ENFIN VISIBLES! QUEBEC'S LITERARY COMMUNITY
For Lori Schubert, executive director of the Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF), it was a typical Sunday morning. She was readingThe New York Times' Book Review - a transplanted New Yorker living in Montreal for the last two decades, Schubert has always subscribed to The Times - when she realized three of the authors featured in the prestigious literary section were "world-class writers with significant ties" to Quebec's English-language writing community. That's when an impulse seized her. "I got so excited I typed off a letter to The Times in ten minutes," she said recently. "I never thought they'd publish it, but they did."
The letter was later reprinted in The Montreal Gazette and Schubert kept hearing about it, from everyone she knew. What she'd done, on a whim, ended up encapsulating not only her work at QWF since 2003, but the perpetually double-sided nature of writing in English in this province. On the one hand, there's pride in the fact, as Schubert wrote, that so "many of the country's finest English-language writers are based here and also thriving here." On the other hand, there's the frustration that this contribution is overlooked in a province often seen by the rest of the country "as a purely French cultural centre."
In addition to the authors Schubert spotted in the Sunday book section - poet Anne Carson, fiction writer Jaspreet Singh, and first-time novelist Miguel Syjuco - she went on in the letter to mention Booker Prize-winner Yann Martel; IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winner Rawi Hage; Commonwealth Prize-winner Jeffrey Moore; and Louise Penny, a three-time Agatha Award-winner for her murder mysteries set in the Eastern Townships. Schubert could have continued, of course, and mentioned writers of every conceivable genre - from Kate Hall, who won the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize; to Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Giller Prize; to Saleema Nawaz, winner of the Journey Prize in 2008 for short-story writing. She could have listed acclaimed nonfiction writers like Mark Abley, Taras Grescoe, and Elaine Kalman Naves; children's literature authors like Marie-Louise Gay and Monique Polak; and spoken-word artists like Ian Ferrier and Catherine Kidd.
Photo by John Mahoney
Photo by Monique Dykstra
Schubert's letter also summed up the ongoing challenge facing English-language writers here as well as the organizations created to represent them. Simply put, when it comes to raising the profile of Quebec's English-language literary community there's always work to be done. Fortunately, there's never been more to work with. This feels, more than it has in two generations, like the right place at the right time. Still, it's worth remembering that if English-language writers currently seem to be flourishing in Quebec - picking up from the decades of the 1940s and 1950s and that pioneering burst of literary vigor - it's also worth remembering that there was a significant period of time between now and then when things were very different.
By the late 1980s in Quebec, Linda Leith was in the wrong place at the right time. As a young teacher at the West Island CEGEP, John Abbott, she'd developed an interest in the province's largely unappreciated English literary community and was offering the first course exclusively devoted to English-language Montreal writers. Leith was also completing a three-year research project, funded by the Quebec government, on literature and social change. Her focus, again, was English Montreal. This, coincidentally, positioned her perfectly to observe (and later play) a key role in the eventual renewal of English-language literature in the province. Still, if she saw it coming, she'd be first to admit she was playing a hunch. One she'd have to wait a while to see realized.
"The 1980s was the nadir for this community. There were people saying there was a renaissance back then, but, guess what, there wasn't," Leith said. "For this research project I was involved in, I was going around with a tape recorder looking for English writers. The main thing in the beginning was finding out who the writers were because nobody knew.
"Whenever I told someone I was trying to establish a bibliography of English fiction writers in Montreal - who they were and what they had written - the response was, 'English writers, in Montreal? Are there any?' People who should have known - teachers, publishers, editors, journalists, critics, the literary gatekeepers - couldn't really point to anyone. Mordecai Richler was usually all they could say. Nobody from the then-new generation of writers was being mentioned, writers like Ted Phillips, Terry Rigelhof, Trevor Ferguson, Yeshim Ternar, Robyn Sarah."
As an academic, Leith welcomed this opportunity. The subject of English writing in Quebec was all hers. "Frankly, it felt as if this was a whole new world no one heard of." But it was also frustrating for Leith to see that "people were so sceptical of this subject. It was an extraordinary situation, given the history here."
Given the fact that the writers she'd first read like Richler and Mavis Gallant - "I was particularly interested in Gallant" - were part of a wave of fiction writers and poets who'd once established the province and especially Montreal as the literary capital of English Canada.
It was an indisputable fact, according to William Weintraub, Montreal novelist, journalist, and filmmaker. In City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s, a comprehensive and affectionate portrait of the city's political and cultural landscape, Weintraub writes:
"In the 1940s and 1950s, the best novels that had ever been written in Canada were being written by Montreal authors. The best short stories were also coming from a Montreal writer and the best poetry from Montreal poets…. Hugh MacLennan produced his major works, while Mavis Gallant, Brian Moore, and Mordecai Richler were at the beginning of their careers."
