It is difficult to be a poet on the shore of the northernmost ocean.
Poetry most often translates submission, defeat, cowardliness, disarray.
Last summer, on my way back from Iceland, I watched a movie on the screen lodged in the seat in front of me. It was an Icelandic film—the story of a fishing trip gone awry. Below were the peaks of Greenland’s ice caps, the Davis Strait, then the Labrador fjords and then the lakes. Patches of forest emerged through streaks of cloud. It was a clear day in mid-June, and I was grateful to have inherited my father’s good eyesight.
I’m not the first person to be dumbfounded upon seeing the planet from up high. I don’t remember if I took a picture from the airplane window. I do remember that I spoke of the rather esoteric talent of Old World and Renaissance cartographers, who managed to draw precisely what the screen lodged in the seat in front of me now depicted: the American Northeast, and Quebec right at its centre. You can picture it clearly without us having to draw you a picture on this page.
There, over Quebec, I felt as if I had returned home, even if what came into view so precisely on the screen did not at all correspond with what I could see. We were headed due south, toward our layover in Boston. If I looked eastward, I was the monster Gougou outpacing Champlain, straddling the St. Lawrence, one foot on the Côte-Nord and the other on the Gaspé Peninsula. Then, quite suddenly, we were flying over the Baie-des-Chaleurs, and I only had to squint a little to blur the buildings and ships, and make it look the way it would have to Cartier. Then it was over. An invisible border burrowed among the trees, and I was no longer home.
I don’t know what generated these feelings. It’s difficult not to feel torn by this complex amalgam of stereotypes, cartography, history, politics, dialogues, the ideas that we make up on our own or from outside influences—landscapes, seasons, everything—and so thoroughly that we ask ourselves how it is that we can ever feel “at home” in the context of such a fragile equilibrium. After a month of feeling out of my element in an exotic country made to accommodate tourists, I had the pleasure of feeling at home as I flew over the Côte-Nord. But the truth is that I’ve never been to the Côte-Nord. And the day I do go, I’ll be nothing more than a passing foreign object.
My understanding of Quebec and its history is solid enough, but I’ve hardly seen any of it. Over the last thirty years, I’ve seen the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships, and Gaspé in 1991, the Saguenay for a few poems and its mouth to get back, a bit of the southern shore of the St. Lawrence, the capital, where I had a girlfriend for a while, and Montreal from one end to the other. What I don’t know about time and territory is nonetheless thrust deep into my notion of Quebec, unconsciously, a kind of potential energy that a simple expedition over the terrain would not enable me to transform into a moving image. Many things escape me, too many variables complicate this equation, and, before the perverse inaccuracy of history, before my half-Inuit half-Terrebonne-ian friend, before a rocky peak of Tadoussac or a golden bridge in Kamouraska, I realize that my feeble individuality precedes any membership in a strong community, and it makes me question the combination of variables that have constructed my belonging to this part of America.
If someone were to call out my name, reflex would make me turn—I wouldn’t ask myself how my identity had embedded itself in me. It’s a force of habit; a decision my parents made; I incorporated it before even accepting it. The law has tied itself to my identity, too: my name is linked to a series of numbers. So it goes for my nationality. I feel Québécois, and without a doubt I am. Yet it’s a strange problem. We have only been Québécois for fifty years. The Fête Nationale has been a civic holiday—based on citizenship and territory, not on ethnic origin like its predecessor, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day—for only thirty-five years. It is barely older than me. How does a new name become so deeply rooted over such a short span of time? It is difficult to tell. And I’m no sociologist, no historian. I’m certainly no politician. I’m only a writer, and that’s just as well; it dispenses me from methodological terminologies and leaves me flailing in the shadows, in doubt, paradox and worry. My grandparents were “Canadiens français,” and theirs were “Canadiens,” but I am “Québécois.” I can’t predict what my grandchildren will be. There is a porous liminality fundamental to the life of a francophone in America.
I know very little about Iceland, even less about what it is to feel Icelandic. As I can’t extract myself from what I know, the only way for me to think of Iceland is to compare it to Quebec. There are all kinds of similarities and differences you can mess around with, for fun. For example, they are shaped differently. Iceland is a cloud with a propeller off one end, or it’s an anglerfish with a serious headache. Everyone says Quebec is a hand, but I think of it more as a head, afflicted by plagiocephaly and an unchecked sinus infection, taking the pill of Anticosti.
Iceland changes shape. Its historic plains, Pingvellir, right at the junction of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates, are sinking into the earth, at the rate of a few centimetres per decade, according to seismic measurements. One day, the plains will be engulfed by Lake Pingvallavatn, and even UNESCO won’t be able to stop it from happening. Volcanoes aren’t done changing the map of the country. In 1963, a six-month submarine volcanic eruption created an island, Surtsey, which added itself to the Vestmann archipelago, and which only birds and scientists visit. In 1973, Eldfell, too, began to erupt. A quarter of Heimaey was enfolded in lava, and the island gained 2.3 square kilometres of land.
