Literary themes that transcend the French/English barrier

by M.J. Deschamps

John Ralston Saul, the award-winning Canadian author, essayist and President of the international writers’ association PEN International, does not believe that Canadian English and French literature exist in isolation. He says that, “wherever there are a sufficient number of French speakers, the two groups influence each other. They live together, study together and share recreational activities. They also write on the same topics, although perhaps from different perspectives.”

An artificial division

Still, according to Mr. Ralston Saul, Canada’s education system does create a division. “One of the problems,” he says, “is our outdated approach to teaching founded on the old European idea of a nation state with a single language. For example, if you take a course in English literature in Montréal, you will not hear about Quebec authors, and if you take a course in French literature, you will probably learn nothing about writers who work in English. It’s a bit silly to think that the two literatures have no influence on each other; it’s an artificial distinction,” he continues.

Marie Vautier, a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a specialist in Canadian comparative literature, agrees completely. “The university practice of dividing the teaching of literature among different departments is completely arbitrary,” she says, adding that works in English and French have many themes and ideas in common regardless of when they were written.

Paths that cross

According to Dr. Vautier, the first Canadian novels show a lot of interaction between English and French speakers. In Canadian literature courses that follow a chronological order, the first French novel covered is often Les Anciens Canadiens (1863) by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé. The English equivalent is The Golden Dog (1877) by William Kirby. “An interesting feature of these novels, which are commonly seen as the founding works of Canadian literature, is that both mention the ‘other’ language group,” she explains.

She also points out that, even at the peak of the independence movement in Quebec in the 1960s, literary works showed a lot of interest in the “other” language group. Another interesting detail is that the biggest mutual influences are seen in feminist writing. “English- and French-speaking feminists have worked together a great deal, especially in the 1980s,” says Dr. Vautour. She gives as an example the writings of the French-Canadian poet and novelist Nicole Brossard, who reached out to many English-speaking feminists in order to work with them.

Some Canadian themes

These days, according to Dr. Vautour, one of the themes most often found in both English and French Canadian literature is postmodern uncertainty. “Unlike what we see in other countries,” she says, “where there is fear of uncertainty, Canadian literature easily accommodates differing viewpoints and contradictory narratives.” Another recent tendency is adopting what she calls a “less innovative style,” leaving more space for narrative and storytelling.

“Historical tales are just as popular in both literatures,” Dr. Vautier adds. “Even today, in modern literature, New France elicits interest mixed with curiosity.” She gives the example of Elle (2003), a novel by Douglas Glover that tells the story of a young, pleasure-loving French woman who comes to Canada in 1542. “The novel was written in English but was then translated and received as if it were a French novel.” The original English won the 2003 Governor General’s Literary Award in the English Fiction category while the French translation, Le Pas de l’ourse, was a finalist in 2004.

Also, since World War II, the stories told in both English and French novels take place all over the world. Examples include Un Dimanche à la piscine à Kigali by Gil Courtemanche and Life of Pi byYann Martel.

Related to this is literature by authors who have incorporated their culture of origin or their ancestors’ culture into their writing. This is the case with Dany Laferrière, Ying Chen and Kim Thúy in French, and Joy Nozomi Kogawa, Wayson Choy and Dionne Brand in English. Canadian literature is increasingly reflecting the diversity of our population and the plurality of identities that make up Canada, whether expressed in English or in French.

Published on Friday, June 28, 2013

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