From the outside, it is easy to make the wrong assumption about Canadian publishing. Yes, there are two very different publishing scenes in Canada: French language and English language. And, yes, one is much bigger than the other, publishing more books domestically and both publishing and selling more books abroad. Many will be surprised to learn that it’s Québec and Francophone Canada—with a population of just eight million—that boasts the bigger publishing industry, not English-speaking Canada, which accounts for 29 million people.
This was once a surprise to me, too. I left Ireland and came to live in Québec City in 2003. Aside from the odd mention of an interesting-sounding book on the radio, the Québec publishing world more or less passed me by. I’d read Salut Galarneau! as part of a French literature degree, and that was all I knew. Until Éric Dupont’s Bestiaire came out in 2007, that is. I was hooked. This, I thought, is a book for me; this is a book I have to translate. A new career was born, first as a literary translator, then as a blogger for my Québec Reads blog, and now as editor of QC Fiction, a new imprint of the best of contemporary writing in translation from Québec.
To my mind at least, Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski marks a watershed moment for Québec literature. Published in French by Alto in 2005 and then in Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation for Vintage/Random House of Canada in 2008, this book set the standard for a new generation of Québec writers whose work was suddenly fun and invigorating and no longer drew lazy, knee-jerk comparisons to Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute and Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. To schoolchildren across Canada, for whom reading a translation from Québec was akin to being told to eat their vegetables, suddenly Québec lit was exciting. “There’s hope for literature!” Pierre Cayouette proclaimed at the time in L’actualité magazine.
The English translation of Nikolski duly won Canada Reads (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s battle of the books) in 2010. Published by Portobello in the United Kingdom in 2009, it opened a world of opportunities to a slew of young and dynamic storytellers from la belle province. Today, Québec writers are being published with a different set of expectations: strong sales in Québec, if all goes well, will be followed by recognition in the rest of Canada (maybe a Governor General’s Award for translation), a rights deal with a household name in France, and translations into German, Turkish, Chinese. The sky’s the limit!
The reason for—or perhaps the result of—this international approach is that, increasingly, Québec writing is from Québec but not necessarily about Québec. Cessez de manger vos émotions by Isabelle Huot and Catherine Senécal (Les Éditions de l’Homme) is a typical example: strong sales in Québec, rights sold in France, English Canada, and Italy.
It all seems so international, and it is. Québec writers and publishers are regulars at the leading book fairs around the world. And with Canada’s presence as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020, Québec fiction, poetry, how-to books, and graphic novels are ready to find new readers—because quality writing, savvy marketing, and decades of experience have ensured that publishing in Québec is about bringing fresh new writing to the world.
Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Québec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction, a new imprint of Québec fiction in translation that has been publishing since 2016.