As you know,in my blog I’ve been very pleased to talk about my old friend Jonathan Manthorpe’s new book about China and Canada. Well published by Marc Cote at Cormorant, it has shot on to the Toronto Star bestseller list — and has even gained a gold star for excellence in publication timing.
One of the book’s main themes is that Canadians have traditionally been naive in their approach to China. Jonathan recommends a much tougher, more realistic approach in the future.
Which leads me to a story from forty years ago, when Canadian simple decency was almost lethal.
I spent my publishing career concentrating on books and authors. As a sub-specialty, I got heavily involved in Publishing Education, at the Banff Publishing Workshop, and then at the Simon Fraser Publishing Programme. But I skimped in contributing to the politics of publishing. I recognise the importance of that work, and admire the public-spirited people who laboured nights and weekends in that area, but I avoided it.
Except for 1988, when I joined the Board of the ACP, the home-grown Canadian publishers’ association.
I remember a meeting held in Toronto right after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like people around the Western world, the members of our Board were appalled. They wanted to do something helpful. They thought of our young Chinese friend, who had just spent a training year in Canada, studying the ways of Canadian Publishers. After his own background years with the state publisher in China, he had proved to be a lively, helpful, and very welcome presence during his months in Canada, and he had made many good friends.
So, as decent Canadians, the Board was proposing to send him a letter of support. To a table full of enthusiastic nodding, the proponents spoke of a letter that would say, in effect : “We know you, we’ve worked alongside you, and we know how horrified you must be by what is going on in your country, and we want you to know that you have many friends in this country who are thinking of you now. This letter from the Association of Canadian Publishers comes with our best wishes, and our support.”
Then I spoke up. “You think you’re supporting him by sending him this nice, kind letter in a blue Canadian air mail envelope? You’re not supporting him, you’re fingering him, denouncing him. When this official letter comes in from Canada , it will be whisked away and added to his file. He may very well end up in prison, or even worse.”
No more nodding. Just general dismay. The letter was never sent.
I want to stress that these Board Members were all bright, intelligent people. This wasn’t a case of stupidity by stupid people. It was a case of idealistic Canadians simply being unable to imagine life in a totalitarian society where mail from abroad is intercepted, and foreign criticism of the country’s policy is unacceptable, associated with disloyalty.
When friends ask me what I did in the world of publishing administration I say: “Very little. But I may have helped save someone’s life.”
I was one of those hardy souls who enjoyed your talk and thanks again for signing my copy of Stories About Storytellers. It’s well-thumbed already. I have a new addition to my sparse Can-Lit library too – a short story Munro collection (Hateship, Friendship…). Looking forward to that when I finish yours; and then adding a few more authors I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have. Please do come to Ottawa again. It was a wonderful evening, and I’m glad you both had such a warm reception – inside, at least!
Thank you, Brenda. That Ottawa event has already gone down in Gibson family history: the coldest weather, conquered by the warmest people, eager for stories about our greatest authors. I keep coming on new stories to insert, to make my shows newer. In the meantime, Jane has given up, and has bought new gloves for this difficult winter. Enjoy your Munro collection. There are many more to come, for you!