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
By Mordecai Richler
The post-World War II English literary scene in Montreal was also providing Canadian writing with something it had never enjoyed before - respect nationally and recognition internationally. The poetry scene here was vibrant and eclectic. Imagine the likes of A.J. M. Smith, Louis Dudek, P.K. Page, and Miriam Waddington all arguing, all bouncing ideas off each other. Imagine voices ranging from the erudite F.R. Scott to the rambunctious Irving Layton. And imagine a very young Leonard Cohen starting out, soaking it all up. Dudek would later remember the essential role Montreal played in clearing out the "Victorian dust and cobwebs" and dragging Canadian poetry into the 20th century.
by Hugh MacLennan
In fiction, MacLennan's 1945 novel, Two Solitudes, about language tensions in Quebec, was an instant Canadian bestseller. A year earlier, Gwethlyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven, about home-grown anti-Semitism, became the first Canadian novel to make it to number one on The New York Times bestseller list. By the 1950s Gallant's short stories were appearing regularly in The New Yorker while Richler and Moore were making names for themselves in the U.K. and the U.S.
All in all, it was a period of impressive activity. Unfortunately, the period was coming to an abrupt end. By the 1960s the poetry scene was shifting to Toronto; Gallant, Richler, and Moore had all left Montreal, moving to Paris, London, and Southern California respectively. MacLennan would only write one more novel after 1959. Earth and High Heaven, which appeared to be Graham's breakthrough second novel, would also be her last. She died in 1965.
By the 1970s English-language writers, who were starting out or who were still here, couldn't help but feel isolated. Worse, they began to find themselves squeezed between two nationalisms - the growing separatist movement in Quebec and burgeoning literary nationalism in Toronto.
"Toronto was in the process of defining itself, and defining itself in English," Leith recalled. "Think of Margaret Atwood's Survival. Meanwhile, Quebec was defining itself, in part in opposition to the rest of English Canada. The result was that English writers, here, fell through the cracks. Neither side wanted us. English writing here just didn't exist in people's consciousness. Often that included the consciousness of the writers."
Writing in the Time of Nationalism
by Linda Leith
And while Leith, who chronicles the downs and ups of the English literary community in her memoir, Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis, had become an astute observer of this situation. As it continued into the early and mid-80s, her interest began to shift from scholarly detachment to personal involvement. For starters, in 1987 she became an early board member of the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature, a fledgling organization which would come to be known as QSPELL.
QSPELL arose out of a meeting in 1985 between Simon Dardick, the co-publisher of Montreal's Véhicule Press; Richard King, co-owner of Paragraphe Books; writer Endre Farkas, and Sheila Moore, an executive with the sometimes-controversial Anglophone advocacy group Alliance Quebec. On everyone's agenda was establishing literary prizes for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction authored by Quebec's English-language writers. "The basic idea … was a no-brainer," King recalls in a recent essay, "Remembrance of QSPELL Past."
But if King believed this was an idea whose time had come, others could hardly be blamed for having doubts. After all, this was the mid-1980s and the cultural and political scene in Quebec was volatile. With the Parti Québécois in power, a second referendum seemed inevitable, if not imminent. The exodus of Anglophones that had begun a decade earlier showed no signs of abating. Still, the organizers of QSPELL believed it was the right time, as King writes, "to flex a little English muscle."
For Dardick, it was a simple matter of taking pride in what writers here were producing. It was also a question of fairness. "There were tons of literary awards being handed out in Quebec, but nothing for books in English," Dardick explained. "And it wasn't only that English writers weren't being nominated here, they weren't being nominated anywhere else either."
Simon Dardick with poster. Véhicule Press held a city-wide poster contest during the 1974 municipal elections.
The winning poster depicted incumbent Mayor Jean Drapeau.
Photo from The Sunday Express, 1974
Dardick and his wife Nancy Marrelli continued Véhicule Press in the late 1970s, turning a printing co-op attached to the Véhicule art gallery into a dedicated publisher. His experience as an English publisher in this province demonstrated to him the importance of forming associations like QSPELL. With several other English publishers he was part of The Montreal Publisher's Roundtable. "We'd meet once a month or so and have guests, politicians, booksellers," Dardick recalled. "That eventually developed into the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec (AELAQ)." Among other accomplishments, the AELAQ began The Montreal Review of Books, a literary journal of Quebec English writing.
