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Writing our culture in the 21st century: An introduction to Landwash

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The idea for this ‘journal’ actually originated in the line-up of a liquor store in Toronto some years ago.

Newly relocated to that city, I was wearing a ‘Free Nfld’ t-shirt when I got to the front of the line and laid down my bottle of [Rodrigues blueberry] wine triumphantly. The woman at the cash register looked up at me, and then exclaimed in shock:

“Free Newfoundland! My god b’y what’s that s’posed to mean?”

We stared at each other with equal measures of astonishment.

“Er…well, it’s a bit complicated,” I stuttered. The perennial debate: say it’s ‘just a t-shirt’? Or try to explain the complicated politics of Newfoundland history and nationalism to a passing stranger?

“Are you from Newfoundland?” she asked, incredulously. The bottle of wine sat ignored.

“I am,” I replied.

“Me too b’y! I’m from Harbour Grace!”

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed.

“But tell me about this t-shirt,” she demanded. “I’ve been away 20 years but I never heard tell of anything like this. Free Newfoundland from what? I’m some glad we’re part of Canada – we were nothing before. Nothing but poor and stupid.”

That settled it: it all came out, no holds barred. For the next 15 minutes she and I argued vehemently over whether confederation had been a good thing or a bad thing, while a lineup of incredulous Torontonians stood and stared, ignored, their numbers eventually stretching to the end of the liquor store while I called down abuse upon Joey Smallwood and the woman praised him as saviour.

Eventually the manager strolled over to see what was the matter and we had to cut our debate short: after all, there was wine to be bought. We left it unresolved, but the experience lingered in my thoughts for the rest of the day. One of the first random encounters with a Newfoundlander in this Canadian city of millions, and we’d spent it at each other’s throats arguing over confederation.

The woman had been firmly convinced that confederation was a good thing, that we had been – as she put it – ‘poor and stupid’ before, and that it was only confederation which had elevated us and brought us up to the level of other Canadians. She’d argued that our history was nothing to be proud of, and while she loved Newfoundland for her family and the natural beauty of the place, she felt that everything worthwhile in our culture and character had been endowed by Canada.

Meanwhile, back at the pub…

Later that evening, while discussing the matter with other – more nationalistic – Newfoundland friends at the local Newfoundland pub, we considered her comments at some length. These were expatriate Newfoundlanders of a different breed – angry at Toronto, angry at having been forced to move here for work, angry that Canada existed and that they were forced by circumstance to be there instead of in their home in Newfoundland. They blamed Canada for creating and maintaining the conditions that made life in Newfoundland so impossible for so many of us.

But one of the points which emerged from my liquor store experience was the fact that the relationship each of us had had with Newfoundland had affected us in indelible ways. For myself and my friends, it shaped the way we looked at Canada, and the way we responded to the Canadian city and people among which we found ourselves. It shaped, too, the way we looked at Newfoundland – as a glorious beacon of hope and civilization floating in the Atlantic all too far away. But it had also shaped the experience of the woman I had met earlier. Her own relationship with Newfoundland was one which validated the Canadian relationship, and which led her to praise the very elements of Canadian society which we were critical of, and to denigrate those same qualities we so valued and missed.

From quite opposite perspectives, we shared one thing in common: an identity forged in, and by, and of, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Most of these friends being the artistic type, our discussion eventually wandered in that direction. We considered the fact that while many of us were involved in the arts in Newfoundland, our experiences away impacted the art we produced. Was it still ‘Newfoundland art’ or ‘Newfoundland literature’, when the artist lived an ocean away and wrote about settings and situations entirely alien to those on the Island or on the Labrador?

Yes, others argued; and in an even deeper way, for not only did our experience on the mainland – or even further abroad, for I have had these same conversations in cafes in Europe, in dusky riverside terraces in the Middle East and in small pubs in far-off Asia as well – not only did that experience shape the kind of writing or art we produced, but in many ways it refined the ‘Newfoundland character’ that came through in that work. After being impacted by the ways and wiles of the wider world, our craft and our art and our creative projects did not become any less ‘Newfoundland’; but the Newfoundland character that remained at the core of it was that which survived, honed and shaped by the experience of life outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. Moreover, it shaped the way we looked at our home, and the way we – as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – lived our lives, even if they were being lived in Toronto or Alberta or Seoul or London.

A resolution

We decided, that night in the boisterous College Street pub (with a Danny Williams-as-Chavez poster staring over us), that we should at some point produce a journal of art and literature; one produced solely by expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. What would such a thing look like? How would it reflect the Newfoundland character? What stories would it tell, and what values and philosophies and culture would it convey?

Well, this is not a journal of expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: some of us are, many of us are not. But it is based on a fundamental idea: that Newfoundland literature and art is not just that which is set in Newfoundland and Labrador, or which is written by people in Newfoundland and Labrador, but rather that it encompasses the writing and art and creative endeavours of all those who have been touched in some way – any way, really – by Newfoundland and Labrador.

So in these pages you will not necessarily find the stereotypical fare of difficult lives set in rural communities; you will not see laundry blowing on clotheslines; there are no whales frolicking ‘neath white-flecked waves and no gritty, down’n’dirty urban louts leafing through the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for choice language. Or rather, you might find some of these things, but you will find much more too. But whatever you find, it will bear the indelible impact of Newfoundland and Labrador – just as the landwash bears the mark of the sea, no matter whether it lies underwater or bared to the sun.

An introduction

We have called this a ‘journal’ but it is not quite that: it is an experiment in revisiting the role of literature in our lives and culture. The offerings in ‘Landwash’ are offered to readers free of charge, ready made for you to pick your favourites and share them with others. Discuss them with others. What do they mean to you? How do they help us understand who we are? Do they make you laugh? Cry? Do they inspire you to produce creative projects of your own? Let us know. Let others know. Share openly and freely. Far too much ‘literature’ in this day and age is either buried in obscure short-run literary journals that run upwards of $20 a pop, or restricted under heavy use-restriction rights on e-book readers that themselves bear a hefty price tag. The Independent offers Landwash in this manner because in many ways we aim to revive the spirit in which the newspapers of a century ago offered literature and poetry just as determinedly and enthusiastically as they provided news and journalism. The role of a newspaper is to reflect and inform our culture, and to shine a discerning light on all that is important to our society and culture. That includes art and literature no less than it includes investigative reporting and political editorializing. So this is an experiment in a new model of doing that: an experiment based on the ways pioneered by newspapers a hundred years ago. Many of the 20th century’s greatest writers – and many of the greatest works of literature – appeared first in the pages of the newspapers and tabloids offered for sale at streetcorners for a couple of pennies. What great writers and works of literature will emerge from these pages? Explore and determine that for yourselves.

Better yet, be part of that process. Write. Discuss. Share. Think. Create. By creating art and literature, we forge a movement; in forging a movement, we construct a culture; and having constructed a culture – one built upon the many threads of different cultures and experiences that have come to be entwined on this magickal land in the North Atlantic – we build a nation whose words and ideas will echo across the globe, and whose legacy will resound for eternity.

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