“I’ve been reading Quebec literature since the 1980s. I can tell when I’ve found a voice that I resonate with, when something is really beautiful or when it’s just trash.” Georgetown University Professor Miléna Santoro picks her favourite Quebec writers and showcases some of the region's best contemporary fiction and poetry translated from the original French.
I was surprised to find Georgetown had a Quebec studies specialist. What drew you to this field?
Your question is pertinent because I’m an anglophone from the west coast of Canada, so it wasn’t obvious I was going to end up in French. I had an amazing French teacher in high school; she’d give up her lunch hours to have conversations with us.
I started in the sciences, and did French on the side because I enjoyed it. But after a year of spending hours and hours on topics that I found less than passionately exciting and yet finding whole days to spend on French essays where I didn’t notice time passing, I got the message that maybe French was where I wanted to be. I declared a French major in my second year and spent my third year at McGill doing transfer studies there. That was really unusual—certainly in Canada they didn’t have study abroad programs at the time I was an undergraduate.
I knew I wanted to go to a place where French was spoken, and I did a year in France as an English language teaching assistant. They have this great program, Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) that still exists, where you can spend a year teaching in the French school system. They get teaching assistants from all over Europe for the different languages.
I was applying for graduate school and I didn’t seriously consider Quebec at that point, but it was an idea that I had in my back pocket. Mostly, I was thinking of studying Victor Hugo. I really liked his novels. He’s amazing. Princeton gave me the best offer and when I went there, I discovered that there was this great professor named Karen McPherson (who has just retired from the University of Oregon). We got to talking over coffee. She had done her PhD at Yale in part on Quebec women writers and I said, ‘We could do a reading course on Quebec women writers!’
And she said, ‘Great! You do the research, you decide who you want to read and I’ll get it through the administration.’ Which we did: we read 14 novels in 14 weeks and I never looked back. It was a complete revelation because even as much as I love Victor Hugo, it’s really hard to put yourself in the skin of Jean Valjean. For me, discovering these women writers who were talking about women’s experiences gave me this amazing feeling of having found my people, having found my place, having found my voice. And the book that really did it for me was Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert. It just completely blew my mind.
“As much as I love Victor Hugo, it’s really hard to put yourself in the skin of Jean Valjean”
I ended up doing a thesis that compared avant-garde French women’s novels with avant-garde Quebec women’s novels from the period of feminism’s effervescence in the mid to late 1970s. That’s when I started looking for a job in Quebec Studies. It took me five years before I won the lottery and found the job at Georgetown. I’ve been here since 1996: 23 years. So, that was my intellectual trajectory.
The first Quebec Studies conference I ever attended was the biennial conference of the American Council for Quebec Studies. That community of people immediately became my family. They welcomed me in even though I was a graduate student with no credentials and very little knowledge. The Association is all disciplines combined: you have political scientists, geographers, historians. The literary group was more or less run by a group of five women scholars who everybody called ‘the Frenchettes’, and they took me under their wing. They really gave me that lift to pursue my passion for Quebec.
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Ever since their example, I’ve put a lot of stock in continuing that sense of community, welcoming in new faces, new voices and giving back to the community in the leadership roles I’ve had, which have included positions on the board of ACSUS, which is the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, and most recently the International Association for Quebec studies, L’AIEQ, of which I was President until May of last year.
It’s been a wonderful journey. It’s a privilege to be able to teach Quebec studies at Georgetown University, with amazing students who are eager to learn about this relatively neglected and poorly understood corner of the Francophone world.
I was born in Quebec but moved to the US when I was six, and I feel somewhat estranged from my home country. Many of the characters in the books you’ve recommended are themselves estranged, so I felt very connected to the stories.
But before we talk about your choices, I asked you to limit your recommendations to books that have been translated into English. Would you like to make any recommendations of untranslated books for a possible translator who might be reading this interview?
