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Not pure laine but sans-mitaines
Tell me, will you, who wrote these three passages:
1. "As the airplane approached Montreal late yesterday evening, I was overcome with dizziness. Because of the lights. Because of the splendid lights of North America. The lights that we don't have at home."
2. "If immigration was a good thing, it wouldn't be left to poor people like our parents and ourselves."
3. "It's so cold this morning that they ought to give a bonus to the immigrants who decide to stay."
Relatively recent arrivals to Canada, you say? Dead on. But if you're also assuming that the quotes were originally written in English, you're dead wrong.
The three quotations were all first published in French, and their authors are among the growing number of writers from other places who are now based in Quebec and are writing in the language of Voltaire. Quote 1 is taken from Ying Chen's epistolary novel Les lettres chinoises ; Quote 2, from Marco Micone's play Addolorata; and Quote 3, from Dany Laferrière's L'année de la dérive douce (A Drifting Year). (1 and 3 are my translations.)
It may be news to you that there exists a thriving Francophone literature in Quebec which has its roots in sensibilities other than traditional French or English Quebec culture. As Ray Conlogue, the Globe and Mail's culture writer in Quebec, wrote last summer: "To listen to some of the more crackpot voices in the English-Canadian media, you would think Quebec was a bastion...locking the gates against all outsiders. The truth, as they say, est tout autre."
About 8 percent of Quebec residents told census-takers in 1991 that their mother tongue was something other than English or French. (The equivalent figure for Canada as a whole was 12 percent.) Add to them Francophone immigrants from the Near East, Africa, and elsewhere, and you have more than half a million sans-mitaines ("without mittens", a label invented by a Le Devoir editorialist to contrast with pure laine, the "pure wool" old stock Québécois, by humorous analogy with the sans-culottes of the French Revolution.) Quebec, as Conlogue says, is already well on its way to becoming "a multiracial society in French, just as the rest of Canada is becoming multiracial in English."
One of the earliest of these sans-mitaines writers was Alice Poznanska-Parizeau, the late wife of Jacques Parizeau, though it was he who blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for the defeat of Quebec independence in the 1995 referendum. A native of Poland, she published ten works of fiction in French. The Lilacs are Blooming in Warsaw is her one novel available in English translation (New American Library, 1985).
Another early and prolific sans-mitaine is Naim Kattan, who for more than twenty years was head of the writing and publication section of the Canada Council. Born Jewish in Baghdad in 1928, Kattan has more than twenty books to his credit. Many have been translated into English, including the novels Farewell Babylon and Paris Interlude and collections of short stories set in Canada, North Africa, and the Middle East.
A more recent case is the Brazilian immigrant Sergio Kokis. Three years ago this complete literary unknown won the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal, the $10,000 prize given annually for the best book, fiction or non-fiction, English or French, written by a resident of the Montreal Urban Community or published here. He followed up Le Pavillon des miroirs with two more, well-received novels, Negao et Doralice and Errances (XYZ éditeur), all the while continuing his joint career as a painter and a psychologist.
Unfortunately his work has yet to be translated into English, nor has the delightful Soigne ta chute (roughly, "Careful How You Fall", also published by XYZ éditeur). This sassy little tale about life and mothers and daughters by the Algerian immigrant Flora Balzano has been reprinted five times.
Works by Chen, Micone, and Laferrière, however, have been or will soon be available in English. To read them is to get some idea of the diversity of Quebec's new Francophone writers.
Laferrière's work is the most accessible for English-speakers, in more ways than one. As of this fall, seven of his novels will be available in English. Coach House Press originally brought out five, How to Make Love to a Negro, Eroshima, An Aroma of Coffee (winner of the 1995 Governor General's Award for Translation), Dining with the Dictator, and Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex? Douglas & McIntyre picked up the earlier titles following Coach House's demise, and will publish A Drifting Year and Down among the Dead Men this fall.
Laferrière's works are short, funny, sometimes lyrical, and usually audacious. He won instant notoriety with the first, How to Make Love..., which tells of an aspiring black writer, his jazz-loving, Koran-reading roommate, and their amorous adventures one summer in Montreal. When the book was made into a movie, an American civil rights organization criticized the title because it "perpetuates the stereotype of people of African descent being consumed by passion, to the exclusion of all other emotions." But Laferrière answered: "Are there any other films where a black writer and a black man who meditates are the main characters?"
All but two of his books also concentrate on the experiences of black men in North America: with women, with work, with music, and with magic. The two exceptions are a memoir of his tenth summer, The Aroma of Coffee, dominated by his grandmother Da and the Haïtian village in which they live, and Dining with the Dictator, in which he takes shelter in a household of girls no better than they should be during the last days of Papa Doc Duvalier's regime.
