Writing in the Time of Nationalism

From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

The story Linda Leith tells in her latest book is the story of a literary community that went missing from the map of Canada for a generation before re-emerging over the last decade in a remarkable renaissance where many Montreal novelists — think Yann Martel, Anne Carson, Miguel Syjuco, Rawi Hage, Heather O'Neill and Louise Penny — have garnered world-wide attention as well as scooping some of the galaxy's major book prizes, including the Man Booker, ScotiaBank Giller, Dublin IMPAC awards.

"This is a good cultural history, detailed, first person, parti-pris, but also abundantly sourced and referenced. And as good cultural history should, it's a window onto many wider historical topics too." -- Christopher Moore, Literary Review of Canada


Youtube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdZNSPx1FQQ

Montreal was the literary centre of Canada in the 1940s, a hotbed of literary activity in both English and French crowned by the international success of Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes and Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute. With the rise of nationalism in both English Canada and Quebec, Toronto emerged as the literary centre of English Canada, with Montreal the literary centre of Quebec. In literary terms, Canada and Quebec became two different countries, with two different languages and two different literatures. English Montreal went into decline and its once-great writers were marginalized. Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis is an insider's story of the writers who have been caught between these rival nationalisms. Herself a writer, Linda Leith was a leading figure in the creation of the Quebec Writers' Federation, and she is the founder of Blue Metropolis Foundation. The story she tells is the story of a literary community that went missing from the map of Canada for a generation, and that has reemerged over the past ten years in a renaissance that has garnered international attention, winning some of the major book awards such as the Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Prize, and the Dublin IMPAC Award.


Building bridges with literature

Lisa Fitterman (Link to original review)

The boy was tattooed, with lots of metal piercings and a prickly mien. No more than 15 years old, he was one in a class of high school students whose teacher had bought them to the Blue Metropolis literary festival to participate in a writing workshop. Watching him work, festival founder Linda Leith briefly wondered what he would make of the experience. Would he be inspired? Or would he disparage it to his friends, calling it yet another "bleeping" lame exercise foisted on him by adults?

Of course, Leith soon had to turn her attention to other things. As Blue Metropolis's president and artistic director, she had to be everywhere at once, introducing authors, checking attendance and soothing fans who wanted tickets to events that were sold out. But she didn't forget the boy. Until one day the following year, she saw him again, unmistakable, still tattooed and pierced. Only this time, he'd returned to the festival as a volunteer.

"He could have been English or French, it didn't matter," Leith said over a cup of tea. "Often, it's the first time these kids are exposed to the possibility that it's possible to make a living as a writer. And this boy had been so touched by the experience, he came back on his own."

It's one of the memories Leith carries with her as she leaves the festival after 14 years, for it represents what she tried to do during her tenure. That sense of inclusion is also one of the themes of her new book, Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis. Because even as the festival was conceived as a way to build bridges between the two solitudes of French and English, it soon branched out to embrace other languages and cultures, from Spanish and Italian to Farsi, and readers and writers of all ages. Literary luminaries who have appeared include Haitian Montrealer Dany Laferrière and Mavis Gallant, the Montreal-born, Paris-based writer who in 2002 sat on a stage with William Weintraub and reminisced about the good/bad old days here when they were both journalists.

Another memory is the appearance in 2004 of Paul Auster, the New Jersey-born, New York City-based novelist who has an ardent fan base in Europe, but is not quite so well-known here. "It was funny – when we were arranging to bring him here, anglophones kept saying ‘But we've never heard of him!' And then we had people in tears who'd come down from Chicoutimi to see him, they loved his work so much," she recalls.

Looking back, Leith, gentle, direct and thoughtful, says it was a dream job that sometimes didn't seem that way. Born of a literary partnership formed in 1996 between the Writer's Union of Canada and the Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois, she wasn't sure she'd be able to pull off the first festival, which was scheduled for April 1999. Back then, she was Blue Met – the accountant, the grant finder, program planner and in charge of outreach, as well as single mom to three sons and an author in her own right. There were money issues and personnel problems to sort through, egos to soothe and venues to pin down.

