Books

What is Anglo-Québécois Literature? (WASM talk)

The Women's Art Society of Montreal , an institution that has been around since 1894, honoured me with an invitation to come and speak to their members and the public at large about a topic very dear to my heart, Anglo-Québécois literature. I had the privilege to outline the topic and discuss its impact on Québécois literature today to a wonderful and welcoming crowd.

Promise held, here are a few links to several publishers, groups, authors, associations, posts, videos and events that I mentioned during my talk.

Sherry Simon and her books Translating Montreal. Episodes in the Life of a Divided City and Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory

"Pre-Anglo-Québécois" authors mentioned were:

  • A. M. Klein (The Rocking Chair Collection)
  • Mavis Gallant (Montreal Stories)
  • Gwethelyn Graham (Earth and High Heaven)
  • Hugh MacLennan (Two Solitudes)
  • F. R. Scott (and his conversation with Anne Hébert about his translation of her poem Le tombeau des rois)

The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures .. and although this talk was given back in 2010, it is still relevant.

In this article, Neil Smith gives us a humorous look at translation in Quebec : Translating Montreal: Where Blueberries are not Myrtilles

Quebec publishing houses translating Anglo-Québécois works, among other English-language works originating in the rest of Canada.

Alto is a publisher worth looking into as it has published many translated works. Here are just the latest.

And here is the link to Mordecai Richler published by Boréal

Alto and Marchand de feuilles are two French-language Quebec publishers. Many Anglo-Québécois authors have their books published in Toronto as English-language publishers in Quebec are not large outfits. One that was mentioned (in the short video of Guillaume Morissette) is Vehicule Press. It has been around since 1973, and today is run by poet Simon Dardick and Archivist Emerita Nancy Marrelli.

Part of the publishing English-language puzzle is the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec, an organization that "advances the publication, distribution, and promotion of English-language books from Quebec." They also publish the Montreal Review of Books, "a free, nationally distributed journal of reviews, features, and essays on English-language books by Quebec writers and publishers." English-language publishers in Quebec, a topic that merits further study and discussion.

Another important subject I did not have time to broach is about the translators themselves... do not forget to look at who is translating these Anglo-Québécois authors. Most are Québécois authors in their own right.

The Blue Metropolis Festival will be going on from April 20 to 29 this year. Here is this year's program

The Quebec Writers' Federation is an important institutional organisation that not only helps out English-language authors but also creates and funds a number of community programs, events and workshops involving literature. Their yearly literary awards have been around for decades.

The English Language Arts Network "connects, supports, and creates opportunities for Quebec’s English-speaking artists and arts communities."

The Quebec Drama Federation is Anglophone theatre's version of the QWF.

Don't hesitate to comment if I have forgotten to mention anything. All quoted passages are not my own words and come from the related linked websites.

Enjoy!

 


R. M. Vaughan's 14 Reasons Not To Eat Potato Chips On Church Street

Inv_to_pred

For those of you who are wondering about my title, no, it has absolutely nothing to do with the nutritional content of potato chips or any sort of guide to dieting. It is the title of a poem, one written by R. M. Vaughan and originally printed as a chap book back in April 1999 for National Poetry Month by Ottawa-based Above/Ground Press. A few months later that same year, it came out in Vaughan's collection of poems Invisible to Predators, published by ECW Press. But more recently, in 2007, it was published in Barton and Nickerson's anthology Seminal by Arsenal Pulp Press. This is where, with the guidance of a wise professor, I happened upon it. The poem is a riot. It made me giggle all the way to this blog page.

And now that I have read it through a few times, googled some of the more oblique angles in my spotty connaissances, I find it is perhaps less fluffy than I may have judged at first glance.

First, a bit about the poet. R. M. Vaughan, or Richard Murray for those who, like me, are curious about the meaning of initials in place of actual names. Of course, this curiostity only amounts to silly sleuthing and is usually quickly solved with the first lines of a Wikipedia entry, but in this case, and in the name of serious academia, I relied on the University of Toronto's Canadian Poetry Online website to provide me with an encyclopedic quantity of information on Vaughan. Needless to say, I will not repeat what can easily be found on the above mentioned site, which is chalked full of information.

