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Writing English in Montreal
Date: December 11, 2015 - March 1, 2016  |  Category: Guest Column
Author: Rachel Montour

Editors Note: Writing English in Montreal is a four-part series exploring the work of multilingual authors in Montreal who choose to write in English. Why do these individuals choose English, and how have their own linguistic backgrounds and the bilingual context of Montreal shaped this choice and their work? Strathy literary intern and English graduate student Rachel Montour, herself a bilingual Montrealer, interviewed four young writers on this topic. The pieces were originally posted on the Strathy Blog between December 2015 and March 2016.

Part 1: Patra Dounoukos Reiser

Patra Dounoukos Reiser, a doctoral student in English at the Université de Montréal who is interested in the female gothic, likes to “explore people caught between [two] worlds and struggling to find their place” in her fiction. In her creative works, one can find “a sense of mystery and vaguely supernatural hints here and there”. In further describing her creative inclinations, Patra admits to her usual “referencing [of] a Greek god or goddess” and the “influence of the Greek myths [she] grew up hearing”.  

Indeed, Patra grew up speaking Greek at home with her parents. She learned English in kindergarten and French once she moved to Montreal. When asked if language acts as a significant component of her identity, she writes:

I suppose so if I think deeply about it. Each language is different and rich and resonant in their own way, and when I speak Greek, I feel Greek if that makes any sense. English makes me feel accomplished and educated and a bit persecuted too here in Montreal. I love the feel of French on my tongue. Being able to communicate with many people makes me feel a citizen of the world aussi.

This personal appropriation of each language is reflected in her works of fiction where she likes to “intermix” the three. “I guess because it represents my worlds and the people around me who often mix languages in their oral speech”, she explains. This intermixing can be seen in the following excerpts from Prism (a work in progress):

Emmanuelle always smirked when she heard the word 'trimmings'. Years ago, when she was in what was then called high school, she had read a short story about a man from a small town who goes to New York. In a small diner somewhere, he had seen a sign offering a Thanksgiving dinner, "Turkey and all the tremens, $4,99!"  Tremens.  Chuckle.

Which then made her think of the sign on Avenue du Parc, again a long time ago, offering a falafel sandwich and a dring, 6,99$. Snort.

[…]

"What?" Bewildered, Emmanuelle looked around. "What happened to them?"

"Nothing," Jay walked to join Robert. Emmanuelle looked at Natalia. "What the hell?"

She shrugged. "Pas de clue."

When lastly prompted to reflect on the decision to write in English in Quebec, and as an author with a rich linguistic background, Patra states:

Writing in English, living in English itself is a daring act. Quebec seethes still with language issues and being in this world is a challenge to some of my neighbours. It is also invigorating… perhaps that is one of the secrets to always having ideas?

She leaves the interview in bringing forth the notion that socio-political linguistic tensions might be serving as a muse, enabling effective creative writing through some catharsis.        

Click here for a longer excerpt from Prism

Part 2: John Henry Rumsby

Half-empty bottles of Greybull Creek Triple-Cross Bourbon were scattered across the table, uncorked. The stench tasted thick in the humid air, and left Billy wobbly of mind and body. Pa had been drinking. Probably hadn’t stopped since yesterday, by the looks of him. Long hair clung to his reddened face, his eyes were bloodshot, and the stench of bad booze on his breath almost overpowered the charred-black smell of breakfast. Syrupy sweat and indifference oozed from his brow as he shrugged Billy a half-hearted “mornin’ boy” across the room, tossing a frying pan into the sink with a wet, greasy clang. (Midsummer in Wyoming)

John Henry Rumsby predominantly writes Fantasy short stories that recurrently explore themes of “identity, violence and discrimination”. In terms of characterization, John likes to create personae that use accents, jargons or that fail to communicate efficiently. Describing this preference for communication complexities further, John states that he incorporates “a lot of occasionally clumsy run-on sentences with bizarre rhythms”, which he attributes both to proficient reading of Fantasy and Sci-fi works and to a French stylistic background. In fact, he selected the excerpt quoted above in order to exemplify this rhythm and these influences.