"In January, just three months before, I had a total of $5,000 in the bank account and I was too scared to spend it," she says. "It's like a big black cloud hanging over you. What if nothing happened and I'd have to pay it all back?"

Back then, no one suspected the festival would grow to have 11 full-time employees, plus seasonal workers, hordes of volunteers and an international reputation. Even its name, a literary mash-up of Fritz Lang's movie and an obscure philosophical essay on the colour blue by American William Gass that Leith once read, was a bit of a mystery. Blue could be anything: happy, sad, a river or, as one Torontonian once put it, "smoky."

"He said that only Montreal could have a 'Blue Metropolis' because everyone smoked here," Leith laughs. "Though I don't think that's the case now."

Now 60, a single mom to three now-grown sons, a translator and author of seven books, including the book about Blue Met, Leith leaves the festival with no regrets. She is happy with what she calls Act I of Blue Met, with Act II up to her successor, William St. Hilaire.

"If you look at 15 years ago, there was no such literary event in Montreal that took place in French and English," she says. "Now, you open the listings and every week, there are several events like that. English writers are aware who their counterparts are working in French and winning awards, and vice versa. Blue Met helped do that."

So she is on to other things, to finishing the novel she has been trying to write, travelling and continuing as the volunteer president of the Quebec Communities Group Network. She'll also be back at Blue Met, maybe even volunteering alongside a young man whose tattoos and piercings once caught her eye and made her wonder.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Memoirs, p. 30

Stephen Henighan (Link to original review)


Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis, 204 pp. Winnipeg MB. Signature Editions. Can $18.95. 978 1 897109 48 2

In the 1940s, Montreal was the literary capital of Canada. Modernist poets writing in English flourished alongside internationally published realist novelists, both anglophone and francophone. The post-war boom that shifted Canada's economic centre westward to Toronto coincided with rising support for independence among Quebec francophones. Between the early 1960s and the referendum of 1995, a series political crises brought Canada to the brink of dissolution. As Linda Leith recounts in this candid, engaging memoir, these events cast English writing in Quebec into a void between competing nationalisms.

From the 1970s onwards, Quebec revised its history in a way that denied the cultural achievements of anglophones. Ontario-based critics, rewriting the literary history of Canada, fashioned a narrative that obscured Montreal's earlier dominance. The nadir came in the 1980s and early 90s, when Canada's national institutions, both public and private, ignored anglophone Quebec out of nervousness at offending the rebellious province's francophone majority. Writers within the anglophone community -- which accounts for roughly 10 per cent of Quebec's population of 7.9 million -- found they had nowhere to publish.

Since 2000, for the first time since the 1940s, international literary prizes have been awarded to anglophone Quebec writers, such Jeffrey Moore (Commonwealth Best First Book Award), Yann Martel (Booker Prize), Rawi Hage (Dublin IMPAC Award) and Miguel Syjuco (Man Asia Prize). Leith is well placed to tell the story of "the Anglo Literary Revival". Her tendency to overplay occasionally her own undeniable centrality to the rebuilding of anglophone Quebec's literary institutions is balanced by clear-eyed observations about the ironies of literary life in a city where the use of English is in decline. The Blue Metropolis Literary Festival that Leith founded in 1999 to heal the divisions between anglophone and francophone writers has evolved into a model for multilingual literary festivals elsewhere. Yet it is unclear that the competing nationalisms have receded. Though Blue Metropolis is by some measures the biggest literary festival in Canada, it is regularly omitted from articles on Canadian literary festivals published in Toronto. In Quebec, certain nationalist intellectuals continue to avoid the festival, whose multilingualism they see as an affront to Montreal's "French face". The return of Anglo-Quebec writers to international prominence may simply mean that global marketing has become stronger than the most stubborn nationalism. STEPHEN HENIGHAN

Note to ROC: Anglo Montreal has great writers, too

Marianne Ackerman (Link to original review)

If the true purpose of literary memoirs is to settle scores and put the record straight, Linda Leith’s Writing in the Time of Nationalism, From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis is as true as they come.

