Issues of Othering and Translating Experience in Western Canadian Writing
In talking about French-Canadian writing in Western Canada, it’s useful to look back a bit at our history, and acknowledge that ours is a settler colony that was overrun by subsequent settler colonies. Whereas Québec’s challenge has been to reconstruct its culture as separate from that of France, and to establish its indigeneity, ours has been to distinguish ourselves from both Québec culture and what has become the dominant Alberta culture. Since 1947 that would be the oilman culture.
We live in a part of Canada in which Lord Durham’s principles were enacted, through the use of force, legislation and propaganda. Historically, this part of the country has been a pawn of whatever is going on in Central Canada, and we have been used by both French and English factions to promote their own interests. The Riel resistance, for example, was a Western initiative and yet was claimed by both English and French Easterners for their own ends. At the time of the resistance, the majority of people in the West spoke various indigenous languages, as well as Méchif and French. Yet after the resistance, we see one piece of legislation being passed, for example, that ensures the RCMP remain all white. We also see scores of unwitting immigrants being recruited to a region that is being promoted in Europe as an English-speaking one, when in fact it is not. And I think it’s not uncommon for immigrants who desperately want to fit in to adopt the prejudices of what they perceive to be the dominant group. It always amuses me to hear people in Alberta complain about French being rammed down their throats, when in fact it was English that was rammed down ours. And this of course applies to the entire continent.
In my personal history, within my French origins is a severe contradiction. On the one hand are my paternal roots, which are Québec centred and included my father’s insistence on la survivance, which in turn meant preserving at all costs the French language and culture, and which at that time included a particularly oppressive mutant Catholicism. On the other hand are my maternal roots. My maternal grandparents came from France and, like most immigrants, were intent on adapting to the new culture, which was English speaking and British centred. In 1955, as my French-Canadian father was creasing $1 bills to show us the Queen of England’s bum, my French grandmother was excitedly preparing to make what was then a six-hour return trip to Edmonton to catch a glimpse of the Queen riding down Jasper Avenue in a horse-drawn carriage. This same grandmother had come from France as an illiterate settler colonist, and later in life taught herself to read and write - in English. So she would speak to us in French but write us letters in English.
My development as a writer has involved coming to terms with an Alberta whose written history is largely a fabrication. I’ve had to acknowledge that my writing in English is proof that my mind has been colonized. But French too is the language of a colonizer - the language of the colonized colonizer. In terms of cultural and linguistic identity, I’ve gone from feeling like part of a beleaguered, colonized francophone minority, to realizing that I am descended from a previous colonizing group: from feeling other to realizing that I am part of the othering process.
For a writer in this predicament, one of the questions becomes, “How are the colonized to find themselves in the language of the colonizer?” How does one use the language to assert the difference? Where do I start? Is Montréal my Paris? Using the language of Québec would be marginally more satisfying than writing in the language of a particular region of France. And why look to either France or Québec for models when we are invisible to both of them? There is a traceable lack of interest by Québecers towards French-speaking people out here. I think the unstated assumption of René Lévesque’s Dead Ducks Theory is that if we’ve left Québec, we must be fools or traitors, or both. For many of us, that first trip to Québec lingers as a rude shock, when everyone you met insisted you must be from Saint Boniface.
Postcolonial writers around the world have generally opted to appropriate the colonizing language with which they are intrinsically bound up, to transform it and use it for their own purposes. Yet, despite efforts to the contrary, subjugated cultures cannot but affect and influence the dominant ones.
My first novel, Madeleine and the Angel, takes place in 1950’s francophone Alberta and is written in English with an ear to the French ground, the English being pressured by internalized French patterns. I “heard” most of the book in French and more or less transposed it into English as I was going along. The novel is a little like that person you meet out here sometimes who has a French surname, speaks in French-accented English with French syntax, but can’t actually speak French.
Western Canada, particularly after the Métis initiatives of 1869-70, was subdued by Ontario. Since then the French-Canadian population in the West has become subdued in our gestures, the volume at which we speak We’re a bit like the U.S.-colonized Puerto Ricans in relation to other Latin Americans. I wanted this novel to also reflect the lives of powerless people in the face of violence, so the language is subdued, understated, reticent, with lots of silences. (I might add that in Alberta it’s still not okay to be French, despite what Stockwell Day is saying as he’s running around trying to romance Québecers.)
Another concern is how hatred by the dominant culture is internalized by the subjugated one, be it manifested through Uncle Tomism, or women internalizing misogyny, or internalized homophobia. I tried to examine these concerns in Madeleine and the Angel. The character of the father in the novel externalizes his anger not on the powerful society that’s done him in, but on the women in his household. He is violent and incestuous, his solutions being those of the patriarchy. His wife and daughters belong to him, and are the recipients of his externalized self-hatred. But even this externalized anger is against himself, in the sense that for him his wife and daughters are part of him; they are akin to the limbs of his own body.
