My life as a teacher of French as a second language has brought me into daily contact with Montreal’s immigrant population, and with these students from every continent, I have found a home.
When, in 2003, I first started working with the children who arrived in the Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board’s welcoming classes (known as classes d’accueil), I was constantly dazzled by their adaptability and their aptitude for finding ways to manage in a completely alien and often impenetrable world.
In 2009, feeling at risk of burning out, I moved over to adult education, thinking how great it might be to now work with the parents of these same children.
And it has been. I have found my place. And in my daily efforts with my adult students, I’m hopeful that they, too, will extend their roots deep into Montreal’s economic and cultural life, and make themselves at home.
Who are these immigrant people who arrive in our city?
Well, to me, they’re the adventurers of their native lands; they’re the most courageous, optimistic and adaptable ones. They’re the ones willing to leave behind everything they have ever known: their language, culture, past, family, wealth and social status―everything familiar―to start all over in a strange land. The cream of the crop.
The literary world is filled with the works of writers who have chosen or been forced to emigrate from their native lands. They have become writers in exile.
I remember hearing a radio interview, many years ago, in which a novelist (I think it was Michael Ondaatje) remarked that it was much easier to write about one’s homeland from somewhere else; that the experience of exile heightened one’s feelings about home and sharpened one’s memories.
That may explain the trove of extraordinary fiction and creative non-fiction stashed away in libraries and bookcases everywhere.
Many great works of Western civilization were created by artists in exile. For example, it was during the twenty years of wandering through Italy that followed his banishment from Florence in January of 1302 (for supporting the Holy Roman Emperor instead of the papacy) that Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy; it was during his self-imposed exile in Mexico that Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda produced Canto General (1950): and, quite extraordinarily, it is while exiled on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel (because of his fervent opposition to Napoleon III’s empire) that Victor Hugo completed Les Misérables (which he had previously abandoned) and also wrote several other novels such as Toilers of the Sea, and even produced several volumes of poetry, including Les Contemplations.
But of course, the immigrant writer’s vantage point is twofold, as he or she looks backward into the past and to a lost home, as well as ahead, at life in the present and in anticipation of the future.
In a 2010 radio interview on NPR titled Writing in Exile Helps Authors Connect to Home, authors Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita In Tehran), Chenjerai Hove, a Zimbabwean poet and novelist Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American author of Create Dangerously and Breath Eyes Memory (among other remarkable works of fiction) explored this sense of being go-betweens. Attempting to relate the shifting perspectives her writing has acquired as a result of her exile from Iran, Azar Nafisi explained that:
“I think you can never take away the pain and anguish of loss and of exile. But at the same time, you feel a little blessed because you can look at one world through the alternative eyes of the others. And always -you look at it through the fresh eyes of a child, of a stranger, of a visitor.”
In reaction to this push & pull movement between their pre and post migration lives, some writers turn back towards their country of birth, which then becomes fertile ground upon which issues of identity and politics―as well as more difficult matters hidden below the waterline of conscious memory, such as horror and loss―can be worked out.
This has certainly been the case for Michael Ondaatje. Though he left Sri Lanka and moved to England to join his mother at the age of 11 and then found his way to Canada by the age of 20, many of Ondaatje’s novels, including Running in the Family (1987), The Cat’s Table (2011) and Anil’s Ghost (1992) have been at least partly set in his native Sri Lanka, offering multiple portraits of his mysterious, complicated and war-torn homeland.
But there are also writers who engage in an ongoing dance between their country of birth and the land they adopted―or that adopted them.
Right here in Montreal, we have Rawi Hage and Dany Laferrière, whose immigrant experiences began much the same way as those of my students, and who have achieved extraordinary local and international success and recognition for their body of work.
Rawi Hage, who arrived in Montreal by way of Beirut and then New York, is the author of the multiple prize-winning De Niro’s Game (2006), a novel set in Beirut during the troubled 1980s, as well as the more recent Cockroach (2008), which is set in contemporary Montreal and explores the immigrant experience. As Hage’s editor, Lynn Henry explains:
“You could almost view the two books as a pair,” […] “It’s almost like taking someone from the world [of De Niro’s Game] and seeing what would happen if he came to Montreal, trying to build a new life for himself. It’s an examination of how well we integrate newcomers, from the perspective of someone who is living on the edges of society.”
In many ways a quintessential Montrealer, Hage first spoke Arabic, then French. English, the language he writes in, is actually his third tongue!
And then there is the magnificent Dany Laferrière, who arrived in Montreal from Haiti in 1976, and whose first novel, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired), a witty and provocative novel about race relations in Montreal, was published in 1985, and made into a film in 1989.
After a prolific and extremely successful writing career, Laferrière’s literary immortality was assured when he was elected to the Académie Française in 2013.
But Laferrière’s masterpiece may well be his 2009 novel, The Enigma of the Return, which in beautiful poetic language recounts one man’s return to Haiti, his homeland and the birthplace of his father. It is a meditation on exile, loss and navigating through two worlds, which won the 2009 Prix Médicis in France and the Grand Prix du Livre in Montreal. * It is the immigrant’s journey come full circle.
(*It’s worth noting that Laferrière’s official translator is David Homel, Pointe-Claire Library’s most recent writer in residence)
The sense of loss that the writer in exile and all immigrants grapple with is doubled: there is the physical separation of moving away, but there is also the estrangement and distance created by the passage of time, which constantly transforms what was. Many immigrants, writers included, upon their return to their native lands many years later, have described feeling that home wasn’t home anymore; that they had become strangers in their own home.
Maybe it is precisely this phenomenon which unites the native and the newcomer, the immigrant and the locally born: the fact that none of us can ever truly go back home…except in our imaginations. As George Webber realizes in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940):
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”