The Blue Metropolis or Métropolis Bleu is an annual literary event in Montreal and another cool thing I got to attend for free thanks to my school. They arranged a workshop with Naim Kattan and groups of advanced students in various french programs. Naim Kattan, whom I did not know before, is a very well-respected Canadian author. He lives in Québec and writes in French, but his books get translated into many languages and he has all kinds of awards and is on a bunch of boards and committees.
He was chosen to lead this workshop because he himself has made the transition to the french language and milieu. He was born Jewish in Baghdad. He moved to Paris when he was a young man, where he mastered his french and then moved to Québec where he's lived for something like 30 years. He spoke to us about his experiences writing in a second language and transforming himself in his new worlds, issues all relevant to his audience, clearly.
He said that he still often gets asked two question here in Québec, questions that he has grown very tired of. The first is "where do you come from?" and the second is "How do you like it here?" Understand that, though once an immigrant, this is a man who has lived here for decades, has a french-canadian wife, children and grand-children. He has published numerous books in french.
In his view, we have many identities. More, identity is always changing. "L'identité est un mouvement, parce que l'identité fixe est la morte." [Identity is movement, because the fixed identity is death.] He explained how he considered himself to have three distinct births: the first as an Iraqi Jew in Baghdad, which encompassed his family and his childhood; the second as a young man in Paris where he learned about les jeunes filles (big laugh from the audience) and the third as a husband, father, grandfather, writer and part of the community of Québec.
If found this concept to be a very helpful one, as I've been thinking about this a lot. It seems sort of arbitrary and artificial to start choosing expressions, phrases and swear words to use in a second language. I feel like I'm acting or something and it makes me hesitate. When I think about it as growing up like a child into a new identity, it makes me feel less self-conscious about these things. It also makes me feel less defensive about what the hell I'm doing here in the first place! Although, generally, except for those two questions (which I also get all the time), the Québécois haven't given me too much reason to feel defensive.
I did have an interesting conversation with my next-door neighbour later in the week. She is completely bilingual, growing up to a french mom and an english dad in a french part of town. Her pet peeve is constantly being asked by Montrealers where she's from. As I said above, I get this a lot as well. I'm thinking it's the Québec equivalent of the New York "what do you do?" There, work is your source of legitimacy, here it's ethnic background. Québec was a very closed province until the revolution, but the attitude clearly persists. I'm sure it's changing, but I think they need to accelerate the pace a bit.
M. Kattan also told us a very funny little anecdote that was one of the things that made him realize how he was really a different person than he had been. His book Adieu, Babylon, which is about his childhood in Baghdad and his first big success was translated into arabic. When he read it in Arabic, he found that it was way better written than he could have ever done in his mother tongue. He certainly credited the translator, but he also realized that his ability to write in french had outpaced his arabic. He spoke than of the "dangers de déplacement" [the dangers or traps of moving], about how you can get stuck in nostalgia for home, when it is a home that can't possibly exist (see my last post). A good lesson, indeed!
M. Kattan was a cool, old dude, looking really writerly and calm, making the audience laugh a few times. At the end, he hung around and was very friendly. He put on a sweet burgundy beret that could only be pulled off by a french writer of his stature.