Gil Courtemanche – The path of a politically-engaged writer

Marika Kemeny, York’s Glendon public relations and communications advisor, contributed the following article to YFile about novelist Gil Courtemanche, who recently spoke at the Creative Writers’ Series on the Glendon campus.

On his first visit to Glendon on March 9, Gil Courtemanche engaged his audience with the first words he uttered: “…writing is a political gesture: you set yourself either [with]in society or outside. [Through writing], you tell society where you are in relation to it.”

Left: Gil Courtemanche

An invited speaker in the Creative Writers’ Series co-hosted by faculty member and acclaimed author Michael Ondaatje and the Glendon English Department, Courtemanche has been on Quebec’s journalistic scene since the early 1960s and, ever since that time, consistently engaged in political activitism through his writings. He came to Glendon ostensibly to read from his acclaimed book, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, (Boréal 2000), recently out in English under the title A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Knopf Canada 2003), as well as from his latest published work, La séconde révolution tranquille (Boréal 2003). But it was clear from the start that this would merely be a lead-in to deeper philosophical explorations of the events represented in his books – the global political situation and the role of the writer.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali was translated into English by the renowned Canadian translator, Patricia Claxton, recipient of two Governor General’s awards for translation. The original French version was on Quebec bestseller lists for more than a year and movie production is currently underway. Winner of the Prix des Libraires du Québec in 2000, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali was billed “novel of the year” by Montreal’s La Presse.

At Glendon, Courtemanche parachuted his audience to the poolside by reading the opening paragraphs of this work, observing it with an ironic eye and an admirable economy of words:

“In the middle of Kigali there is a swimming pool surrounded by deckchairs and a score of tables all made of white plastic. And forming a huge L overhanging this patch of blue stands the Hôtel des Mille-Collines, with its habitual clientele of international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes. All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you.”


Courtemanche is a journalist who specializes in international and third-world politics, and an author of several non-fiction works, as well as a novelist. He has spent several years in Africa and lost many friends to the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi, which ravaged Rwanda in 1994. Writing this book was his way of preserving their memory, of not letting the victims disappear into oblivion, of exposing the perpetrators and the apathy of the rest of the world. He chose the medium of a novel, because he considered it to be the best, perhaps the only way to represent that life, that place and those people in a fully etched portrait. For, he maintains that a novelist has the freedom to invent, even if using clearly defined events and real characters, while a reporter observes only the facts, and can often misjudge a given situation without being able to present the full reality.

In a fascinating glimpse of the novelist’s writing process, Gil Courtemanche described how a writer collects and saves all sorts of details in his brain and when he begins the writing process, these reappear and take form, with each character representing a composite of different personalities in the real world.

Courtemanche described with passion the importance of the writer in society. He remembered the start of his career in 1963, during the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, as a time when journalism was a tool for change, rather than the tool for exploitation he considers it to be today. “Perhaps it is time for a new ‘Quiet Revolution’,” he said, “one which originates from ordinary citizens, rather than from the leaders of society”.

Because of globalization and the resulting general move towards conservatism, noted Courtemanche, today’s young are disillusioned by all political parties. Their idealism is engaged only by third world countries, where they feel that they can make a difference, even though there are major social and economic problems to resolve right here, at home.

In a moving display of his lifelong idealism and commitment to making the world a better place, Courtemanche preferred the belief that each individual can have an impact on the world. This can be achieved by acting in an engaged and moral manner towards his immediate environment, whether by buying environmentally friendly and fair trade products, or engaging in local politics, culminating in a “ripple effect” of significant change. He concluded by stating that the result of the general unwillingness of Canadian society to get involved in social activism and politics is that we leave politics, and therefore the major decisions about our country, to those who don’t represent what we believe in.

Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali and La séconde révolution tranquille are available through the Glendon Bookstore and York University Bookstore.