Big, bold, and oh so blue

Toula Foscolos (Link to original review)

Linda Leith offers us an insider’s look at the birth of Blue Metropolis

If you never thought that a book about the Anglo Literary Revival could be a page turner, it’s only because you haven’t, yet, read Linda Leith’s provocative, insightful, and thoroughly engrossing Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis. As many of you may already know, Leith, a Westmount resident, is the founder (and until recently) the director of the uniquely multilingual Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

As an author and as someone who has been involved in most of the key developments affecting the English Montreal Literary scene over the past 30 years, she was always ideally positioned to offer an insider perspective, and I have to admit... the end result is a fascinating ride.

In her book, Leith explores how rising Quebec nationalism in the ‘60s and ‘70s created in essence two separate countries; Two Solitudes, to borrow Hugh MacLennan’s own words. The book recounts how, during those decades, English Montreal went into decline and its writers became marginalized, forgotten and neglected, both here and in the ROC.

It’s a fundamental paradox that Leith explores in her book; one that many francophones may have a hard time understanding. How is it possible that members of the world’s most powerful linguistic community are complaining about marginalization? But here’s the conundrum: Anglos are a minority within a minority, living in a city which houses a majority that is also a minority in the rest of the world. Confused? So are the rest of us who live here most of the time.

According to Quebecoise literary critic, Gilles Marcotte, back in 1989, “there could be no such thing as an English-Quebec writer,” Leith recounts. “English- speaking Quebec had not only become a non-place; I had become a non-person living in this non-place.”

The book is essentially Leith’s story of how Blue Metropolis came about, partly as an attempt to showcase Montreal’s literary talent, and partly as a fervent hope to bridge the literary divides. But it’s about so much more; particularly the fragile and always-tenuous linguistic dynamics that make this city so frustrating, yet so exhilarating to reside in.

How is it possible that members of the world’s most powerful linguistic community are complaining about marginalization?

Those interested in the vital role that language plays in reflecting a community, but also in shaping it, will find this book of great interest. Over the years, artists from both side of the linguistic fence have climbed over and found a no man’s land devoid of politics to come together and create, as well as document, a common reality.

But, true to form, linguistic politics continue undaunted, both in Quebec and the ROC. It was only a month ago at the Juno’s that Quebecers watched a tribute to Canadian music that did not include a single French song. Only a month ago that ADISQ (Quebec’s recording industry association) chose not to award Arcade Fire (Quebec’s most celebrated musical export at the moment, winners of the Grammys and the Junos) an award, because “they weren’t Quebecois enough.” The Gazette’s Brendan Kelly wrote a pertinent column on the subject, entitled: “Arcade Fire said it best: Wake up.”

“Blue Metropolis is a Utopian idea,” Leith says. “It’s the city we want to love in, or at least the city I want to live in.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Leith chose to reproduce Rilke’s quotation (upon which MacLennan based his Two Solitudes title) in its entirety in the book. “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” I think this is Leith’s subtle, yet firm, message to all of us who call this place home.

Linda Leith's Writing in A Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

Christopher Moore (Link to original review)

Linda Leith's Writing in A Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

I have been at the Blue Met this week, talking about From Then to Now, and I got the chance to hear Leith talk about this book. She is a central figure in what she calls the Anglo Revival -- of English language writing in Montreal. She has been not only a writer and teacher but a substantial cultural entrepreneur too, involved in most of the organizations and events by which English-language writers in Quebec have forced themselves upon the attention of Quebec, Canada, and the world. Blue Metropolis is the successful international literary festival in which both the readers and the audiences are as much French-speaking as English-speaking. Leith was the founder and until recently director of the festival, but the book is more than a record of the festival's creation.

