Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

An Evening with Nancy Huston

It was a great pleasure and privilege to hear Nancy Huston speak at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last night. 


Catherine Voyer-Léger, the director general of the organization of French Canadian editors, introduced our guest and gave those not so familiar with Nancy Huston's work a very good overview. Ms. Huston has written around 50 works of fiction, poetry, plays, essays and other non fiction. Born in Alberta, she moved to Paris at a young age and has lived there ever since, becoming an award-winning author in France, Europe as well as in Canada. In recent years, she explains later, her interest in her Canadian roots and the English language has grown substantially, due in part to her researching her family background in Alberta. She has visited northern Alberta recently, discussed with local First Nations people the impact of the oilsands on their lives and livelihood. In this context we heard that she recently sold her personal archives to the National Archives. With the funds she has established a foundation, Awinita, with the objective to assist education and training programs for First Nation women, victims of abuse and neglect. The Foundation's name is that taken from one of the characters in her latest novel, Black Dance.


To provide the audience with a taste for her writing (and reading) Nancy Huston read from her latest book, Bad Girl: Classes de littérature.  While classified as a récit, which is a very broad term for what the book represents, it is probably better defined as a kind of literary fictionalized autobiography or " autofiction " - not a term the author is very fond of. In response to Catherine's question why she wrote the book in the second person, Ms. Huston explained that for her the first person voice would not have worked. Referring to, for example, Rimbaud's " Je est un autre " (I is an other), she felt that what she had written was one version of reality, that she created one possible path through it by collecting and assembling many small pebbles and stones along the way. The structure of Bad Girl matches this approach very well, as it is written in form of vignettes of varying length, with much white space on the pages. The addressee of Huston's musings is little Dorrit, the name she gives her own foetus, and that she guides from conception to birth. What emerges is part family history over several generations, part recounting of memory about her own growing up, about her mother and father and also, directly and indirectly, a select commentary on issues of the wider society over the decades she has lived through. Ms. Huston has a very expressive reading voice, so it was a great pleasure to listen to her interpretation of the text: sometimes very funny, ironic, and sometimes with a twinkle in her eyes.


In the ensuing discussion the author elaborated on her preference for the second person voice. It gives her a certain distance to the subject matter but also addresses the reader more directly. She hopes that the reader can see him/herself in little Dorrit and what she learns from the adult version of herself.


Many more topics were addressed in the conversation between Catherine Voyer-Léger and Ms. Huston, too many to reflect here. Always referring back to the author's writing, the audience was treated to more insights and reflections. Seen by many as a strong feminist, she told us that, in fact, in recent years she has been thinking and writing more about men and their issues than about women.


One topic that spoke to me personally very much was that of living a large part of your life in a different linguistic and cultural context. When Ms. Huston moved to Paris she totally absorbed herself in French and French culture. She hardly used English then. It is only in more recent years and her re-emerging interest in her background and family history that she returned to English to live parallel to French. While she referred to herself for a long time as "French" she now thinks of herself as "foreigner - étranger" and she moved to a multilingual and multicultural part of Paris. Her life changed in other ways to and she feels healthier and happier now than she has been years back. She admitted, smiling, it might also have something to do with her partner of a few years, the Swiss painter Guy ObersonTogether they have engaged in several new projects, such as her poetry collection, beautifully illustrated by him, TerrestresThis volume explores the connections between human life and the environment as well as the animal aspects of human beings and their animal behaviour.


During her stay in Canada Nancy Huston will participate in the Festival Metropolis Bleu in Montréal. She will be the recipient of the prestigious Met Bleu Grand Prix littéraire international 2015 . She is especially delighted to receive this honour because it is the only truly bilingual international literary prize.