According to Dardick, the rise of the AELAQ paralleled the rise of writers' groups. "It reflected a need and a maturity in the entire community. There was the realization among people in English publishing and among English writers that there was a great value in having associations. At the time, Quebec English-language publishers and writers weren't known nationally. There was a sense of us being a part of Quebec but unique. We knew from the start AELAQ and QSPELL were the kind of necessary things we needed to be doing."
QSPELL became a magnet for the efforts and creativity of some of the English literary community's most prominent members. The list includes publishers like Dardick and Philip Cercone of McGill-Queen's University Press. Acclaimed literary translator Sheila Fischman was also a key figure, as were community-minded booksellers like King and Judy Mappin, owner of The Double Hook, a bookstore that was exclusively devoted to Canlit and enormously supportive of local writers.
The first QSPELL Awards Gala was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1988 and was highly anticipated and well-attended. It would continue to be an important annual event for years to come. Dardick recalled that in the early years there were jokes about the same people winning every year. "It's true Véhicule would win in a couple of categories for the first few years, but that changed. The number of eligible writers grew exponentially."
Ticket from the first QSPELL Awards Gala, 1988
In fact, by 1993 English-language writers in the province realized that there was strength in numbers and founded their own association, the Federation of English Writers of Quebec or FEWQ. Despite the unfortunate acronym, FEWQ had the advantage of good timing. Quebec's liberal government was suddenly sympathetic to appeals made by organizations like AELAQ and FEWQ. Dardick recounted that there was an "amazing meeting" with a new and receptive Quebec culture minister, Liza Frulla.
"The theme in the province at the time was that French needs respect, and we saw it as an equivalent thing," Dardick said. "We wanted respect too, and Frulla, to her credit, saw this. That's when we started receiving funding from Quebec. It wasn't much, but it was enough to give us some respect."
It also gave FEWQ, then brand new, some muscle of its own to flex. Depending on who you talk to, the newly-formed FEWQ either unceremoniously showed the more established QSPELL the door or QSPELL wasn't open to new ideas. Either way, it was a contentious time.
"FEWQ took over," Dardick said. "Did I like the way it was done? No. Were there a lot of hard feelings? Yes. I don't think what happened should be papered over. The old guard gave way to a new guard; this kind of change happens. But it wasn't a nice little transition." Guy Rodgers, who was president of both FEWQ and QSPELL during the merger, disagrees that it was a 'shot-gun wedding.' "The two organizations spent months debating, negotiating and voting on terms that would make everyone happy, " Rodgers recalls. "In the end we agreed to an arranged marriage that may have lacked love but is still going strong all these years later."
Leith, who also had a foot in both QSPELL and FEWQ (by then she was writing novels of her own), recognizes that FEWQ had its share of limitations, but she still believes it was a necessary step, one that would lead to QSPELL and FEWQ merging, in 1998, to form QWF.
"That's what we'd needed all along," Leith said. "We learned how to do things with QSPELL, but QSPELL would not have become QWF if it hadn't been for FEWQ. There wasn't the energy, the drive. But there was no shortcut to get to QWF. QWF couldn't have emerged out of nothing in 1988."
If the literary boom in this province in the 1940s and 1950s made it clear English-language writing could succeed here, it was also clear there were no lessons to be passed on about that success to succeeding generations of writers. When William Weintraub was starting out in Montreal in the 1950s, neither he nor his colleagues saw themselves as part of a community.
Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani
"At the time, fiction writers, anyway, were isolated," Weintraub explained. "We were just trying to get published. What amazes me today is how organized writers are. Now, there are organizations like QWF, which do a lot for young writers. It helps them get started, gives them a sense of community. But it's still all very new and unusual from my vantage point."
The current vantage point is broader and less isolated, more inclined to be outward and forward-looking. And that perspective is no longer reliant just on the success of individual writers, according to Lori Schubert:
"Yes, QWF is employing some writers with our mentorship programs and readings like the Writers Out Loud series. And yes, it's training some writers through the workshops, giving out prizes, and getting some publicity for English writing here. But when we did a survey of our members recently, what they told us was they liked the fact they were part of a community."
In the last decade, QWF has doubled to some 600 members and the budget has increased five times. "I'm not very good at saying no," Schubert explained. "So if I thought something fit in with our mandate, which is promoting English-language literature, giving it a profile here and everywhere, to gain readers as well as writers, I'd do it. That's how things gradually got bigger and bigger."
