This is the second in a series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis. In the future, we hope to talk to publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec. (Click here to read the first interview, with Dimitri Nasrallah.)
Robin Philpot founded publishing company Baraka Books in 2009. He co-wrote A People’s History of Quebec with Jacques Lacoursière and most recently wrote Rwanda and the New Scramble for Africa. He has also written six books in French, published between 1991 and 2014, including Derrière l’état Desmarais : POWER. Baraka Books has published more than 30 books from Quebec, many of them translated from the French.
What is your relationship to Quebec writing and why did you found Baraka Books?
I discovered Quebec literature, both fiction and nonfiction, while living in Burkina Faso (then Haute-Volta) in the early 1970s. Quebecers there lent me books that I’d never heard about even though I grew up in Ontario. Since settling in Quebec in 1974, I have always been amazed at the broad scope of writing and publishing in Quebec. It also amazed me that so few important Quebec books would be made available to English-speaking readers in Canada, the United States, and overseas. That was one of the main reasons we founded Baraka Books. The idea came from Denis Vaugeois, who is a historian, publisher, and former minister of cultural affairs with the Quebec government, but that idea really jibed with my observations and experience.
What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?
Quebec literature is innovative and in most cases is written for Quebecers first, but it also has universal appeal. Generally speaking, Quebec writers know whom they are writing for, namely the people of Quebec. That is always the biggest challenge for writers, especially when it is tempting to try to write for the huge neighbouring market, be it France or the United States.
What excites you most in a book?
Making a difference. It is telling a story, be it as fiction or nonfiction, that will make a difference in how people see a major event, a historical period, a people, etc.
What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?
Michel Tremblay’s work is crucial as is that of Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, Yves Beauchemin, Yves Thériault, and many more. One reason is the way they experiment with language, just as singers and songwriters do. It’s a way of breathing life into the French language.
VLB is important because he situates Quebec literature in world literature. His portraits of great writers are amazing… Ferron, Voltaire, Joyce, Kérouac, Hugo and others. I’ve read quite a few works by these writers. There are also many great women writers, some of whom I have read. Denise Boucher comes to mind, but also very popular writers like Marie Laberge. There are also a great many works of nonfiction, historical, political, scientific, all of which present a unique world view that, unfortunately, does get the attention deserved and is underestimated.
What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing?
In the 40 or so years since I’ve been actively reading Quebec literature, there have been many books that have inspired me. Perhaps if I re-read them now, they will inspire me less.
What is your favourite book from Quebec that you have published?
To choose one book would be unfair to the others. I’m proud of most of the translations we’ve published. In my opinion, each of the books contributes to illustrating the diversity and depth in Quebec writing.
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?
Today? I would recommend the most recent book that I read by a Quebec author, En mission dans la tourmente des dictatures, Haïti, Équateur, Chili by Claude Lacaille. It is now being translated by Casey Roberts and will appear in English in 2015. In short, a Quebec priest tells the story of his involvement, and that of many others, in the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, but also here in Quebec. The battles they had with Pinochet and those who supported him, like Popes Jean-Paul II and Benedict XVI.