John has learned English and French simultaneously from his parents at a “very young age”. He admits having had difficulty in dissociating the two languages for a “long time”, hence his persistent habit of making such statements as, “That chien est brown”. Although he does not particularly think of language as consisting of a significant component of his identity, John writes in English due to preference. He indeed claims to favor English’s “straight-to-the-point simplicity” over French’s “poetic […] and particular rhythm”. “In my opinion, there’s just an energy that English naturally has that French does not. […] I can write the same fight scene in English or in French, and the one in English will naturally feel faster and more brutal by simple virtue of the language itself”, he writes. Consequently to John’s distinct perspectives on the English and French languages, integrating languages other than English to his works is a carefully constructed task. He declares:

Any non-English words, phrases or sayings that I choose to include in anything I write are usually included either because they seem more stimulating to the eye or the ear, or simply because the English equivalent doesn’t quite convey the idea adequately in my opinion.

I prompted John to reflect on challenges that might have occurred due to his decision to write in English in Quebec. As a response, he notes that the French language remains “seen as a defining aspect of the province’s cultural, historical and international identity” and that English is “often viewed as […] something that is inherently detrimental to maintaining the nation’s [Quebec's] collective sense of self and uniqueness in Canada”. He explains that his choice has earned him “quite a bit of criticism from francophone peers who almost viewed the decision as a political choice or a deliberately harmful decision”. “Because after all, identifying as a Québécois AND as an English speaker is impossible, right?”, he poses rhetorically in order to emphasize his disapproval of this rationale. John Henry Rumsby concludes the interview in stressing the hindrance of said mentality on his creative process due to its constraining nature:

The fact is though, themes like identity, discrimination, violence, sense of self, these are all important themes in Quebec literature, and things I want to address in my writing - the language that I choose to write them in isn’t for the sake of some social cause or to make a statement, it’s just to serve a story’s quality.

Part 3: Philippe Shane To

Philippe Shane To writes experimental short stories, but is currently working on a “series of novels that balance elements of the supernatural and the family saga”. He has a particular fondness for “speculative criticism and its effects on our understanding of the world”. Speculative criticism “build[s] fiction or theoretical texts off of extrapolations from observations on a certain topic, as opposed to hard grounded facts”. He notes Margaret Atwood and Arthur C. Clarke’s “futuristic universes” as effective examples. Philippe’s works include Meta elements and incorporate theoretical reflections, in an attempt to question the “limits of genre”, thus seeking to explore “the effects of suspension of disbelief”. His aesthetic and narrative choices are primarily influenced by “feminist theory (past and present), ideas of hysteria, gender bending, as well as techniques aimed at dismantling patriarchal and Eurocentric structures”. “My stories tend to introduce female protagonists questioning their place in the world”, he observes.

Philippe’s decision to write in English is more a matter of circumstance than identification. He writes:

I have always had more of a penchant for English novels. Though I am bilingual, reading and writing in English has always come more naturally to me. I find that my vocabulary in English tends to flow with greater ease and feels more personal than it does when I attempt to write in French. 

Consequently, English becomes associated with self-expression. In truth, Philippe admits to “finding it easier to express myself” in English.

His fluency in French and English, instigated “almost simultaneously” in his childhood, has naturalized a bilingual identity which is mirrored in his works of fiction. “French influences and modifies my way of writing […]. My English is clearly Anglo-Quebecois in that my cultural references are informed by my French heritage”, he explains.

Being a French/English Montrealer, I am constantly made to face questions of identity (the divisive nature of our French/English Quebec culture), and am often pushed to question what “English” really means to me. It is almost as though being a Quebecois and writing in English becomes unintentionally political. Though I do it only as a personal, creative choice, there is always the inevitable feeling that you are betraying a part of yourself. I believe the characters and atmosphere my writing express can’t help but give a sense of that struggle.

Philippe’s conscious narrative choices, such as setting and characterization, are inseparable from his personal linguistic background.

The latter also influences his works through the use of borrowings which serve to integrate other languages to the one chosen for the main composition. Indeed, he states “I like incorporating French words into my work mainly to name locations” in the aim to avoid translations which would not “feel right”. In addition to locations, based on his own experiences and in order “to give a particular Quebecois feel to a character”, Philippe often chooses to include dialogues that “switch back and forth between French and English”.

He claims having applied similar decisions to his “German characters [with] their use of Deutsch”, made evident in the following passage:  

Some might find it odd, or inappropriate of me to end with Eingang.

I myself am still not fully certain I understand its multiple meanings. From the little I do comprehend, it can be understood as ‘entrance’ or ‘way in’ which may seem more appropriate for an opening, an introduction as opposed to a conclusion, but the truth of the matter is that our narrative—mine, yours, the family’s—is far from over. It is, in many ways only the first chapter in a long series of narratives retelling the life of our relatives.

I am confident that here, at the Estate, our narratives will flow liberally. I am no longer afraid of the Geister of our past. Whether they are real or mere figments of our deranged minds, I feel that they and I will finally find peace. 