There's no doubt the landscape is continuing to expand and evolve. Innovative publishing houses like Chris Oliveros' Drawn & Quarterly have made an international mark with their catalogue of comic books and graphic novels. There are countless reading series as well as periodicals like Matrix, Maisonneuve, and online magazines like The Rover, all of which provide necessary forums for new writers. There's also Carte Blanche, an online literary review, which grew out of a QWF nonfiction workshop with Montreal journalist Peter Macfarlane in 2004. Initially, Carte Blanche was only open to QWF workshop participants, but Editor Maria Schamis Turner has seen Carte Blanche become a mainstay for new writers. It's now receiving Canada Council grants as well as corporate sponsorship. The most recent issue received 600 submissions - it's open to everyone now - and Carte Blanche recently published a story by a writer from India.
Adrian King-Edwards, owner of The Word Bookstore, has been a supporter of Montreal writers for decades with reading series, launches, and a section in his store devoted to Montreal poets.
Adrian King-Edward at The Word Bookstore
In the last decade, poet Carmine Starnino has also noticed a psychological shift. Starnino has edited Véhicule Press' poetry imprint, Signal Editions, since 2001. He remembers when he was starting out in the early 1990s, the poets he admired here, accomplished poets like Michael Harris and David Solway, were inclined to see themselves as exiled twice. They felt invisible in Quebec. And because they were in Quebec, they felt invisible in the rest of the country.
"But things began to turn around 2000. It became clear the rest of the country was interested in Quebec's English poets. For Jason Camlot, Asa Boxer, Anita Leahy, Susan Gillis, Stephanie Bolster, Jon Paul Fiorentino, David McGimpsey, and others the issue of double exile was no longer relevant. That was a big change," Starnino said.
In fact, the isolation that English-language writers might have once experienced in Quebec was turned upside down. Montreal, especially, became a kind of safe haven for aspiring writers. Novelist Ian McGillis came to Montreal from Edmonton in the mid-1990s with his then-wife, Padma Viswanathan, while they were both working on their first novels.
"We were looking for an adventure. We didn't want to go to Toronto because we wanted something as un-Canadian as we could get. And that was Montreal. We could also live here for half the cost of Toronto. I think that's the elephant in the room when you're talking about the arts scene in Montreal. It's a livable, affordable city, and that's the kind of place where you find writers.
"Also when Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi went supernova in 2002 and he was identified as a Montreal writer, it meant someone in Podunk, Manitoba could read about him and realize this was a good place to come to be a writer."
McGillis, who co-edited The Montreal Review of Books from 1999 to 2008 under the long-time editorship of Margaret Goldik, also noted that in the early years they sometimes had to stretch to find enough titles to fill the space in mRb, but in later years that wasn't a problem. By then, the toughest decision was figuring out how many books could get a full review .
mRb cover, fall 2010
Concordia University's Creative Writing Department has also attracted young English-language writers to the province. "It's had a very positive impact on the writing scene," said Jon Paul Fiorentino, poet, Concordia creative-writing professor, and editor of Matrix. "There are many wonderful writers who've graduated from the program and made Montreal their home. I see current and former students at many readings and literary events throughout the year."
The mid '90s also saw the rise of Montreal's literary cabaret scene. Showcases like Vox Hunt and YAWP competed to present the best in spoken word and literary multimedia performances, and a generation of spoken word performers came with them. Catherine Kidd, Alexis O'Hara and Corey Frost were all writer/performers whose work was found as much or more onstage than it was in print. Ian Ferrier and Fortner Anderson's CKUT radio project placed poems and poets on the radio like songs. The idea won them a Standard Broadcasting Award and helped them found Wired on Words, a CD label specializing in spoken word.
YAWP literary showcase poster, 1997
"All these writer/performers have since gone on to tour their work internationally, " says Ian Ferrier, "while at home, Montreal-based festivals like Voix d'Ameriques and the new Mile End Poets' Festival feature a generation of literary eclectics: poets like word-sound systemizer Kaie Kellough, and competition poetry groups like Montreal's Throw Collective. 2011 marked the first issue of LITLIVE.CA, a national web magazine dedicated to the kind of work Montreal's poets have helped to pioneer. "
Stephanie Bolster, also a Concordia English and creative writing professor, has an on-going daily online announcement of literary events in Montreal that reflects the high level of literary activity in the city.
There's certainly no shortage of talented and also acclaimed fiction writers here now. In addition to Martel and Hage and 2010 Giller winner Skibsrud, there's Colin McAdam, whose novel Fall was nominated for the Giller Prize in 2009; Kathleen Winter's novel Annabel, which was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize, Governor General's Literary Award, and Rogers Writers' Trust Award; Neil Smith, whose first collection of short stories, Bang Crunch, was selected for Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction Series in 2007; and Clare Holden Rothman's historical novel The Heart Specialist, which has been both a critical and commercial success.
