Always Something New to Learn about Canada, like the Acadian Dialect Chiac, Vernacular for Author Antonine Maillet

I recently heard a fascinating radio segment on the public radio program The World about a dialect of French heard nowadays exclusively in the regions of Canada where people of Acadian descent live today, Nova Scotia (NS) and New Brunswick (NB). It’s called Chiac, a name derived from a nearby town, Shediac, NB, that calls itself “Lobster Capitol of the World.” The program had run a shortened version of this half-hour podcast on WNYC, and I’m listening to the full version, part of their World of Words podcast, while writing this post. I was particularly excited when at the end of the radio bit they played a song by the incomparable Lisa Leblanc, who I heard live and loved at the CMJ festival in 2014, shown here. As readers of this blog may recall, I’ve traveled a lot in Atlantic Canada, including through Acadian locales, including the scenic island of Cape Breton, NS, where I learned about the mass expulsion of 1755-1764 which the British Navy forced on French-speaking people who’d settled in the region. I’d never known the local dialect had a name.

Relatedly, as editor at Walker & Co in 1987, I published the US edition of a novel by one of New Brunswick’s most honored writers, Antonine Maillet (b. 1929) of Bouctouche, NB, a town just north of Shediac facing the Gulf of St Lawrence across from the southern shores of Prince Edward Island. The book had come out in Canada a few years earlier, and I acquired US rights from a doyenne of Canadian publishing, Louise Dennys, for many years with Random House and Knopf Canada who was then part of her own company, Lester & Orpen Dennys. Maillet’s book was a fantastical historical novel, featuring a female pirate named Crache à Pic (translates as ‘spit-in-your-eye), skipper of a ship called Sea-Cow. who while Prohibition prevails in the States is running whiskey to American smugglers’ boats in the north Atlantic. My flap copy read, “Immediately reminiscent of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore and Howard Frank Mosher’s Disappearances, the Walker Adventure Series is pleased to publish The Devil is Loose! and Antonine Maillet, a storyteller of international reputation.”

Mackenzie’s 1947 novel was set during WWII, when a whisky-laden ship runs aground near the aptly-named Great Todday and Little Todday, Scottish islands whose ration  of spirits has run out, leaving locals high and dry, who must decide what to do with the contraband; it was adapted for the funny movie, Tight Little Island. Mosher’s Disappearances is a multi-generational romp featuring a family who sometimes go by the surname Goodman, and sometimes Bonhomme. They live in the mythical Northeast Kingdom, Vermont’s northernmost region, and run liquor across the very real Lake Memphremagog, a long body of fresh water that straddles the border with Canada. I used to quote the opening paragraph for customers who I thought would enjoy the novel. Mosher has since written many novels set in Kingdom County.

Maillet was by 1987 already the author of more than 25 novels and plays, rich work that draws on a centuries-long store of folklore and local knowledge, about which she’s a scholar. In ’87, she traveled to NYC from Montreal, where she divides time with Bouctouche, and gave a talk at the Americas Society on Park Ave. Her tour in the US was subsidized by the cultural ministry of Quebec. I’ll add, from the year I entered publishing as an editor, in 1986, Canadian authors I published in the US, including Lt Romeo Dallaire and Margaret Atwood, often received significant support from federal and provincial agencies, eager to promote Canadian writers, including authors freshly launched in their careers, like Steven Galloway, whose first adult novel Ascension I brought in 2002. This held true until a few years in to the reign of PM Stephen Harper, whose government shut off the funds for cultural exchange to the US. I’m hopeful the cultural outreach will be restored and reinvigorated under PM Justin Trudeau.

Maillet is a mighty woman of rather short stature, and quite striking in appearance. We found that the lectern reserved for her was too tall, and unaccountably the venue had no stool or riser for her to stand on. Fortunately, I found a big box holding many reams of photocopy paper and at this ultra white-shoe venue she stood atop it to read from her novel, and lecture in a forceful, accented English about the French vernacular in which she wrote the book, and much of her work. Though I don’t think she called it Chiac, she described the local tongue, and its grounding in the French spoken by arrivals in the new world beginning in the 16th century. She likened it to speaking the French of Rabelais, who I note died in 1555! She described the settlers’ remoteness from French in Europe, as France advanced in to the industrial revolution, an isolation that set the local language, as if trapped in amber. Maillet has also created theater characters like La Sagouine, a wise old woman who tells audiences stories and imparts lore, using the local vernacular. I feel like the live theatre piece must form the heart of Chiac. Maillet’s accomplishments are truly a marvel to be celebrated. I first learned of her when as a bookseller with Undercover Books in Cleveland, when in 1979, with an earlier novel—Pélagie-la-Charrette, or Return to the Homeland, an epic account of the Acadian expulsion, a diaspora that scattered them to other parts of North America, including Louisiana, where the Acadiennes, become Cajuns—she became the only North American writer, male or female, to win France’s most prestigious book prize, the Prix Goncourt.

