can presumably converse through the Polish-language community newspapers) -- is largely deprived of a public voice and setting for intellectual reflection in regard to its place in contemporary Canadian society, as well as its possible future in Canada. Considering that Canada is today officially a multicultural society, this attenuation comes at a rather unfortunate time. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.




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