Rover’s first literary quiz: Name the lady novelist who penned this line: “It is a painful consideration, my dear, that the happiness or misery of our lives are generally determined before we are proper judges of either.” Jane Austen, of course.
Wrong. It was the prolific poet, playwright and journalist Frances Brooke, also credited as author of the first novel written and published in North America. Published in 1769, The History of Emily Montague offers a lively if somewhat romantic portrait of French, English and Indigenous lifestyles in Quebec City.
Ms. Brooke’s literary descendants in Quebec are many, among them, some of the titans of Canadian literature as well as a slew of new faces. Both the historical and the energetic contemporary scene are the subjects of the Atwater Writers Exhibition, launched May 28 to celebrate English-language writing in Quebec.
Mordecai Richler’s cigar (unsmoked), Susan Gillis’s boxing gloves, Kathleen Winter’s noise-canceling headphones — they all appear in the Exhibition’s display cases. As well there are old-fashioned items, such as the manual typewriter David Homel used to write some of his early books, posters from the heyday of the upstart printing operation that eventually became Véhicule Press, and some also from poetry readings at Sir George Williams University — before it was Concordia, and before Clark Blaise founded its now famous graduate creative writing program.
Of course, history – and, for that matter, any representation of the present – can be contentious. Some choices are obvious: no such exhibition could be mounted without mentioning Mavis Gallant, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen. But here you will also find Gwethalyn Graham, who won the earliest Governor General’s Literary Awards – twice. Earth and High Heaven (1944) was the first Canadian book to top the New York Times’ bestseller list.
More than a museum of Great Men and Women, the exhibition celebrates the life and times of a community and a culture that has produced and continues to produce some of Canada’s finest literary work. It’s about the writers and also the homegrown publishers, translators and reading-series hosts, the many people whose passion has led to the creation of a rich, multifaceted, and distinctive English-language literary culture in Quebec.
A series of bilingual panels tracing our almost-350-year history lines an entire wall of the library’s reading room. On display are chapbooks, first editions of classic novels and other objects and curiosities, as well as a listening station loaded with Atwater Poetry Project podcasts and YouTube videos of Dimitri Nasrallah’s literary interview program, “Between the Pages”. Twenty-four gorgeous colour portraits of contemporary Montreal authors by photographer Terence Byrnes round out the exhibition.
A recently-restored heritage building, the Atwater Library offers an impressive range of community-centered programming, including a Digital Literacy program, the Seed Library and home delivery service for those who cannot get out due to illness or infirmity. The library also has …books … for loan to members, including many titles related to the Exhibition.
Gazette cartoonist Aislin hosts the Exhibition’s launch, 5 à 7, Thursday May 28, at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, 1200 Atwater Avenue. Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served.
Elise Moser is the editor of the anthology of Quebec Writing Competition-winning stories, Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec. She is the coordinator of the Atwater Writers Exhibition.