We’re lucky that a lot of the masterworks of the Quebec literary canon have been translated. Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute was a major international success back in the 40s. Throughout the 60s and the 70s a lot of the major authors whose names are canonical have become well known in translation—Michel Tremblay, Marie-Claire Blais, even Jacques Poulin, who is a little bit more recent. His book, Volkswagen Blues, really transcends borders, both in the plot of the story and the way he frames his multicultural mixing of an adventurer and his sidekick. Frontier fiction, Westerns as a genre, and the role of French explorers all play into it.
Volkswagen Blues teaches you something about US history even as it teaches you something about Quebec’s relationship to its place in the American space. It’s a great novel for anyone who wants to get a flavour for how Quebec sees itself with respect to its North American situation.
We’re lucky that a lot of these amazing earlier novels have had a voice in English as well as in French, but there are certainly neglected writers among that group. One of them is Madeleine Gagnon. She’s principally known as a poet and has won the Governor General’s Award, but she’s written a few prose texts. Her book, Le Vent Majeur, is a really beautiful novel. It has been translated, but the translation is virtually impossible to find and I think it probably should be retranslated. Her compendium of poetry came out relatively recently and should be translated for sure.
Another poet who has written prose and whose poetry often resembles prose is René Lapierre. Only one of his books has been translated, the one he won the Governor General’s Award for; it’s called For the Despairing Alone. That was translated by Donald Winkler in 2017. But some of his earlier work is really incredible. There is a group of essays Ecrire L’Amérique, (‘Writing America’) which reflect on Quebec’s place in the Americas. Somebody’s got to translate it—it is so good.
Then there’s a whole crop of new writers who are just not well enough known, but who are getting nominated for prizes. One of them is the rapper from Loco Locass: Biz. His real name is Sébastien Fréchette. He’s written maybe six novels. None that I could find have been translated, although one has been made into a film, The Fall of Sparta (La Chute de Sparte). As a rapper he’s got a gritty sensibility but a really interesting command of language. Biz should definitely be translated by somebody sometime soon.
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Then there are writers who have a very spotty translation record but whose works should all be translated, like Louise Dupré, who we are going to talk about in a minute. She is principally known as a poet and her Governor General Award-winning poetry sequence was called Plus haut que les flammes. It’s about a grandmother trying to imagine explaining to her grandchild that he will grow up in a world that allowed the Holocaust, after she has experienced visiting Auschwitz. It’s incredibly moving stuff and it has been translated into English, but her autobiographical novel about the death of her mother, L’Album multicolore, has not yet been translated and it’s extraordinary. I taught it last semester and my students adored it.
Everybody adores Louse Dupré. She’s so attentive to the quotidian detail that somehow takes on this kind of intimacy and sensual magic in her writing. So that’s a big hole in the availability in English of her works. There are so many more but hopefully one or two of these suggestions will lead to future translations . . .
It seems to me to be getting better in Canada—are they translating more French Canadian literature?
As far back as I can remember, it always has been a thing because there’s government funding for it. If you look at the Governor General’s Awards, the prize for translation has been there for a really long time. Translation is a recognized and encouraged and federally funded practice in Canada.
That said, the problem is always distribution. Books are published by small publishing houses with limited distribution networks, so very often, really great novels in translation don’t make it south of the border. Amazon is maybe changing that.
What do you think sets Quebec literature apart from English Canadian and American literature? Quebec has always inhabited this special place, wedged between two English cultures. How does it differentiate itself?
I completely agree with your characterization of Quebec as a place apart, a culture apart, a language apart. Certainly, the language is a big piece of the identity puzzle that makes Quebec literature something special. For many years, it was the place of affirmation of identity and of self. Up until the 1980s, it was very much about the historical opposition between what were then called ‘the two founding cultures’ of Canada—though now we know there are more than two: First Nations authors are starting to publish amazing things as well. But that’s another story.
Most of the major names in Quebec fiction were mining that vein of Quebec’s identity politics and what made it different from English Canada. It was also about opposition and a strange sort of attraction/repulsion to the United States.
For example, in the 1970s Jacques Godbout wrote Une Histoire américaine. His protagonist goes down to the United States, to California and has what can only be characterized as a very American experience of the prison system there. He then heads back to Quebec at the end of the story. That is often the trajectory of the characters in novels from that period: they’ll have an incursion into the United States, and then end up back in Quebec. They’ve got to go back to their roots; they don’t stay stateside.
