FIERY CREATIVITY has characterized Jovette Marchessault's near-quarter-century artistic career as a painter, sculptor, novelist, and playwright. In Like a Child of the Earth (1975) and its sequel, Mother of the Grass (1980), both translated from the French by Yvonne M. Klein and published by Talonbooks, she has expanded the boundaries of autobiographical fiction to include mythic and visionary experiences, polemics, history, and sociology. In dramatic productions that celebrate women writers and artists - the most recent of which, The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr, won her the 1990 Governor General's Award for drama - she has played fast and loose with realism and chronology to arrive at her own truths.
Marchessault's own "magnificent voyage" encompasses Native and Quebecois roots and an overarching cosmopolitan culture; astral and earthly travel; radical feminism and New Age utopianism. Her fiction is lyrical and heartfelt, her drama literary, allusive, and absolutely original. As for her conversation, it ranges dizzyingly from Madame Blavatsky and the 19th-century Theosophists, swoops by the Hebrew Kabbalah and Zohar, soars to Tibetan Buddhism, and alights prosaically on the possibility of Kim Campbell steering Canada out of its constitutional travails to a much-needed reconciliation.
At 55, Jovette Marchessautt has come a long, long way from the 13-year-old child who quit grade eight and found her first job in a diaper service ("You could have cut that smell with a knife into thick slices," she wrote in Mother of the Grass.) Her Amerindian- inspired "telluric" masks, sculptures, drawings, and frescoes have been exhibited at galleries in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Paris, and Brussels (two of her frescoes illustrate the cover of Mary Meigs's novel The Medusa Head.) Her plays have been performed in Montreal, Sherbrooke, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, and New York.
But she bristles a bit when, all in admiration, I call her an autodidact. We are sitting in Mary Meigs's sun-drenched living room in Westmount where Marchessault has driven in to meet me from Kingsbury, Quebec, the hamlet that has been her home for the past 10 years. Meigs, the Philadelphiaborn artist and author whose wise and beautiful account of the making of the NFB documentary The Company of Strangers won the 1992 QSPELL (Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature) Prize for non-fiction, is a close friend of Marchessault's. In
Kingsbury, they are also neighbours.
"It was Mary who helped me discover my place, 1'Etang-aux-Oies [the Goose Pond, in Kingsbury]. She is the godmother of the place - the spiritual mother - of this place of meditation, beauty, and calm. In a certain sense, she has given me the place where I feel good on the Earth ... a matchless gift."
Yes, she grants me, it is as an autodidact that she has explored the meaning of things. "But I had the best foundation in the world!"
And we begin to talk of Marchessault's own great spiritual mother, whose soul animates both Like a Child of the Earth and Mother of the Grass, and of whose death even 24 years later Marchessault still cannot speak with equanimity.
"My grandmother," Marchessault wrote in Like a Child of the Earth,
was born somewhere between Quebec City and Riviere-du-Loup ... between a December's winter night and a wood stove, cold, white rivers and frozen lakes, chocked with ice. Her mother was an Indian woman and her father a settler from Normandy.
She was an extraordinary woman, possessing the strength and brilliance of molten metal. Rebellious, artistic, musical, and deeply knowledgeable about Native lore, Louisa Marchessault transmitted to the child Jovette her enthusiasms and interests.
And Marchessault wanted to be a writer from her earliest days. "My mother had baptized me 'Jovette,'" she tells me. "There was a celebrated author in Quebec at the time by the name of Jovette [-Alice] Bernier whom my mother admired. She had, in some way, given me an author's first name! And my grandmother pushed me towards writing, too."
"In those days, we lived beside the river," begins Mother of the Grass. "Those days" were the late '30s and early '40s, days of hardship and poverty.
We were my grandmother, my mother, my father, and my grandmother's second husband. We lived as a tribe, in a great congregation of nerve cells and blood cells .... In the days I am talking about, all I had to do was put my ear up against their heads to hear the murmuring of the little hope-eroding worms inside.
