The Real Reality Check: Le réel éprouvant
By Katia Grubisic
Literary festivals, like many similar events, develop events based on a host of different factors: literary stars, recent publications, award winners, thematic alignment. Sometimes, when the time comes to name those readings, interviews, or round tables, the event titles can seem, well, a bit far afield, designed perhaps to spark curiosity and conversation more than necessarily reflecting what the books are about or who the panellists are.
This past spring, on the first weekend of May (on Saturday May 2, 2020, to be exact), I was supposed to moderate a discussion at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. Dubbed “Reality Check/L’épreuve du réel,” the bilingual event was to bring together a few of the winners of the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Awards, one of the major annual Canadian book prizes. I’d been blown away again and again by the muscular, insightful poetry of Gwen Benaway, who won for Holy Wild, since her breakout collection; since starting out as a translator myself I’d known and read the work of the eminent literary translator Linda Gaboriau, who won for Birds of a Kind, her English translation Wajdi Mouawad’s Tous des oiseaux; I’m Facebook friends with but have never met the astounding novelist and literary translator Catherine Leroux, who won for Nous qui n’étions rien, her French rendition of Madeleine Thien’s epic Do Not Say We Have Nothing; and I’d been at Banff years ago with the delightful, thoughtful Joan Thomas, who won for her historical novel Five Wives. I was looking forward to seeing Joan again, to meeting the other writers, and especially to the chat. I’ve hosted these kinds of events before, and at their best they can be eye- and mind-opening, meeting colleagues and friends and delving into their work, the world, assorted miscellany, while an audience eavesdrops.
Then the pandemic hit, and everything was cancelled. Suddenly, the Blue Met GG event title, which had initially been a bit abstract, felt prescient, eerie. I had planned lofty, probing questions about the nature of fiction or poetry, about the intersection of an author’s reality with the translator’s world. Now here was a real reality check: I was home with little kids, my professional existence suddenly flushed, hunting down toilet paper and hand sanitizer on triweekly forays out into the contaminated wild, worrying about elderly family and trying to contact friends in the hospital… Literature felt superfluous. Is art à l’épreuve du réel, can it withstand reality? I decided to reach out to Joan, Catherine, Linda, and Gwen, and I’m grateful for their generosity and presence as we, and the world, strove to get our bearings. What follows is an edited version of our conversations; happy eavesdropping!
KATIA GRUBISIC: I hope you’re all doing as well as can be expected. Thank you for agreeing to move the Blue Met discussion online.
Joan, Montréal and Winnipeg are so far away, and I was looking forward to seeing you again! I really enjoyed Five Wives, the way a fictionalized historical detail is a way in to allow a broader look at colonialism.
JOAN THOMAS: In this story, five American men believe they have been divinely led to convert an Indigenous people in voluntary isolation in the rainforest, and all five are killed in the attempt—surely a reality check for the surviving characters, but it is one they fail. It’s that mindset that interests me, the way we can persist in beliefs that are deeply at odds with our experience.
This novel is based on a true event, and without a doubt the more significant story here belongs to the Waorani people. But their story is not mine to write. The missionaries themselves have published numerous memoirs and biographies, characterizing the men as martyrs and the Waorani as vicious, primitive, and in need of saving. Sixty years later, this narrative is still very popular in certain circles and continues to shape North American thinking. In fact, American missionaries continue their proselytizing with the Waorani in Ecuador, and when one of them was recently asked about my novel, he dismissed it as “fiction.” Yes, it is! It deals in the sort of subversive truths that can only be got at through the intimacy of fiction.
KG: I love the way you encapsulate the truthier lies of fiction: “the sort of subversive truths that can only be got at through the intimacy of fiction.” Five Wives feels like truth in part because that kind of zealous missionary blindness, that colonizing impulse, is still so current. What are the dangers, as a writer, of humanizing those who are so much on the wrong but powerful side of history?
JT: Rather than stand outside the characters and satirize them, I enter them deeply in third person narration. Because my characters have a hermetic worldview and don’t judge themselves, Five Wives puts the burden of meaning-making on the reader. Some readers are uncomfortable with my humanizing these characters. Am I setting out to create empathy with the colonizers? I would just say that I grew up in a similar narrow ideology, and I don’t have the luxury of believing that these people, who behave reprehensibly, are fundamentally different from me. If my novel is successful, its truth will resonate with readers of all kinds. Yes, religious ideology imposes a reality, but so do many other belief systems that all of us hold. I think that sort of identification is the crucial function of character-driven fiction.
