This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis as we continue to talk to publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
Anna Leventhal’s first collection of short stories, Sweet Affliction (Invisible Publishing), won the 2014 Quebec Writers’ Federation First Book Prize, and was named a book of the year by CBC Books. Its French translation Douce détresse (translated by Daniel Grenier) was published in 2015 by Marchand de feuilles. Her writing has appeared in Geist, Maisonneuve, The Journey Prize Stories, The Puritan, carte-blanche, Lettres québécoises, The Toronto Star, and several short fiction anthologies. She’s the publisher of the Montreal Review of Books and the Executive Director of the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec. Originally from Winnipeg, she now lives in Montreal.
What is your relationship to Quebec writing?
I’m a writer and reader. I mostly read in English, so when I encounter books by Francophone writers it’s almost always in translation. I’m also the publisher of the Montreal Review of Books, so I work with Quebec literature pretty much on a daily basis.
As a young writer, before I lived in Quebec, I was definitely influenced by Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, though maybe more on a spiritual than a stylistic level. Even once I moved to Montreal it took a while for me to learn about Quebec literature beyond those big (Anglophone) names, and in some ways I feel like I’m still catching up.
What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?
That’s a hard one… I see trends come and go (like, right now you have to have a blurry or half-hidden woman’s face on your book cover, it’s just the law), but it’s impossible to nail down a definition that wouldn’t exclude a bunch of writers and books because they don’t fit an arbitrary set of specifications.
I think there’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy at play whenever you try to define Quebec literature, which might be true of any attempt to define “the literature of X,” but it does feel especially loaded when you’re talking about Quebec, which can be a location, a culture, a language… but really it’s none of those things, or it’s some combination of all of them.
Quebec lit is autofiction, and it’s fantastical imaginings à la Sylvain Neuvel or Paige Cooper. It’s slender volumes of taut prose and big sprawling historical novels. It’s two solitudes and it’s a beautiful cacophony of languages. It probably has snow.
I realize I’m being deliberately elusive here, but it seems appropriate somehow. Maybe “deliberately elusive” is as good a definition of Quebec lit as any.
What are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’m reading Baloney, Pablo Strauss’s translation of Des lames de pierre by Maxime Raymond Bock. It’s about literary failure, about forgetting rather than remembering, which isn’t something often talked about. It gets into the materiality of writing in a pointed and tragicomic way. And it goes deep into some fascinating locales—a lumber camp in the 1950s, various poetry scenes around Quebec from the 70s to the present.
If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?
I think Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne would be a great introduction to Quebec lit. It deals with some crucial and fascinating moments of Quebec history—the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution, the writing of Refus global, a burgeoning feminist and civil rights movement—and it does so through the eyes of artists, writers, and radicals. It’s also beautifully written.
I’d also suggest anyone and everyone interested in Quebec culture and society pick up Kaie Kellough’s Accordéon. It’s a major accomplishment—one of the most unique and vivid renderings of Montreal I’ve read, somewhere between myth and dream and dystopia.