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Weekend reads: Lost In Canada
A Q&A with Toronto author Lydia Perović
Where is Canadian culture at these days? It’s a question that Lydia Perović tackles in her provocative outing, Lost in Canada: An Immigrant’s Second Thoughts. The book, from a former opera critic for The Globe and Mail, argues that an ascendent political ideology — and the wholesale importation of the American culture wars — is stifling freedom of expression. And that our national arts scene is in crisis. Here, the Toronto writer from Montenegro talks about rising illiberalism in her adopted country.
You grew up in the former Yugoslavia. I want to start with your time in Belgrade in the 90s, studying journalism. Describe the climate — and how you viewed the West.
It was a heady time. Bits of communism were still alive and well. Nationalism was on the rise, and worse than nationalism. It was a very febrile time … I was 19, 20. You were trying to figure out what you think about the world, what you think about politics. At the same time, the country was falling apart. Yugoslavia was created with great ideals in mind — that we can have all these ethnic groups come together in a state that’s kind of agnostic about ethnicity. That especially came to prominence when the communists took over.
Communism in Yugoslavia was slightly different than the communism behind the Iron Curtain, in that it actually did some good things. It created the first stable middle class in the region. There was, of course, repression as well. But it decentered nationalism, the romance of nationhood and ethnic pride for all these ethnic groups, and got them focused on a different kind of political project.
When we were studying journalism in the 90s under Milošević, I thought the West was something you looked up to. In political theory classes, you read about the history of liberal democracies, the social contract, how liberalism came to be. There was a story about ethnicities and narrow interests being overcome for a state that somehow works. So, we had really high hopes about the West … If I were to jump back to my 20-year-old self, she would be surprised where these things are going now in one of the most liberal places in the world, which is Toronto.
We’ll get to that, but first I want to pull some personal threads from the book. You write, “One of the earliest things that life in Canada taught me was that nothing lasts, nothing is built to last.” Talk about the dissolution of social ties that you see happening.
That’s the other aspect of the West. In our countries back then, divorce was rare, and people just stayed together. It was just highly unusual, especially in small towns … Jobs were not, in a socialist system, changed that quickly …
Look at your life, look at your friends. We all work eight hours a day. We commute at least an hour or two. And then if you have a family, that’s it, that’s your life. How much room is there for friends to go out to a café to discuss social issues? That does not really happen. Fewer and fewer people want to go out.
There’s so much entertainment on our screens. And there’s a bit of the online dating thing — it’s how all our relationships have become. You can always ghost. You can always just disappear. You don’t owe anybody any answer. I think there are economic conditions in which friendships thrive, and there are also cultural conditions in which friendships thrive. I think we’re letting the friendship front go.
Especially in Toronto, we are divided into houses. We see our families as units and that’s our unit. You have these residents’ associations where people meet as homeowners — that’s how we participate in a political life, in social life. I keep joking, but there is truth to it: The biggest divide in Toronto these days is between the renters and the owners.
I had friends who are owners. We would meet for coffee. They would go, “I have so much trouble fixing the roof. I have to find the right contractor.” I don’t understand what that must be like. And they couldn’t understand what it must be like to pay two-thirds of your income for your rent, or half your income. Whatever else you have in common, that’s a stumbling block. I know so many lesbians who are upper-middle-class lesbians, and we have nothing in common.
You are single, childless, lesbian. I loved this line in the book: “A forty-seven-year-old who is not married, not a parent, and a freelancer not attached to a company by full-time employment will have to take a lot of decisions each week, anew and anew, some deadly trivial and others more demanding, What is my life about this Thursday?”
I go back to Simone de Beauvoir, who said women’s lives should not be measured in happiness but in freedom. That’s a very, very tough call. Because sometimes the two are directly opposed.
Let’s, now, talk about the cultural landscape in this country.
That’s changed for the worst in the last few years, I think. As a former arts journalist, I’ll have to think about writing about podcasts now, or real estate. [Laughs] I’m exaggerating the importance of arts discourse and coverage, but I think it’s important … There’s bits and bobs that appear, and that’s not a conversation about a culture. And I think we absolutely need that. Because the vacuum is going to be filled very easily by this global behemoth that we live next to … I just worry that we are becoming less interested in our own Canadian culture. I talk to artists and they’re also worried.
In the book, you go through a list of topics that are off limits in mainstream discourse.
There are more, actually, since I wrote that! There are more.
You write, “I, who dreamed of liberal democracies from within illiberal societies, believed that liberties based on ideals of fairness and equality before the law, once gained, were permanent. I was foolish.” You argue that in Canada, we are now starting to hire by identity group. Can you unpack that?
I understand that underrepresentation is an issue in some fields. But to publicize jobs, and to specify an ethnic group you want, that’s really weird. Nobody’s wondering if that’s okay? Again, it’s the balkanization. And it’s the resistance to the balkanization, in me, that says: Are we sure this is wise?
There’s weirdness on the right-wing end of the spectrum as well — this obsession with Trudeau. There’s lots of weirdness all over. But it’s the progressives that run cultural institutions and the media, so that’s what I see most of.
I think my 20-year-old self would be very surprised to discover that there are actually specific ethnicities that you want to hire. And then, of course, arts criticism has become all about what the ethnicity of the actor is, what the political message is. How does it atone for various social issues? Everything is about healing trauma.
Why do we adopt these modes of living? Is that a good idea? I mean, we, as women could be talking about nothing else but how we are oppressed by male structures. Do we want our lives to be about this?
I also want to ask you about your criticism of land acknowledgments. You argue that land acknowledgments are a kind of “saying grace” in public.
It reminds me of mandatory ideological statements before meetings in communist countries. You’d have to do the preamble, “The fathers of the revolution, brotherhood, unity, da da da…” And then go on with the meeting. It’s a bit like a ceremony through which you have to go. Nobody ever believed in these things.
I have that feeling here. I don’t know what the double property owners in Toronto believe about their land. [Do they believe] their detached house in the Annex and their cottage in Georgian Bay are on stolen land? What do you intend to do about it? That’s what I want to know.
You write at the end of the book that you were a champion of free speech in an illiberal society before, and are once again in that position — and that it is an honour. As writers who care about freedom of expression, and a free arts culture, where does this go from here?
I’m hoping it’s a period that we have to go through. I’m hoping it’s not irreversible. I can’t imagine us in 10 years. Are people going still meet outside the home? Are people going still go watch movies in the movie theater? If there’s another pandemic we are in trouble. Nobody is ever going to leave home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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