Before last Monday, the last time I’d seen Madeleine Thien was in early September. The two of us had been chatting in a noisy café on the Plateau; a former working-class, now gentrified neighbourhood in Montreal. We were there to talk about Dogs at the Perimeter (2012). Set partly in Montreal and partly in Cambodia, the novel deals with the long-term effects of cultural trauma; with these seeping into lives transplanted far from the original source of pain. The following day, Thien was nominated for the Booker Prize, and on the evening of October 24, I found myself watching her on stage in a packed-out Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre. She and the other nominees took turns reading. After Thien finished, the woman sitting next to me whispered to her partner, ‘She’s going to win’. She didn’t – Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was the surprise winner – but despite being described by Sarah Churchwell and Alex Clark as ‘unknown’, Thien had already won a major literary prize that day; namely Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for best fiction in English. Thien and her partner, Rawi Hage – also internationally successful – , were two of a number of writers I recorded and interviewed as research for my Fictional Montreal/Montréal romanesque project. Funded by a British Academy small research grant, this project involves the creation of a digital map of literary Montreal; building on previous work I’ve done on the Montreal novel in French (Mindscapes, 2012).
The map is quite simple: users will be able to click on an icon and listen to a recording of an author reading an extract from his/her fiction set in that location. I am working with Montreal-based sound artist, Philip Lichti, who is doing the professional recordings and building the map. Last summer, the multi-talented Phil built a recording studio in the basement of his apartment in a borough of Montreal close to the Saint Lawrence River. We joked with writers (once we had got them there) about how we had managed to persuade them to get into a cab with a stranger and head off to a basement in Verdun. Being an academic with an institutional webpage helped. But much of this project is about generosity. None of the writers who participated received a fee. However, in just over a week, Phil and I recorded almost all of Montreal’s best-known fiction writers in English, and some emerging ones: Madeleine Thien, Rawi Hage, David Homel, Heather O’Neill, Neil Smith, Anita Anand, and Dimitri Nasrallah. We also recorded one of Québec’s most famous fiction writers in French: Monique LaRue.
When I emailed her to invite her to participate in the project, Mme LaRue informed me that she was having minor surgery during the period I would be in Montreal. Instead of turning me down, she suggested Phil and I go to her house to record her. I have spent over twenty years working on Québécois fiction. French has become my second language (replacing/displacing Welsh). I have lived my adult life travelling back and forth between the UK and Québec. My best friend – also a writer – lives in Montreal. So, for me, a key memory of that week’s research is sitting silently in Mme LaRue’s hallway in Outremont, with the late summer sun filtering through a small window; looking at the tiled floor and listening to the author read from her novel, La Démarche du crabe (1995).
I still have more recordings to do: somewhat surprisingly, given that I am a québéciste by training and know many more French-language writers than English-language ones, I had difficulty getting enough of the former to commit to recording during my September trip. However, a second trip in March or April 2017 will resolve this. Phil and I will do a workshop on working collaboratively across disciplines at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University around the same time, and we have had an initial conversation about doing a slot at the Blue Metropolis literary festival. I will also write an article. As with all projects involving public engagement or co-produced knowledge, this work has been very time-consuming and quite stressful at times, with numerous emails needing to be written and read (I am not a fan of emails); as well as uncertainty as to whether anyone would accept my invitations to take part besides my best friend! Thankfully, not only have I been introduced to writers and texts I previously did not know, but I have been shown an incredible amount of kindness: from time and words to books, an invitation to a family dinner (thank you, Anita Anand), and a lift in a thunderstorm out to Verdun (thanks, David Homel). Depending on funding, future projects might include a digital literary map of Québec’s Eastern Townships, as well as geopoetics (walking and writing) workshops in Québec and Stoke; with the latter in particular focusing on deindustrialisation, potteries industries, and mining.
Written by Dr Ceri Morgan, Senior Lecturer in Film and English, Keele University