Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the October 2017 issue

The Vagaries of Exile: Migrant Literature from Quebec

When I asked novelist Kim Thuy—a native of Vietnam and a longtime Quebecer—why she writes in French instead of Vietnamese or English, she told me this story: Thuy and her family were boat people who came to Quebec when she was ten years old. They ended up on the first bus of Vietnamese immigrants sent to the small town of Granby, in the Eastern Townships. Her family had spent the previous four months in a Malaysian refugee camp, where water was scarce and mosquito bites, lice, chronic diarrhea, and infections were rampant. Despite their ragged appearance, when the bus arrived in the snow-covered town, all of her new neighbors were waiting to welcome and embrace them. Their unabashed kindness, acceptance, and physical contact were earth-shattering to the little girl. It marked the beginning of her new life.

"When I write in French," Thuy explained, "I relive that moment again and again and again."

The four writers featured in this portfolio are all celebrated contemporary novelists who were born outside of Canada but who publish in Quebec, writing in French, their second language. Thuy is from Vietnam; Pan Bouyoucas is of Greek descent from Lebanon; Ying Chen is from China; Sergio Kokis is from Brazil. Whether they were fleeing war, furthering their education, or simply looking for better opportunities, each writer ended up in Quebec quite by chance. Some, like Thuy, have built their lives and careers here, while others, like Chen, eventually moved elsewhere, remaining tied to Quebec through the French language.

As a recent transplant to Montreal from the US, I wondered what it meant to be an immigrant writer in Quebec in 2017. What were the challenges and opportunities of writing in a second country, a second language? In what ways did that linguistic and geographic distance shape what and how a writer told their story? And how did books set in foreign countries fit into Quebec's often Montreal-centric publishing landscape?

Famed Iraqi-Canadian novelist and essayist Naim Kattan, whose first book, Adieu, Babylone (Farewell, Babylon), came out in 1975, has retroactively become a central figure in what would today be termed "migrant literature." As the tension between Arab and Jewish nationalism in Iraq intensified in the forties, he left his home country, first for France and then Canada, settling in Montreal in 1954. Here, although he speaks fluent Arabic, he began publishing in French. In Entretiens, his 2017 collected interviews with his son, writer Emmanuel Kattan, the elder Kattan says:

"I am a Jew from Baghdad and a Quebec writer. I can assert my Jewishness without renouncing my Arab culture. This multiple identity allows me to belong to la Francophonie, the French-speaking world. This is the case for any writer, any artist, from Quebec. La Francophonie is a particularity that leads to a universal."     

According to the authors of Histoire de la littérature québécoise (History of Quebec Literature), migrant literature is an integral part of Quebec literature in part because they share many of the same preoccupations. These include the feeling of exile, wandering, a vacillation of identities, conflict between historical past and personal memory, and the condition of being a minority. After all, while French speakers make up 82% of the Quebec population today, they are only about 22% of Canada's total population. Québécois writers, therefore, are both majority and minority—on the peripheries of European and North American markets, and at the epicenter of their own thriving literary culture. Furthermore, the Québécois identity is still relatively new. While French Canadian history dates back to the early seventeenth century, the concept of a "Quebec literature" freed of its European influences is a twentieth-century phenomenon.       

In speaking with each of the four authors, I learned that their coming to Quebec and writing in French was largely incidental—"the vagaries of exile," as Rio-born Kokis put it. After Brazil's 1964 military coup, Kokis sought refuge in France, where he completed his psychology studies in Strasbourg. A friend suggested Quebec for his next move, so he sent off a job application for a psychiatric hospital in Gaspé, which hired him as a psychologist. "If my friend had given me the address of a hospital in Toronto or Vancouver," Kokis told me, "I would have worked in English and, without a doubt, written in English." It was only at the age of fifty that he began publishing, and writing in French came down to practicalities: French was the language that he had been living and working in for most of his life, so that became the language of his fiction.

