Biblioasis recently released The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay in a translation by Sheila Fischman. Here is publisher Dan Wells’ conversation with the author.
The Orange Grove tells the story of two twin boys living in what seems to be an Edenic orange grove in the middle of a war-torn country. When their grandparents are killed by an errant missile, their father is asked to sacrifice one of them to avenge the death of his parents. I want to start by asking you about the origins of this story. How, and why, did you come to write it?
A few years ago I wrote a play called War Cantata, about the origin of ethnic conflicts. I was interested in exploring the question of why these types of ethnic conflicts keep recurring, without end. I hoped that my play would offer at least one type of answer: it showed how a soldier taught his young child his hatred. The Orange Grove continues where this left off, exploring further how violence is transmitted, from person to person, through generations.
The majority of The Orange Grove is set in an unnamed country. Though your readers may immediately bring their own preconceptions to the book—on my first reading, for instance, I was certain it would be a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—you are purposefully vague about where this novel—at least before the narrative moves to Canada—is set. You are also vague about the exact ethnic background of the participants. Can you explain briefly why you took this approach?
If I had written this novel in a more realistic manner, set in a very specific time and space, focusing on a specific country or conflict, the reader would have been tempted to take a Manicheanistic view: these people are good, these people are bad, these are right, those are wrong. This is not what I wanted to achieve. I wanted, rather, the reader to focus and think about the causes of war and hatred and ethnic violence in a more general way. Specificity would have gotten in the way. What I am talking about is unfortunately much more universal.
When I recently reread your novel, my mind turned to the current Syrian refugee crisis. Though this novel is not explicitly about the current crisis, it touches on the plight of refugees quite powerfully, and the tenuous situation in which they often find themselves. A refugee camp in the novel is targeted, through an act of deception, with a barbaric terrorist act, and one of the twin brother ends up coming to Canada, if not as a de facto refugee than as one in all but name—after his father. Was the plight of refugees in your mind while you were writing this novel?
I’m currently writing a play about this very subject. But during the writing of The Orange Grove, I was more concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with the situation in Lebanon. But the question of war and refugees go hand in hand: you would not have so many of the latter if it wasn’t for the former.
A lot of fiction coming out of French Quebec grapples in an overt way with political subjects, set on a world stage, in a fashion that rarely happens in English Canada. Do you have any thoughts on why this is the case?
Twenty years ago, Quebec writers were more concerned with relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada. But now, many of us have put this aside, and are more concerned with exploring the relationship between Quebec and the rest of the world. It’s impossible not to be concerned by what happens in other countries. Everything is so much more interconnected than it was even a couple of decades ago. It’s natural that our fiction reflects this.
That, finally, we are all brothers and sisters.
Your novel has already been incredibly successful. It has sold close to 25,000 copies in Quebec since its release in October 2013; it’s already won eight prizes, including the prestigious Quebec Booksellers’ Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and has been nominated for three other Canadian and international prizes. And over the last year the book has been translated into at least six languages—including English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Hebrew, and Chinese—and eight territories. What accounts for this book’s success? What are people responding to?
It’s hard to say. It is a universal story told simply, allegorically, an emotionally immediate and important subject. It’s hopeful, the response to this book: it shows that people still care, that we have not become totally indifferent to the plight of others. I’m thankful for this.