“Some of the major best-selling authors in Quebec were not originally born in Quebec”
Then, what happens in the 80s and 90s that really explodes the boundaries is a tendency called ‘migrant literature.’ It appears with writers from other places choosing to write in French and publish in Quebec. So you’ve got a French writer like Régine Robin, who publishes La québécoite in 1981. The title itself resonates with the question: ‘What is Québécois?’ She’s wrestling with the fact she’s in this francophone place, but her French is not like their French. She’s also Jewish, so that plays into the story as well. She’s comparing Montreal as the metropolis against Paris as the metropolis and the Jewish communities in both cities. It’s fascinating.
There’s also Ying Chen, who is originally from China. There’s a whole group of writers from other places who start writing in French and who explode that Quebec dyed-in-the-wool identity and start to show how truly cosmopolitan, multicultural (and not always happily so) Montreal is, as a space and a place in which to build one’s life or community anew. That tendency has reinforced itself over time up to today, such that some of the major best-selling authors in Quebec were not originally born in Quebec. Two of the authors on my list are not Quebec-born authors, and three of the stories are not set entirely in Quebec.
Let’s start with your first book, which is by one of those authors, Vietnam-born Kim Thúy. It seems to me the most famous of the books you’ve chosen, because I had heard about it before. It’s called Mãn (2014).
Jack Yeager, who is a specialist in Vietnamese Canadian literature, says it’s pronounced mahn: there’s a pronunciation that you can’t quite get if your ear is not attuned. Kim Thúy is not the first Vietnamese francophone writer in Canada, but she is certainly is the most well-known, the one who’s had the most meteoric rise to fame.
She was a refugee: her family came as boat people in the late 1970s. She has had several careers: she was a lawyer, she ran a restaurant. She had several incarnations before she decided to become a writer. She came to Georgetown last September and everybody fell in love with her because she such an exceptional presence. She’s so ebullient as person, with so much energy and joy. And her fiction has that kind of energy as well.
What I find most interesting about her writing is that it draws on that clash of cultures and somehow finds a place within her main characters to resolve or work through the culture shock of arriving in Quebec, and then trying to make your way and find out who you are in that new space and that new language.
Mãn is her second novel. It’s really a beautiful story about a woman who has three mothers, only one of whom is her biological mother. But that’s not the one she calls mother. Eventually, the one she calls mother arranges marriage for her with somebody who’s already emigrated to Quebec. She goes there and joins her husband in his restaurant business.
One of the joys of this novel is that you get insights into the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine and all of the affect that goes into the food’s preparation, its presentation, its cultural valences. On top of that, it’s this amazing story of a woman—who had no expectation of being anybody—actually becoming somebody, having a career and eventually finding love in an extraordinary way.
“It’s magical because it ends up making you feel like you learn her vocabulary for identity”
It’s an enchanting novel, but it’s also fascinating because she chooses to write it like a dictionary with the Vietnamese word and the English (or French) translation in the margins of these fragments of text. From these fragments, she constructs a narrative that jumps sometimes between past and present, and here and there. It’s magical because it ends up making you feel like you learn her vocabulary for identity. I hope that people who pick this book up will not be put off by the fact that it looks like it’s fragmentary, because in the end, it weaves together a really beautiful story where food is a metaphor for love.
Most of these books you’ve chosen are written in fragments.
All but one.
Is this a popular stylistic choice in contemporary Quebec literature?
There’s a wide variety of styles available. There’s genre fiction, which reads like genre fiction from just about anywhere, sometimes with a Quebec twist. Louise Penny lives in Montreal and is this amazingly successful detective novel writer. She writes in English and there’s a Quebec flavor even to what she does. So, there are novelists who write in very traditional or conventional ways.
But I think Quebec has always had, perhaps by virtue of its difference and its place in North America, a complex relationship to the normative narrativity that it sees going on around it. In its films and its novels, you’ll quite often find a contrariness and refusal to conform to expectations. Sometimes they are linguistic expectations, in terms of the level of language: for a while, it was the fashion to write in street slang or joual. That was a protest, an identity gesture as well.
