Literature As An Oppositional Disorder
July 15th, 2011
By Ernest Hekkanen
For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise that I suffer from oppositional disorder. However, without that disorder, I would never have managed to become a writer, a small-time publisher or editor-in-chief of The New Orphic Review. And I did it without government assistance.
Back in the mid-1960s, I got involved in two activities that came to define my life: I started to write and I became an anti-Vietnam War activist. However, that was symptomatic of a deeper oppositional disorder. During my ninth-grade year at Lynnwood Junior High, President Kennedy placed a blockade around Cuba. His address to the nation was broadcast over the school’s public address system. Afterward, my biology teacher said, “I’m sure everyone in this classroom will agree with what President Kennedy has done, except maybe Mike.” I went by my middle name back then. The girl sitting at the desk immediately in back of me said to her deskmate, “Why did Mr. McLeod say that?” to which her deskmate replied, “Because Mike’s last name is Russian.”
When I shared that anecdote with my father, he got irate on my behalf. He told me about the Finns having been subjugated by the Russians for a hundred years, and later, in the Winter War, having fought them to a draw. That’s when I learned what it was to be someone of Finnish descent. I learned that Finlanders are a people who stand up for themselves, no matter the odds against them.
As can you see, my oppositional disorder has historic dimensions.
What does this have to do with literature in British Columbia? When I arrived in Vancouver, Canada as a draft dodger and published author in 1969, nationalism was raising its head and literature was struggling to find its Canadian legs. After eight months or so I came to realize I was someone who straddled a border. As long as I hid my American attitude and spelling faux pas, I was able to get published in Canadian literary magazines. But because I now had a Canadian address, I found it difficult to get published in American magazines. Later on, when I took an MFA at the University of British Columbia, my thesis advisor gave me the following advice: “If you expect to get Chasing After Carnivals published up here, you’ll have to change the location to a town in Canada.” Which I did. My novel was accepted by Stoddart Publishing in 1983. It got all the way to the bound galley proof stage, and was even reviewed in Quill & Quire, and then it was dropped from Stoddart’s list.
No, the review wasn’t a bad one. It maintained that I was a writer with promise.
Had I not had a strong oppositional disorder, I might have given up at that point. To date, I’ve had over 35 jobs in Canada, most of them working-class jobs. My second book, Journeys That Bring Us Here, employed many of my working-class experiences. I submitted it to over a dozen Canadian publishers. A B.C. publisher replied, “Unfortunately, your collection didn’t appeal to our readers. It’s full of losers, deadbeats, outcasts and drifters.” It sounds as though my characters might have suffered from oppositional disorder, doesn’t it? “Furthermore,” she went on, “there are very few women in your stories, and all of them are subjected to the whims of men.” The editor was obviously an educated woman who led a solid middle-class life, someone who had gone through university and now fancied herself an adjudicator of good taste. Another editor remarked: “Real people don’t act or speak the way your characters do. They’re all so illiterate, so determined to be stupid.”
I suspect such editors haven’t been forced to experience anything outside their comfort zones. That’s typical of people in the book industry in Canada—whether we’re speaking in terms of writers, editors or publishers. After all, literature is a business. Who buys the bulk of fiction in Canada? Middle-class readers do, many of them women. To survive as a publisher one must appeal to the middle class, otherwise one is likely to go under financially, even with the support of the Canada Council and the B.C. Arts Council.
I’m happy that I have a well-developed oppositional disorder. Without it, I might have given up the frivolous occupation of writing—and let’s not fool ourselves, writing is a frivolous occupation, especially here in Canada where Canadians buy far more books by writers from other countries.
To date, I have published 38 Hekkanen titles and 20 issues of The New Orphic Review, which is now in its tenth year of publication. That is how I make my inconsiderable living. I decided to go it alone in the mid-1990s, and now there are five writers in my New Orphic stable. All of them have distinct voices not likely to be recognized by B.C. publishers.
I chose my particular path because it allowed me to flourish as a writer who employs many voices—in books that are unique in style and approach. My way of doing things has licensed me to be as creative as I can possibly be, in any genre I wish to tackle, without second-guessing whether I will find a publisher, because I invariably do. Writing has not only permitted me to make sense of this turbulent world, it has been my life preserver. I cling to it tenaciously, in opposition to the brutal times we live in and because I value something in myself that the larger society has little use for. As Albert Camus said in his treatise on revolt, I am “a man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.”
Currently, I’m working on my 40th book, Of a Fire Beyond the Hills, about the small town of Nelson and the proposed Anti-War Monument that has created such furor. It doesn’t look as though my oppositional disorder will disappear any time soon.
[Submitted for an SFU conference called Reckoning 07 organized by Alan Twigg in 2007.]
Essay Date: 2007