A Conversation With Louise Penny: The Canada Letter

A Conversation With Louise Penny: The Canada Letter


Gamache, whom she confided was named after a local tailor, has become to Quebec what Hercule Poirot is to Belgium, and made Ms. Penny, a former journalist for the CBC, a literary star.

She is also a rare breed in Quebec, a native English speaker who writes about French Canada in a province where neuroses about language run deep.

“I am a Québécoise writer, and a Canadian writer, but I never wanted to be ghettoized,” she said. “I don’t want to be defined as a Canadian writer, but, rather, a writer who happens to be Canadian.”

Ms. Penny’s novels were translated into 23 languages before they were finally translated into Quebec French in 2010, partly reflecting the cultural divide in the province.

“My books are love letters to Quebec — the language of my characters is French and I wanted my characters to live in that language,” Ms. Penny, 59, said. “The translation meant so much to me because I wanted my friends and neighbors to be able to read them.”

The books have sold well with both English- and French-speaking Quebecers. And legions of Ms. Penny’s fans take a 2.5-hour tour in Quebec City, based on her popular novel “Bury Your Dead,” where they can walk in the footsteps of Gamache as he investigates the murder of an amateur archaeologist at the Literary and Historical Society of Québec.

Ms. Penny and I also chatted about Quebec’s culture wars, which she experienced while living in Quebec City during the 1995 referendum on the province’s independence.

She pointed out that Quebec had an English minority surrounded by a French majority, who were themselves eclipsed by an English majority in the rest of the country. So in Quebec, she noted, everyone defines themselves as “The Other,” creating a sense of alienation that both inspired and repelled.

“As much as the English don’t know the French, the French don’t know the English,” she said.

In multilingual Knowlton, however, she stressed that a love of country living and nature overcame any linguistic differences. Even when she was living in Quebec City, and her French was rudimentary, she said, she was “never made to feel like I didn’t belong,” even when she would accidentally order “flaming mice” in a restaurant.

Ms. Penny, who oozes humor and easy conviviality, has overcome her fair share of adversity. She said she was on the brink of suicide in her late 30s, consumed with fear of failure and an alcohol problem. She had five years of writer’s block, and her first manuscript was rejected by at least 50 publishers.

But with the encouragement of her husband, Michael Whitehead, a doctor who died in 2016, she refused to give up, eventually coming in second in a British writing contest. Gamache, she noted, came to her fully formed. Now she writes one book a year — all infused by her many years in Quebec.

“I wanted to write books that I would read, that my 8year-old self would read,” she said. “I had to love them. I created a village where I would live, populated with characters I would befriend and a main character I would marry.”

My meeting with Ms. Penny was a highlight of a two-day tour of Montreal, which began with a highly caloric feast at Martin Picard’s storied Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon in Mirabel.

I also met with Phyllis Lambert, the 91-year-old architect and philanthropist, and with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the 27-year-old co-leader of a left-wing political party and a strong adherent of an independent Quebec.

Photo


Next stop: Hérouxville, which a decade ago become synonymous with a xenophobic impulse in contemporary Quebec.

Credit
Shaun Best/Reuters

As I write this, I am in Maniwaki. Here, I met with Cezin Nottaway, an Indigenous chef, on the Indigenous reserve of Kitigan Zibi. Check out my Facebook Live chat with Ms. Nottaway and members of The New York Times Race/Related team.

During my stay here, the latest trade squabble erupted between Canada and the United States when President Trump boasted that he had made up an assertion that the United States had a trade deficit with Canada during a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On the reserve, which has been buffeted by alcoholism and drug problems and the legacy of colonial rule, many residents said Mr. Trump’s latest declaration had little effect on them.

But Shady Hafez, a youth worker whose mother is Algonquin and whose father is Syrian, said that America’s rightward shift under Mr. Trump had made Canadians feel smug about their liberalism, and that some believed that they had been given a license to support racism in Canada, while others thought that Mr. Trudeau now had an excuse to be complacent about minority rights.

“Justin Trudeau looks and sounds amazing compared to what comes out of Trump’s mouth,” Mr. Hafez said. “But he is all talk. What matters is what happens on the ground.”

My next stop: Hérouxville, which a decade ago become synonymous with a xenophobic impulse in contemporary Quebec. I want to see how and if attitudes have shifted. If you have any suggestions about whom to meet there or what to see or what to ask, please send them my way.

Don’t forget that I’ll be writing a bonus edition of this newsletter on March 21. And please follow me on my journey on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as on The Times’s Reader Center.

Trans Canada

—Viola Desmond, whose act of protest against segregation and whose business success was not widely known until decades after her death, will become the first black person, and the first woman outside of the royal family, to be featured on a regular Canadian bank note.

—As Eugenie Bouchard of Montreal struggles with her game on the tennis court, she’s also gone from endorsing global brands like Nike and Colgate to promoting an e-book about cryptocurrency.

—A group of doctors in Quebec are rejecting a planned series of pay raises and asking the province to use the money for nursing and other financially strapped services.





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