Often ignored as an invisible minority, Quebec's English?language writers are producing some of Canada's most innovative prose
WHERE DO THE English writers of Quebec belong on the literary map of Canada? This is not a trick question, though it may seem Eke one. Before answering it, consider the collection of French fiction from Quebec that appeared recently in English translation, Intimate Strangers: New Stories from Quebec,
edited by Matt Cohen and Wayne Grady.There is probably no one ?? certainly no one
in Quebec who is not pleased to see this published. But put yourself in the shoes of an English writer here for a moment. What does this book suggest about your place in the literary scheme of things? Searching for some explanation, perhaps you then read in the introduction about the linguistic frontier between English Canada and Quebec. What room does that leave for the linguistic minorities in Canada?
Just when you're about to decide this is an exceptional case, Geoff Hancock comes out with another admirable anthology of translations from the French, Invisible Fictions: Contemporary Stories from Quebec, and again the subtitle gives you pause. Shortly afterwards an article in Canadian Literature on "Language and Difference: Minority Writers in Quebec" catches your attention. Perhaps the English writers of Quebec will be acknowledged here. But this turns out to be a discussion ?? and it is a good and a worthwhile discussion ?? of those minority writers in Quebec who write in French. The only English writer discussed is David Fennario, and he's included because Balconville is a bilingual play.
Your curiosity piqued, on your next visit to Toronto you ask various individuals influential in literary circles ?? the kind of people who decide what gets published and who gets awards ?? about their views about the English writers in Quebec. "English?" comes the puzzled response. "You mean English, in Quebec?" Or, "Who is there?" After some thought one person will suggest, "There's Mordecai Richler, isn't there?" and another will say, "Bill Weintraub's still in Montreal, isn't he?"
It wouldn't surprise the writers who Eve in Quebec to hear this. When the names of the 10 "45? Below" English?Canadian novelists were announced a few years ago, they were supposed to represent all the regions of Canada except British Columbia. Various writers in British Columbia were understandably disgruntled. Nobody, however, bothered to acknowledge the omission of Quebec writers from the list.
Leonard Cohen thinks there's something romantic about the situation of English writers in Quebec these days, and romantic it may indeed be, but for many it has also been discouraging not so much because they can't get published as because of a lack of recognition. Vehicule publisher Simon Dardick considers the English writers of Quebec have become "invisible," and Guernica publisher and poet Antonio D'Alfonso speaks about "the solitude of silence."
Each writer may put it differently, but many of them view their situation in a similar fight. P. Scott Lawrence says many writers here have the feeling of being on a boat that's been cast adrift, and Sharon Sparling thinks that being an English writer in Quebec is like being a minister without portfolio. Gail Scott says the English writers here have as a group been badly treated, and that they fall between the cracks when grants are being handed out and conferences are being organized. Of course anyone wanting a Quebec writer is bound first of all to look for a French writer. But does that have to mean excluding the Anglos?
New writers everywhere have a way of feeling badly treated, and certainly no one wants to underrate the difficulties writers face elsewhere, but the situation of the English writers in Quebec is unique in Canada. The tide that swept money, business, and thousands of Anglos west to Ontario and beyond in the years immediately following the election of the first Parti Quebecois government in 1976 left English Quebec in a marginal position not only in the Quebec context but also, it has become clear, in the context of Canada.
An older, pre?Quiet Revolution Quebec had engaged the attention of such writers as Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, Constance Beresford?Howe, Joyce Marshall, and Brian Moore, and during the 1960s and early 1970s Canadian modernism in fiction emerged in the work of English writers in Quebec ?? Leonard Cohen, Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, Ray Smith, and Clark Blaise among them. But though a few of these writers still Eve here, the Quebec they wrote out of ?? and about ?? no longer exists.
There are still between 700,000 and 800,000 Anglos, depending on your definition, living in Quebec; they have undergone what the Montreal newspaper La Presse has called a "discreet revolution" in becoming Quebec's ?? and surely Canada's ?? most bilingual citizens and in coming to terms with French as the province's common and primary language. Their situation, however, is aptly summed up in the title of Ronald Rudin's recent history of English?speaking Quebec: The Forgotten Quebecers.
It is a situation used to comic effect by William Weintraub in his 1979 satiric novel The Underdogs, when he envisions the international press some day 20 years into the future discovering the plight of "the forgotten people." For some of the new English writers who have emerged in Quebec in the past few years, though, it has been no laughing matter.
Feeling ignored in English?Canadian literary circles, insufficiently recognized in Ottawa, and, since they write in English, excluded from the French literary world in Quebec, many of them have, in addition, suffered from the dearth of local outlets for their work. Apart from the short? lived Quadrant Editions, which was set up in 1980, there have been few English?language publishers with much interest in fiction by new writers.