The books have all been well translated by David Homel: Laferrière even jokes that in places they are better in English than in French. Certainly there is a rare complicity between Laferrière and Homel, perhaps because the young heroes of Homel's own novels, Electrical Storms and Rat Palms, have much in common with Laferrière's narrators. The two men have the same respect for language, and it seems, the same pleasure in playing the Bad Boy.
As for Marco Micone, all three of his plays are available in English from Guernica. Voiceless People (Gens du silence originally) was first produced in 1982; Addolorata, in 1984, with a new production last year; and Beyond the Ruins, in 1986, with an English translation in 1996. While the characters are not the same throughout the plays, Micone considers them a trilogy about the Italian experience in Quebec.
"Why did you go away to work, Papa?" is the refrain of children in all three. The starting-point in each is the migration of Italian men, trying to build better lives for themselves and their families. They fail, and the dramatic tension comes from how their children, their wives, and they themselves try to cope with that failure. In the first play, the children castigate the old man for making the wrong choices about which society, French or English, to try to integrate into. In Addolorata, men treat their women as badly as they are treated by their bosses, until the heroine refuses to continue that way. In the third play, an assimilated immigrant tries to show his Quebec-born son his roots, but the boy's main concern is bringing his divorced parents and his grandparents together again in Quebec.
The plays all owe much to Brecht and the theatre of ideas. But they also are funny, moving, and much more political than the work of most other sans-mitaines.
Micone has also written a bittersweet memoir, Le figuier enchanté, which has not been translated.
English readers will have to wait until next year to read Chen's Ingratitude but it is a book worth waiting for. (Farrar Straus & Giroux of New York will publish the English translation, with Canadian distribution by HarperCollins Canada.) The book, a strange story of a girl who kills herself in order to hurt her mother, was a finalist for the 1995 Prix Femina, one of France's foremost prizes. The book also won the 1995 Prix Québec-Paris, the Prix des librairies and was a finalist for the French-language Governor General's Award for fiction.
Les lettres chinoises, Chen's second book, which as yet is untranslated, deals directly with the immigrant experience. It is a series of letters (supposedly written originally in French because all the characters are Francophiles) between a young Chinese man studying in Montreal, the girlfriend he left behind in Shanghai, his father, and a second girl who is a friend of both young people. Chen's first book, La mémoire de l'eau, also touches the attraction of the West; the narrator's grandmother's lost love is French. Ingratitude, however, is a self-contained book; it is set in Shanghai and has details that could happen only in that city, but in many respects the book transcends place. To compare it with Chen's earlier books is to see a development of skill, style, and subject that is nothing short of breathtaking.
For Chen, born in 1961, the attraction of French goes back to her girlhood in Shanghai, sometimes called the Paris of the Orient. She studied in the Department of French Language and Literature at the University of Fudan. She says that when she left Shanghai in 1989 (after working six years doing technical and commercial translation from Russian and French into Chinese) she was looking for a place where she could live in French. She told the organizers of this year's Francofête festival that "it's a little by chance" that she came to Montreal, but now "this place where many cultures come together" is where she is comfortable.
Marco Micone's decision to write in French was much more consciously political. He actually went to school in English after he arrived in Montreal in 1958, aged thirteen. His father had immigrated from Italy several years before, and thought that English education was the key to success in North America.
The schools that Micone attended, however, were in a largely Italian neighborhood, where he says he was "ghettoized", confined to his own community. His classmates spoke English at school, French at work, and Italian with their parents, but that Italian was so elementary that it couldn't express what they were thinking.
Micone's plays are full of just such young people who can't speak any language very well. Far better, he says, if immigrants in Quebec entered the mainstream of Quebec culture. Micone himself went to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University), where he studied French literature. Le figuier enchanté tells how he fell under the spell of Gabrielle Roy after reading Bonheur d'occasion (The Tin Flute) the summer after he finished high school. "After that, nothing excited me as much as literature and those humble people whose second-hand happiness resembled mine so much." He adds, "When I discovered that Ionesco was a Romanian immigrant [to France], I thought that it wasn't impossible that one day I, too, could write." (My translation.)
