‘It should be satirized’: A Q&A on ideological extremism, identitarian infighting and CanLit conformism – with the Vancouver novelist Patrik Sampler (TARA HENLEY, APR 28, 2024, Lean Out)

TH: Your novel is about a pseudo-Marxist, anti-authoritarian performance art group that implodes … The group undertakes “actions” that are entirely symbolic, totally divorced from material conditions — and really from any political impact. Naked Defiance reflects currents in our contemporary culture, and satirizes them in nuanced and funny ways. Anyone coming from the progressive left, and dismayed with the turn it has taken, will find lots to recognize here. You were writing this novel at the height of the identitarian movement. In Vancouver, where I’m from and you live. As far as I can tell, Vancouver went all in on this. What did you see, during the years that you were writing this, as you were looking around at our culture?

PS: I saw identitarianism ramping up and ramping up. The question in my mind was always: When are we going to reach peak identity? I don’t know when it’s going to stop, but I think there’s starting to be some questioning of it now.

There’s always been a focus on identity in Canadian literature, but then it kept getting even more and more specific over time. Whereas it used to be, “I’m going to write a novel about my identity,” it became even more circumscribed — the parameters for identity kept shrinking and becoming more specific … There started to be some fear that if you questioned this trend, then you were going to be ostracized as a writer. In fact, there are writers who experienced that.

I have always just tried to do my own thing and have tried to ignore it. And maybe even have tried to promote my writing outside of Canada, for that reason. But I think a lot of writers felt that writing what they really wanted to say would be risky.

TH: There’s a moment when your narrator provides his exact lineage, and notes that it corresponds precisely with that of the character he is writing about: 50% Ukrainian, 37.5% Irish, et cetera. This is a send-up of that trend, but it also seems to be a comment on what you’ve referred to as “the anti-literary focus on the person of the author,” something you’ve written about in the past. How do you see that trend impacting the Canadian cultural scene?

PS: I questioned my assessment of how prevalent that mode of thinking is — is it really as bad as people say? — so, I wrote an item about this very extreme focus on identity. And when I was researching it, I went and looked at various publishers’ websites in Canada. Are the author bios really all that focused on this very minute idea of identity? If you look at it objectively, I don’t think most Canadian writers are all in on this. But that kind of a mode of being an author really gets highlighted in a lot of the mainstream places.

Where I think it’s impacting Canadian writing is that I don’t think we’re seeing a lot of progress in CanLit, as a form of literature — as opposed to writing being seen as a kind of a platform for a political notion. The writers who are my heroes, people like Robert Walser and Abe Kobo … Robert Walser said that the role of the author is self-effacement. Whereas now we see this strong idea that your writing has to be connected to who you are as a person. I think that’s really a step backward. And maybe it’s disrespectful of the readers.

TH: How so?

PS: Because I feel that it’s promoting the idea that the writing is so closely connected with the author, that it is the author — and there is really no room for interpretation, or having one’s own take. It’s just a platitude, but Andrei Tarkovsky wrote that “a book read by a thousand different readers is a thousand different books.” I feel strongly that we’re being told quite differently here in Canada, in many cases.