By Linda Leith
"This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love."
-- Vladimir Nabokov
Poet and psychiatrist Joël des Rosiers wins Quebec’s national literary prize
The Prix du Québec have just been announced. These are Quebec’s national prizes, each worth $30,000, and they are awarded annually to honour a lifetime of accomplishment in a dozen different scientific and cultural fields.
Among them is the literary Prix Athanase-David, which this year goes to Joël des Rosiers, a poet born in Haiti in 1951 who came to Montreal as a teenager.
Created in 1977, the prize has honoured many of the great names of Quebec literature, from Jacques Ferron and Anne Hébert to Marie-Claire Blais and Gaston Miron.
Quebec literature, in the early decades of the award, was the literature of the Québécois de souche, the old-stock francophone Quebecers whose families had been here for generations. It is only recently that the award has been opened up to writers working in French but born elsewhere (Austrian-born Monique Bosco, who was raised in France, won in 1996, and Baghdad-born Naïm Kattan in 2004). In 2006, Mavis Gallant became the first Quebec writer working in English to get the nod.
And now, for the first time, one of Quebec’s talented Haïtian writers has finally been recognized. This is the world of the late, lamented Émile Ollivier and the world of Des Rosiers’ contemporary, the novelist Dany Laferrière. It is a milieu celebrated by another Haïtian immigrant to Montreal, Rodney St.-Éloi, in his work both as poet and as publisher of Mémoire d’encrier. These and other writers from Haïti have been contributing greatly to the revitalization of Quebec literature.
Des Rosiers' work has not gone unnoticed, with his collection Vétiver winning both the Prix du Festival international de poésie in Trois-Rivières and the Montreal Grand prix du livre in 1999. The English translation of Vétiver by Hugh Hazelton (Signature Editions, 2005) won the Governor General’s award for Translation. His most récent collection Gaïac (Triptyque 2010) was nominated for the prestigious Prix Alain-Grandbois.
In addition to being a gifted poet and a practicing psychiatrist, Des Rosiers is a courageous and open-minded gentleman for whom I have great respect. This, as we all know, has nothing much to do with literary merit, most of the time. I mention it because it gives me even more reason to rejoice that Quebec has chosen to celebrate Joël des Rosiers and his work with its highest literary honour.
© Linda Leith 2011
[This post appears today, November 1st, 2011, on "In Other Words" on The Globe & Mail's website.)