The Obscurity Effect


By Byron Rempel

Here’s what they should do: get all the writers together and send them off to an island somewhere. It’d be a republic of obscurity and desire. Look at these islands: Berlin, a recovering island, may be the sexiest cultural supermarket in the world, attracting even over-rated American writers like Jeffrey Eugenides, and with a few literary lion trophies already up on the wall—here’s looking at you, Bertolt Brecht. They’ve even got an English literary magazine (Bordercrossing Berlin, of course).

Or Ireland, with its enviable history of Joyce and Wilde and Behan and O’Casey and stop me if you’ve heard all this before, plus a litfest, jackpot award, and imaginative tax-free laws for writers (admittedly precarious at the moment).

Or even Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writer’s Sweatshop, where every author must travel once in their life, a demonstration of the solidarity of writers and their submission to the great Editor.

Then there’s that darned Newfoundland and the prolific and grotesquely talented spawn of Wayne Johnston, the Crummeys and Winters and Moores and Grants. The first millennial decade was theirs, and they can no longer be Canada’s punching bag. The new official place we’ll be making fun of will be decided in an upcoming Canada Jokes broadcast; I’ll be defending Wawa.

That’s four island republics if you’re counting, and a fifth would make it cozy and round and a good start for the Five Pillars of 21st Century Literature or something equally analytic and portentous. So here it is: the tiny and beleaguered minority of Anglophone writers adrift in the cafés and ruelles of my adopted nation of Quebec. Eight percent of the population here are native English speakers. If we infer that only .01 percent of a population is deluded enough to even attempt writing, and of those half die from the effort, you begin to see our numbers. However aside from the fact that about 80 percent of all writers have had mood disorders during their life (isn’t Internet research a wonderful thing? That fact comes from the University of Iowa, who should know from mood), really there’s nothing beleaguered about us.

That petite group of Quebec English1 writers reaped national and international awards and nominations out of all proportion to their numbers this season, from Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller waltz to Kathleen Winter’s triple crown nomination for the Big Three (Giller, GG and Writer’s Trust).

The Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF), a collection of superheroes and secretly ingenious citizens who meet to control the hearts and minds of the nation, has proved there is life beyond the mighty Richler and Cohen. According to the QWF President Elise Moser, it’s “a reflection of the very high level of activity and achievement of our individual members.”

One would expect a federation to say that. But who are its members? Where are they from? What are they? And why do they prefer to be in the minority?

The easy answer is: Johanna Skibsrud. The latest Giller Girl may have thought she’d work in relative obscurity for the next few decades, revelling in the good fortune of having her novel beautifully produced, if sparsely read. And giving her lots of time to write and research, undisturbed by Book Television, paparazzi, or Sheilagh Rogers. No such luck now, with The Sentimentalists finally available in a choice of classic, corporate2 or digital, and Christmas coming up (there’s no such thing as bad obscurity: she’s so good not just anyone could get her). Then there’s the happy coincidence of young Skibsrud and her silken skin, round face and wide-set icy eyes not only making her media-friendly, but also closely resembling a kindly Norwegian (read: North Pole) elf. She’s from Nova Scotia, in truth, and is living in Paris working on a PhD, but was on vacation in Cairo when she got the Giller call. And upon receiving the award she immediately took off for Turkey. That is so Montreal.

It takes a major cataclysm or Canadiens playoff final to get me off the estate here in the Laurentians, but I did make an exception for the recent QWF Literary Awards Fantabulous Gala of Mood Swinging Stars, held in a charming cabaret just east enough of Montreal’s Great Divide to attract lame French-English jokes all night. The night was, as usual in Montreal at the end of November, a night that wanted to be all things to all weathermen—snow, ice pellets, rain, sleet and undoubtedly frogs fell from the sky, as if even the gods themselves desired that as few mortals as possible see writers get recognition.

Johanna wasn’t at the QWF Gala, even though for two issues she’d served on the editorial board of the QWF newsletter, which I edit. Even then I’d never got to feel the charm of her presence, having dreaded leaving the estate for the high-powered energy beams of the office. Now we’ll never see her, I imagine. Appropriately perhaps, because that Fantabulous night was defined by who wasn’t there—by those who actively cultivated the Obscurity Effect.