Broadly writing, this poet, novelist, playwright, video artist and journalist seems to live up to his "writing philosophy" of Genius is Volume. The sheer quantity of material he has written, produced, published, brought to the stage is a bit overwhelming. Until I read the poem I will discuss, I had never heard of this New Brunswick-born, Toronto-residing artist. One piece of biographical information that I find relevant to mention is his passage in the mid-1990s, as the playwright-in-residence, in Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times professional theatre, a not-for-profit company "dedicated to the promotion of Queer Canadian culture." The reason I find this relevant is that it clearly places Vaughan's writing in the Gay literature genre. Gay experience is at the heart of what he writes, and his collection of poetry Invisible to Predators clearly demonstrates this.

A reviewer in Quill & Quire called the collection "A candid celebration of homosexual love" where Vaughan's poems navigate from the deeply emotional connection of love, to a considerably abstract reply to a French revolutionary's last words to his wife before being sent to the guillotine. In all of this rather profound and touching poetry, we find a piece about potato chips held together with strange words of wisdom based on Torontonian geography. And what immediately comes to my mind is that there has to be more to it than that.

 A quick first reading of the poem made me snicker. Who hasn't been plagued with the little (and sometimes not-so-little) insecurities of weight gain and the social pressure to "keep thin?" By giving heed to the 14 reasons, the poet essentially wants to remain/become attractive (reasons 1, 5, 10 and 12), watch his nutrition in public (reason 7), steer clear of social shame associated with the consumption of junk food (reasons 3, 4, 11 and 13), watch his personal hygene in much the same way a mother would warn her son (reasons 2 and 9); let's not forget the financial predicament of an artist which stipulates that he or she be poor and therefore starving (reason 6 pushes in this direction) and what of the concept of luck, where only bad things will happen to you, much like crossing the path of a black cat. Although, I would like to find out more about the adversity of wearing a white shirt on Saturday night.

I have purposely left out the last reason, number 14. Prior to Vaughan terminating it on the satiric and resolutely fatalistic "But now it's too late," the preceeding four lines contemplate a different place: "a kinder neighbourhood, someplace more real, a family place", where he might meet someone who would be able to love him for what he is, potato chip-eating and all.  By leaving (specifically the Church and Wellesley Village, Toronto's largest LGBT neighbourhood), he might have a chance at some kind of peace. The safety zone of the gay community seems to be suffocating our poet. Gay turf, historically cloistered and turned onto itself, has become a space of repression where stereotypical political and social righteousness rule. You have to walk the walk, or else. And sadly, for this poet, and in his own words, "it's too late."

 


Figuring out Gail Scott('s writing)

So, as was made abundantly clear in my last post, Gail Scott's writing is not for the faint of reading…and I am not of the faint of reading. So I went hunting around to figure out what I was not getting. What "secret club" did I have to join so that I may start to grasp what was going on.

The Obituary was my first Scott book. And my reading approach was just plain lazy. I expected the story line, the narrative, to grab me by the hand and walk me through the park of her novel. Ha! Was I ever wrong. Furthermore, instead of trying to step back and take a different approach, I spent most the reading trying desperately to find this cohesive narrative. So imagine just how stupid I felt nearing three quarts of the book and still not getting what was going on… As of today, the novel is stunted by a post-it bookmark at the three quarter point, waiting for me to smarten up. Which, I think has finally happened(!)

I landed on a fantastic conference presented by Gail Scott and entitled: "Le Sujet suturé: langues d'écritures, langues cachées, langues entendues". It was part of a larger umbrella event called LES LOYAUTÉS CONFLICTUELLES DE LA LITTÉRATURE QUÉBÉCOISE organized by the département de littérature comparée from the Université de Montréal, in collaboration with the CRILCQ, the département d'études anglaises and the département des littératures de langue française both also from the Université de Montréal.

Yes, the video is long at a little over 1 hour. But it is thoroughly worth watching completely. I did and now feel much less lost and contemplating restarting The Obituary to look for tid bits I know I overlooked the first time around.

 


Summer Reading

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I have spent the greater part of my summer reading. A luxury I haven't had in a very long time. Now of course, by the very nature of what I do, reading is a daily task (and sometimes quite the chore...like what I'm reading now: Lawrence Grossberg's philosophical analysis of communications and cultural studies -- which I am stubbornly going to get through before the end of August... grrr). The difference is that I wanted to read these novels strictly for the pleasure, no note taking, no fancy literary analysis. Just me and the printed word, and the potential it has to tickle my fancy. Here are the titles I have read so far:

Iced Under; Nadine Doolittle

Behind the Face of Winter; H. Nigel Thomas

Out of my Skin; Tessa McWatt

The Enemy Within; Nalini Warriar

Cockroach; Rawi Hage

The Obituary; Gail Scott

If I had to group them, Hage's Cockroach would be in the same category as McWatt's Out of my Skin and Thomas' Behind the Face of Winter would more easily be associated with Warriar's The Enemy Within and Doolittle's Iced Under. Scott's The Obituary stands alone for a few reasons, but mostly because of its incredibly experimental nature which renders the exercise of my somewhat detached summer reading into a more laborious effort. But before I go any further, a bit of background.