In Kokis's short story, "Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse," from his 2013 collection Culs-de-sac, an old mariner in a brothel in Punta Arenas, Chile, recounts a harrowing tale. Over glasses of pisco, he describes how four sailors are sent to the most distant of the seven manned lighthouses in the extreme south of the country, to relieve the crew that had been there for the previous four months. Isolated on a distant island prone to terrible weather, chilling events begin to unfold.

When the teenage Bouyoucas's parents decided to leave Lebanon in the early sixties, they chose Quebec so that their son could continue his studies in French. Ironically, because he wasn't Catholic, he was ultimately forced to finish his education with the Protestant School Board in English. Although he speaks fluent Greek, he never tried writing in it; he does, however, write novels and radio and theater work in French and English. He believes that he writes about the same things, in the same way, in both languages.

Bouyoucas' novel Cock-a-doodle-doo follows Basilius, a successful middle-aged crime novelist who longs to steer his literary career back toward something more authentic. Looking for inspiration, he returns to an island he first visited as a young man, when he wrote his first book, a collection of poems. Unfortunately, the only stories the island inspires are for yet another crime novel. Basilius's struggle with his sense of self and his flailing career are exacerbated by the fictional lead detective of his own creation, Levonian, who has grudges of his own. As the writer and his character hash things out, Basilius becomes consumed with the question of the rooster's crow—is it a cry of joy or of fear? Of pleasure for the new day, or fear of the dying of the light?

For Chen, the greater question was whether or not to write at all, not which language to write in. She studied French language and literature in Shanghai, simply out of curiosity, and wound up working as a translator and interpreter. Wanting to see the West, but knowing it would be difficult at the end of the Cold War, she came to Montreal by chance because she had a friend who was willing to help her with the paperwork. In 1991, she received her MA from McGill, and by 1992, she had already published her first novel, La mémoire de l’eau. Although Chen had always dreamed of being a Chinese writer, to write in Chinese while living her daily life in French felt forced. So as she continued to immerse herself in Quebec life—marrying, having children, acquiring a house, a garden, etc.—she continued publishing in French, to great acclaim.

Chen's novel Blessures (Wounds) is inspired by the real-life story of Normand Bethune, a Canadian surgeon and inventor whose anti-Fascist ideals inspired him to go first to Spain and then to China, where he ultimately died of a blood infection. He was so emblematic of the communist ideal to sacrifice the individual for the collective that Mao Zedong wrote an essay about him after his death: "In Memory of Norman Bethune." In Chen's reimagining of his journey, Beam-Number-Two, a child soldier, becomes the companion and guide for an unnamed Western doctor from a large, cold country who has come to Asia to volunteer as a field doctor during a revolutionary war. Wounds explores the Chinese revolution, propaganda, tension between the individual and the collective, the archetype of the romantic hero, and the vanity of the West "aiding" countries it judges to be less developed.

Thuy came of age in Quebec, so she spent both her teenage and then her adult years with the French language. She never tried writing in Vietnamese, having left too young to develop the nuance she has in French. However, she believes she writes in a French influenced by "a Vietnamese mind"—the rhythm and images of her first language. In Vietnamese, she said, you have to be more delicate, more restrained. She doesn't think she could have written her novels if she wasn't Canadian, because she wouldn't have the freedom to write about Vietnam in Vietnamese.           

Thuy's novel Vi is a coming-of-age story that interweaves elements of the author's own epic journey from Saigon to a refugee camp in Malaysia to a new life in Montreal. Vi, the protagonist, whose name means "precious, minuscule, microscopic," flees home with her mother and three older brothers during the Vietnam War. The novel begins with sumptuous details of the family's comfortable life in Saigon, then follows the young girl as she finds her way in Quebec society, studies translation, grows into a confident, successful lawyer, and navigates heartbreak and exile.

While all four writers share a language, their use of that language diverges wildly, from Kokis' leisurely, nineteenth-century style to Chen's hauntingly spare prose. Whether overtly or covertly, each carries the cultural and linguistic influences of their home countries into their French. This hybridity and inventiveness, combined with masterful storytelling, has garnered them devoted followings, top literary prizes, and an undeniable place in modern Quebec literature.

© 2017 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren. All rights reserved.

Read more from the October 2017 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.