KG: Your use of the third person puts the “burden of meaning-making,” as you say, on the reader, but that’s a kind of freedom too. What do you expect of your readers?
JT: There are readers who assume that I am sympathetic to the missionary cause because I enter and try to imagine the missionaries’ consciousness; that tells me something about the sort of book those readers are familiar with. Rather than condemning my characters from an authorial pulpit, it feels far more powerful to me to let their own doubts, venality, ignorance and delusions speak. Yes, there’s a danger in casting light on a subject and leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. I guess I expect readers to be sensitive to tone and point of view, to take into thoughtful consideration the entirety of the novel, letting one part refract off and illuminate the other, to understand that the attitude of a particular character is not the stance of the novel.
KG: In each of these GG-winning books, and in your other books—in your previous translations of Mouawad’s books, Linda; in your hybrid essays and more scholarly work, Gwen; in your novels, Joan; in the authorial attraction to seemingly predestined impossible situations, Catherine—there is something that resists an imposed reality.
JT: Your phrase “an imposed reality” perfectly captures the world inhabited by my characters in Five Wives. They draw every breath with a sense that an omnipotent deity is watching, they attempt to ascertain his will in every tiny choice, they see themselves as his chosen ones, they demean or ignore every other vision of the world.
CATHERINE LEROUX : La phrase « something that resists an imposed reality » m’a accrochée aussi, et bien qu’elle ait été formulée en relation avec le livre de Joan, elle me semble contenir également, en si peu mots, une grande part du projet de Do Not Say We Have Nothing/Nous qui n’étions rien. Car le dogmatisme de la religion et celui des totalitarismes ont beaucoup en commun dans leur manière d’écraser, de nier une partie de la réalité. En mettant en scène des personnages dont l’identité rend impossible leur soumission à la réalité imposée par le régime communiste—des artistes, des homosexuels, des libres penseurs—Madeleine Thien montre que cette résistance peut être profonde, inévitable, et autodestructrice. Ses personnages tentent de se conformer—pour leur sécurité, celle de leur famille, pour se faciliter la vie—mais quelque chose en eux refuse. Et le conflit apparent, « exondé », qui les oppose alors à la réalité de leur société, a son pendant intérieur, encore plus insidieux et inextricable. Le personnage de Zhuli, par exemple, est constamment écartelée entre son amour de la musique soi-disant bourgeoise et les impératifs de la société, et en vient à s’en prendre à elle-même, à se croire mauvaise, « sorcière », en raison de ces penchants qu’elle ne peut contrôler, montrant ainsi toute l’ampleur du gaslighting opéré par la dictature.
GWEN BENAWAY: I’m wary of imagining poetry or literature as a space for resistance. Resistance is always embodied and emergent. It arises through the body and arrives at the present moment where it manifests as divergent forms and responses. For me, I tend to think of my writing as a form of refusal. Borrowing from Leanne Simpson, I think refuse is this life giving possibility that arises when we refuse to participate in systems and meanings that were designed to oppress us. I see my poetry and writing as varied expressions of refusal: refusing to make meaning, refusing description, refusing to offer binary answers, refusing to be contained by a text. I find the process refusing meaning really fascinating because that meaning is so forcibly inscribed on me constantly. As a trans woman, I’m always trying to find spaces that allow me to exist beyond meaning and description.
KG: Gwen, I think that’s a really useful distinction, actually, between resistance and refusal; it allows the refuser to not have to acknowledge the whole framework of what is presumably to be resisted, its assumptions and impositions.
LINDA GABORIAU: After nine weeks of total solitary confinement alone in my flat in Montréal, I decided to escape from Canada’s epicentre and drive to my family home on Cape Cod. I am finally writing to you from East Sandwich, Massachusetts. The responses from Joan and Catherine and Gwen, and Katia’s reflections, have provided much food for thought and prodded me out of my computer “resistance” state of mind.
