Québec publishers and authors are confident looking abroad, searching less for reassurances and acknowledgment from the rest of the world than for new international outlets to share all they have to say. Traveling to foreign rights fairs, whether in London, New York, or Paris, is now routine, and with Canada gearing up to be guest of honor at Frankfurt 2020, Québec is ready to take its place on the global stage.
The Chainsaw School
What sets Québec authors apart is their willingness to take chances and do things differently. Some members of the latest wave of writers, those born after 1970, have been characterized by literary commentator Benoît Melançon, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as the École de la tchén’ssâ, or Chainsaw School, for their concern with themes such as the outdoors and masculinity. Authors belonging to this school are most often associated with publishers Le Quartanier in Montréal and La Peuplade in Saguenay. Perhaps most interesting, these resolutely local authors are, abroad, among the most recognizable names from Québec. Authors representing this return to Québec’s roots and rural preoccupations include Samuel Archibald (Arvida, shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award); Raymond Bock (Atavisms, published in translation by Dalkey Archive Press); Daniel Grenier (Malgré tout on rit à Saint-Henri, a short story collection, and The Longest Year, a novel published in translation by House of Anansi in 2017); and Geneviève Pettersen (The Goddess of Fireflies, published in translation by Montréal’s Véhicule Press). Jean-François Caron’s De bois debout (La Peuplade) and Christophe Bernard’s La bête creuse (Le Quartanier and winner of this year’s Prix des libraires du Québec, a major prize awarded by Québec’s booksellers) are two further examples.
As popular as Québec writers are abroad, Québec’s publishers are bringing the world home. From Hugues Corriveau’s Liverpool and Patrice Lessard’s Lisbon to Frédérick Lavoie’s Cuba and Michèle Plomer’s China, there is no shortage of distant places to visit in the pages of Québec fiction; Maya Ombasic’s Mostarghia, published by VLB éditeur, brings readers to Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, and is forthcoming in English translation from Biblioasis.
Montréal’s Baraka Books regularly tackles international affairs in books such as Stephen Gowans’s Patriots, Traitors, and Empires (about Korea) and Washington’s Long War on Syria. Yannis Tsirbas’s novella Vic City Express explores contemporary crisis-ridden Greece. The press also brings the best of contemporary Québec fiction in English translation to an international audience via its new QC Fiction imprint, which focuses on first-time novelists and translators. Linda Leith has published novels about life in Jerusalem (Arabic for Beginners by Ariela Freedman) and China (Shenzheners by acclaimed Chinese-Canadian writer Xue Yiwei), and La Peuplade has recently expanded its focus on Nordic writing to include books by writers from Greenland and Iceland.
Véhicule Press, now 45 years old, is another publisher that often turns its attention to global affairs. Dimitri Nasrallah, who heads Véhicule’s fiction imprint, Esplanade Books, most recently published his novel The Bleeds, which Véhicule describes as an “allegory of power and privilege resurrected from the thwarted ideals of the Arab Spring”; Nasrallah’s first novel, Niko, is an epic tale of life after civil war.
Encouraged by a drive toward diversity in publishing from the Canada Council for the Arts, publishers are also taking a greater interest in First Nations stories. Esplanade Books published Nirliit by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel, the tale of a young woman from Montréal who follows the geese to the Inuit north; Véhicule Press examines the Québec Inuit’s fight for their homeland in Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids by Zebedee Nungak; and Baraka Books published former Nunavut premier Paul Okalik’s Let’s Move On as well as Carolyn Marie Souaid’s Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik, the story of a young Syrian-Canadian whose appetite for adventure leads her to a teaching job in the northern Québec village of Saqijuvik.
On the French side, Montréal publisher Mémoire d’encrier publishes a range of voices, chief among them poets Joséphine Bacon and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine. Emmanuelle Walter’s Stolen Sisters (Lux, in English from HarperCollinsCanada) is subtitled “The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families, and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women,” and Virginia Pésémapéo-Bordeleau’s Ourse bleue (Pleine Lune) is forthcoming in English from Inanna Publications in 2019. Les Éditions du Septentrion has no fewer than 86 First Nations titles on its list.
Good Times Ahead
All of this adds up to exciting times for Québec writing. In 2017, sales at independent bookstores grew by 6.9%, boosted at least in part by an annual indie bookstore day that’s now in its third year and by sales at leslibraires.ca, an online bookstore that offers Québec readers an alternative to ordering from the internet giants. The site saw a 58% increase in online orders for paperbacks between April 2017 and March 2018.
Book fairs are also attracting audiences. These include a salon du livre series that reaches readers all the way to Abitibi-Témiscamingue and tiny Cap-Saint-Ignace, as well as more fringe offerings at Montréal’s Blue Metropolis and Expozine, Québec City’s ImagiNation festival, the Montréal Comic Arts Festival, and the Montréal Anarchist Bookfair. Pick up a quiche or a locally made organic soda from the bistro at Montréal’s Grande Bibliothèque or visit Chez l’Éditeur, a literary coffee shop belonging to Montréal publisher Québec Amérique that has become a cultural gathering place—another example of Québec trying new things and reaping the benefits.
For bookseller Billy Robinson, there’s ample reason for optimism. “Local writers and publishers don’t think twice about publishing surprising books that reflect our everyday experiences and preoccupations,” he says. “With young authors like Antoine Charbonneau-Demers, David Goudreault, Christian Guay-Poliquin, Mikella Nicol, and Olivier Sylvestre, our future is in good hands.”