“The willingness to experiment with form comes from the willingness to break with convention”
But even in terms of the structure of the novel, if you look back to the 1970s, a lot of women writers were exploding generic boundaries. They weren’t writing pure fiction: they were writing fiction theory, or poetic fiction. And I think that the willingness to experiment with form comes from the willingness to break with convention. There’s a history of that in Quebec fiction and in Quebec culture more generally. They are somewhat iconoclastic in their more striking incarnations.
For example, Larry Tremblay’s L’Orangeraie (translated as The Orange Grove), is a novel which is an extraordinarily limpid fable, almost, of twin brothers who are caught up in war, and who, in a tragically Greek or Shakespearean manner, end up substituting one for the other: one must die and one survives. So you get that tragic element, but the novel is not constructed in a simple way, because by the end you discover that the events are transformed into a play. There’s a breaking of the boundaries between theatre and the novel. Larry Tremblay does that because he himself is a dramatist: his principal writing is for the theatre and he’s an actor.
He’s also an adept of kathakali, which is an Indian dance style. He has a great sensitivity to crossing cultural boundaries that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. This novel is a story set in the war-torn Middle East, where you’ve got to take sides. You can’t remain neutral. Yet he’s born and raised in Quebec.
I don’t think he’s ever lived in the Middle East, although he may have visited. But because of the global imaginary that Quebec literature now has, there are no boundaries to the topics that the writers can tackle if they feel called to do so. Really, it’s about the human experience and the fact that they can transcend the local and reach that level of universal. I think that speaks to another characteristic of Quebec literature: to be open to the world, to be hospitable at a very fundamental level and open to the other.
I see both things going on: historically, a very strong sense of being anchored, but also a very open sense of adventure and a willingness to cross boundaries. Monique LaRue, who is a novelist herself, wrote an essay called “L’Arpenteur et le navigateur”, where she postulated that there are these two competing characteristics of the Quebec soul. One is the stay-at-home surveyor, measuring his terrain, cultivating his land, and is rooted; the other is this adventurer who goes out and charts the unknown.
I like that, because one of my perceptions of Quebec is that it is somewhat provincial. It’s somewhat inward-looking.
It can be.
Particularly with the politics right now. It’s almost borderline nationalistic.
As are many other places, I’m sorry to say. It’s not an exception in that particular contemporary political tendency.
But all these books are outward-looking, cosmopolitan almost. Tremblay does this in The Orange Grove and in Suzanne (the French title is La Femme qui fuit, the woman who flees), the author does that too. Let’s talk about that book next.
It’s an amazing novel. It’s still on the bestseller list in Quebec several years after it came out.
It takes place in Quebec. It’s grounded in Quebecois history—and I had to look up a lot of stuff—but then she goes to Harlem.
Yes, and she participates in the Black Panthers scene and recalls the the artistic community during the Harlem Renaissance in New York.
To understand Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, you have to understand those two principles that Monique LaRue talks about in her essay: at one and the same time having an intense feeling of belonging to a certain place and a certain history, but also a feeling of ‘appartenance’, a sense of affinity with other places and other peoples, particularly other peoples in America who have felt oppressed.
For many years, the population which at that time called itself ‘French Canadian’ felt like they were being dominated and oppressed by not only the English language-speaking majority in Canada, but also the overwhelming English language-speaking majority in North America. So much so that in the 1960s, during the Quiet Revolution, which saw so many social changes, some radical Quebec intellectuals thought that Quebecers were the “white n*****s of America.” That’s the title of Pierre Vallière’s famous manifesto, Nègres blancs d’Amérique. Now, obviously one can deconstruct that and contest it.
But I think it’s that affinity with other oppressed peoples that means in many instances that there is an openness to the other which would otherwise be surprising. In the instance of Suzanne, we’re talking about a woman who participated in one of the most influential avant-gardes of the 20th century in Quebec: this is 1949, the period that is called the ‘La Grande Noirceur’ or ‘great darkness.’ It’s a period of very conservative politics and religious pervasiveness and Catholic teaching in Quebec society. And this group of artists decides that they want to free themselves from all of those constraints. They want spontaneity. They very much feel an affinity with the surrealists in France.
