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Dave Godfrey, Governor General’s Literary Award winner and co-founder of House of Anansi Press, dies

Dave Godfrey was many things: an author and publisher who was at the forefront of the CanLit explosion in the 1960s and ’70s, a teacher, a software developer, and a vintner. He was also a husband, father, and friend; those who knew him speak of his gregarious personality and mercurial mind. Godfrey succumbed to cancer on June 21. He was 76 years old.

According to a Facebook post on a public memorial page, Godfrey had been diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer eight weeks ago. He asked that his condition not be widely publicized, so his death comes as a shock to many in the literary community.

Born in Winnipeg in 1938, Godfrey – along with George Bowering, Graeme Gibson, and Robert Kroetsch – was one of Canada’s early postmodernists. His fiction was experimental and challenging, like a bucket of cold water poured over the head of conservative and complacent Canada. His novel The New Ancestors, which critic Glenn Deer describes as “difficult, erudite, and epic in scope,” won a 1970 Governor General’s Literary Award (it was in contention with Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business). The New Ancestors, based in part on the author’s experiences teaching in Ghana, was Godfrey’s only novel; it followed the short-story collection Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola (1967). A second collection of stories, Dark Must Yield, appeared in 1978.

“In the decade after 1967, Dave Godfrey was a powerhouse in Canadian writing and publishing,” says Dennis Lee, who in 1967 co-founded House of Anansi Press with Godfrey. At the time, Anansi, which was instrumental in publishing early work by Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Matt Cohen, was located in the basement of Godfrey’s rented house on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. “The energy he brought to the mannerly literary world – for a time, it looked as though he would go on hatching a new press every couple of years – was like a force of nature,” says Lee.

Two years after launching Anansi, Godfrey joined Roy MacSkimming and James Bacque in beginning New Press. “Both presses were passionately nationalistic in mission,” says MacSkimming, “with Anansi focused more on literary publishing, New Press more on political and social issues.” Along with his wife, Ellen, Godfrey started Press Porcépic in 1973. The small house was begun, according to Sarah McCutcheon in “Little Presses in Canada,” as “an outlet for young and experimental writers.”

“With his mercurial mind and high energy, Dave was a catalyst for the explosion of new Canadian writing and publishing in the 1960s,” says MacSkimming. “He believed that for Canada to have its own publishing industry, we had to do things our way.” This belief was fully present in both his entrepreneurial spirit and his devout nationalism, two aspects of Godfrey’s character that were indispensable and inextricable.

“I first knew of him and then met him when he was creating publishing houses with Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee,” says fellow author George Bowering. “Curiously, maybe, I most admire him for making sudden turns in his idea of how to use one’s life, and then going all-out in the new activity. Am I imaging a memory, but does one of these include being a drummer in a jump-up band?” (Imagination or not, Godfrey’s Wikipedia entry indicates that he did teach music at Ghana’s Adisadel College, where he spearheaded a school jazz club.)

Later in life, Godfrey stepped away from writing and publishing in favour of other pursuits. He taught literature at the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria, taking over the creative writing chair in 1978. Always a passionate advocate for technology – he was a devotee of Harold Innis, whose thinking came to influence him profoundly – Godfrey and his wife started the software company Softwords, which served as a springboard for Pacific Interconnect, an internet service provider Godfrey ran for a time in the 1990s. “The irony that his traditional print enterprise outlasted his foray into Internet communications isn’t lost on Godfrey,” writes Brennan Clarke in a profile for BC Business. “‘It’s a dying industry in a sense, book publishing,’ [Godfrey] says. ‘But it’s taking longer than I thought it would.’”

Following his foray into technology, Godfrey turned his attention to wine, entering a partnership in the Cowichan Valley, B.C., winery Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards.

“Though our close association is well in the past,” says MacSkimming, “I feel fortunate to have known and worked with such a brilliant and restless mind and a passionate Canadian.” Adds Lee: “He deserves to be remembered.”