Strathy Language Unit

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Writing English in Montreal (part 2)
Date: January 20, 2016 |  Category: News
Author: Rachel Montour

Editors Note: This is part two of 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 focus of her second piece is John Henry Rumsby. (Click here for part 1.)

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.