Interview with Karen I. Ocaña

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.

Born in Toronto in 1960, Karen Ocaña grew up multilingual. She began translating, unofficially, at age four. Officially, Karen’s translation career took off in 1980 with a stint in Quebec City, post-referendum, at the Ministère d’Industrie, Commerce et Tourisme. Karen earned a B.A. in French (U of T/86) followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature (McGill/96) followed by a Graduate Diploma in Translation (McGill/2002). Karen’s translations of essays by Gilles Deleuze, Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Cache, Michel Maffesoli, and José Gil have appeared in various publications, but her first published translation was of two poems by David McFadden, from his collection Gypsy Guitar, into Spanish (Indigo magazine, 1990). Rooms (Guernica Editions) is her first book-length translation.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32What are you reading at the minute?

I’ve got a few books on the go, as usual, a hang-up from student days. For professional purposes, I’m reading a thriller by Martin Michaud, Je me souviens. For pleasure, Carole David’s L’Année de ma disparition and Femmes au temps des carnassiers by Marie-Célie Agnant. Oh, and my Christmas present to myself: Arundhati Roy’s new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.


Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to reading this year?

Absolutely! Besides Élise Turcotte and Nelly Arcan, both of whom I’ve been dying to read, there are two Québécois novels from the mid-sixties I’ll be reading to better understand Catherine Mavrikakis’ 2002 novel, Ça va aller, which, when I read it last year, blew my mind. They’re Hubert Aquin’s Prochain épisode and Réjean Ducharme’s L’avalée des avalés. Aquin and Ducharme are characters in Ça va aller.


What is your relationship to Quebec writing?

I began reading Quebec literature as a high school student in Toronto and was intrigued by its weirdness and beauty: Gabrielle Roy, Marie-Claire Blais, and Mordecai Richler, to name a few. At U of T I majored in French and in 1988 we moved to Montreal. To pay the bills I worked in media relations/corporate communications at Air Canada. When I bailed four years ago it was to return to my first love, literature. In 2017, Rooms, my translation of Louise Dupré’s Chambres, was short-listed for the QWF Cole Foundation Prize for Translation.


What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

Perhaps the most enduring quality of Quebec literature is its preoccupation with identity. And, perhaps this fact is due to Quebec’s composite nature. Remembrance is a strong theme. When I say composite I’m alluding to both linguistic and cultural diversity. I can’t define Quebec literature but I can say what enriches it: a vast geography, a complicated history, thorny linguistic, and political issues, and the usual juicy tensions: class warfare, gender battles, inter-generational skirmishes, immigration.

Quebec literature is literature! It is what books and dreams are made of.


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?

Depending on the day of the week, it could be Nicole Brossard’s novel Le désert mauve, or Mary di Michele’s poetry collection Bicycle Thieves, Louise Dupré’s Plus haut que les flammes or Cora Sire’s Behold Things Beautiful. I might recommend Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane, a novel I read in English translation, or Irena Karafilly’s A House on Selkirk Avenue. Or (why not?) Josephine Bacon’s breathtaking book of poetry Nipishapui Nete Mushuat, available in both English and French translation.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Finally, more generally speaking, what are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?

I’d say the fictional classics of Quebec literature include Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater and Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute in English), which have lost none of their magic. Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes and Marie-Claire Blais’s La Belle Bête are both crucial reading. My go-to favourites are Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, a novel, and The Book of Longing, poems, but also several of Michel Tremblay’s plays—Les Belles Soeurs, or, more recently, En pièces détachées. In non-fiction, it’s hard to go wrong with Charles Taylor’s, The Sources of the Self, or Pierre Anctil’s Juifs et Canadiens français dans la société québécoise.