I can't claim to be the composer of this reading list. With the exception of Doolittle's Iced Under, the list was put together by my supervisor Lianne Moyes, and will constitute, along with other titles, the core of a class she will be teaching this fall on Anglo-Québécois literature. The course will (very-short-and-curt-description-that-does-not-do-it-justice coming up here) look at how these authors express cultural mixité in their writing.

I, however, will simply comment on my impression of these novels, a lighter sort of reviewing... the kind you can read with a morning coffee in hand and not sweat over during an evening graduate-level course.

For the most part, the voices of these novels are represented by immigrants (most living in the city of Montreal).The main character in Out of my Skin, Daphne Baird/Muriel Eyre, has recently escaped Toronto, where she was raised by her adoptive family, to come to Montreal;  but her background situates her somewhere in the Caribbean, just like the character Perdro Moore in Behind the Face of Winter. Sita, the main character of The Enemy Within, arrived in Quebec City as a young bride from the city of Aluvha, in Kerala, on the south-west coast of India. The main character in Cockroach -- who considers himself a cockroach in the true sense of the term, not the figurative one -- hails from the Middle East and his name is nowhere to be found. In the case of Iced Under, the main character is from Toronto and has moved to a small Quebec border town to escape a messy divorce. In The Obituary, the main character observes many different immigrants (and non-immigrants) in the neighbourhood of Mile End, but I am unsure how to classify her. 

The vast differences of origins and identity, as well as the actual stories themselves, make this round-up of novels look like more of a big hodge pogde of (almost) "migrant literature". But strangely, the writing in all these books give off a certain cohesiveness, one to which I alluded a couple paragraphs ago with different groupings based in part on the "voice" of the novel.

Group 1. This first grouping includes the novels with a surreal, mentally unstable quality in their characters. Reality is skewed by their vision of themselves and the outside world, like a filter through which experiences, social and individual, pass in order to be understood or perhaps simply just to be stacked away for later observation.

In the case of Daphne (Out of my Skin), she seems to make a breakthrough at the end of the novel, past this fabricated inner world where she explores her family past through her mentally unstable natural grandfather's diaries. But all through the novel, she comes off more like a teenager or a young adult than a thirty-something woman.

In Cockroach, the main character has a habit of entering other people's  apartments to look at and steal objects (of no monetary value). It's the way he enters that is interesting: he turns into a cockroach and climbs into drain pipes and through cracks to enter the premises. The story ends by his disappearing down a drain, just like a cockroach… I won't say anything more here, don't want to mess with the ending. 

Throughout both novels in this group, the concept of integration into normal life is challenged regularly, in part due to this "foreign" identity. But somehow, I do not get the impression that the goal for either of the characters was ultimately integration by seeking the approval of society (at large). It's all about an inner journey. The outside world, and gaining a footing in it, is not the point, ultimately.

Group 2. The next grouping is based in part on the length of time depicted in the stories and the narration of continuous hardships in the task of breaking through and succeeding in life, i.e. integration into society, malgré the (migratory) provenance.

In Behind the Face of WInter, Pedro literally fights his way into a place of acceptance with all required compromising, but not quite the way his mother (or grandmother) had traced out for him. The nostalgic ending makes one give off a sigh and set eyes on the horizon… the kind of ending that did not, in my mind, do any justice to the preceding chapters of the book. But if I think about it, I'm not quite sure how else one could have ended the novel.

The actual title of this next book, The Enemy Within, rested ominously in the back of my mind throughout the whole reading; and its ominous premonition, lying in wait for the right moment, never seemed to materialize until… sorry, this is where I stop. Go read it to find out. The character's depiction of her life as a housewife, mother of two children studying her way into a meaningful career is set-off by the horrible marriage she maintains, sort of like way of clinging to her roots, guilt-suffering her way through life.