Her memoir speaks from the embattled heart of Montreal's English-language literary community -- from the 1970s to today. In Leith's telling, English-language writing in Quebec was threatened not only by Quebec nationalists who resented Anglo attempts at cross-cultural rapprochement and denied there was such a thing as English culture in Quebec, but just as much by English Canadian nationalists who more-or-less agreed. Her fight, she argues, was as much against Toronto as against those who would exclude English from Quebec. "If there had not been a Toronto, we would have had to invent Toronto," she writes.

This is a good cultural history, detailed, first person, parti-pris, but also abundantly sourced and referenced. And as good cultural history should, it's a window onto many wider historical topics too.

Writing in A Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

Jason Camlot (Link to original review)


Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

Linda Leith

Signature Editions

204 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781897109489

Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis provides an important personalized historical account of the politics and institutions that have informed the production and dissemination of Montreal English-language fiction from the mid 1960s to the present. Linda Leith’s teleological history begins even earlier, though, with a brief account of the “glory days” or “golden age” of English Quebec fiction in the 1950s—when Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant emerged as internationally recognized authors. The story then moves into its telling of “the decline from the glorious past to the inglorious present” during the decades of the Quiet Revolution (1960s), the rise of the Parti Québécois (1970s) and subsequent referendums on sovereignty (1980 and 1995). It goes on to describe the energetic and entrepreneurial activities of Anglo-Quebec writers like herself to develop an institutional infrastructure that has enabled, in Leith’s opinion, an “Anglo Literary Revival,” the seeds of which “were sown with the creation of Blue Metropolis Foundation in 1997 and then of the Quebec Writers’ Federation in 1998.”

Leith tells the story with the same frank optimism and good-natured pluck that has characterized her work as a writer, scholar, teacher and literary organizer from the moment she returned to Montreal to teach at an English CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) in 1975. Leith’s narrative of her personal experience in Quebec begins when her family moved to Pointe-Claire Village, about 15 kilometres west of downtown Montreal, in 1963. She was 13 years old and had already lived in Northern Ireland (where she was born), London and Basel. These early memories of her arrival in Quebec describe an encounter with a traditional French Canadian village—“there were nuns on the streets”—that would soon be radically transformed by the major political initiatives of Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party of Quebec. That transformation included the nationalization of Hydro-Québec (in 1963, under the guidance of then Liberal Hydraulic Resources minister René Lévesque), the establishment of a Quebec Pension Plan (1966) and the secularization of education, including the replacement of classical colleges with CEGEPs (1967). And this is how much of Leith’s narrative proceeds, alternating between personal (but never very personal) observations and more generic accounts of the political events and changes that were going on around her. It is a sound procedure, and readers will learn much about the social and political history of post-war Quebec by reading this book.

The real point, however, lies in how Leith makes connections between these personal and general political histories and the history of Anglo-Quebec literature. Montreal in the second regime of Maurice Duplessis (1944–59), a period since known as “la Grande noirceur” (the Great Darkness) for its corruption and for the repressive “authority of both the Catholic Church and Anglophone-controlled business,” is also the period that coincides with Leith’s above-mentioned “golden age” of English Quebec fiction. These “good old bad old days” were so nourishing to English-language writers, Leith suggests, not only because of the bohemian atmosphere that characterized Montreal at this time, but also because of the “often distant” relations between the French and English and the unproblematic self-identification of Montreal’s English-language writers “as Canadians.” With the death of Duplessis in 1959, the start of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec initiating change that “was overdue” and the subsequent articulation of new forms of Québécois and Canadian national identity came the impossibility for Anglo-Quebeckers of any simple mode of national self-definition. Here we are moving toward one primary thesis of Leith’s book, which states that the contending nationalist projects of Canada and Quebec arising in the 1960s and ’70s alienated, isolated and essentially exiled the English-language writers of Quebec: “The assertion of rival national identities called for clear boundaries, and writers working in English in Montreal were a complication that neither side was in any hurry to claim. We had become writers without a country.”