Two things alleviated the penury and deprivation of Marchessault's early years in the slums of Montreal's inner-city Plateau Mont Royal. One was the time spent "by the river" in the semi-rural ambience of Bout de 1'Isle, Montreal's easternmost comer. The other was the spiritual oasis of the world of books, to which her grandmother introduced her at an early age. Every Friday evening, Jovette waited expectantly by the bus stop for her grandmother to come home from work, sometimes rooted to the spot for more than an hour because traffic was so slow. And every Friday night, Louisa would get off the bus and hand the child a book.
"I don't know by what extraordinary magic she did it - for she had no education herself, but she brought me the best books in the world! The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and Kipling. To read Jane Eyre at eight or nine years old! The whole world: Kipling, it was the Earth! Jules Verne, it was all of space!"
Travel on Earth and in space has continued to be an important theme for Marchessault. ("Riding in the body of a greyhound, I was going to appropriate the Native American land. I was going to stamp the marks of my wheels and tires upon a confusion of tracks -to annex it to myself!" "In an old story my grandmother told me..., I heard that like atoms of fire, the children of the stars meet by appointment in order to restore the brilliance of the world." In fact, to read her account of how she came into the world, Jovette Marchessault dived from the heavens "like a spit from the sun.")
Though she dreamed of becoming a writer, she would not write for many years. A succession of dreary jobs followed the one in the diaper service: factory work in the garment industry, then a series of clerical posts that culminated in the position of assistant credit manager at the Grolier encyclopedia company. Throughout, she read voraciously and travelled far and wide.
But, as long as her grandmother was alive, Marchessault did not create. "I could only admire her, and say how marvellous! She was a pianist, a feminist, artistic. I couldn't see how I could be like her myself "
When her grandmother died of cancer at age 77, Marchessault was 3 1. Devastated by the loss, she suffered a personal crisis. "I had been too afraid to risk my financial security. I saw I had to look after myself and fulfil my artistic potential."
DID NOT SCAN PAGE 29
heartfelt, they reclaim Marchessault's Native heritage and subtly link the oppression of Native people with the historical stifling of women's creativity.
The books were at first rejected by several publishing houses because of their violent anti-Catholicism, explicit lesbian consciousness, and championing of the plight of battered children.
All the fathers had erections in the course of the whirlwind-cyclone, their little girls' floods of tears, their reddened skin, their humiliation, their agony; they took the time to have an erection. They had hard-ons in their heads and came while beating their children,
she wrote in Mother of the Grass, which was finally published by Quinze as La Mere des herbes. Lemeac published Le Crachat solaire, and has brought out several of her plays.
"In 1978, 1979 when I submitted this book, there were publishers who said battered children did not exist. In 1800, yes, in 1700, yes, but not now."
The systematic beatings she writes of are not autobiographical per se, but describe the experience of the children among whom she grew up. "I got my spankings. Spankings for nothing, in my opinion. Because I think they were too severe. But compared to the others, no. Because with the others, it was every night. Or at least three, four, or even five times a week. That's like a concentration camp, that's like torture!"
IN AN interview with Julie Stanton in the French magazine Chatelaine (June, 198 1), Marchessault spoke of having a "lesbian imagination." Beginning with Night Cows, the second monologue of her Lesbian Triptych (Women's Press, 1979) and the first of her works to be presented in the theatre- on International Women's Day in 1979 -Marchessault's passionate espousal of women's lot, women's history, and women's creativity entered a new stage.
As Linda Gaboriau (who recently translated Marchessault's play about Emily Carr into English) wrote in Canadian Theatre Review (Spring 1985),
She [Marchessault] was immediately seduced by the power of a public forum where women's voices could be heard, literally and figuratively, by a larger and more varied audience than that usually reached by the smaller literary presses that tend to publish new work by women. She also found the flesh and blood embodiment of her work particularly fulfilling.
