Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Anatomy of Acadia

An interview with France Daigle

France Daigle is an Acadian author who has been publishing slender, meditative and extraordinarily precise novels for the last twenty years. Four of her more recent books have been translated into English: Just Fine (Pas pire), Real Life (La vraie vie), 1953: Chronicle of a Birth Foretold (1953: Chronique d’une naissance annoncée) and A Fine Passage (Un fin passage). She has won many awards for francophone literature, including the France-Acadie Prize, the Prix Éloize and the Prix Antonine-Maillet-Acadie Vie.

Daigle is an adventurer who constantly reinvents the novel to suit her purposes. Her early works were often a series of tiny fragments of prose, while Just Fine and 1953 are learned essay-novels as likely to provide Acadian cinema history as tell stories. All of her books are distinguished by a fine sense of subtlety; sly, good-natured humour; and a genuine affection for her peripatetic characters.

I spoke with Daigle in December of 2002 at the House of Anansi offices in Toronto. 

Jack Illingworth: One of the biggest constants in your novels is the intellectualization of illness, both mental and physical. In your earlier books a doctor treats modern art as a kind of sickness; a case of celiac disease is related to Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero; and Just Fine is mainly concerned with agoraphobia. A Fine Passage explores more nebulous varieties of psychological unrest, including suicide, for which travel is proposed as a treatment. I don’t quite know how this is a question, but these issues are so central to your writing that I’d like you to talk about them, if you can.

France Daigle: I don’t know what more I could say. Maybe it’s something that I carry within me. A lot of this is unconscious—I have very few theories about my writing. From one book to the next I should almost record what I have in mind as I write. 

Disease, sickness, psychological unrest—I know them all in what I might call a normal way. I don’t know if they’re any more pronounced for me than they are for any other human being. I find that Terry and Carmen [a well-adjusted, fertile young Acadian couple in Just Fine and A Fine Passage] are almost the opposite of this, and the latest book, Petites difficultés d’existence, is totally “healthy.” 

There’s some kind of unconscious thing on my part that’s settling or coming to terms with the fact that Moncton is my home and my roots are here. When you live in a little region, outside of what we think of as the big centres, you wonder if you’re on the outside and not really in the mainstream—especially if you’re an artist. I think I’ve settled that for myself; this doesn’t mean that I don’t ever think of leaving Moncton, but I like what I have here. There are still a lot of paradoxes in all this, and I can’t explain everything yet ... perhaps that’s why I’m still writing.

JI: I’ve noticed that only your characters from Moncton have any developed sense of home. When you write characters like Claudia [an intelligent, worldly teenager], or Europeans, or Canadians from elsewhere, ideas of home are almost alien to them. They’re existential drifters, really.

FD: Yes. In the last book there are more characters from Moncton, and they are truly enraciné. They don’t have this sense of displacement ... if they have it, it’s on another level. Their preoccupations about how and where they live are very practical and community oriented. It’s a kind of evolution, and I can see myself continuing along those lines, while keeping some characters who are still floating around. I don’t know how that’s going to turn out.

JI: What about the way in which you use Judaism and Israel—one character, Claude, has a childhood infatuation with Judaism as an idea of suffering, and in A Fine Passage you introduce both the travelling “Pope-Rabbi” and Claudia, travelling to visit her parents on a kibbutz.  Your treatment of these ideas seems entirely detached from politics.

FD: It’s probably quite naive too. I worked at a kibbutz in Israel for a while. I was always interested in the fact that many of the people I admired were Jewish, and in the whole Jewish fact, if we can call it that. To me the political question has always been something else entirely—even when I was in Israel. I was surprised to see how, when I returned from Israel, in 1981, what we saw in the news and what I had experienced when I was there were totally different things. Now, news reports about Israel leave me quite cold. I’ve disconnected from the whole political question. It’s puzzling, actually, this separation.

I suppose talking about Claudia and the Pope-Rabbi was a bit hazardous, because I wrote that passage, that opening scene on an airplane, quite a while ago, maybe fifteen years ago, but I had not used it anywhere. As I started to write A Fine Passage, it just popped into my mind, so I decided to start with it. I guess it was one of those things that was lingering, and to me it was still worth something. It was still real enough that I was able to use it and have it fit. Actually, I had to write the rest of the book around it somehow.

JI: Let’s talk about autobiography for a while. In Just Fine, you include a television interview in which the novel’s narrator, France Daigle, is interrogated about the temptation of autobiography. I found it tempting to read Just Fine and 1953 alike as autobiographical novels, but I didn’t read them as memoirs, largely because of the element of writ-erly fantasy that pervades Just Fine, and the multitude of personal detail that is left out that wouldn’t be elided in a memoir. Is this a skepticism of autobiography or is it more arbitrary than that?