KG: Are you drawn to work or to subjects that offer or suggest resistance? What are your thoughts on the role(s) or responsibilities of literature to question, undermine, subvert, overthrow? I’m conscious that even the possibility of raising the question is a matter of privilege, which adds another layer of complexity: who tells the story when the person whose story it is can’t tell it themselves? In translation, how can/does the added layer of the translator’s voice function, in terms of agency, appropriation, or amplification? How does personal identity transfer to or represent collective identity, and what are the dangers of that transfer or universalizing?
LG: Il n’y a pas de doute, je suis attirée par les œuvres et les auteurs qui résistent à une réalité imposée, qui refusent (Gwen’s choice of word really resonates for me) de passer sous silence les injustices et les plaies de la guerre civile, celles du colonialisme, les préjugés au sujet de l’identité sexuelle : ce sont là autant de thèmes qui animent les pièces que j’ai eu le privilège de traduire, par Wajdi Mouawad, Michel Tremblay, Michel Marc Bouchard et Jovette Marchessault, pour ne nommer que ceux-là. In fact, I owe my decision to make a new life in Québec, where I had come from Boston to study French literature at McGill University in 1963, to my life-changing discovery of a culture, of a “country within a country” that had escaped, that had rejected the melting pot vision of the USA.
KG: I was reading an interview with Maggie Nelson recently, who quotes Aimé Césaire: « Je ne m’enterre pas dans un particularisme étroit. Mais je ne veux pas non plus me perdre dans un universalisme décharné. » How do we construct or refuse/resist meaning, and the expectations—the roles, freedoms, responsibilities—placed on the various interlocutors and players in the literary and book world: the author, not least, and the reader, but also the basis for the characters, whether identitary or historical, the writers whose shoulders we stand on, and how that’s changing, or might change.
LG: Various comments from conversations with writers come to mind. In 1971 I interviewed Ken Kesey on his farm in Oregon, for an extended Ideas program broadcast on CBC radio. Kesey had withdrawn to the country with his family after his wild electric Kool-Aid acid days and was writing fiction. At one point, he insisted, “It’s true even if it didn’t happen.” As Joan wrote, certain “subversive truths can only be got at through the intimacy of fiction.” Dans une conversation récente avec Michel Tremblay, repassant ensemble des questions éditoriales en préparation de la publication en anglais de son roman Passage obligé, je lui ai signalé un fact check de la part de l’éditrice qui questionnait un passage dans lequel le grand-père de Nana doit accepter ou pas l’installation de l’électricité dans leur maison de ferme en Saskatchewan. Il s’agissait, selon l’éditrice, d’un gros anachronisme car cette région de Saskatchewan devait attendre encore des décennies avant d’avoir accès à l’électricité. Après une brève pause, Michel a tranché : nous n’allions pas modifier le passage. Et il a cité le grand metteur en scène de ses premières pièces, André Brassard, qui lui avait dit : « C’est vrai parce que tu l’as écrit. »
KG: Toutes ces vérités… All of a sudden, these days, the title of our event, “L’épreuve du réel / Reality Check” seems prophetic. The French title seems especially apt: épreuve can refer to both trial or proof.
LG: “L’épreuve du réel/Reality Check…” At first these expressions did not resonate for me in terms of my relationship to literature and to my work in the literary arts. What is reality? So dependent upon geographical and historical and political context. And so subjective.
KG: In regards to the current health crisis, which is also a crisis of capitalism, of access, of global mobility, of protectionism, et j’en passe, I wonder about the place of art, both logistically and in broader terms. How are you parsing the current situation? What are you finding hard, or delightful, or surprising, or unchanged? How are you doing? What are you doing?
JT: This current pandemic has added a new level of connection to Five Wives for me, as we all experience what it is to be vulnerable to a deadly contagion our communities have no immunity against—a reality sadly familiar to isolated Indigenous people. In the middle of this, I’m working on a new novel, a contemporary story that allows me to think about something that perplexes me, how we manage to ignore the terrifying actuality of melting ice caps and ecosystems collapse. Covid-19 has had the effect of deepening my sense of urgency as I write. I feel as though we have been adamantly thrust into a future that we fondly believed belonged to literature.
