Bernice Morgan (1935-)

For Bernice Morgan, the past is crucial in exploring one’s identity and future. Born and currently residing in St. John’s with her husband, two daughters and son, Morgan began writing full time in 1986 after resigning as the Communications Officer and Editor of the Bulletin under the Newfoundland Teachers’ Association. She also worked in public relations and as Editor of the Gazette for Memorial University.

Bernice Morgan
Bernice Morgan, 1991
Random Passage was Morgan's first novel and is considered by many as one of the most memorable in Newfoundland fiction.
Photo by Karla Krachun. Reproduced by permission of Bernice Morgan. ©1991.

Morgan recounts her Newfoundland childhood experiences, noting that the production and dissemination of Newfoundland culture was almost benign. Watching American films and reading English or Canadian literature while in school, she recalls that even in the 1960’s her school literature book, Our Heritage, never even mentioned the word Newfoundland. Such dismissal carried over in her work, for when she wrote school essays she referred to ‘villages’ rather than ‘outports.’ As a result of her early experiences, her fiction exhibits restlessness. The permanence of objects and experiences in relation to the impermanence of people and the wrestling of their formation is “a dark hole, it can draw you under until you don’t know who you are, don’t know what you might do.

Random Passage

In writing her first novel, Random Passage (Breakwater 1992), Morgan has overcome the omission of Newfoundland representation experienced through her early education. She comments, “In tracking my own relationship with this place-a lost and found story-I come near to tracking a story common to most Newfoundlanders of my generation.”

Cape Random, the setting of Random Passage, possibly reflects her own lineage in rural Newfoundland, her mother, Sadie Vincent, growing up on Cape Island in Bonavista North and William Vardy, her father, on Random Island in Trinity Bay. Simultaneously, Cape Random is archetypal of some of the common experiences, both fiction and non-fiction, of early outport settlement.

“The landwash wasn’t grey and white any longer but red. Red everywhere, like someone had trampled partridgeberry jam into the snow, red and purple and pink-and in the middle the two of them lying. Ned face up, with one arm half torn away, and Isaac to one side, curled down into a heap with the animal still clawing at him and growling like a dog with a piece of meat” (Random Passage).

Being mauled to death by a polar bear is only one of the inhospitable hardships faced by the settlers of Cape Random. Morgan explores the experiences of outport life in nineteenth century Newfoundland based on the journal of Lavinia Andrews, one of the novel’s main characters, illustrating the perseverance of Cape Random’s inhabitants through death, starvation, and disease, remote from communication. As Morgan’s epigraph notes, “hard work could make for a safe place.” Yet, it is not just the constant struggle between death, despair and community survival, a persistent Newfoundland theme, that has made Morgan’s novel one of the most memorable in Newfoundland fiction. Her ability to question and re-question the evolution of survival, from the creating of a home in Random Passage to the embarking from it in Random Passage’s sequel Waiting for Time (Breakwater 1994), where “a going away can be a homecoming,” that has made her work crucial to the island’s literature.

Random Passage’s publication in a post-resettlement Newfoundland evokes the atmosphere and experiences of outport life for many people who have never experienced it. In doing so, the foundations of communal identity that many contemporary Newfoundlanders have only encountered through textbook histories is infused with life to create a story that had been factually recorded but scantily embellished. The result is no longer imagining it, but living through it in the imagination.

Waiting for Time

Waiting for Time traces the descendants of Cape Random in modern Newfoundland, illustrating an island in the face of the decline of the fishery, but most important, tracing how the past influences the experiences and memories of current Newfoundlanders.

Waiting for Time also explores a familiar story through a different critical stance, revealing concealed secrets to its present generation characters, implying that a history cannot be verifiable or even trusted if it does not consider the ways in which history can omit, distort or even dismiss certain participants in its narrative. For instance, in discovering her past, Lav Andrews, the descendant of Random Passage’s Lavinia Andrews, encounters various versions of it for she asks us: “It is better to have no history or an imagined one?” Morgan never directly answers this question; however, she implies that a culture persists through the changing and growing of its history. “A place ... forever reshaping itself, ... (Will) the Cape ... vanish completely some day(?) ... No, it is the changing that saves it.”

Topography of Love

Following the international success of her two first novels, Morgan’s first short story collection, The Topography of Love, centres around twelve experiences pertaining to love, ranging from friendship, maternal love, and love experienced in one’s later and beginning years. The setting occurs in St. John’s or evolves in characters from St. John’s, who are often woven throughout the stories. While some stories are unique in their ideas, ranging from an interest in a man who might be a potential killer in Labrador, many of the stories expound upon some of the ideas prevalent in her two novels. Of particular note to Morgan’s concerns as a writer, Cecilia in “A Commission in Lunacy” recovers her memory of past events by researching her history in the archives of a psychiatric institution where she was undergoing treatment. This motif, of recovering an erased past and then recovering it some more, is central to Morgan’s works. As she notes, “Just as much, and more, needs to continue if we are to maintain a place that will inhabit the imaginations our children-or will they have to repeat the lost-and-found story of my generation?”

Literary Recognition

Co-editor of the anthology From This Place: A Selection of Writing by Women of Newfoundland and Labrador (Jesperson 1977), Morgan’s writing has also been included in numerous anthologies. Her literary recognition, beyond winning the Provincial Arts and Letters Competition for short stories and radio plays, includes the 1995 Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, the Canadian Authors’ Association Literary Prize for Fiction and a nomination for the Dublin Impact Award, all for Waiting for Time. The latter, along with Random Passage, was adapted into a CBC television mini-series in 2002. The Topography of Love was short-listed for the Winterset Award and the Atlantic Booksellers’ Choice Award in 2001. She also received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University in 1998 and was named Artist of the Year by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council in 1996.

Her contribution to the literary community includes serving on the board of the Provincial Arts Council and as an editorial board member of Killick Press. She has been on the executive of the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Newfoundland Writers’ Guild in addition to the Writers’ Union of Canada. Her community involvement is reflected in her work with the St. John’s Status of Women Council and as a member of the St. John’s Library Board.