The Heart Specialist,
by Claire Holden Rothman
The increased vitality of the writing scene is not isolated to Montreal. Louise Penny, a three-time Agatha Award-winner, lives in the Eastern Townships and sets her stories there as well as in Quebec City, where Neil Bissoondath lives and writes. Award winning author Phil Jenkins lives in Chelsea, across the river from Ottawa. and Judith Cowan has been based in Trois-Rivières since 1973.
Lately, Quebec's English-language literary community, in all its variations, has earned a reputation for getting things done, whether with grassroots events like Expozine, an annual fair for small presses, comics, and zines, or through more high-profile events like the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, which has been held every April since 1999. For Leith, the founder of Blue Metropolis, the festival, which has become a multilingual, multicultural institution, was a logical if serendipitous extension of her scholarship of the 80s. It was another way to show that English-language writing in this province deserved attention.
"Twenty-five years ago, there weren't many people who would have predicted the kind of renaissance we see now," Leith said. "Twenty-five years ago, English-language writers in Quebec were in some ways among the most disadvantaged of Canadian writers. We didn't have anyone interested in what we were doing.
"But I think in some sense that was the spur that got us to where we are today. That sense that nobody is going to do it for us so we have to do it for ourselves. Today we're infinitely better off than we were. We have QWF, we have publishers we didn't have even a decade ago. We have literary stars; we have a thriving literary community, we have dissidents within that. We have the whole kit and caboodle."
Joel Yanofsky is a Montreal writer. He has won two National Magazine awards. His book, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind, won the QWF's Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize. His latest book is Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.
Heather O'Neill Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006)
O'Neill's novel about a 12-year-old heroine named Baby trying to survive the big city on her own is an affecting debut. It brings Montreal's squalid and mean downtown streets to unsettling life.
Ann Charney Distantly Related to Freud (2008)
Set in Montreal in the 1950s and 60s, this is the story of a young émigré finding her way in a new world. The pleasure of this coming-of-age novel is in seeing our city anew through the eyes of Charney's charming heroine.
Claire Holden Rothman The Heart Specialist (2009)
Holden Rothman's convincing historical novel provides a revealing glimpse into Montreal's social attitudes and manners at the turn of the 20 th century. It also introduces readers to an authentic Montreal feminist heroine in the title character - Dr. Maude Abbott.
Elise Moser Because I Have Loved and Hidden It (2009)
Moser's debut novel is a tangle of relationships, passion and desire. Moser uses the city to great advantage, enlisting it not just as a backdrop for her characters but as a character itself.
Leonard Cohen The Favourite Game (1963)
In his autobiographical first novel, Cohen managed to hone in on an essential fact about Montreal most writers before him seemed to have neglected: This is a sexy city.
Mordecai Richler The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)
Richler captured the immigrant experience by locating it in just a few city blocks in his breakthrough novel about a first generation of "strivers." Richler knew his cast of characters well; after all, he was one of them.
William Weintraub City Unique: Montreal Da ys and Nights in the 1940s and 50s
Weintraub's affection as well as his jaundiced journalist's eye for the city of his youth is evident in every anecdote he recounts. This rousing book is a chronicle of a time when Montreal was the only fun city in the country.
Bryan Demchinsky and Elaine Kalman Naves Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination
Elegant in design and conception, this book traces Montreal's evolution as a city "twice-built," as its authors say. It's made of brick and stone and made, too, in the imagination of its authors.
Julie Bruck The Woman Downstairs (1993)
This eloquent collection of poems is a city drawn in miniature. Bruck has a keen eye for the significance of small things and small moments. It's replete with uniquely eccentric Montreal characters.
Carmine Starnino This Way Out (2009)
In this intelligent and sensitive book of poetry, Starnino approaches Montreal, the city he grew up in and still inhabits, like a stranger, an explorer. Along the way, he defines the complicated meaning of home.
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The mRb is currently edited by Aparna Sanyal and Mélanie Grondin.
The Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF) is playing an increasingly prominent role in the life of the Quebec English-language literary community as an arts presenter and professional and community educator, as well as the representative of Quebec's English-language writers. The diversity of its activities reflects the diversity of its membership. Along with professional and emerging writers, the QWF includes those who have a personal interest in writing and many who have joined because they are interested in high quality literary events, activities and programs. All of these constituents are linked by the QWF vision that works toward ensuring a lasting place for English literature and its practitioners on the Quebec cultural scene. www.qwf.org