Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to see something for what it is, and this is especially true of Manitoba. Manitoba is at the same time introverted and outward-looking. Few of us have any idea of what it is to be Manitoban, and we cannot imagine why these transplants from warmer, more populous places keep telling us to be proud of it. Yet they keep telling us. Try to tell Steve Kirby, director of the U of M’s jazz program, that Winnipeg is a small city. By the same token, try to work out why writer Méira Cook is so intent on staying here.
Cook is a South African-born Manitoba writer, who recently returned from Vancouver. She is also the winter writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture. She has edited Prairie Fire, a quarterly literary journal of prairie writing, worked as an arts critic and published several important books of poetry, a novel — Bloodgirls — and two important books of non-fiction.
Born in Johannesburg, Cook began her life in letters there as a freelance arts critic. Cook says she was content as a journalist, not overly eager to move into creative writing like poetry or fiction. “I was very happy,” she said. “It was a very good life when you were young.” When she immigrated to Canada in 1991, she found herself in the shockingly different environment of rural Manitoba. “I came to Canada, and it was startling and shocking,” she said.
“When I was a journalist,” she said, “it was a very urban occupation, and I was very involved with urban life. I would review plays every night and watch movies in the day. [ . . . ] I was very involved in that kind of urban life, which I loved, in a city of three million people. And then I came to a very small town of 300 people, and I did not enjoy it at all.”
It was here, though, that she first began to do the kind of writing she has become known for. “What felt to me like isolation,” she said, “was one of the things that allowed me to write.”
Cook’s move to Manitoba not only required an adjustment to her environment; she also found herself surrounded by a literary culture she was almost completely unfamiliar with, having focused all her life on South African arts. She said, “I was in a country about whose arts and literature and drama I knew nothing. I had to somehow find a way of living in this new country.”
While her arrival here required some adjustment, Cook has immersed herself more fully in Manitoba and its literary culture than most native-born Manitobans. “What I did,” she said, “was read my way into [Canada’s] culture and try to find out about Canada through the books that I found in prairie literature sections. I was very lucky because I started with Robert Croach.” I asked her whether she considered herself a Canadian writer, and she replied, “Actually, I think of myself even more locally, as a Winnipeg writer.”
As a Winnipeg writer, Cook is well aware of the mixed emotions that the city inspires in so many of our artists and citizens. “I know many writers and artists feel conflicted about Winnipeg,” she said, “because they love it, and yet they feel that it’s small and isolated and far away — and yet they return to it.”
Méira Cook is available to assist students from all faculties with their creative writing until the end of April. She is keen to convey how impressed she is with the variety and quality of the work she has so far encountered in this capacity. She is currently working on a book of long poems entitled Walker in the City.