(Work in progress, Untitled)

Philippe chose this excerpt to exemplify the predominance of language in his works. The passage offers a conclusion to a larger work in which a daughter deals with her mother's death. Her copping is rendered precarious when linguistic barriers hinder the protagonist’s understanding of “her mother's old diary entries, haunted by real and metaphorical ghosts from her mother's past”.  The girl’s “mother never taught her the German of her personal past”. “This language becomes almost alien in nature for the daughter, one filled with slangs and abbreviations that German 101 couldn't teach her”, he explains. Philippe’s creative process reveals linguistic considerations as he explores the predicament of “coming to terms with the linguistic baggage that comes from generational and linguistic barriers”.

When asked to reflect on his own challenges regarding the choice of writing in English in Quebec, and their effects on his creative process, Philippe, like his protagonist, concedes to a feeling of “partial betrayal” due to the existence of linguistic barriers. He explains this claim with such acknowledgment: “Though I am fully supported by my family, I am well aware that those members that are less comfortable in English will have difficulty reading my work”. To this complication in exposure, he adds, regarding the publishing process: “I may be forced to find representation outside of Quebec to draw adequate interest in my work. Though I do not see this as a negative thing, it may or may not penalize my acceptance into certain publishing circles”. In Quebec, as an effort to preserve the French language, some publishers are not only specialized according to genre or audience, but to language of composition as well. Philippe Shane To leaves this interview suggesting that this form of specialized publishing is an unfavorable reality for English writers in Quebec. 

Part 4: Vincent Orellana-Pepin

She had never seen anything other than Granaghan Beg and most of her time was spent in or around their little house at the northernmost edge of Ballycar Lough, about a hundred and fifty yards from where two unnamed roads converged, a stone's throw away from the water and a life away from anything else. She laughed loudly as she always did when he kissed her brow and he lovingly placed her head on the worn out pillow whilst wishing her the sweetest dreams. He walked down the cracked and creaking stairs and out the front door, locking the deadbolt and the chunky master lock behind him. (Work in progress, Untitled) [Click here for a longer excerpt.]

Vincent Orellana-Pepin describes his prose as clean and honest. “If a sentence needs to be short then it will be short, but if it needs to be long then it will run half a page. I very much dislike comas and all kinds of punctuation. I do not believe that words should be interrupted by it”, he explains. Vincent reiterates the importance of honesty in his works when he further explains his narrative choices: “I try to keep my prose realistic and never dwell in science fiction or fantasy. I very much appreciate the omniscient narrator because I believe that it births the most honest prose”. Through his fiction, Vincent aims not to write about “great heroes like Tolkien did”, but to make his mundane characters his readers’ heroes. This modernist focus on realistic portrayal of the everyday life serves an avowed fascination for the human condition and reasoning. “I am not interested in crimes and mysteries, […] I am more interested in what makes you [unique]”, he states.

For Vincent, the creative process is thus an intimate one as it reveals “honest” depictions of humanity through setting and characterization. His aesthetic focus on individuality reflects a personal investment which in turn is confirmed through the affirmation of language as a prime component of his identity: 

My trade, [Language], is what the stock market is to the broker. It is what I have to offer and it is what I hold most dear to me. I have always loved attention, from my childhood years to my days as an international athlete. I wanted everyone's eyes to be on me, and now, the way I captivate people's attention is by speaking, by writing, by telling stories.

In this answer, literature and language are not dissociated as Vincent does not specify to which languages he identifies most and why, but rather refers to the broader concept: language as a mode of communication. 

In another section of this interview, he identifies Spanish as his mother tongue, but he has also learned French and English from his parents. Despite his fluency in all three languages, Vincent has “never even considered French or Spanish” to write his fiction. English is “just better suited” for his style. He explains that he considerably prefers “the plasticity of the words in English than in any other language. English just sounds better than anything else” for what he aims to accomplish through his works.

When asked to reflect on the role of his individual and social linguistic context on his writing in English, he declares:

I do not believe that where you are from or where you write makes any difference in a writer's journey. If his stories and messages are relevant, they will make their way around and people will appreciate them. Yes I write in English in Quebec, but I do not believe that that changes anything. I write for the people who want to read me, for those who are interested in what I have to say, whether they be Jason from New York or Abhishek from Nepal, if they speak English and want to hear me, then I am writing for them.

He leaves the interview with this claim that Literature transcends its social environment and its creative process remains unaffected by linguistic decisions. It is appreciated for the art’s sake regardless of external pressures.