Bravo to CALQ on its Forum on Quebec writing -- with an aside
13 May 2011

There was a more or less formal requirement for me to attend the Forum on Quebec writing that took place last weekend at Montreal's beautiful Grande bibliothèque. As a member of the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec (CALQ) advisory commission on literature, I am called on to propose and comment on new directions for funding programmes, so it made sense for me to show up to hear what the invited speakers and other members of the literary milieu have to say. What could have been a long weekend of dutiful note taking, however, turned out to be a promising exercise that provided food for thought.

On arrival in the library, I was impressed to see a poster announcing a children’s story session in Arabic. When I met the Director of Cultural Programming of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), I wanted to congratulate her on her multilingual programming. But no, she said. All of the BAnQ’s cultural programming is in French only, she explained; it turns out the session in Arabic does not come under her mandate.

The good news is that the person responsible for children’s programming -- gold star! -- has come up with an Heure du conte TD en arabe on Sundays during the month of May, with a follow up Chinese Heure du conte TD en chinois scheduled for June. I like to think that the BaNQ and TD have both been inspired by multilingual example of Blue Metropolis and its Children’s Festival programming, which is also sponsored by TD.

The meaning of the term “Quebec writer” has never been limited to the vieille souche francophone, but it did not often stray further from an Irish father or an Italian grandmother until writers like Naïm Kattan and Dany Laferrière came into the picture. It has taken longer – it is taking longer in some quarters – for writers working in English to be welcomed into the fold.

We will still play no role – as I learned during the Forum -- in the cultural programming that the government-run BAnQ is now expanding right across Quebec. This being an admirable institution dedicated to inclusion, I find myself wondering if there might one day be a storytelling session for children in English -- an Heure du conte en anglais.

All of which is reason to be encouraged by the organization of the Forum itself -- and by the evident care taken to be inclusive not only of the English-speaking linguistic minority, but also of the regions of Quebec, storytellers, First Nations writing, and non-traditional genres, including multimedia, digital, and performance artists. So congratulations to the steering committee, which includes representatives of literary organizations, writers’ and storytellers’ associations, funding agencies for book and magazine publishing, the BAnQ, and all three arts councils -- most notably CALQ itself, which brought everyone together and made it work.

The composition of the opening night panel was exemplary, featuring First Nations poet Jean Sioui, novelist and essayist Neil Bissoondath, poet, novelist and essayist Nicole Brossard, and storyteller Jocelyn Bérubé. Hard to find fault with that lineup, even if I did notice that the BAnQ, Canada Council and CALQ officials who spoke at the outset expressed considerably more interest in new and digital directions than the writers themselves.

Steering committee member (representing the Quebec Writers' Federation) and novelist Peter Dubé, spoken word artist Fortner Anderson, and I were among the two dozen writers invited to participate in Saturday breakout sessions; one of these was hosted by ELAN president Guy Rodgers, who therefore also participated in the Sunday morning plenary when panel hosts reported on the discussions. Tweeters were sending comments and clips out into the twitosphère all weekend, as well, and both opening and closing plenaries were webcast.

When Aline Apostolska, as host of my own session, asked for my view of the expansion across Quebec of the BAnQ’s cultural programming, I argued in favour of including English-language programming both in Montreal and in the regions. My main contribution was to propose the creation of an international centre for literary translation. Commenting on the need for Quebec to take advantage of global opportunities offered by the digital revolution, I outlined some of the ways in which English-language writers could and should be involved in the international promotion of Quebec literature.

In her elegant wrap-up comments on Sunday morning, plenary host Marie-Andrée Lamontagne made a point of stressing the inclusivity of the proceedings and summarized the weekend and the proposals put forward, which will of course cost a lot more money than the very small share of the funding pudding currently available for literature. The weekend concluded with remarks from CALQ President Yvan Gauthier, who was justifiably delighted with the Forum, acknowledged literature is currently underfunded and stopped (just?) short of promising writers a bigger portion.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we will all be awaiting further developments. In the meantime, bravo M. Gauthier on a job well done.

Linda Leith


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