I was aware that people of Acadian descent still maintain a kind of linguistic flavor now rare in the modern world, but was delighted to learn so much more about it in this excellent half-hour of radio. I love language stuff like this, all the better when it’s about one of my favorite countries, and one of my favorite regions in that country! Below is some detail from the podcast’s web page, which you can listen to in full here.

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#elexn42 #ToPoli 60 MInutes 1993 2015 elections 2015 Federal Election 2016 presidential election @CBCRadio3 Abraham Lincoln Acadia Adolf Hitler Agent Orange Alice Munro Amanda Lang Amelia Curran Amity Beach Amtrak Anderson Varajao Antonine Maillet architecture Arctic Ocean Arkells AUX TV Ben Caplan Beverley Slopen book-to-film adaptations Born Ruffians Boyhood Brain Cloud branding exercises Brandon Downing bullying Cabot Trail Calvin Reid Canada Canadiana Canadian authors Canadian bands in NYC Canadian Blast Canadian elections Canadian indie music canadian indie rock Canadian indie rock n' roll canadian politics Canadian rock n' roll Canadians abroad Canadian vacations cancer CANlit CANRock Cape Breton CBC CBC Books CBC Music CBC Radio CBC Radio 3 CBC Sunday Edition CBS Chicago Cleveland CMJ CMJ Music Marathon CN Tower coffee Cold War Colm Toibin comedy Communion Music Corb Lund corruption covert agents cowboy culture Crime Writers of Canada cross-cultural writing Daniel Canty Dave Bidini Dave Van Ronk David Margolick Del Barber depression dialect Doug Ford drunk driving editorial services Edward Keenan Edward Robb Ellis Elizabeth May Elliott Brood Ethan Hawke Ewan Turner fair housing Farley Mowat Fence Books flickr folk music Franconia College Frazey Ford French FridayReads Gaspé Peninsula George Elliott Clarke George Washington Bridge Gill Deacon global climate change Grant Lawrence Greenwich Village Harlan Pepper Henry Tandey Hidden Pony HIGHS hockey Hollerado Honourary Canadian Howard Engel humor Ian Tyson indie music In Flight Safety Ireland Irish music Israel Jan Wong Jian Ghomeshi Jill Barber Joe's Pub journalism Justin Trudeau Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Kevin Donovan Keystone XL Lee's Palace Lee Harvey Osmond Lee Lorch Leonard Cohen life after corporate publishing Linda Ronstadt Lisa LeBlanc Little Red Lighthouse Little Rock Nine live music Lo-Fantasy lower east side Lt. General Roméo Dallaire Marc Maron marijuana laws Matt Andersen Matt Mays Mayor Bill de Blasio Mayor Rob Ford McGarrigle Sisters Megan Bonnell Mellow Pages Memoirs mental health treatment Mercury Lounge methane M for Montreal Michael Barclay Michael Enright Michael Ruby Miles O'Brien Mo Kenney Monomyth music festivals music marketing National Film Board of Canada Neil Young Neil Young. Third Man Records Nevado Records Newfoundland New York City New York music venues Noah Nobel Prize NXNE Olympics Ontario Ottawa Jazz Festival Paperbag Records Parks Canada Percé Rock Peter Warner photojournalism podcasting poetry political mindsets President Obama prosthetics PS I Love You PTSD PublishersMarketplace.com Publishers Weekly Pumpkin Pie Q Quebec racial bias Rah Rah Random House Canada road trips Robert Henry Adams Robertson Davies Rob Ford Rockwood Music Hall Rolling Stone Rural Alberta Advantage Ruth Gruber Sadies Said the Whale Sam Roberts Band SaskMusic SaskMusic.org satire Scott Young sex education Shawn William Clark Shore Fire Media short stories Siberia sister cities spy novels Stephen Harper Stephen Marche St Louis Stompin' Tom Connors Strombo Show Strumbellas suicide prevention summer vacation 2014 Swiss Water Syrian refugees Talonbooks Thanksgiving The Ballad of Crowfoot The Deep Dark Woods The Great Gray Bridge. TheGreatGrayBridge.com The Orchard The Revenant The Strumbellas This is That Toronto Toronto Book Awards Toronto mayoral election Toronto Star Torquil Campbell traditional music Turnip King Ugly Duckling Presse Undercover Books upper Manhattan Vancouver Vietnam W.B. Belcher war memorials Wigrum Wilderness of Manitoba WWI