The novel Iced Under definitely has its place in this group, even though its "immigrant status" hails from the province next door and not the other side of the planet. Here we are confronted with a distraught Toronto divorcée who seeks refuge from a nasty divorce. Along with her two daughters, she moves to a dilapidated cabin she inherited on the shores of a lake near a small town in Quebec. There is a child disappearance, a murder, hence, the makings of a mystery novel. But the whole notion of "it's better after the struggle", or in other words, the quintessential happy ending where everyone gets along (i.e. integration), permeate the story near the end. Of course, it's all in the crime-solving.

Now, here is where I seem to need the most help -- The Obituary. This is one book that requires some hand-holding and probably belongs in a group of its own. I want very badly to "get it", but time and time again, I find that I cannot stitch the whole thing together. I get bits and pieces of it, and when I do, it's brilliant. But most of the time, I read words that I am unable to connect to the whole story line, which seems to be a stream of consciousness recording of the life of Rosine. Some events in her life are connected to other events and I cannot make out how, or why. It's like the best inside joke ever and I am totally incapable of grasping what it's about, never mind what happens to be funny about it; I kind of feel like a third-grader reading Joyce's Ulysses; I know it's amazing, but I just can't figure out how. Help.

But this is not all I have been reading this summer. Although I forgot it in Montreal, Peter Dubé's The City Gates is so a propos with all the student strikes that I absolutely have to finish it illico presto when I get back. Anne Chudobiak even mentioned it in the Gazette this summer: Peter Dubé's protest fiction is well timed

And also, Mordecai Richler. I love Mordecai Richler. I read Barney's Version as well as Foran's MordecaiThe Life and Times back to back. And it turned out to be a neat little experiment in distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction.


A Typical Montreal Historical Saga (the 60s)

The carefully sketched out picture of Montreal in translation in the 1960s is one of an awakening of consciousness. There is a moment in life when, emerging from childhood, we all start to question what has made up life up to then. The incoherences or anomalies invisible to us until then suddenly come into full light.

Rather than hiding behind hole-filled walls as they have done for centuries, certain individuals scamper up the brickwork and far from being satisfied with this new view, jump down on the other side. Unbeknownst to them, they have lived with a hybrid language and culture, not quite French, definitely not English. The desire to clearly distinguish what is theirs and separate themselves from all that is English and what it represents is the manifestation of this awakening. Observations and affirmations, political, linguistic and cultural, have their outlet in the choice of language.

How fascinating to find out Malcolm Reid's book was not translated until very recently. How did this work end up shelved for so many years?

(Translating Montreal Episodes in the Life of a Divided City, Chapter 1 - The Crosstown Journey)


Gallant's Parisian Life

  Editeurs 4464

I was turned onto Mavis Gallant very late in life by a professor of mine. The first thing I read was her collection of short stories Going Ashore published in 2009. It just felt right. She is one of these authors whose work I can read forever. The finer subtleties of her writing keep me keenly awake and looking in the nooks and crannies of her words. I especially love her more recent work, the short stories written in the 80s. She's been at it for so long, it is fascinating to see how time has affected her story writing and her vision of the world.

This is one Montreal dame that definitely has something to say to the francophone readership of la Belle Province. Let's present her as the Québécois Anglophone she started out as (and still is) and yank her translations back over the Atlantic to her hometown of Montreal.

I decided to translate one of them into French. Its title is "Parisian Life" and it was written in 1981.

Please read on for the translation itself...

Continue reading "Gallant's Parisian Life" »


Last Weekend's Reading...Is Culture Language or is Language Culture?

Le Botero à George

In last Sunday's New York Times there was an article entitled "Pardon my French" by Michael Kimmelman. I gobbled it up and promised myself I would write a blog post about it.

But where to begin!

Let me throw in a couple keywords to orient the conversation: French, language, snobbery, elitism, culture, politics, globalization, writers.

For eons, the French had a monopoly on the French language, everything and anything "French" came out of "France". The culture and the political implications of associating oneself with this culture boiled down to the use of the French language. The snobbery and elitism associated or mixed in with the French language all related back to the country itself and its historic culture. But this isn't the case anymore, or at least there seem to be cracks appearing in the logic. Kimmelman points out a very interesting statistic in his article - there are approximately "200 million French speakers in the world but only 65 million are actually French." But the "French" are so parochial...if it doesn't come from "France", well it is just NOT French.

