Dutch-Canadian Writers Contribute to Canadian Literature

By Van Dijk, Joanne | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Dutch-Canadian Writers Contribute to Canadian Literature


Van Dijk, Joanne, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


INTRODUCTION

Literary scholarship is an important aspect of ethnic studies. Writers' stories showcase the wide ranging cultural diversity of Canada's ethnic groups. The cultural expressions of some European immigrant groups, such as Dutch-Canadians, have a tendency to be overlooked. Dutch-Canadian literature shares stories of immigration experiences that reveal the assimilation patterns of this immigrant ethnic group. Although it comprises a substantial body of work, including some authors nationally recognized through literary awards, such as Guy Vanderhaeghe who received the Governor General's Literary Award three times, its presence is rarely noted in Canadian literature. The emphasis in this article is on the early works of three Dutch-Canadian writers.

This paper is not a comprehensive survey of the literature written by Canadians of Dutch descent. Nor is it a detailed analysis of their written texts. Its intent is to raise awareness of the diversity of Dutch-Canadian literature, by focusing on the early works of Terpstra, Cook, and van Herk (De Peuter 1991; De Peuter and van Dijk 2010). In their formative years these three authors belonged to families who had recently immigrated to Canada. As a result, they experienced inherent tensions in lifestyles, family relations, and religious issues. Through their poetry, short stories and novels they look at the new world through the eyes of immigrant-strangers. Inevitably, the passage of time changes their perceptions of Canada. For example, Terpstra's perception of Canada shifts from initially negative to more hopeful: he "earlier saw the Canadian landscape as only malevolent... (and later) comprehends that it is a land of promise, a land where transformation is possible" (DePeuter 1991, 49). Immediately after immigration, when familiar frames of references are lacking, and when immigrants experience loss of language, isolation and displacement, the contrast between Dutch and Canadian settings is starkest. This paper focuses on the three authors' early writings in order to (i) capture these agonizing tensions and contrasts between the immigrant background and the new world they experienced; (ii) compare and contrast them seeking to understand their similarities and differences; and (iii) claim that these writings are a legitimate part of Canadian literature in their own right.

Hugh Cook was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of seven. John Terpstra and Aritha van Herk were born a few years after their families settled in Canada. Although Cook was a child at the time of immigration and, strictly speaking, a first-generation immigrant, De Peuter (1991) differentiates him from those who arrived as adults and labels all three as second-generation immigrants (10).

Immigration is a painful process of dying and casting off the old and of rebirth and adjusting to new customs and a new culture (De Peuter 1991, 9). The three authors tell about displacement, loss of identity, continuity with the past, self-discovery in a new country, and what it means to be a Canadian. The three writers are aware of living in two cultures and the tension that this creates. Each is a stranger trying to fit into an alien geography and foreign cultural landscape; consequently they move beyond the merely descriptive account. They are concerned with a psychological, spiritual, and metaphysical becoming and change, the journey towards self-knowledge and a new identity. Terpstra's focus is on the experience of the new immigrant and his perception of the physical leaving and arriving. Cook reflects on a transition between physical fact and the metaphoric journey. Van Herk defines the immigration process as almost entirely imaginative. Although van Herk's work focuses on the immigrant experience in a postmodern and feminist sense, her writing provides a major contribution to the expression of the immigrant experience in Canada (Verduyn 2001, 18). …

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