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 more publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
Pasha Malla has written four books. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Walrus, the Journey Prize Stories, and Taddle Creek. The Withdrawal Method, his first book, was longlisted for the Giller Prize, shortlisted for The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book) and won both the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award. He lives in Toronto.
What is your relationship to Quebec writing? Can you remember the first time you picked up a book from Quebec? Did you read any of it at school?
I’m embarrassingly under-read when it comes to writing from Quebec, especially in French. I’ve read some of the big English books—Mordecai Richler, etc.—and I went to Concordia, so I know a lot of Anglo Quebecers who are publishing work now—terrific writers like Dimitri Nasrallah, John Goldbach, Anna Leventhal, etc.—but I’m not really up on Quebec fiction otherwise. (Does Mavis Gallant still count? What about Anne Carson?) The first book from Quebec I read was definitely The Hockey Sweater, likely in grade three or four, and I read La Guerre, Yes Sir in high school—both in translation.
What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature? Do you tend to read literature from Quebec mostly in French (or in translation) or fiction from Quebec originally written in English?
I am definitely the wrong person to ask this question. I read very, very slowly in French, but I’ve had a go at Michel Tremblay’s Bonbons assortis and some of Nicole Brossard’s work. Mostly, yes, the Quebec fiction I read is English-language, first, and then stuff in translation.
What excites you most in the books you read?
A feeling that I’m encountering something completely unique and necessary, that could only exist in this form, written by this person. I like stuff with palpable urgency—a sense that the author is writing against their own death, in a way, maybe. A sense of humour helps too.
What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?
Not sure about “important,” as that seems subjective. As does “best.” I mean, I really like Marie-Claire Blais’ A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, but I’m sure some people can’t get through it… Answering this question is just reaffirming how little I know about Quebec fiction.
After your piece in The New Yorker on the challenges of French Canadian literature in translation, why do you think so little of what is published in Quebec in French makes it over into English?
I started writing that piece having no idea or preconceptions about why there’s such a dearth of French Canadian writing being read outside of Quebec, and I’m not really sure I came up with an answer, though I did like some of the things you touched on—Quebec’s cultural isolation and insularity, as well as the “too similar/too different” schema. I also think that Anglo Canadians have some ingrained prejudices that probably aren’t helping things, either.
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?
My pal Mike Steeves just published Giving Up, and I think it’s pretty great. The city in the book isn’t named, but Mike lives in Montreal, so readers can do the math. As for francophone literature, I was really impressed with Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, as I hope I made clear in that New Yorker piece. I’m excited to read his other books.