Redefining American Identity and Overcoming Trauma in Two Post-9/11 Novels of Quebec

By Zahnd, Elizabeth A. | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Redefining American Identity and Overcoming Trauma in Two Post-9/11 Novels of Quebec


Zahnd, Elizabeth A., Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


This article examines the effects of 9/11 on Quebecois literature. A close analysis of the novels Les moines dans la tour by Roch Carrier and Compter jusqu'a cent by Melanie Gelinas demonstrates how the catastrophe in New York caused both authors to call into question their sense of "Americanness" as well as the role of writing in a post-9/11 environment. The creative process is ultimately seen as a means of overcoming personal and collective trauma and a tool for renegotiating the concepts of individual and national identity.

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"Nous sommes tous Americains! [We are all Americans!]," Jean-Marie Colombani declares in his September 12, 2001 editorial for Le monde, bearing witness to a widespread phenomenon of empathy for the victims of the attacks which took place in New York and Washington on September 11. (1) In France and Canada, public support for the United States waned over time, yet questions regarding identification with the American people remained. (2) This study examines how the 9/11 attacks altered two Quebecois novelists' perceptions of individual and national selfhood. A close analysis of Les moines dans la tour (2004) by Roch Carrier as well as Compter jusqu' a cent (2008) by Me1anie Gelinas shows how the catastrophe caused both writers to call into question their sense of "Americanness" as well as the role of writing in a post-9/11 environment.

A brief look at Quebec's history and literature prior to 9/11 attests to a preoccupation with national identity both in relation to English Canada and with regards to the United States. As early as 1737, French administrators, such as Gilles Hocquart, spoke of marked cultural differences between Europeans and the settlers of New France (Lahaise 7). At the same time, Francophone settlers considered themselves culturally distinct from their English-speaking counterparts. Cut off from France following British victories in the French and Indian war, French Canadians suffered a loss of freedom of religion, language, and law. While many of these rights were restored by the Quebec Act of 1774, tensions between French and English Canadians continued throughout history, with debates, and even violent protests, erupting over matters such as religious education, military conscription, social policy, and taxation. These conflicts led to various forms of Quebecois nationalism, including Duplessis's social conservatism during the first half of the twentieth century, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, and two referenda on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. As Richard Desrosiers explains, "if there is a constant in the history of the Quebec people, it is the rise in national self-assertion and the questioning of the link with the Canadian whole" (95).

At various times in history, French Canadians turned to the United States for help. During the Great Expulsion of 1755-1763, thousands of French colonists fled to Louisiana after British troops forcefully deported them from Acadia. Between 1840 and 1930, another 900,000 French Canadians emigrated to the United States, mostly for economic reasons (Lavoie 63). In 1847, and again in 1989, tensions between French and English Canadians were such that political parties formed in Quebec advocating annexation by the United States. (3) In the 1980s, the majority of businessmen in the cities of Quebec and Montreal supported free trade with the United States, in direct opposition to Canada's federal policy of economic protectionism (Desrosiers 95).

Quebec's literature prior to 9/11 mirrors this historical tendency to view the United States as a place of refuge from Canadian problems, but also portrays the United States as a threat to preserving Quebec's cultural heritage. Early novels such Maria Chapdelaine (1916) by Louis Hemon and Trente arpents (1938) by Ringuet present emigration to the United States as a phenomenon which threatens the values, language, and lifestyle of the Quebecois people. …

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