The choice of French was more obvious for Dany Laferrière. Creole is his mother tongue, but "of course, we learned French in school," he says. He arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1976, aged twenty-three, on the run from the Duvalier regime in Haïti, against which he'd been writing for eight years. At that point he knew no English so there was no question what language he would write in-and he definitely wanted to write. Now, after several years spending much time in Miami ("my spirit is in Montreal, my heart is in Port-au-Prince, and my body is in Miami," he says), he could write in English "the way Henry Miller wrote in French-with many mistakes." That might be amusing, he adds, but he thinks that "there's been a lot of noise concerning language recently. The most important thing is that mankind speaks. After that comes the question: in what language? The rest is folklore."
For Sergio Kokis it is somewhat by chance-"un merveilleux hasard"-that French became his literary language. Because of his left-wing politics, it was clear after he finished his university studies in Brazil in 1967 that he wouldn't be able to get a teaching job there. But he'd also been working as a mechanic for Air France, and his boss there arranged for him to be transferred to France, where he studied psychology. One of his professors, a Québécois, suggested he apply for a post at the psychiatric hospital in Gaspé. Since then he's received a Ph.D. from the Université de Montréal, taught at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and worked as a psychologist.
Only Flora Balzano, among this small sample, claims French as a first language. Nevertheless she is branded on her tongue as an outsider as much as any of the sans-mitaines who have adopted French as their language of expression. In addition to writing, she is an actor, but her accent limits what she is cast as. "I'd love to play Michel Tremblay," she says, but she's not asked to. Her accent is considered "French" here, although in France it was considered "Algerian" when she was younger, and is considered "Canadian" now.
This outsider status, indeed, is one of the few points in common that sans-mitaine writers share, aside from writing in French.
Of course, most writers are outsiders, no matter what their language or their origins. Something makes them observers, something compels them to report what they see, and to tell stories to explain (if only to themselves) what is happening. Think of Margaret Atwood passing her childhood summers in the bush and then having to adjust to life in the city. Think of Charles Dickens condemned to the shoe-blacking factory, then saved from it. Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, always an imposter among the Eastern elite.
For the sans-mitaines, as for the "ethnic" writers of English Canada, this outsider status is heightened by even greater changes of place and clashes of culture. The reports and the stories they make from their observations of the world take several forms. Some, as in Micone's plays, are principally about what is happening in the new place with all that implies in terms of criticism and appreciation of a new land. Others, as in Kokis's novels, tell tales of whence the writer came, with judgements mellowed or sharpened by distance, with details elaborated by memory. Some, such as Chen's Ingratitude, are about things that would have interested the writer wherever he or she landed, with the special perspective of the immigrant showing up in unexpected places. And some are, of course, a mixture of all these things.
You can find equivalents among the works of English Canadian "ethnic" writers: Nino Ricci's In a Glass House for the Italian immigrant experience, Rohinton Mistry's masterful tales of India for adventures in the lost land, and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient for the writer whose concerns seem to have become "mainstream". Ondaatje? "Ethnic"? you ask. Certainly: there are "ethnics" in his novels, although they do not have his Sri Lankan heritage: think of the Macedonians in In the Skin of a Lion, think of Kip, the Sikh sapper, in The English Patient.
But mentioning him raises the question: at what point does a writer cease to be "ethnic"? In the Quebec context, that might translate as: at what point does a writer become, if not pure laine, then at least dressed for the climate? A short answer might be: When the writer's experience approaches the norm for the culture.
For writers from some groups, that may never come, by choice, or by circumstance. A devout Muslim or Jewish writer of the second generation, for example, may proclaim his or her differentness for religious reasons. And writers of colour may always have to deal with the way they stand out in most Canadian crowds.
But going to school is perhaps the best way to integrate into a society, and going to school in French is what all children in Quebec have been doing for nearly twenty years, unless one parent was educated in English in Canada.
Which means? That the relève, as they say here, is busy analysing sentences and conjugating irregular verbs right now in Quebec classes. Or, having made it through school, they may be working at some jobbine and scribbling away in their free time the way Dany Laferrière did when he arrived in Montreal. Some of them may be writing about what it's like to be young and "ethnic" in Quebec today. Some may be writing tales of a remembered homeland, while others may just be writing about what it is like to be young. Who knows? The one thing certain is that, with few exceptions like Sergio Kokis's son, who's just finished a novel in English, those who passed through French schools are writing in French.
And what will be the result, you ask? Perhaps something like the fig tree Marco Micone writes about in Le figuier enchanté. The tree was planted by an old Italian, and becomes a symbol of what beauty can develop in adapting to a new land. The old man had grafted another sort of fig to the tree, and his grandson says, "I thought myself before an enchanted tree.... Purple figs hung side by side with green ones, three times bigger. I never would have thought it possible."

Mary Soderstrom's collection of short of stories Finding the Enemy has just been published by Oberon.


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