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.
Juliana Léveillé-Trudel is the author of Nirliit, a powerful first novel published in 2015 by La Peuplade and forthcoming in translation from Véhicule Press’s Esplanade Books imprint.
Nirliit makes forceful socio-cultural commentary. How important is making such commentary to your writing?
I think that this kind of commentary arose because of the book’s subject. I began to write Nirliit because I needed to express all the worries, doubts, heartbreaks, and emotions that my experience in Nunavik provoked. I had to find a way to grapple with seeing colonialism’s disastrous consequences and the brutality with which the Inuit have been forced to adopt a new way of life. I needed to share my reflections, my experiences. However, I think that if I were writing about a different subject, this kind of commentary would not necessarily be present.
This is your first novel. Can you describe how you became familiar with the North? When did you decide to write a novel set in Nunavik and why?
In 2011 I set up a day camp in the Inuit village of Salluit. I spent three summers in row in charge of the project. In 2014, I continued my work in the North by setting up another day camp in the village of Quaqtaq, while also coordinating two other day camps in Salluit and Puvirnituq. From April 2015 to September 2016, I was the Assistant Director of Educational Programming for Inuit communities at Fusion Jeunesse, an organization that works to lower school dropout rates. Dividing my time between Montreal and the eight Inuit communities where Fusion Jeunesse has a presence, I drew upon different art forms to motivate young Inuit students to stay in school.
From my very first visit to Salluit I found it tremendously inspiring and very literary. Unbelievable stories happen there: you could think you were in the middle of a Shakespeare or Wajdi Mouawad play.
Life has such intensity, it’s sometimes so fantastic it can’t be compared with our neat and tidy Québécois lives in the South. For three years I took notes, writing little fragments of stories in the hopes of eventually writing a book, but I never knew where to begin. The answer came in 2013 when an Inuit woman I was close to disappeared for several weeks before we discovered she had been murdered. This woman inspired the character Eva. I decided this event would be the thread running through the story and woven around it would be the thousands of stories of the North, depicting the community’s brightest and darkest aspects.
I understand you used to write and perform pieces for the theatre, which was evident to me in the facility with which the voices in your novel change. What role has creating art played in your life?
In the beginning, art had very a playful dimension. As a child, my favourite games were the ones that required you to use your imagination. I always liked writing stories and plays which I forced my family to watch. Then, as a teenager, creativity became an outlet. Early on in high school, my friends kicked me out of our circle, which led to a difficult period of time when I was quite cut-off. What really helped me was when I signed up for the school theatre group. I made new friends there and being in theatre became a huge point of pride. Art sort of became my means of surviving. Now, as an adult, I would say that creativity and, above all, writing play two roles in my life: a way of playing—having fun—but also a way of surviving by way of expressing inner turmoil.
I can list a lot of recurring themes in Nirliit, but I’d like to know which one you most hope readers take away from your story.
I believe that Nirliit is a story of love and friendship. Friendship between the narrator and Eva, the love the narrator has for a land that is both majestic and troubling.
Elijah’s love for his mother, his girlfriend, his daughter. The beauty of the relationships between two imperfect, wounded people.
The way you wrote your novel—the overall tone of voice, how you relate the story—I’ve never read anything written in such a manner in English. Does it “fit in” in Quebec? How would you describe it to interested readers?
I don’t know if it “fits in,” but I think that more and more Québécois authors are interested in new ways of storytelling and writing, whether in novels or poetry. Right now, many novels are being written in a form that comes close to oral literature.
I would describe Nirliit as a love letter to Eva, a letter that testifies to the pain of a woman who’s lost a friend, a letter full of love, but also anger and pain. I wrote it while speaking out loud, because I place a lot of emphasis on the sound, the musicality of the text. I did not consciously choose to have a particular style, I just wanted to write the book as I was hearing it in my head.
Since Québec Reads is concerned with translation, I’m curious about the all the different languages that pop up in your novel, including Inuttitut and English. What are the primary languages spoken in Nunavik? What role does translation have between “the North” and “the South” in Quebec?
The primary spoken language in Nunavik is Inuttitut, used by 95% of the population. It’s one of the three indigenous languages in Canada that have shot of surviving, along with Cree and Ojibwe. Inuit children learn in their native language until the third year of elementary school and then have to continue in either French or English, while still taking Inuttitut classes. While students choose either language in more or less equal numbers, English holds significantly more sway than French. The Inuit language is heavily sprinkled with English vocabulary. In fact, there’s no Inuttitut word for most modern technologies (plane, computer, car, etc.), so the Inuit use English words. Aside from that, they don’t really identify with French-speaking Québécois culture and typically watch and listen to American TV and music. A significant number of francophone Québécois from the South work in Nunavik, but interactions with the local population happen largely in English since non-Inuit don’t understand Inuttitut. What’s left are conversations that take place in the second language of each speaker, which, if you ask me, doesn’t allow for optimal understanding.
I wanted to illustrate Nunavik’s linguistic reality, where Inuttitut mixes with French and English. I don’t speak the Inuit language, but over the years the kids have taught me a lot, enough so that I understand some words and exchange basic information. It’s a beautiful language and I wanted to share its beauty with readers. You learn a lot about a culture through its language. For example, the word “please” doesn’t exist in Inuttitut, nor the expression “I’m sorry.” So, when you hurt someone, it’s more likely you have to do something to make it up to the person.
Language seems to me a key element in the relationship between North and South. For the Inuit, it’s annoying to always have to express themselves in a second language with workers from the South. For the French-speaking Québécois, protecting the French language remains a sore spot, and they are upset by the predominance of English in Nunavik.
Which Quebec writers mean the most to you?
There are many, but the first who comes to mind is Louis Hamelin. I read Cowboy in CEGEP and it left a real impression on me. I had already been interested in indigenous culture and his powerful story of what life was like for the community in the novel moved me deeply. I fell in love with his writing and next I read all his other titles, Le joueur de flûte and Sauvages, for instance. I love everything I’ve read by Louis Hamelin. I also follow his column in Le Devoir, but Cowboy remains the most influential for me. I would say Anne Hébert as well, especially Les Fous de Bassan (In the Shadow of the Wind) which, even though I read it in high school, remains with me to this day. How she tells the story—mentioning the death of the two young girls at the beginning and slowly leading us toward the reasons for their disappearance; the density of her writing; the description of a very isolated community—inspired me for Nirliit. Naomi Fontaine, the young Innu author, and her wonderful Kuessipan, for the minimalist aspect of writing, without frills, are deeply affecting. Dany Laferrière, for his writing’s sensuality and the irresistible exoticism of his world. Marie-Sissi Labrèche, for the hopeless beauty in her writing, the will to survive, that cuts right to the heart.
I’m interested in a lot, but I think that I mostly read books about land, identity, and the overlap of cultures, of indigenous and immigrant people.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I’ve begun writing my second novel. It also takes place in Salluit and is inspired by the children I met through the day camps. I’m interested in the transition from adolescence to adulthood; these young people are often remarkably resilient, but they encounter many challenges growing up. I feel like I have more stories to tell about the Inuit world. Nirliit let me introduce the reality of the North and share the emotional experience I lived out there. With this second novel, I hope to focus more on the story and the characters in it—I feel like I’ll be able to take readers along with me now since they already have some knowledge of this world. Other than that, I’m working on a play about individualism through the lens of public transportation. I’m also adapting Nirliit for a performance at the Maison de la littérature in Quebec City for spring 2017. From September to February 2017, I’m a writer-in-residence at the Henri-Bourassa library in Montréal-Nord, where I’m working on cultural mediation projects with the local community.
Interview and translation by Anna Matthews