You could probably trace the Quebec roots of it back to Mr. Martel and his slice of Pi. On one day, Yann jauntily labours in his Montreal apartment confounding the hell out of his roommates by attempting to tame the idea of a loquacious frog into a book (he’s always had this thing for talking animals, apparently), and the next day he’s the most famous ventriloquist this side of George Orwell. The Booker-anointed writer was all unsmiling and close-cropped at earlier QWF awards galas, but when he loosens up and frees his hair he transforms into a scrappy wandering mutt. A Foreign Service child, he was born in Spain, went to school in Ontario, and grew up in Costa Rica, France, Mexico and this frigid land. He likes to mention his time in India and Iran and Turkey (them again), and more recently has attempted to strengthen his obscurity by moving to Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatoon.

This moment’s biggest literary star of the Eastern hemisphere is arguably fresh-faced Miguel Syjuco. A Montrealer since 2007, he was born and raised in the Philippines. He wasn’t at the gala either, though he did inevitably sweep the QWF Fiction award in absentia, to add to his Man Asian win and Giller nomination. It’s also arguable whether by missing the award he just wanted to keep a low profile—he was in Barcelona to launch the Spanish edition of Illustrado. Que rico.

I saw Rawi Hage’s shaved head bob through the crowd though, he of DeNiro’s Game (the Dublin IMPAC prize, a mere €100,000), and Cockroach, nominated last year for the national Big Three. He’s from Beirut via Cyprus and New York City, and apparently only came to Montreal for the great cab driving opportunities. He ducks through the cabaret crowd like a cruiserweight boxer taken one too many sucker punches in existential debates. Still, he’s the kind of writer you don’t want to meet in a back alley in Montreal’s artsy Plateau, no matter how much you’re worth your weight in gold-plated awards.

Kathleen Winter wasn’t on the QWF’s radar this year, though she probably didn’t notice with all the other parties she had to go to. And can we claim her? Let’s see: born in England, raised in Holyrood, Newfoundland—oh what the hell, she’s one of us. Even though her recent blog postings rhapsodized about how her last trip through the Northwest Passage “shifted her perspective forever.” Talk about republics of obscurity.

Cleo Paskal at least is a “born, bred and bageled” Montrealer; she won the QWF Non-Fiction award for her Global Warring, a geostrategist’s take on the usual doom and gloom. She did travel writing for the Post for years, hosted BBC radio shows, is a Toronto Star columnist now. She couldn’t be at the awards either, having the misfortune of being on assignment in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga for their first democratic elections. She’s a tiny woman with collegiate hair, but when she walks in a room it becomes her banana republic. Her Montreal mother is also up there in the firmament—Merrily Weisbord was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust non-fiction award for her portrayal of—what else—an Indian writer, Kamala Das, one of the first to honestly portray a woman’s sexual desire, who turned from Hinduism to Islam. So Montreal.

A translation of one of my non-fiction books was up for an award (No Limits, a double biography of Olympian identical twin skiers in 1940s Quebec), but no worries about plugging myself too much here—I’m always the bridesmaid at awards ceremonies, and they make me wear a frilly pink dress and garish corsage too.

Lonely Planet said this summer, bizarrely, that Montreal was the second happiest place on earth. That puts it right behind the tropical paradise of Vanuatu, which not strangely is next door (in Oceania terms) to the island nation of Tonga. Could Montreal’s felicity be tied to the carefree creativity English writers here get from their relative obscurity? Or is it because they’re all getting awards in November and are thus able to escape to fabulous islands like Turkey or Tonga or at least Iowa?

[1] We don’t say “English writers” in Quebec though, we say “the English-language writing community,” a loathsome and brain-sucking phrase. That community has very few actual people descended from England, of course, and in fact Stats Can says that the biggest ethnic group in the Quebec English-speaking community is Italians. But let’s do this in the spirit of the Amish, who call all others The English, and get to use horses everyday. Giddy up.

[2] Gaspereau Press constantly gives the “fabulous” Manitoba printer Friesens a shout out for their amazing turnaround time when Doug & Mc picked up the slack; does Manitoba finally figure in all literary stories, in some kind of literary Kevin Bacon degrees? It may be worth a dissertation.

Observations from New France

Byron Rempel

Byron Rempel lives outside of Montreal and writes and edits books for a living.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty