Odette DesOrmeaux and Martine Huysmans, two members of the l’essentielle collective which also included Ariane Brunet and Harriet Ellenberger, 1988.
Just over thirty years ago, in June of 1988, I drove up to Montreal from my home in Montague, Massachusetts to attend the Third International Feminist Book Fair. At the time I was editor of the feminist literary review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas; we had a table in the exhibit hall, alongside books, presses, and journals from all over the world. The Fair, housed on the Université de Montréal campus, was attended by some 8,000 people, featured over 300 authors, and hosted the largest gathering ever of Indigenous women writers from Canada. Coming off three days of head-spinning, exhilarating, often revelatory panels, readings and conversations, co-editor Linda Nelson and I decided to devote the next two issues of Trivia to the event.
Trivia 13 focused on the feminist writers of Quebec and those influenced by them: Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott, Erín Moure, Louise Cotnoir, Michèle Causse (France), and Betsy Warland (BC).[i] The energy and vision of this community of feminist writers (which also included Louky Bersianik, France Théoret, Louise Dupré, and Daphne Marlatt) had provided much of the impetus for the Fair itself.[ii] In my editorial I attempted to name what it was about these writers that excited me so much. It had to do with their understanding of language as transgressive, and as material. With their exuberant flouting of genre boundaries—poetry becoming essay, fiction theory (“fiction/theory” – Brossard’s term)—all in deference to their insubordinate, uncooptable female bodies (“The breasts refuse”—Warland). And it had to do with the edge they/we were all on—as women claiming space for our own bodies and thoughts for the first time ever.
Just over a year before the Book Fair I had driven up for the opening of the bilingual bookstore l’essentielle, a word Brossard coined in her epic poem “Sous la langue/Under Tongue.” A bilingual edition of that poem was being launched to mark the occasion. The little store on Rachel was spiffy, with hot pink shelves and track lighting. I remember women in dress shirts and bright scarves hoisting glasses of white wine. I remember Brossard and her translator Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood taking turns reading the stanzas. On ne peut vas prévoir / You cannot foresee, each verse began, crescendoing as the lover’s mouth approached the body she desired, launching her into the unknown.
You cannot foresee so suddenly leaning
towards a face and wanting to lick the soul’s
whole body till the gaze sparks with furies and yieldings. . . .
Desire is all you see.
And I remember walking into my study one Sunday morning not long after that launch to find Linda with Brossard’s chapbook in her lap, weeping. “We don’t write like this here,” she said. “No one writes like this here.” Eros: words embodied it in Quebec women’s writing. Words were marks of possibility, thrusting us out to a precipitous edge where nothing was foreknown… No, there was nothing like this in our feminist world. Plus the lesbians I hung with favoured jeans and flannels.
Some two years after the Book Fair I moved to Montreal, in part drawn by that subversive brew of Quebec au féminin, wanting to be immersed in it (and yes, admittedly, wanting to be among women who dressed up for each other). Beneath all this was a desire to write… in order to do which I knew I needed to get away from the home that was Trivia’s operating base. But weaning myself from the role of editor and translator took more than a physical move. It was thirteen years before I found myself in the grip of a long writing project: a memoir that began—not surprisingly—as a meditation on lesbian desire and that chronicled a series of disastrous love adventures that drove me, heartbroken, to this foreign city where I finally learned to abide—in love, and in place. A QWF mentorship with Elaine Kalman Naves in 2003-4 was foundational to this project. It would take me another twelve years to complete the memoir, but I wrote some two-thirds of a first draft in those months. Elaine’s encouragement and her insight were just the spurs I needed.
But it is also true that my memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, would not exist in its present form were it not for my immersion in Quebec au féminin (where the last section of the memoir is set) and its climate of formal permissiveness and political passion, its celebration of language as erotic. I imagine many literary products of this century, not only here in Quebec but throughout North America, owe a similar debt. So it’s both surprising and dismaying to me that nowadays in Anglophone literary contexts there is so little acknowledgement—or even knowledge—of these Quebec writers and their pioneering body of work. Even when the topic is formal innovation.[iii] Even in Montreal.[iv] At least here in Montreal, as of two years ago, we have a monument to this genealogy in the form of the bilingual feminist bookstore L’Euguélionne—named after Louky Bersianik’s kickass, visionary feminist novel. Long live L’Euguélionne!
I can’t help longing for the kind of literary community that first drew me to this city, a locus for deep conversation revolving around a common cause that felt urgent enough to unite writers of different cultures and languages. What might that common cause be today? As global forces thrust us towards a darker precipitous edge, and an endless expanse of unforeseen. . . .
Lise Weil’s memoir, In Search of Pure Lust (Inanna Publications, 2018), is a finalist for an International Book Award and winner of an Ippy Award. Her essays, literary non-fiction, and translations have been published widely in Canada and the U.S. She was founder of the feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and its online offshoot, Trivia: Voices of Feminism (2003-2011). She is currently editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, which publishes writing and artwork created in response to an age of mass extinction and ecological collapse. She teaches in the Goddard College Graduate Institute. www.liseweil.com
[i] Contributors to Trivia 14, “Language and Difference,” included Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, Gloria Anzaldua, and Jewelle Gomez. Copies of Trivia 13 and 14 can be ordered for $5 plus postage. firstname.lastname@example.org
[ii] Six of these writers met on Sundays every three months in Montreal to talk about feminism and theory. Theory, A Sunday (Belladonna, 2013), a recent translation of La théorie, un dimanche (1988), collects the writings that emerged from these conversations.
[iii] See, e.g., Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (eds. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2013). Much of the bending and unsettling described in these essays was being performed by the writers of Quebec and was addressed explicitly in Gail Scott’s “Shaping a Vehicle for Her Use” (Spaces Like Stairs, Women’s Press, 1989).
[iv] Not even at a recent reading by a visiting Canadian author from a work of fiction titled Theory.
Photo credits: Marik Boudreaul (header image); Favor Ellis (headshot)