Enter globalization...Now I think we have to be very careful about the definition of the term. Many see it as an assimilatory label. Kimmelman quotes Abdou Diouf, secretary general of the francophone organization as saying that "The more we have financial, military and economic globalization, the more we find common cultural references and common values, which include diversity. And diversity, not uniformity, is the real result of globalization." A way of distinguishing ourselves and our culture from others out there is to point out our differences. In phonology, its called phonemic differentiation! The infamous "minimal pair". Bottom line, it's the differences that count. 

The main point though is that globalization will not be halted. It simply is not something that can be stopped. The most important thing we can do is watch it carefully to see how it manifests itself and go along for the ride. I am not being pessimistic here, just realistic. When everyone and anyone can raise their hand to say "Hey I'm different and I count, look at me", the compelling question becomes how will it all tally in the end?

So the "French" from "France" and their French...has the nostalgic taste of colonialism. Culture and language can and are intimately linked, but I believe the over-ridding element in this duo is the culture and the language is simply one of its vassels. Over the course of time, the vassel is shaped by the culture to fit it like a gorgeous kid glove: you can't lend it to anyone anymore, it just won't fit any other hand. But it's just the glove, not the hand itself.

The end of the article looked at literature and specifically writers who craft their art in French...even though they are not French. Pascale Casanova's book "La république mondiale des lettres" just kept coming back to mind as I read on: if the proverbial book doesn't go through French literary establishment, well it just isn't "literature" in the noble sense of the word! Anything worth the attribute of "literature" is written, translated into French and published in France (point final!)

But how long can this still hold with a majority of French speakers who do not identify with this specific culture? Are we faced with a potentially dwindling empire in the long run? Will it allow others to enter in order to survive? Or will it die out from its incestuous elitism (all of a sudden, my mind sees Egyptian pharaohs marrying their sisters to keep the "blood line pure"...too much Discovery channel here, sorry about that.)

French publishers have always kept that door well guarded and no one was let in if they could not produce the secret password...except when they were duped, like in the case of Makine and his "retroactive original" of Dreams of my Russian Summers (see article).

But the best quote comes from Nancy Huston, qui parle en toute connaissance de cause!

"The French literary establishment which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class while laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France (read "secret password" here!) But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering."

So, France does not have the exclusivity on kid gloves, there are plenty of new pairs to go around. But how do you get rid of a monopolizing bully? I'll get back to you on that in another post at the end of my masters.

And just to bring the point home, here is what Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul said at the end of Kimmelman's article: "Paris is still fearful of a French writer who becomes known around the world without its blessing." But to illustrate the other side of the coin, he adds "and at the same time in certain Arab-speaking circles I am considered a traitor because I write in French. I am caught between two cultures, two worlds."

So, could this be about using someone else's kid glove? Never fits quite right.

Here is a link to the New York Times article itself: Pardon my French

Good reading.


Funny Thing about Mr. Clavel

So as you are already aware of, I had to tackle the translation of an excerpt from a Bernard Clavel novel. This weekend, I ended up checking out this book fair, just scanning really, nothing serious. The section of French books was almost insignificant. I nevertheless decided to fish through it. Low and behold...there was Clavel's Harricana. I thought it would be a dollar well spent (literally). Back home, my husband decided to flip through it. He quietly informed me that it was most likely a great investment, especially with Clavel's handwritten note and signature on the second page. (Immediate reaction: jaw dropping effect as I walked over to the kitchen table to check it out!)

Amazing things can be found in book sales. I sure did!


Savage Translation

I spent a good part of yesterday translating a small excerpt of Bernard Clavel's Maudits Sauvages. I needed the whole book to get the voice right. Quite a pain to obtain, but I managed to get a hold of a second hand copy. The insecurity that comes from translating a few lines out of the blue is very disagreeable for me. I find comfort in knowing the motivations of the characters beyond the paragraph or two I have been given. In this case, it served me well. The context was the construction of le projet de la Baie James. But I wasn't able to deduce that just by reading the excerpt. Once I knew though, I felt like a twit, it seemed so obvious.

All this just keeps on driving the same point home for me...research your topic! It doesn't take hours or days most of the time. Clicking away on my good buddy Google usually provides me with more than enough answers. Sometimes though, mostly in the case of literary translation, I have to get the book. It's the voice, the tone of the writing that makes all the difference. Capturing this is not as simple as looking up words in a dictionary. The more you read, the better you can grasp the voice.

Clavel, Bernard, Maudits Sauvages, Albin Michel,1989.