Celebrating 100 Great Canadian Novels–CBC’s Choices + Several of My Own, Including Antonine Maillet’s “Pelagie”

For CanLit fans, a very good books conversation was started over the weekend on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup, which is continuing on the CBC Books website. With tomorrow’s Canada Day in mind, they were discussing a new selection CBC Books has done of 100 Novels that Make You Proud to Be Canadian. These are novels published in English, or translated into it. They’re welcoming new titles for the list, with the first 100 named via this link. I’ve submitted some faves of my own, including one by the amazing New Brunswick author Antonine Maillet, born in 1929. Her novel, Pélagie-la-Charrette (1980, roughly translated as Pelagie: Return to the Homeland), is an historical epic set in the mid-1700s, when the Acadian people, refusing fealty to the British Crown, were evicted from Nova Scotia, sent in to an exile that shunted them down the Atlantic seaboard, or all the way down to Louisiana, where they became known as ‘Cajuns.’ Her epic tells the story of their exile and eventual return to the Maritimes, but only for some. With the novel Maillet became the first woman, and first non-French person of either gender, to win France’s Prix Goncourt. From the flap copy on the current Goose Lane Press edition:

Maillet

“At thirty-five, Pélagie is a survivor of the Great Disruption of 1755, when British soldiers deported Acadians who had farmed along the Bay of Fundy for generations. Splitting up families, the soldiers tossed men, women, and children pell-mell into ships and dispatched them to ports all along the eastern seaboard of the US and to Louisiana. When it was heard years later that the British would tolerate their return to Acadie, thousands loaded possessions and children onto handcarts and set out on foot. After fifteen years of working as a slave in the cotton fields of Georgia, Pélagie, too, has had enough. Drawn home as if by a magnet, inspired by her love of her family and of Beausoleil, a heroic sea captain, and determined to outrace the “Wagon of Death,” Pélagie sets off to take her people on a 3,000-mile trek back to their homeland. Her single cart, pulled by six oxen, soon attracts scattered Cormiers and LeBlancs, Landrys and Poiriers, Maillets and Légers. Together, this caravan of colourful Acadians undertakes a ten-year journey up the Atlantic coast to their childhood homes.”

In 1987, I had the privilege of publishing the US edition of Maillet’s The Devil is Loose, a sea adventure about a female pirate–a kind of maritime Robin Hood; she plunders British merchant ships and gives the booty, especially wine and rum, to the islanders of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the isles (still French-speaking today) in the north Atlantic near Newfoundland. Under a grant from Canada’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Maillet traveled to New York and read from her work at the Americas Society on Park Avenue. I recall she was of quite small stature, and without any airs she stood on a box of printer paper to reach the mic on the lectern. She also created the indelible character of modern Acadian theater, a wise woman/elder figure, “La Saguoine.” Over the years, the CBC has run many pieces about Maillet and her work, including readings by her, that you’ll find here in the CBC Archive.

From CBC Books’ excellent list, I loved reading Marian Engel’s The Bear; Margaret Laurence’s Stone Angel; Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business (and his entire Deptford trilogy, of which this is Book I); Timothy Findley’s The Wars (I was also gripped by his novel Famous Last Words); George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue, (the US edition of which I published in 2006) and many books by Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Emma Donoghue, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Paul Quarrington, though not the particular titles by them that are on the list. As a bookstore owner in Cleveland, Ohio from 1978-85, when a new generation of Canadian writers was bursting in to print, I was very lucky to stock and sell early books by the Atwood/Richler/Findley generation. I sold a ton of copies in the ’80s of everything by Robertson Davies, and as a bookseller, was enlisted by his publisher to urge other booksellers to order and sell more of Davies’ titles. This led to a lengthy correspondence with him that I’ve published in a post on Honourary Canadian, “Why I Write this Blog.” In my publishing career, I’ve also brought out US editions of books by Paul Quarrington, George Elliott Clarke, Steven Galloway, Atwood, and Richler, all of whom have books on the new CBC list.