FD: 1953 is the year of my birth. In a way, I fantasized through everything in the book except that. Yes, I had celiac disease, and used it in the book, and this was my family—it’s all true. But I’m very conscious that it’s my own perspective that I use creatively. I didn’t sit down to write an autobiography. It wasn’t that serious. Or that premeditated. I usually just have a few ideas when I start a book, and they develop as I go along. Although in this case there had to be a truthful ring to it. It’s my approximation of the truth; let’s put it that way.

As for Just Fine, with this agoraphobic character—I felt I might as well put my name in, because everyone would know that it’s me anyway. What’s the use of creating a fiction and then having to say, “Yes, it’s me”?

JI: That’s not the case, however, outside of your community. If you had not included your name in the novel, I would not have known that the nar-rator was meant to be you.

FD: I know, but I guess that tells you who I think I’m writing for. I’m not thinking that far off. When I write, I write for people I know, for my friends.  When I write, I think things like “Oh, Paul’s going to really laugh when he reads this.” When I did somehow aim my writing at people further away, I didn’t have as many readers. And I was called a poet.

The latest book is even more grounded, more local somehow. It’s simpler as far as the story buildup and the characters go. I think those of my readers who rather enjoy the intricacies I weave into my work may be discouraged by this. And while some people found 1953 too complicated and thought that Just Fine was good, they still asked, “What’s astrology doing in there?” Even with A Fine Passage, they’d ask, “That suicide—what was he doing in there?” In Petites difficultés d’existence it’s all pretty clear. 

JI: Now that you mention it, how about the way you treat suicide in A Fine Passage? It came up in Just Fine—your narrator likens the medication that controls agoraphobia to the suicide pills that were issued to allied soldiers just before D-Day. It comes up much more overtly in A Fine Passage, when Hans half-contemplates suicide and eventually embraces a kind of dignified homelessness in its stead. Of course, there’s also the character of the suicide who speaks from beyond the grave—it’s never made clear what has happened before this man’s death.

FD: I’m not sure I know myself. The idea came from the fact that I was at a funeral for a young man who had committed suicide, and I thought that it would be interesting to have a person whom everyone thinks has committed suicide to have actually died by accident. I imagined the soul trying to come back to earth saying, “No, can’t you see, it wasn’t what it looks like ...” I incorporated a little bit of that into the book when I started, but then I thought, well, perhaps it was a suicide. I liked the ambiguity of that—the same way that Hans’ “dignified homelessness” is a sort of suicide. I liked the equilibrium of having a suicide that was still alive and one that was not alive, but I don’t know that I’m saying anything more than that. It’s just a reflection of our different states of being.

JI: You don’t moralize about it or use it as a melodramatic tactic.

FD: I guess suicide is—or was—taboo, and that many people have a big reaction to it. I don’t find it that mysterious or unacceptable. To me, it’s an option. This was my way of sliding that idea in there.

JI: I wanted to ask about Robert Mazjels’ translations, and your use of local language. In Just Fine [which won Mazjels the Governor General’s award for translation], he has Terry and Carmen speak conventional English, but their dialogue in A Fine Passage has been rendered in a much more colloquial way that sounds almost British to me.

FD: That’s a difficult one, because the local French, that is, the French spoken in the Moncton area, which is what Carmen and Terry speak, is a mixture of English, French, Old French—it’s an oral language, and neither of us knows of any equivalent in English. Robert thought that sticking to a sort of maritime English may have been the best way. Petites difficultés d’existence is going to be more of a problem, because it’s full of people from Moncton, and there’s a lot more of this mixed language—doing that in English is a big question mark to me. This is where we might have to totally invent a new English idiom which would be equivalent. Maybe it would be mostly English, with some French left in. Apparently, some people think that it is snobbish to include French in an English book. They don’t see this mix of languages as a linguistic fact. Even so, we’ll have to try that, because this form of language, chiac we call it, is really central to the story. It’s part of the plot ... if I dare to use that word.

But it is also a delicate situation in that Acadians from the southeastern part of New Brunswick have been looked down upon for a long time. Up until very recently, we were told we didn’t speak good French, and so a culture of shame and silence sort of set in. That mentality is slowly changing, and I certainly don’t want my book to be a setback in this respect. The fact is that Moncton is a frontier where English and French collide; it is a linguistic qui vive. It’s sort of exciting, but it also has its drawbacks. I don’t want to add to the negative side of it, but I find that we have to talk about this issue, about the kind of French we speak. I’ve tried to balance this out, but in English translation it may again give the impression that we don’t speak well at all, so mixing things up too much is a bit touchy. It’s a challenge, for sure!