Academic journal article Text Matters

The Task of Attention

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Task of Attention

Article excerpt

Sherry Simon (Concordia University) Talks to Krzysztof Majer and Justyna Fruzinska (University of Lódz)

Krzysztof Majer, Justyna Fruzinska: Let us begin with a subject that you have written much about, and always passionately: your home city-Montreal, or perhaps Montréal. It has often been portrayed as a cosmopolitan metropolis, similar to New York or London, but you have chosen more striking analogies. In your book Translating Montreal, you describe it as a "divided city," and you propose reading it via turn-ofthe- century Trieste or Prague, colonial Calcutta, or even contemporary Mostar, evidently challenging the comfortable image of the Canadian mosaic. In these cities, encounters with difference would have been associated with unease or danger. However, barring the October Crisis of 1970, Montreal is not associated, in the global imagination, with violence or peril.

Sherry Simon: It was not only the October Crisis itself-a period of months-which brought violence into the city but the decade preceding and following. Those who lived through the difficult years of the 1960s and 1970s remember a very fraught atmosphere, not only in the political arena but in the sphere of daily life, too, as Québécois nationalism penetrated every area of cultural life, making the time very exciting but also full of antagonism across language lines. Montreal was for much of the twentieth century a colonial city, one dominated by a minority English-language bourgeoisie. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s progressively changed this situation, so that today the city is largely French-speaking, and English has only a minority role. There is less a sense of division today because the hierarchies of the colonial situation no longer obtain. Yet Montreal shares with many postcolonial cities a shape and a sensibility that has to do with a past of stark divisions- the spatial divisions of colonial Calcutta or of German-Czech Prague.

KM, JF: In your book, you map various "translational" journeys and passages across the divided city which have occurred over the last sixty years or so, with different outcomes. Translation is here understood very broadly, that is including diverse forms of language contact and interference. These may occur spontaneously, but may also be variously motivated: from the linguistic violence of superimposition practised by the authorities to unprompted, sincere, grass-roots voyages of individuals curious to "see how the other half lives." But you conclude that "the identity of the city is to be understood as the sum total of the passages that define its evolution, each testifying to changing conditions of reception." This is a very dynamic portrait of Montreal, which points to the impossibility of producing a final, complete vision. The Montreal of today seems very far removed from Hugh MacLennan's notion of "two solitudes," which was still current, or perhaps fashionable, until very recently. Have there been any major shifts over the eight years since the book was published? Are we able to speculate about the city's future shape?

SS: The "two solitudes" image long outlived its accuracy as a description of Montreal's social dynamics. And as you say, today's Montreal has a much more diverse and complex cultural landscape. I think that the ways in which young people identify with language continue to change. You don't necessarily choose one language identity and stick to it. There is a lot more fluidity. The historical English-language community is dwindling, but English continues to be an important player-as an international language rather than as the historic colonial enemy. More and more languages of immigration are important today as third languages. Montreal will, however, remain a French-language city and it is important to defend the language laws that allow French to be protected in the public realm. It will be interesting to watch how French itself becomes more diversified, even as it remains the dominant language of the city. …

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