I’ve suggested a few more novels for CBC’s extended list: The Abramsky Variations by Morley Torgov; all the Benny Cooperman detective novels by Howard Engel, whose superb Memory Book I published in the US in the 2006; Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s engrossing circus novel All the Broken Things, in part perhaps an homage to Marian Engel’s The Bear; and the great suspense novel Alter Ego, by the now-retired CBC broadcaster and exec Patrick Watson, who did a signing for it in my bookstore in 1979. Here are covers from many of the books:

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#elexn42 #ToPoli 60 MInutes 1993 2015 elections 2015 Federal Election 2016 presidential election @CBCRadio3 Abraham Lincoln Acadia Adolf Hitler Agent Orange Alice Munro Amanda Lang Amelia Curran Amity Beach Amtrak Anderson Varajao Antonine Maillet architecture Arctic Ocean Arkells AUX TV Ben Caplan Beverley Slopen book-to-film adaptations Born Ruffians Boyhood Brain Cloud branding exercises Brandon Downing bullying Cabot Trail Calvin Reid Canada Canadiana Canadian authors Canadian bands in NYC Canadian Blast Canadian elections Canadian indie music canadian indie rock Canadian indie rock n' roll canadian politics Canadian rock n' roll Canadians abroad Canadian vacations cancer CANlit CANRock Cape Breton CBC CBC Books CBC Music CBC Radio CBC Radio 3 CBC Sunday Edition CBS Chicago Cleveland CMJ CMJ Music Marathon CN Tower coffee Cold War Colm Toibin comedy Communion Music Corb Lund corruption covert agents cowboy culture Crime Writers of Canada cross-cultural writing Daniel Canty Dave Bidini Dave Van Ronk David Margolick Del Barber depression dialect Doug Ford drunk driving editorial services Edward Keenan Edward Robb Ellis Elizabeth May Elliott Brood Ethan Hawke Ewan Turner fair housing Farley Mowat Fence Books flickr folk music Franconia College Frazey Ford French FridayReads Gaspé Peninsula George Elliott Clarke George Washington Bridge Gill Deacon global climate change Grant Lawrence Greenwich Village Harlan Pepper Henry Tandey Hidden Pony HIGHS hockey Hollerado Honourary Canadian Howard Engel humor Ian Tyson indie music In Flight Safety Ireland Irish music Israel Jan Wong Jian Ghomeshi Jill Barber Joe's Pub journalism Justin Trudeau Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Kevin Donovan Keystone XL Lee's Palace Lee Harvey Osmond Lee Lorch Leonard Cohen life after corporate publishing Linda Ronstadt Lisa LeBlanc Little Red Lighthouse Little Rock Nine live music Lo-Fantasy lower east side Lt. General Roméo Dallaire Marc Maron marijuana laws Matt Andersen Matt Mays Mayor Bill de Blasio Mayor Rob Ford McGarrigle Sisters Megan Bonnell Mellow Pages Memoirs mental health treatment Mercury Lounge methane M for Montreal Michael Barclay Michael Enright Michael Ruby Miles O'Brien Mo Kenney Monomyth music festivals music marketing National Film Board of Canada Neil Young Neil Young. Third Man Records Nevado Records Newfoundland New York City New York music venues Noah Nobel Prize NXNE Olympics Ontario Ottawa Jazz Festival Paperbag Records Parks Canada Percé Rock Peter Warner photojournalism podcasting poetry political mindsets President Obama prosthetics PS I Love You PTSD PublishersMarketplace.com Publishers Weekly Pumpkin Pie Q Quebec racial bias Rah Rah Random House Canada road trips Robert Henry Adams Robertson Davies Rob Ford Rockwood Music Hall Rolling Stone Rural Alberta Advantage Ruth Gruber Sadies Said the Whale Sam Roberts Band SaskMusic SaskMusic.org satire Scott Young sex education Shawn William Clark Shore Fire Media short stories Siberia sister cities spy novels Stephen Harper Stephen Marche St Louis Stompin' Tom Connors Strombo Show Strumbellas suicide prevention summer vacation 2014 Swiss Water Syrian refugees Talonbooks Thanksgiving The Ballad of Crowfoot The Deep Dark Woods The Great Gray Bridge. TheGreatGrayBridge.com The Orchard The Revenant The Strumbellas This is That Toronto Toronto Book Awards Toronto mayoral election Toronto Star Torquil Campbell traditional music Turnip King Ugly Duckling Presse Undercover Books upper Manhattan Vancouver Vietnam W.B. Belcher war memorials Wigrum Wilderness of Manitoba WWI