Interview with Dimitri Nasrallah

This is the first in a series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis. In the future, we hope to talk to publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec. Dimitri Nasrallah is the fiction editor for Esplanade Books imprint, published by Véhicule Press and the author of two award-winning novels. 2011’s Niko (Esplanade Books) won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, was longlisted for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Award, and has been translated into Turkish. 2005’s Blackbodying (DC Books) won the McAuslan First Book Award and was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal.

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What is your relationship to Quebec writing and how did you end up at Véhicule?

My relationship to Quebec writing branches from the simple fact that I’m a writer who lives in Quebec and tries to make a living from it. I’ve lived in Montreal since 2001 and as a result I’ve become more deeply involved with the writing community here over the course of publishing my two novels with Québécois publishing houses. Any awards my fiction has ever won have come from Quebec. Early on, I worked on several contracts for the Quebec Writing Federation, and I also contributed to the Montreal Review of Books over the years here and there. I teach part-time at Concordia University in the Department of English. Last year, Simon Dardick at Véhicule Press invited me to take over as Esplanade Book’s fiction editor from Andrew Steinmetz, who was stepping down. So now I have a vested interest in paying attention to who’s writing what, though I wouldn’t say that mandate is exclusively Québécois. I’ve also begun taking a much closer look at what’s being published in the French language as a result, and will be adding the translation of such works to the Esplanade list. Earlier this year, I began hosting a books & culture TV series for Bell Local called Between the Pages, produced by the same production company that puts together the French-language books program Rature et Lit, which is hosted by Elsa Pépin. The show’s mandate is to feature Québécois writers and intellectuals. So all in all, I suppose I’m tied pretty tightly to the Québécois writing scene at the moment.

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

That’s a big question that I’m not sure has a credible answer. I think once you begin to put as much as you can of what’s happening in an envelope, people become uncomfortable and creativity begins to wilt. I will say that on the English side, which is the only side I can speak of with anything remotely resembling authority, that many of the writers I’ve met here who’ve succeeded at their craft for more than a few years — and here I’ll stress that I’m not equating success with a big book but with longevity — are all very independently minded. They’ve had to carve out livings for themselves and a place for their writing in a place that offers them comparatively little in the way of open doors or industry. And they prefer it that way because of the quality of life that they can have here. So I suppose I’m answering another question instead: What defines English Quebec writers? And the quick answer would be tenacity.

What excites you most in a book?

It all depends on the hat I’m wearing when reading it. I read variously as a fan, a writer, a teacher, a critic, and an editor. In each of those roles, I’m reading for something slightly different to excite me. Or at the very least, I may take my list of priorities and attribute a different hierarchy to it. Above all, though, I appreciate clarity and precision in prose; originality and energy in voice; subtlety and power in metaphor, simile, and imagery; deep intellect in purpose; ingenuity in structure; and efficiency in pacing.

What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?

I think the whole notion of “important books” is relative unless you happen to be teaching a university course and are in the practice of canonizing books like a museum curator. Ideas are important for a time and then fade away, as do the books imbued with those ideas. There are stock ideas of identity and language that tend to emerge out of seemingly every discussion of Quebec, but their importance strikes as rather facile given that they are lines of thinking we’ve inherited and sculpted over generations. For example, we still speak of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes as an important book to come out of Quebec because, in our weaker moments, the idea it presents suits us in its simplicity. But its underlying ethos has nothing novel to add in the 21st century beyond raising a tired dynamic when political tempers prevail. I think Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity posits an important idea to come from a Québécois writer, in that the line of thinking it presents is wide and absorbent enough to accommodate more than the years in which it was first published. Éric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy I find to be important for its formal ingenuity. One writer I respect for the model of the writer’s life that he represents is David Homel, who has made a career out of writing and translating novels, along with teaching and journalism. It’s a model that I personally aspire to: a writer with a malleable skillset. It’s a much more sober approach to longevity than banking on popular success. I find translation, the ability to cross cultural boundaries, to be one of the foremost important aspects of being a Canadian writer there is. And Quebec writers are very often at the center of this country’s multiculturalism. In this respect, I also consider Sheila Fischman’s work and legacy to be terribly important. There are many great poets at work here right now as well. I appreciate clarity and precision in prose; originality and energy in voice; subtlety and power in metaphor, simile, and imagery; deep intellect in purpose; ingenuity in structure; and efficiency in pacing.

What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing?

There are books and writers I respect greatly, even though I may not always agree with them. The two I’ve named above — Taylor and Plamondon — would fall into this category. Samuel Archibald’s Arvida. Neil Bissoondath’s Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Kim Thúy’s Ru. Josip Novakovich. This is merely a random perusal from my bookshelves.

What is your favourite book from Quebec that you have published?

From the Esplanade backlist, I’m partial to Jaspreet Singh’s Seventeen Tomatoes and Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab.

If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?

Try Gordon Sheppard’s HA! (McGill-Queen’s University Press). It’s a dense 864 pages, so best of luck to you. I first discovered it while working as a researcher on the QWF Literary Database in 2006. It’s one of the more original novels to come out of Quebec in the last decade, though sadly it’s already been forgotten.

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