Unlike in Québec, which was colonized four centuries ago and can subscribe more easily to the notion of a common history, the conquest here is recent, just a whisper away. Treaty 6 was signed in 1876, Treaty 8 in 1899, when many of our great-grandparents were living here. We can still experience the land as not just scenery, but a space to walk into and be part of. Despite humungous efforts to eradicate them, indigenous elements inhabit both our conscious and unconscious memories, and what we are able to see and hear. We may be urbanites, a few of us farmers, but we cannot do without the wilderness, the prairie and the woods and the rivers that still have such a hold on us. Here I’m not differentiating between urban sites and what we call the country, because both are manmade sites that involve bludgeoning nature into submission -- in the cities with concrete, in the country with pesticide-maintained monocrops. These violations have been consistent with the Christian colonization and the oilman one that followed the 1947 Leduc strike, both of which demand the control and containment of sinful nature.
In his book of essays, Living in the World As If It Were Home, Tim Lilburn reflects on how sophisticated writing both brings us closer into the world, and yet alienates us from it. To quote from one passage in his book:
Language’s quickness to overcome the conflict between person and the world, its inadvertence to the extreme difficulty of this, its solicitude for the homeless mind, causes it to reduce being utterly to its names. ... In language, unqualified by awe before the unspeakable otherness of deer and poplar, language unhurt by wonder, confects a union between self and the world that seems right, the summation of yearning, but that in fact asserts this separation with fresh force by making what it is vanish in caricature. Poetry is the rearing in language of a desire whose end lies beyond language (9)
Later in the book he describes a scene:
One afternoon I saw a deer feeding ten yards from me. I saw her a second before she noticed me; her bright body was an audacious nudity, a nakedness occupying the higher registers of the eye. It seemed an answer to something but I couldn’t catch up to what that was (43).
I think that is one of our jobs as writers - to try to catch up to what is just beyond our grasp, to reach for what we can only glimpse. As writers we are interpreters of reality, but to be an interpreter in the colonial context is terrifying. We must always ask ourselves: Whose reality are we interpreting? How does one interpret what one does not understand, never mind what one does not see? That which one sees but for which there are no words? Literacy itself alienates us from the world, yet we as writers try to un-alienate. How are we to resolve the fact that the work of writing, in its zeal to convert readers into believers, is akin to that of the missionary and the oilman who seek to possess, subdue and control? And if our task includes describing spaces absent of speech, we are caught between destruction and creativity, a space in which metaphor is tremendously important.
I’d like to come back to the notion of otherness. In most societies women have been marginalized, subjected and relegated to otherness. In the heterosexual patriarchy, native peoples are also feminized and rendered invisible, as are gay men and lesbian women. Audre Lorde has said that you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but I think that’s exactly what postcolonial writers are attempting to do: to use the tools of the master to disrupt and subvert.
When I look back at my two published novels, I now spy this lesbian persona who is trapped in the text, struggling to come out. My editor at the time saw it. I remember her saying to me enigmatically after the second novel was finished: “You’ve still got a lot of looking inside to do.” Five years later, or well into my mid forties, I realized that I was lesbian, and I don’t think that’s an uncommon story for women of my generation. As girls we were brought up to be objects of desire rather than subjects of desire. Any images of lesbian love in the popular media were directed at men. (They still are.) Like others before us, we were born into a world in which our lesbian history was erased. Each generation has had to redefine itself, to reinvent itself. Even Nazi Germany did not openly acknowledge our existence. Whereas homosexual men were made to wear pink triangles to designate them as homosexual deviants, lesbian women were made to wear black triangles, thus hiding them amidst the political prisoners. Some languages don’t even have words for us, we’re so beyond imagination. It’s not just that we are other: we don’t exist. As Nicole Brossard has pointed out, being lesbian requires a constant act of re-imagination.
But then writing itself is a constant act of re-imagination.
In conclusion, I’d say that feeling other is not only advantageous, but a prerequisite to being a writer. There is liberation and exhilaration in being other: freedom from received points of view, perceived roles and modes of expression. The more you are other, the less blind you are. It’s not useful for writers to be in the spotlight.
But I also think we have to be aware that when we’re writing, we are also doing the othering. Be it Québec or Alberta, we reside in imported cultures that have become the cultures of the majority. In officially bilingual Canada, Québec and Alberta are not that far apart. Both are European-rooted, colonizing cultures. When our European predecessors arrived and promptly renamed everything they saw -- the fauna, the flora, experience itself -- they didn’t sit still long enough to let themselves be renamed, but rather engaged in linguistic and cultural violence. They missed a lot because they lacked words to embody what remained to them invisible concepts.
But as Emily Carr discovered in painting, the language, or tools, of the colonizer may be inadequate to describe the new place, but they can be adapted. The means of expression can be transformed until they more adequately express the legitimacies of otherness. Writers have a responsibility to disrupt and subvert, to reject the privilege of both French and English, and capture and remould them to new usages. We can’t undo what has been done, but we must acknowledge it and use both languages against themselves, to marginalize themselves, to make themselves other.
Writing from the margins on the prairies involves excavating what is still close to the surface. One of the tricks becomes doing so without giving away the secrets that would facilitate a mainstream erasure. I think of Beckett writing in French, where he had to re-examine each word before he used it. The language became transparent and unencumbered.
Ironically, the English colonial experience has been the most successful of all, yet English itself is a versatile, elastic, adaptable language, imprecise, and therefore tremendously metaphoric and ideally suited to subversion.
Dumas, Jacqueline. Madeleine and the Angel. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989. Lilburn, Tim. Living in the World as if it Were Home. Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant, 1999.