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This is a semi-autobiographical novel about the grandmother of Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, who participated in this movement. In Suzanne’s search for freedom and the ideals that this group was all about, she abandons her children and goes elsewhere on various adventures over the course of her life and never reconnects with her family. ‘Suzanne’ is Suzanne Meloche and she’s the woman who flees, who runs away. The mother is, of course, damaged by this, and the granddaughter also inherits this ever-present feeling of absence of the grandmother figure.
After Suzanne dies, the granddaughter Anaïs goes in search of who this woman was. It’s really fascinating that born out of this very autobiographical story of abandonment and the suffering that that caused and then the desire to reconnect with one’s roots, we have this exceptional novel that fills in the gaps of a story that can never be fully told or fully understood—and that really does encompass the history of Quebec, and its place in North America more broadly.
It speaks to your earlier comment about writers in Quebec often having to leave to understand themselves and Quebec’s place in North America.
The other thing I wanted to say about this novel is that it encapsulates the very obvious tendency in Quebec literature of the past few decades to play with the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. So much so that that a whole literary terminology has grown up around this hybrid genre called ‘autofiction.’
Of these five, at least three of the novels deal with that fluid boundary between autobiography and fiction including Kim Thúy’s Mãn, where there are elements of her own story that inform the trajectory of her fictional protagonist, and also clearly in Suzanne. This is a novel grounded in a real family history. And also Dany Laferrière’s L’Énigme du retour (The Enigma of the Return), which is another really powerful boundary-crossing “novel.” It takes the novel form and transforms it into poetry and prose poetry.
Why did you choose this novel in particular?
I could have chosen almost any book by Dany Laferrière, going back to the 1980s when he published Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer, which is the shocking sort of title which launched his career. He’s never lost that humour and that ribald way of poking fun at uptight Anglo and Franco morals.
But the reason why I chose this one in particular is because I feel that in this novel, he is a writer in full possession of his talent. He is a virtuoso in the way he weaves together his own personal story of exile from Haiti—or his father’s story of exile from Haiti, his mother is still there—with the whole political aspect of the successive Duvalier regimes, which caused the Haitian diaspora to come into existence beginning in the 70s and 80s.
Also, it comprises all of the cultural layers that make him the writer that he is, beginning (most fundamentally) with Aimé Césaire and his powerful poem of blackness, of return to the native country, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Césaire is the literary forefather who parallels the biological father whose loss Dany Laferrière talks about in this book.
His use of poetry is not entirely groundbreaking because Réjean Ducharme wrote The Daughter of Christopher Columbus entirely in verse. (The French original was published in 1969. Will Browning’s translation was published in 2000.) But he does it in such a fresh and beautiful way. There are passages in this book that are so rich. The story of the suitcase, for example. He goes to try and collect this briefcase that his father left in a safe deposit box after his father passes away. They don’t succeed in opening it because it’s locked with a code they can’t figure out so they have to leave the bank without this inheritance. And the lines are:
Mes oncles comme hébétés devant la porte d’acier. Et moi plutôt léger de n’avoir pas à porter un tel poids. La valise des rêves avortés.
My uncles stand in disbelief
in front of the iron door.
I feel light
not having to carry such weight.
The suitcase of aborted dreams.
He’s the lighter for not having to carry the “suitcase of aborted dreams.” But he carries it anyway. The whole book is that briefcase of dreams. It’s so powerful and so beautifully written. At the end, he has these lines:
La vie langoureuse, d’avant Colomb. Pas trop sûr d’être dans un temps réel en m’avançant vers ce paysage longtemps rêvé.
The sweet life before Columbus.
I’m not so sure whether
I am in real time
as I move toward
this dreamed landscape.
So, the dreams are still there, even though at the beginning he seems to have escaped their weight. It’s a beautiful book and I hope more people read it because it’s worth it. It’s a story of exile and love and longing and literature all combined.
