What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler

What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler

About the Book

Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson envisioned Canada as a nation of peacekeepers, and won the Nobel Prize for his vision. However, throughout the last decade, the concept of the Canadian soldier as peacekeeper has been transformed. In What We Talk About When We Talk About War, Noah Richler looks at the narrative employed by politicians and the military and takes the media to task for our revised national mythology and re-interpretation of the events of past wars. Richler suggests that our changing narrative about war speaks volumes about our collective consciousness and how we have conceived and redefined ourselves as a nation as we talked ourselves into, through, and ultimately out of our participation in war.

Author Q&A with Noah Richler

Can you describe the genesis of What We Talk About When We Talk About War? What brought you to the subject?

My book What We Talk About When We Talk About War had its genesis in the Northrop Frye-Antonine Maillet Lecture that I gave at l’Université de Moncton in 2010. A few years previously, in 2006, I had listened to Shelagh Rogers interview Master-Corporal Paul Franklin, a soldier who had lost both his legs after the car he was driving in Kandahar was blown up in the explosion that killed the diplomat Glyn Berry. That was the beginning of a very tough year for the Canadian Forces. The inference of Franklin’s conversation with Shelagh was that if, subsequently, Canada pulled out of Afghanistan then he would have lost his legs for nothing. It occurred to me then, as it would have done to many, that while that may have been true it was not a sound argument for staying on. This is but one of the many paradoxes of war but it was the one that invited me in, so to speak, to writing a book that allowed me to discover just how upset I was with the proponents of Canada, the so-called "warrior nation." Canada, under the Harper government, has undergone a radical change that has been shrewdly pushed forward by a manipulation of views about our history. This project is deliberate, and ongoing, and was hugely facilitated by the way the war was promoted. My book, however, is neither a judgment of the Canadian Forces nor even a judgment about the validity of the war. But it is a judgment concerning the language, stories and many self-deceptions that Canadians have either supported or not objected to, ones that have been used to enable our new, apparently jingoistic self and to do away with the better, more generous Canada that I grew up in, a Canada that I believe still exists.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

I suppose the book took two and a half years to write and then, as any writer must do, add on six months of talking about it. I’ve been lucky that way, having traveled to many parts of this country that I love, to share its messages of concern. Delivering them has been the challenge as I have been aware, on the one hand, of an enormous number of people relieved that somebody has been speaking another point of view concerning the war for them, but that a lot of the time I have been speaking against a great silence. It is remarkable to me, that even with several hundred soldiers still in Afghanistan, we have forgotten the war and so many of the things that were said, during it, so quickly.  

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory is a modern classic, a seminal look at the experience of the First World War as it was witnessed and remembered in literature. It was an inspiration and an example. Fussell, an American, was a U.S. Marine before he became a scholar, and died last year. A significant passing.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.

As I explain in the book’s afterword, Raymond Carver’s work has always meant a lot to me, and a point that he was making with his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” was one that suited this book and its title, a reference that would have appeared more original had I delivered my manuscript on time and thus before Nathan Englander’s "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." But I shall choose a shorter title next time, if only because doing so saves me characters on Twitter.

What are you working on now?

I think I have found another subject. I wasn’t looking for it, and typically I have to try a few on, but I do think I have found a subject that demands a book – and its title shall be one word.


About the Author

Noah Richler made documentaries and features for BBC Radio for 14 years before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been books editor and literary columnist for the National Post and has contributed to numerous publications, including the Guardian, Punch, and The Walrus. He is the author of This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, which won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction and was a finalist for the Nereus Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. He lives in Toronto.

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