Nicole Brossard reads from Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon

On Oct. 6, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet and author Nicole Brossard. Teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report.

They say memory is ungovernable silence. So, all the better that writing makes it possible to redirect the course of things and to irrigate where the heart is dry and demanding.

Nicole Brossard, Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon

On Thursday, Oct. 6, celebrated Canadian author Nicole Brossard (right) graced Stedman Lecture Hall with a reading from her work. An enraptured silence fell as her audience of students and scholars absorbed the haunting words of her book Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon (Coach House Press, 2005). She also treated her listeners to a few selections from her Intimate Journal (Mercury Press, 2003) and some selected poems.

In the question and answer period following the reading, Brossard described herself as a poet who writes novels. “Writing novels is like being in prison, you don’t know when you’ll get out,” said Brossard. “With poetry you relate to time differently, it’s always in the present tense.”

Brossard said she explores the nature of time in many of her works. She is concerned about our present society and feels it is one that has lost memory. “I need, without being nostalgic, to cultivate the past,” said Brossard. She went on to explain that without the past, we also have no sense of the future and our present lives lose their third dimension, become flattened. We prefer immediate sensation to deeper emotion describing it as “life against a backdrop of Big Macs, Shell, Harvey’s and Pizza Hut”. Brossard also wondered what kind of ruins our contemporary civilization will leave, what can be transmitted between generations.

Because she believes that the way we relate to each other is changing, exploring the nature of dialogue is important to Brossard. In Yesterday, she experiments with the form, shifting from fragmentary pieces of monologue and dialogue to something that resembles a play script. While she acknowledges that this can appear to be disorienting to the reader, there is an inner coherence we bear inside ourselves that holds the continuity of the novel. “I like to construct a constellation of cultural matter that will interact with each other,” said Brossard.

Many students wondered what gets “lost in translation” from French to English (Brossard reads fluently in both languages). She described her good fortune in having translators who are just as passionate and unique about their work as she is. Barbara Godard, professor of women’s studies at York, attended the event. Brossard acknowledged Godard as one of her closest translators. Brossard emphasized the need to learn to breathe differently and wondered: “Who would I be in different languages?”

Brossard became so interested in this process of translation that it inspired her novel Mauve Desert (McClelland & Stewart, 1998), in which she questions the patriarchal language and how it fails to translate into female subjectivity. When asked about how men feel about her often radically feminist themes, Brossard responded, “it depends on the man”.

Regarding the development of her characters Brossard said, “I give my characters a different part of me. I use them rather than create them to traverse the landscapes of the unknown. They happen to be there and I take care of them but they represent the way Nicole Brossard spends her energy.” We’re grateful she spent her energy with us on this night.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. Poet Stephen Cain read from his collection American Standard/Canada Dry on Oct. 27. Canadian novelist and York University creative writing professor, Priscila Uppal, will present the next instalment in the series when she reads from her work on Nov. 10. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.