Switching full time to writing for the stage, Marchessault produced a cycle of four plays, in quick succession, about the lives of women writers. Perhaps the most riveting of these was The Saga of the Wet Hens (originally performed at Montreal's Theatre du Nouveau Monde by the stellar cast of Andree Lachapelle, Charlotte Boisjoli, Amulette Garneau, and Monique Mercure, current director of the National Theatre School). Steeped in rich imagery and taking enormous liberties with the biographical facts, the play staged a mythical encounter between four Quebec women writers: Laure Conan, Germaine Guevremont, Gabrielle Roy, and Anne Hebert. Other plays in the cycle treated the lives of Anais Nin, Violette Leduc, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
When I ask her if she has abandoned the novel form, Marchessault points to her 1987 novel, Les Cailloux blancs pour les forets obscures (White Pebbles in the Dark Forests, Talonbooks, 1990), and says she has another novel in mind down the road. But writing for the theatre, she observes practically, "is also a way of earning my living - because my plays are performed regularly. And I love so very much to write for the theatre," she laughs heartily, "in the same way as breathing, or eating a plate of pasta, or a pound of chocolates!"
She has moved beyond the stage of the "lesbian imagination" she spoke of a dozen years ago. "I think I am more nuancee than that now. I don't even know if I had a lesbian imagination then. I think I had a woman's imagination. I think there is a real difference in our imaginations. That difference is even greater if you are a femme evoluee, who is not a femme arretee and full of prejudice."
Moving towards a greater universality and an ever-deepening spiritualism, she began a new cycle of plays in 1988, "a cycle of reconciliation between mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. And of prophecy, as well. Of imagining something new. When one speaks of what there has been and what there is now, it is with an infinite sadness. As much for men as for women."
This cycle of three plays, of which two have already been completed and performed but are as yet untranslated, includes Demande de travail sur les nebuleuses (1988) and Le Lion de Bangor (1993). A utopian piece set on the eve of the 2 1st century, Demande de travail explores relationships in a nuclear family and looks toward the day, in the words of the mother, "When we will know everything. All will be said. All tears will be dried, all the bowed backs will straighten."
In Le Lion de Bangor Marchessault takes pride in having created "a man who is positive and beautiful, who makes mistakes but still gets up after them and spreads love about him - there is nothing like this in Quebecois theatre and in fact in contemporary theatre altogether." (The play was performed in Sherbrooke in the spring of 1993 and will be restaged in Montreal this month.)
And, in The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr, she consciously fashioned the character of the Soul Tuner, "Emily's guardian angel," as a male figure. The themes of reconciliation and of a spiritual journey in this play are particularly strong, with Marchessault merrily departing from historical reality in her trademark manner.
"I don't work in naturalistic theatre, my plays don't take place in the kitchen as you wash the dishes, or in the bedroom. I can be by the seashore and in the stars and anywhere! So I can take all sorts of liberties and take all sorts of pleasure in imagining things. So it's my Emily Carr!"
Lest this sound like lightweight dilettantism, it isn't. Marchessautt's research can take years. For decades, she has been reading the works of her next subject, Helena Blavatsky, the Russian emigree who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, whom Marchessault calls "the greatest magician who ever lived." Similarly, Emily Carr has fascinated her since she discovered her art in
the early 1970s. Ideas may percolate slowly over decades, and when it comes to crafting them into literature, Marchessault works painstakingly.
"I start all over, and then I start all over again. I tabour and I tabour, I redo, there's so many ideas that come - but they're not the real thing."
The present piece she is working on, called Lazar de Miramichi, will be the third play of her cycle about heating the gender rift. Set in a leper house on Sheldrake Island in Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick, she calls it "an absolutely marvellous love story." Like all of her work, of course, it is not a conventional love story but "a kind of large metaphor for the planet and for the human condition."
Even for someone like me, with little tolerance for New Age mysticism, Marchessault's breadth of vision can be exhilarating. Touches of earthbound humour leaven all her writing. Her openness to new ideas - sometimes complete reversals in thinking - astonishes and impresses. The next century, she tells me, will see the reign of the spirit and of fathers.
I observe drily that these fathers will presumably be very different from many of today's fathers.
"Oh, these are little boys in comparison! They will grow, they will find their place. It will be quite extraordinary... The future of humanity does not lie in misogyny or in feminism. The life of humanity is a reconciliation between men and women."
I remain sceptical about the possibility of such monumental changes occurring in such a short time. After all, the next century is already breathing down our necks.
But then I think of all the publishers who turned Marchessault down less than 20 years ago because they said there were no battered children in our time.
"If I perceive this," she says with absolute conviction, "it's because it's there. It's in the air.