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Global Connections

'Life of Pi' author Yann Martel: Why I've sent 91 books to Canada's PM

By Susannah Palk for CNN

Canadian author Yann Martel after winning the Booker for "Life of Pi" in 2002.
Canadian author Yann Martel after winning the Booker for "Life of Pi" in 2002.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yann Martel won the Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel "Life of Pi"
  • The son of Canadian diplomats, he says Canada's values of tolerance and openness have informed his work
  • Since 2007 Martel has been sending Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper books on a regular basis
  • "If we have leaders who don't read books, we are lead by the blind," he says

Canada is one of the countries we're featuring on Global Connections, a segment on CNN's Connect the World that takes two very different countries and asks you to find the connections. We asked novelist Yann Martel to tell us how Canada has shaped his life and work.

(CNN) -- The Booker Prize-winning author of "Life of Pi," Yann Martel is one of Canada's most recognized and outspoken writers.

Born in Spain to Canadian diplomats, Martel lived a nomadic life as a youngster, growing up in various countries including Costa Rica, France, Mexico and his home country of Canada.

The author of six books, including the recently released "Beatrice and Virgil," Martel came to prominence after his best-selling novel "Life of Pi" won the Booker, Britain's top literary prize, in 2002.

Three years ago Martel began sending one novel to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper every two weeks as part of a book-sharing project he calls "What is Stephen Harper Reading?"

Now up to novel number 91, Martel tells CNN why he started the project and explains how his country's values of tolerance and openness have informed his work and his life.

If I'm so strongly egalitarian, it's because I'm Canadian. If I'm so tolerant of diversity of every kind, it's because I'm Canadian.
--Author Yann Martel
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CNN: What does Canada mean to you?

Yann Martel: It means a place where I can be at home while still sometimes feeling I'm abroad. Canada has two official languages and two founding colonial cultures, but nothing else official. In that, to be Canadian is a state of mind. He or she is Canadian who says they are (the passport helps to make it real).

A Canadian can be from any part of the world, speak any native tongue, be of any skin color, practice any religion (or none at all), practice any culture. That dizzying variety is breathtaking and constantly refreshing.

CNN: Has the country inspired and/or informed your work?

YM: Yes, by making me open to stories that come from anywhere and are set anywhere. Canada is very tolerant of diverse voices. I remember when I won the Booker Prize in 2002, half the shortlist of six was Canadian.

I was joined on the list by Rohinton Mistry and Carol Shields. English critics sniffed that we weren't really Canadian since none of us had been born in Canada (Mistry was born in India, Shields in the US and I in Spain).

They got it diametrically wrong. It's on the contrary typically Canadian that we were born abroad and, in the case of my novel and Mistry's, that they were set abroad.

CNN: Would you say Canada has influenced your personality? If so, how?

YM: Absolutely. If I'm so strongly egalitarian, it's because I'm Canadian. If I'm so tolerant of diversity of every kind, it's because I'm Canadian. It's interesting to note how this country, with so many immigrant groups, has never produced a right-wing xenophobic political party.

CNN: Where is your favorite place to go in Canada?

YM: Too many to list, but off the top of my head a National Park like Prince Albert in winter so I can go cross-country skiing.

CNN: What do you miss most about Canada when you are away?

YM: The decency of the people, the tolerance, the lack of corruption.

CNN: What was your motivation for setting up the "What is Stephen Harper Reading" project?

YM: A despair at the chasm between the political class and the artist class.

Fundamentally, we are cultural beings, speaking a language, belonging to a people, operating with a belief system. After that, we are economic beings, having this or that job. But the political class today, typified by Stephen Harper, seems to operate under the delusion that culture is just entertainment, something to pass the time after the day's work is done. And so we get governments that are obsessed with economics and reduce their citizens to their economic utility.

It's in rebellion against this that I've been sending the PM a literary book every two weeks, to remind him of what a great novel or play or poem can do. It staggers me that we can have a head of government who hasn't read a novel or play or poem since high school.

How can a person claim to be a thinking person if they never read fiction or poetry or plays? Fiction is the greatest tool to analyze the human condition. If we have leaders who don't read books, we are lead by the blind.

CNN: Of all the books you have sent the Canadian prime minister, which one would you recommend the most?

YM: Silly question. But I'd say the perfect example of what literature can do is summarized by "The Death of Ivan Ilych," by Leo Tolstoy. It's a book that will entertain you, changes how you look at life. All that in less than 100 pages.