As we follow along, a series of pervading binaries—Quebec versus Canadian nationalism, Toronto versus Montreal as dominant centres of English Canadian and French Québécois literature, Michel Tremblay versus Margaret Atwood as representatives of two distinct national literary identities—come to inform the logic of Leith’s narrative. While these binaries certainly oversimplify the complexities that Leith is genuinely interested in discussing, it is clear how they help push forward her narrative about Blue Metropolis and the recent Anglo Literary Revival.

Leith poured herself into the work of developing the Blue Metropolis Festival in order to “promote the work of English-language writers” from Quebec in a manner “that would allow us to rub shoulders with international writers” and “to invent a new kind of literary festival for Montreal … that would cross the linguistic divide.” These two themes—international promotion and internal rapprochement—inform her understanding of what she has accomplished as a festival organizer and direct the connections she makes between national politics and local, organizational politics.

It is interesting to remember how these two concerns were addressed by English-language writers (mainly poets) in the early 1960s, at the very moment Leith first set foot in Quebec. Let’s take the example of promotion first. In what may well have been the last major English Quebec literary event before Leith’s proposed contending nationalisms model took hold, the Foster Poetry Conference (October 12–14, 1963), set in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, included all of the major English-language poets writing in Quebec at the time, including F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, John Glassco, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Ralph Gustafson, Leonard Cohen and D.G. Jones (to name fewer than half of the participants). Consisting of position papers, panel discussions and poetry readings, and funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs of the Province of Quebec, the conference ended with the adoption of three lengthy resolutions, which, in summary, called for provincial support for Quebec-based poetry endeavours and federal grants to support author tours, and for the CBC to provide “adequate opportunities for the presentation of Canadian poetry on its television facilities.”

One hears in these resolutions the desire of a community of writers who had been quite recently the central figures of Canadian literature (of poetic modernism in Canada, to be more accurate) seeking ways to promote themselves within Canada. While Leith does not really consider poetry in her book, and rather casually remarks that the history of Anglo-Quebec poets more or less “overlaps with that of the fiction writers” (an obviously contestable statement), the Foster conference poets’ ambition for national recognition becomes an impossible cul-de-sac according to Leith’s narrative of Anglo literary torpor and revival. Instead she finds that Anglo-Quebec writers have since been forced to make their “mark on the world map” in order to be heard at all: “English writers from Montreal have been enjoying a revival in this new millennium, and are today taken as seriously internationally, if not nationally, as they were in the post-war golden age.”

The details Leith provides as evidence of how this happened make for the most interesting reading from the perspective of institutional history, and the juiciest in the way of insider knowledge. This story of institutional infrastructure building begins with the establishment of the QSPELL (Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature) prizes in 1988. Especially interesting here is Leith’s account of how the Anglo-Quebec political advocacy group “Alliance Quebec played a significant role in the creation of QSPELL,” and how this affiliation affected the integrity of the society from its inception in the minds of many francophone Quebeckers due to AQ’s public challenges to parts of Bill 101. “The emergence of QSPELL, politically compromised though it was,” writes Leith, “did have the effect of raising the profile of Anglo writers.” But local prizes were not enough. A full-fledged writers’ organization devoted to the promotion and development of Anglo-Quebec writing was necessary, and this “supportive infrastructure” would eventually come into being in 1998 as the Quebec Writer’s Federation. Between QSPELL and the QWF, in the year following the 1995 referendum, which resulted in a vote of 49.42 for sovereignty and 50.58 against, Leith found herself inspired by an editorial Lise Bissonnette published in Le Devoir “about Anglophone artists and intellectuals engaging with Quebec.” She decided to embark upon an effort of collaboration between English- and French-language writers. Thus emerges her second major theme: rapprochement.