There’s a political undercurrent in this book—as there is in all of these books. The Orange Grove, especially, which feels very contemporary. Let’s talk about Memoria by Louise Dupré next.
Did you love it? Isn’t it gorgeous?
I shouldn’t say which book I liked best, but this was my favourite. When I first picked it up, I thought it was a little too sentimental, but it draws you in—and she writes beautifully. This is also the oldest of your choices.
I kind of snuck it in. I set myself, as a limit, the last 20 years of Quebec literature and what I could choose that presented different currents and different voices. The translation of this one came out in 1999, although the novel itself is from before then. I’ve known Louise personally since my grad student days and this was her first novel.
“Do we ever understand abandonment?”
When I read it, it blew me away. It just describes a woman’s experience of being abandoned and trying to rebuild her life after that abandonment, in the most sensitive, kind and yet starkly painful terms. There’s some magic that she’s able to create in the way she turns small details into really big deals. So, this story that starts out as a story of loss and trying to recover from that becomes something so much more.
She starts out with the question, ‘Do we ever understand abandonment?’ And she ends up, through the way her main character, Emma, meeting an older woman, being taught an important lesson about hanging onto the past and about things we can’t do anything about and that we can’t ever really comprehend. I wanted to try and find that that part where she’s talking with Madame Girard.
This is the woman whose husband committed suicide?
Yes, exactly. She says, ‘You have to accept even if you don’t understand.’ The novel is about her learning to accept even though she doesn’t understand. There are a lot places in the narrative of this novel—which is relatively conventional, especially when you compare it to some of the others—where you think, ‘Oh my goodness, how is she going to deal with this?’ And yet she ends up in a place where she’s able to accept something that very few people could accept—which is to adopt your dead sister’s child. That child has been brought up in another country and in other language—because the sister fled to another country—and yet she has the generosity and openness of spirit not only to get there, but to welcome it, to undo the abandonment by an acceptance of the other.
It’s sentimental, but not in a syrupy way at all—in a beautiful, literary way. There’s so many passages that I just adore in this book.
For example, at the end of chapter 15, there is the passage where she writes:
Avec le temps, il y a des douleurs qui s’apaisent, des ruines qui peuvent accueillir la lumière, des histoires qui n’ont pas le même dénouement. Ce n’est pas de l’oubli pourtant, une tache jaune balaie la fenêtre, mais on ne voit pas venir l’automne comme auparavant.
Or in English:
Some grief will ease as time goes by, some ruins can receive light, some stories have an unexpected ending. It isn’t as though we forget, a patch of yellow still sweeps across the window but we don’t see the coming of autumn as we used to.
It’s so breathtakingly beautiful. It’s about learning to see differently, and I actually think that that’s the magic of Quebec literature for me and for my students: when they read these books they learn to see differently.
In what way do you see differently?
Because I see echoes of my own experience transformed through the eyes of another, transformed through another language. Transformed through another cultural experience with which I nonetheless have affinities, and in which I am nonetheless grounded. The magic is that my students can feel that too, even though they don’t have the baggage that I do.
“It shakes them out of their self-centeredness, their solipsistic idea of what being a North American is. And it also reminds them of the beauty and humanity which transcends all of our differences”
I’ve been reading Quebec literature since the 1980s. I can tell when I’ve found a voice that I resonate with, when something is really beautiful or when it’s just trash. They obviously are getting the benefit of my experience, because I’m choosing for them what I want them to read. But these voices are able to draw them in. They’re just different enough.
It’s like taking one step to the left—and all of a sudden your perspective gets changed. They see their own reality both reflected and refracted by these other pairs of eyes who live in the same North American space, who have similar cultural baggage, but not exactly the same, and hold up a mirror to the American experience that is just not quite exactly what they’re expecting. In many instances, it shakes them out of their self-centeredness, their solipsistic idea of what being a North American is. And it also reminds them of the beauty and humanity which transcends all of our differences.
In most of the books that I’ve talked to you about there is always a reaching for beauty, even in the most horrific circumstances. Even in a war zone, with the The Orange Grove, there are passages of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary love. And that’s something we can all relate to.
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