Canadian literature is wide, large and extremely beautiful when inclusiveness is the word of order. It is composed of different languages, many of them indigenous. It is open to a wide variety of influences, often contradictory. And it is understudied.

I am not interested in going down that path, the one of why it isn’t taken as seriously as other major literatures, at least not now. Others before me have gone this route, brandishing various very thought provoking reasons, not the least being our lack of a strong (global/national?) identity. It is this ceaseless inward looking eye that bothers me, the need to streamline, categorize, catalogue and label works, so that they fit in a very narrow understanding of what constitutes CanLit. (What a great abbreviation, just think about it: “can” like the verb, a literature that “can.”)

I consider any work that is produced by anyone who has at one point in time identified with, was born, lived, touched or died on Canadian soil, to be a part of CanLit. Indigenous productions, Québécois literature, being contentious members, are for me, works of Canadian literature. They all participate in the complex conversation that is Canada. The idea is not to exclude, but to include more voices, more works, more authors, in order to open this exclusive club. The idea is to trace links between these different works and stand far back enough to see an outline of what CanLit really is.

History has its part to play in this grand piece, but not just Canadian history. What is Canadian history if European and American history (and by extension their literatures with their authors and works) are not included in this structure? Not much. We were not constituted in a vacuum, and we do not operate in one either. No one does. I’m thinking of Jack Kerouac, for example. Why isn’t he considered a part of CanLit? Yann Martel is claimed by CanLit, how is Kerouac any different? Parental filiation in both cases. Martel retains a certain Canadianness, whereas Kerouac had his completely erased.

And translation also has its place. And not just French and English translations. Here, I have in mind Joséphine Bacon’s poetry, in Innu and French, side by side, translated by Phyllis Aranoff, from French into English. And think about works by English-language Quebec authors, translated into French in Quebec. These are all works of CanLit, albeit from minority literatures.

Works to be included in minority (or perhaps minor) literatures, all under the umbrella of CanLit, works that belong to movements, rather than strictly regions. Poets like W. W. E. Ross could finally trully inhabit the Modernist space it deserves. Why couldn’t regional and literary currents intersect, juxtaposed one upon the other, and not be considered contradictory? And what of chronology? Other than being uselful to find out publication and circulation information, it should not constitute a barrier to belonging. Here, Sherry Simon’s three Montreal Modernities comes to mind, parallel currents that did not intersect, but reflected an era much larger than themselves.

And I could go on. And I will go on. I promise.

The news you can find on Facebook!

Claro, that "Sting" "Madona" of the translating world has a Facebook account totally worth following. Commentary on anything and everything that goes on around him.

Although, sometimes I wonder if these Facebookers and Twitterers don't spend more time typing in their lives than actually living them, but hey, to each his own. Somehow, the last thing I think of doing is grabbing my "smart phone" to type in some witty comment when living a great moment or having a flash of inspiration...but it's so much fun reading them...anyway, I digress.

Here's what I found this morning...haven't seen this news anywhere else though.


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)

Doubt Doubt Sprout...

Odéon_LeComptoir 4464

Maybe I'm just having my own personal political battle. The fundamental question is who could I serve better?

Again, I get this vivid image of being able to go incognito into the unsuspecting east side to bring back treasures to the west side. You figure it out, it has nothing to do with geography anymore. How much of this apparition has to do with a wider acceptance from the west side and a plus grande méfiance from the east side? Not sure. If it were the case, I could not get away with such easy undercover work. Maybe it just has to do with the act of writing, un point c'est tout. They all think I come from France anyway. How much weight is carried by simply being born somewhere? Automatic "membership", but once the verification process is undertaken, do I pass the examination? Sometimes I feel like such an impostor.

Maybe that's why I feel an affinity for Mavis Gallant. Quels sont les vestiges de mon identité? What kind of shape does my screen have?

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!