GB: The current situation exhausts me but it has forced me to turn inward and attend to the many small wounds of my body. I have a chronic illness, Crohn’s disease, and I’m always navigating my illness while trying to do my everyday life. I got very ill with a dangerous infection from Crohn’s at the beginning of the pandemic and have spent my time trying to recover while navigating the incredible complex systems of healthcare. The time alone in my apartment with my dog has been emotionally draining, but I lucked out and stumbled into a new relationship during isolation. For me, the quieting of the world and the sudden cancelation of all my gigs in faraway cities has meant that I’ve been able to spend almost three months uninterrupted at home, which has been healing. Someone early on in the pandemic said to me that I would never get this time in my again and it’s true. I feel this constant pressure to do something productive with it, but I’ve wasted it away in small nothings, which has been a tremendous gift. It’s horrible and relentless in one sense, but it’s life-affirming in another.
CL: Pour ce qui est du contexte pandémique, ma réaction va un peu dans tous les sens. Je suis présentement attelée à une traduction tout en mettant la dernière main à mon quatrième roman. L’arrivée du virus m’a fait revisiter le manuscrit (dont les thèmes sont dangereusement proches de notre présent) d’un autre œil, partagée entre le sentiment qu’il ne dit plus rien de pertinent à côté de la réalité, l’impression qu’il faudrait qu’il sorte immédiatement, ou jamais—que tout ce qui a été écrit avant n’aura plus de sens, ou qu’au contraire tous les romans du monde sont investis d’un charge signifiante supplémentaire… Mon élan d’écriture est fondé largement sur l’anticipation d’un bris dans le système, d’une catastrophe ou d’une cassure dans le temps tel que l’a défini le capitalisme.
KG: J’imagine que tu n’es pas la seule, Catherine, à vivre un changement de cap en pleine création en ce moment. Quel poids nous mettons sur ce que nous écrivons dans le moment présent, et pourtant quelle latitude est permise aux œuvres qui sont devenues intemporelles! Je partage aussi ton questionnement sur l’utilité. This pandemic seems to be to be full of contradictions: people have time but no focus; we’re posting creative work for free even while we face many months of lost income; we’re staying home, and staying in our heads, while the essential front lines are made up of tangible, hands-on concerns like providing food or staving off death.
CL: Maintenant que nous sommes faces à une telle cassure, j’ai le sentiment de devoir réapprendre mes mécanismes de réflexion et de création. Je me questionne par ailleurs sur le privilège que je m’accorde de rester à la maison à écrire pendant que, à quelques rues de chez moi, des gens meurent par centaines dans des centres pour personnes âgées, et que d’autres mettent leur vie en danger pour leur venir en aide. Bref, une période un peu bipolaire, ou multipolaire en ce qui me concerne. Une chose est sûre: il s’agit à mon sens d’un changement de paradigme. Et j’ai très hâte de voir de quelle manière cet événement va affecter la manière dont on écrit le réel.
KG: Je persiste à croire que l’art est ce qui nous rend humain, et pourtant, ce qui semble plus humain en ce moment c’est de sauver, de soulager. Comment le réconcilier? Dostoïevski a écrit « la beauté sauvera le monde », c’est vrai, mais il a glissé ces paroles dans la bouche de son idiot… Est-ce que l’art est un salut?
LG: Yes, I believe that all the writers whose work I translate hope that their writing will help make the world a better place. And I like to believe that I am contributing to that effort by making their work available in translation. It’s a privilege to accompany, through literary translation, these witnesses of our times. And what strange times we are experiencing this spring! Comme Catherine, ma réaction au contexte pandémique va dans tous les sens. D’un côté, la dimension globale, partagée sur tous les continents, de cette pandémie ouvre la porte à un espoir de changement de paradigme. It is, to varying degrees, a collective reality. But ironically, the situation has forced us to re-examine and reinvent our individual, intimate realities, and this means investing, inward, energies that might otherwise be devoted to social, communal change. À suivre…
This discussion took place over email between April and June 2020, and has been condensed and edited by Katia Grubisic with the authorization of the GG-winning panellists.
L’événement Reality Check / L’épreuve du réel était en collaboration avec le Conseil des arts du Canada. The event Reality Check / L’épreuve du réel was organized jointly with the Canada Council for the Arts.