When a book is about to be published, most likely the author’s agent is scurrying about trying to pick up a few foreign rights. Even books that sell only modestly in the States can sometimes make the author a fair bit of cash because of their appeal to foreign markets. And, when a book does sell in foreign markets, it is not uncommon to speculate about why it sold using the most crude type of stereotyping. When the German rights of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed sold, I spoke to anyone who would listen in a terrible German accent (I cringe even saying this) how Germans are not afraid to read about hard topics like divorce. I’ll spare you the spectacle I made of myself when the Brazilian rights sold.
And, then there are the countries that don’t buy. “Too American, they said,” my agent wrote me when the Brits turned down King Size, and then he added, “Whatever that means.” That was sweet of him, but I knew exactly what it meant. I’d spent much of my growing up years in Canadian classrooms with portraits of the Queen feeling like I was “Too American.” Moving to Canada at ten at the height of the Watergate scandal, I got an earful on the schoolyard about “Yanks” that I wasn’t sure what to do with. I didn’t feel Canadian, but I didn’t feel particularly American either. But growing up in a particularly British Canadian neighborhood, I quickly learned how very American I was. I was too loud, I interrupted, I was boastful, I asked questions about unmentionable things. I learned over time that my American side–which included the part of me that wanted to talk about myself–was something like Auntie Mame, a sort of showy embarrassment that was best kept under wraps.
After a few years in Canada, I fell in step. I came to love good manners, strong tea, and national health care (and that love will never die). When I’d spot American tourists in downtown Vancouver, their voices seemed too loud, their cigarette smoke too sweet, and their clothes too gaudy. But yet, I knew too–that they were also my people. I wasn’t truly a Canadian–although eventually I’d obtain citizenship–as much as I was a shamed and tamped down American.
The British publisher’s comment of “too American” rang in my ears last week as I visited London. I was thrilled to see vestiges of my Canadian childhood were everywhere–steak and kidney pies, men with proper raincoats and umbrellas, tea biscuits. But, also, I kept hearing this tone of voice, this hush-hushness that sounded like home. It’s absurd to sum up a culture with overheard conversations, but fear of the absurd has never stopped me before, so here goes. I heard the song of my Canadian youth when a two proper businessmen bowed their heads near and one said, “Let’s not mention…” and then he rattled off a long list of unmentionables. I heard it again in Hyde Park when a suited man began a sentence with a lilting, “On the QT,” the weight of the phrase very much placed on the letters QT.
Yes, I thought, with my small satchel of evidence clutched in my paws, there it is. It’s the voice telling me to keep it quiet, keep it proper, keep it down. And it’s the voice that asks in very proper and appalled voice, “Why on earth would you want to write about yourself of all things?” And as American as I am, there’s a Canadian part of me that must still answer to that voice.