Quebec, too, changes shape. And names. Not because of volcanoes but because of eruptions in North American geopolitics. New France was a ghost colony; the Province of Quebec was, at first, nothing but the St. Lawrence River and its shores. Later, it stretched to the Davis Strait in the north and the basin of the Great Lakes in the south. Lower Canada was unified with Upper, then broken, then federated as Quebec. Labrador and Ungava have come and gone and come and gone; to this day, the territorial waters of the Gulf are troubled, the border of Labrador is contested, the islands in the north reattached to Quebec, or to Nunavut, depending on the tides.
Iceland is always of ice and Quebec is of snow half the year. The Québécois, who like to consider themselves Latin even as they eat their bacon and eggs five times a week, complain of winter’s darkness. But the Québécois don’t know real darkness. The cold current from Labrador makes winter sink to the south of Quebec, all the way here, to the corner of St. Hubert and Henri-Bourassa in Montreal, and even further, all the way down to Lacolle. Nowhere in the world is winter more rigorous than in Quebec, we often hear, and it’s a source both of pride and of irrepressible fury. Nowhere else is winter as luminous. But that’s not something people make a point of talking about.
Icelanders like to say that they’re bipolar: manic in June, depressed in January. The Arctic Circle brushes the northernmost tip of the island, just a few shakes north of the little village of Raufarhöfn. At the winter solstice, night lasts twenty-four hours. Even if the island is much further north than Quebec (whose northernmost village, Ivujivik, is far from the Arctic Circle), it is less cold in the wintertime. In Iceland, it’s the darkness that freezes people’s veins; yet, in June, when it is day all the time, it’s still too cold to camp without a toque. In Quebec, summer is without a doubt the most intense in the world, and we loiter in malls, seeking air conditioning.
In Iceland, the summer-solstice holidays give way to an outpouring of joy. Masses of stylish young people are first swallowed, then vomited, by cafés and bars. The streets are littered with broken glasses, and people dance all around the solar clock. The festivals succeed one another, like in Quebec.
There is a frightening number of francophones per square metre in Iceland. Entire buses empty the French all over the territory; Quebecers, too, and they are among the boldest. We encountered several of them, biking through blustering winds and camping despite the freezing temperatures, and we saw them in Breidavik, where, at the extremity of the western fjords, dozens of kilometres from any village, is a youth hostel, which (we didn’t know at the time) in the 1950s was a prison for teens, not unlike a Duplessis-era orphanage. We thought we had found some peace there until a bunch of kids in a truck woke us up by blasting Les Cowboys Fringants from their open windows.
All of this comparison is light fare. It doesn’t mean anything—it’s just a game. We could get serious and compare more important things, like the writings of Halldór Laxness and Jacques Ferron. Laxness is practically unknown in Quebec. It’s too bad; he’s such a gigantic artist that we oscillate between febrility and terror before his works. Ferron has the same effect. They did the same thing: they revamped their cultures’ traditions—sagas and storytelling, respectively—into twentieth-century modernity, and their oeuvres, with whatever reach literature can have, played a role in the complex theatre of politics.
The very idea of a Québécois identity is barely fifty years old, and time will further transform it, and rename it, despite its current weight. Old-guard nationalists thought that there was only one way to be Canadien français, and it was through family, faith and a kind of proud ruralness. As strange as it may seem, these guys thought it was possible to be Canadien français—from Gaspé to Saskatchewan—in identical fashion, and they dragged their way of life to the burnt-out Abitibi and Upper Outaouais settlements, to avoid emigration to the United States. These guys were right to be suspicious of cities, because by the time modernity and post-war prosperity had their way with ruralness, and with the tradition it helped sustain, the country had shrunk, and it was no longer filled with Canadiens français but with Québécois.
Today, we’re over modernity. The splitting of discourses and the individuality of writers influence an array of regionalisms, making national identity less of an issue than local history and local culture. Where we once wished for one way of being Canadien français, we now realize it would be grotesque to try to define the number of ways to be Québécois today.
After our layover at the Boston airport—where we, and everyone else, ate steak and drank beer—we finally flew over Montreal, the island shaped like a foot, my childhood home, tiny as Lego, the mountain where Cartier saw the Lachine rapids and the Montérégie. It was a perspective from above that I knew from within. The streets, the buildings, the borders. Our ears hurt. I’m not the first person on a plane to imagine a crash, but, in my banal anxiety, I asked myself if I would prefer an urban Dorval death to a rural Mirabel one. Now that I think of it, I’d prefer my death to be volcanic, in the Reykjanes Peninsula, hidden among the vapours that slip from the black stone plains and the tufts of moss, which the silver blades of the North Atlantic try to gouge, without success.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Liberté Issue 295. Translation by Melissa Bull.