Strathy Language Unit

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Writing English in Montreal (part 3)
Date: February 9, 2016 |  Category: News
Author: Rachel Montour

Editors Note: This is part three 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 third piece is Philippe Shane To. (Click here for Part 1: Patra Dounoukor Reiser and Part 2: John Henry Rumsby.)

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.