Flowers do bloom in the desert. There has been an upsurge of literary activity here over the past few years, and the most dramatic and interesting recent developments involve fiction writers. Many of them ?? Ray Filip is one ?? feel it is a gift to be a writer in the English language in Quebec, and several of them have made their way regardless of circumstances and have no reason to feel discouraged. Edward 0. Phillips, who has published three delightfully comic novels of Westmount manners, has begun to make a spectacular career for himself. One of his novels, Buried on Sunday, won the 1986 Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction, and another, Sunday's Child, has been reprinted by St. Martin's Press in New York and is due out in a French translation this spring. Maurice Gagnon, who writes in both French and English, got fed up with unenthusiastic responses from Toronto, and sent his detective stories about Deirdre O'Hara to London where Collins now publishes them as part of the Totem Crime series. Other novelists who have reached an audience in the past few years include Sharon Sparling, Trevor Ferguson, T.F. Rigelhof, Keith Harrison, Martin Kevan, and Robert Allen. Figures like Hugh Hood, Donald Kingsbury, John Buell, Helene Holden, Ray Smith, H. Gordon Green, and Bernard Epps are still writing here too, as too ?? they were right! ?? are both Weintraub and Richler.
Gail Scott is one of the most exciting of the new writers. An anglophone living in a largely French milieu in Montreal ("In this city," she writes, "everyone is a minority"), she is influenced both by the realist tradition of English?Canadian women writers and by contemporary feminist ecriture in Quebec. In her 1982 collection Spare Parts and especially in her recent first novel, Heroine (both pubfished by Coach House Press), she uses apparently autobiographical elements to introduce into English?Canadian fiction a spiralling prose style that mixes the Quebecois feminist interest in language and syntax with an impressive intelligence and a clean, hard?edged quality of her own. The result is fiction that is poetic, formally selfreflexive, excruciatingly clear?sighted, and unlike any other work ?in English.
John Metcalf suggests that the isolation and neglect of the English writers in Quebec may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Certainly there are signs of uncommon energy in publishing that suggest the new writers here will bear watching. Along with the Journal of Canadian Fiction, which put out a special issue in 1980 on "Quebec Fiction: The English Fact," the little magazines that started up within the past eight or nine years ?? especially Matrix, Moosehead Review, and Rubicon ?? have been playing a vital role in the generally bleak literary scene. One encouraging sign is that in response to the pressing need for more outlets, two new little magazines ?? Zymergy and New Canadian Review ?? appeared during 1987. The more dramatic change is that no fewer than four publishers have within the past year started to put out works of fiction.
Poet and publisher Gary Geddes says the very existence of publishers in their midst may help to buoy writers up. His Cormorant Books, which has hitherto been publishing poetry (including new collections by Robert Allen and Robyn Sarah) recently released Souvenirs: New English Fiction from Quebec, edited by P. Scott Lawrence. This varied and promising collection includes the first pubfished story by a talented new writer, Stacey Larin, some vivid and moving work from Stephen Henighan, Sandy Wing, Brian Bartlett, and Miriam Packer, and nicely handled stories by Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, Roma Gelblum Bross, and Ann Diamond.
The proliferation of good work by women in this collection ?? Wanda Blynn Campbell and Yesim Ternar are others who might have been included ?? is itself remarkable in the context of earlier English writing from Quebec. While women are properly recognized as having been extraordinarily influential both in French? and in English?Canadian fiction generally, the interesting English writers that emerged in Quebec in the past ?? and who stayed here to write ?? have almost all been men.
Kenneth Radu is a new writer whose first collection, The Cost of Living, is the first fiction published by The Muses' Company. Fascinated with the ways in which people cope with the various disasters that befall them, Radu tells stories that are finely observed and sometimes breathtaking. His voice is precise and evocative, satiric and sensual, and it perfectly complements his extravagant imagination in such stories as "The Gardener," "Rosewood," and "Which Is the Way to Florence?" The Cost of Living is a bold and an impressive collection.
The two other publishers that have appeared on the scene are DC books ?? which is putting out The Restoration by Keith Henderson, a first novel set in Montreal during the referendum period ?and NuAge, a lively new outfit that published four books last summer, including a collection of linked stories by Lesley Battler titled The Polar Bear Express.
One of the surest signs of new vitality in the English literary scene in Quebec is a series of readings hosted by Dan Daniels and held on Wednesday evenings over the past year at the Yellow Door Coffee House on Aylmer Street in Montreal. No organization, no institutions, no grants ?? just people of all ages and backgrounds and cultures gathering together and willing to pay $2.00 each to crowd into a basement room and listen to stories and poems in English by local writers. The dozens of writers who read there are creating a new place on the literary map of Canada. As Daniels says, "We are Quebec too.