For a liberal humanist (neo-Arnoldian) Anglo-Quebecker like Louis Dudek back in the early 1960s, rapprochement meant imagining the potential of a bilingual national literature. As Dudek wrote in his article “The Two Traditions: Literature and the Ferment in Quebec” (1962): “Canadian literature, if we understand it, becomes the whole literature of France and the whole literature of England standing behind the literature of French Canada and the literature of English Canada. We must conceive of it in this large, dramatic frame, if we are to escape from provincialism and if we are to create a new complex civilization in the north. This, and nothing less, must be our aim.” More than just a conciliatory meeting between MacLennan’s two solitudes, Dudek’s vision reveals “a greater Canada that is literary in two languages” that will in turn lead “to an endless, unexhausted future of creative effort.” This is a complex literary conception of matters soon to be explored politically by the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and made policy in the 1969 Official Languages Act.

As far as conceptions and examples of rapprochement go in Writing in the Time of Nationalism, Leith’s focus has little to do with Dudek’s idea of bilingual literary fusion. Rather, she provides a fascinatingly detailed chronicle of her attempts to convince members of Montreal’s francophone community that collaboration on multilingual events would be a worthwhile endeavour. Acting in 1996 as the Quebec representative on the national council of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Leith’s first effort was “to propose a historic event to UNEQ [Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois]: an event in French and in English that would be the first-ever collaboration between the two national writers’ unions.” The difficulties she and her collaborators encountered in pulling this event off included identifying the criteria for selecting participants (and avoiding those, like Mordecai Richler, who were “persona non grata among Francophones”), learning to write a budget in French and devising ways to avoid the word “bilingualism” (a term that “pressed all the wrong buttons in the political minefield of Quebec”) in describing the event for promotional purposes. This reading—advertised as “Write pour écrire”—did take place at the Lion D’Or (future site of the QWF awards) on October 31, 2006, with great success: “so many Francophones, so many Anglophones, various Allophones, all mingling with one another and amazed to find themselves in the same room.”

The concluding chapters describe in suspenseful detail the development of Blue Metropolis from its origin as an unrealized idea for a print magazine to a non-profit foundation, to a major international literary festival, including accounts of fundraising efforts, the continued scrapes with UNEQ, complex public relations negotiations about perceptions of the festival as a “federalist” “Anglo umbrella” and eventually of its formidable success as “the world’s first multilingual literary festival” that celebrates its homegrown writers (in many languages) alongside writers from across the globe.

Leith’s assertion that public gatherings like the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival have played a key role in creating a literary revival of English-language fiction in Quebec may suggest an outdated understanding of the national literary scene if one considers the growing use of digital modes of communication, the literary blog in particular, as a means of communicating local literary activities widely and bridging geographical distance across local writing scenes. Where small press budgets for expansive national author tours may not have changed much over the years, reviews and opinions, as well as audiovisual records of local events and readings, can now be shared with great ease, and in a format that invites interactive dialogue (in the form of posted “comments”), no matter where on the ground one is situated. It may be that the significance of the annual literary festival remains in tact, despite our new media, but it will be interesting to see whether Leith’s chosen methods of promotion will seem archaic to the literary impresario a decade hence.

Furthermore, with the focus so intently on the development of promotional avenues and venues for authors and publications, there is ultimately very little discussion of actual writing in Writing in the Time of Nationalism, and this is one of the book’s weaknesses. Leith does forward some preliminary observations about the importance of genre writing and “dystopian fiction in Montreal in the wake of the social upheavals” of the 1980s, and she makes similarly preliminary connections between the experimental, often interlingual feminist and lesbian writing emerging from Montreal in the 1990s and politically marginal or radical challenges to nationalist or hegemonic identities. But ultimately the book does not venture to describe to any extent what might define something called Anglo-Quebec fiction from a formal or aesthetic point of view.

Some of Leith’s thoughts on such matters can be found in an essay she published in Quebec Studies in 1989/1990 entitled “Quebec Fiction in English During the 1980s: a Case Study in Marginality”—a piece that seems to have been an early blueprint for her present book—but in Writing in the Time of Nationalism that sort of project is abandoned. This becomes most obvious in the closing “Revival” chapter of the book, where we find page-long lists of authors and the prizes they have won that add up to evidence of an Anglo Literary Revival, but very little in the way of qualitative characterization of these works. “There is no unity among these writers, nothing that could be considered a ‘school,’” she writes, using only the vaguest of categories, like “eccentricity” and “experimentation” as possible terms that identify texts on the list as having anything in common. In short, this is not a project of literary criticism or recovery, but rather a celebration of those who have received recognition due, in part, to Leith’s creation of the best “conditions” (dare one say, the “conditions gagnantes”1) for the “eventual success” of Anglo-Quebec fiction.


1 “Conditions gagnantes”—“winning conditions”—was a phrase associated with former premier Lucien Bouchard’s governance of Quebec during the period following the 1995 referendum

Momentous Gap on Quebec's Literary Map

Judit Molnar, Canadian Literature (Link to original review)

Readers of Canadian literature may wonder with apparent reason about what has happened to the glorious days of literature produced in Montreal after World War Two, a period associated with the names of Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant, and Mordecai Richler among others. In her memoir, Linda Leith invites us to a guided tour focussing on Montreal’s literary life since the 1940s—more precisely to an exploration of a rich segment of this body of literature invisible and unheard of for so long on the Canadian literary scene. Behind her proposed mission lies her contention that the strong nationalist sentiments in the 1960s both inside and outside Quebec had an enormous influence on the development of Anglophone writing in Quebec in the decades to follow. Anglophones as a minority within a minority became homeless—without a viable literary community and without recognition. According to Leith, the social, political, linguistic context in which writers work is of crucial importance indeed. That said, we can understand why Anglophone authors of the above mentioned period were silent and/or silenced in Montreal. However, there were some attempts made on the authors’ part to make their voices heard and be listened to: think of the Véhicule poets’ endeavours hand in hand with those of the Montreal Story Tellers.

Leith as an academic, a journalist, a translator, an editor, a publisher, and novelist herself has assumed the role of an ardent cultural and literary activist too, determined to change the situation for the writers who have chosen Montreal, the metropolis, for their creative activities. The multifaceted and unique ambiance surrounding these writers left some of them indifferent, some disappointed, and others somewhat annoyed and even offended. As an adamant insider of this grim reality, Leith supported but was obviously not satisfied with the notable accomplishments of organizations like the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-language Literature and the Quebec Writers’ Federation. In her book, she gives an elaborate and highly detailed account of the possible ways and means she has used and turned to in order to realize her plan, which was to bridge linguistic and other divides between the two and the other solitudes. Her idea was to create a possible rapprochement between and among the different communities. The cumulative, immense, and often incredible number of difficulties she had to grapple with is beyond description. This may explain why at times the tone she uses is too personal and repetitive. Her ambitious and unceasing attempts to raise funds of different sorts often failed and fell on deaf ears. But stern as she is, she never gave up; as a result the Write pour écrire event was followed by the creation of the Blue Metropolis Foundation (1997) just a step away from her role in establishing, as the artistic director, the annual Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival (1999). The word blue has been carefully chosen, for it has many meanings, many connotations as well; therefore, Leith hopes that it will satisfy all involved and concerned.

From the very beginning Leith has been a firm believer in international recognition that may easily precede recognition in the home country. This certainly held true for the aforementioned MacLennan, Gallant, and Richler. Accordingly, Leith’s clear idea behind this unique festival was to mix writers from different backgrounds in and outside Quebec and even outside Canada to provide them with an international and multilingual setting, a location in Montreal, for possible échanges.

Toward the end of the book, Leith compiles various lists that include the names of writers from Quebec who have recently won literary prizes internationally, demonstrating their phenomenal and unprecedented success. What one might miss, however, in this laudatory ending is a more detailed, powerful, and argumentative account of why one should read these works that are part and parcel of the Anglo Literary Revival and highly and heartily appreciated around the world.