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As a bilingual nation, Canada has a long history of both English and French-Canadian literary talent. From the earliest iterations of French-Canadian writing — with bilingual newspapers in Québec, and Michel Bibaud’s seminal Histoire du Canada published in 1837 — French-Canadian writers have been proving their literary chops for centuries. The 20th and early 21st centuries have been pivotal periods for French-Canadian literature, with writers becoming more numerous and transcendent. Read on to discover ten must-read French-Canadians.
A quote from Carrier’s Canadian classic The Hockey Sweater is on the back of Canada’s five-dollar bill and reads: ‘The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink.’
Roch Carrier, a novelist, playwright and children’s author, is one of Québec’s most loved and widely read writers. His humorous and nostalgic descriptions of Québec’s rural life have become his unique touch since his earliest publications in the form of short stories and poems. His collection of stories, Jolis deuils, were published in 1964 for the first time and were awarded the Prix de la Province du Québec that year. His first novel La guerre, yes sir!, is a post-colonial novel set in a village of Québec during the conscription crises of the Second World War (1968), and today, it is still one of the most widely studied literary works by a French-Canadian.
Born in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, Gabrielle Roy was the youngest of 11 children; an excellent student, she started her career as a teacher in small villages near her home. Her fiction work is described as fascinating realist tales from the city, and nostalgic and autobiographical tales from the country with autobiographical touches. Her best known work, The Tin Flute, was originally published in 1945 with the name of Bonheur d’occasion. The story is set during the Second World War in the St-Henri district, a poor neighborhood of Montreal, and explores the impact of the war on society. The novel was significant in the recognition of French-Canadian literature; Roy was awarded a Canada Council Medal and an honorary degree from Université Laval in 1968. In 1971, she was also awarded the Prix David and was the first Canadian to win France’s Prix Femina for this novel.
Born in Montreal in 1879, Émile Nelligan is seen as one of the most prominent Québécois poets because of his unique and delicate poems. Nostalgia, melancholy, and the struggles and conflicts of being a poet marked his powerful work in both form and content. Nelligan became a revolutionary contemporary poet of his time; themes in poems in Québec poetry were often patriotic or romantic, and often of a restrictive style. Over 100 poems (107 to be exact) were collected by a friend and his mother and published as Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre (Émile Nelligan and His Work) while he was in an asylum due to mental illness, a place where he passed away at the age of 62. While his writing career was cut preemptively short, his literary contribution significantly impacted the literary history of French-Canadian poetry.
Jacques Poulin is often considered as the most North American of Québec’s francophone writers. Born in St-Gédéon, Québec, in 1937, Jacques Poulin studied arts and psychology at the Université Laval and started his career as a college guidance counsellor and a government translator. After his successful second novel, Jimmy, in 1969, Poulin decided to commit himself full time to writing. His work is usually described as simple, where idyllic places and the loss of innocence find each other in an often painful subject matter between fable and fantasy. His best-known work Volkswagen Blues won the Prix Belgique-Canada among other important recognitions. Poulin’s has an endless list of awards not only in Canada but also abroad, including the Prix Athanase-David in 1995, the Prix Molson des Arts du Canada in 2000, and the Prix Gilles-Corbel in 2008.
Anne Hébert was born in Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault, in 1916 and started writing poetry from a young age. Two significant events marked her work forever — the deaths of her cousin Denys Garneau (also a poet) and her only sister Marie — impacting her poetic vision. Hébert’s work is full of obscure and explicit images, exploring agony and death. Hebert’s best-known work is the novel Kamauraska, published in 1970 and considered a classic of Québec and Canadian literature. Kamauraska won the Prix des libraires de France, and the Grand prix of the Académie royale de la langue françaises de Belgique. The success of the novel also translated to the big screen with a film by Claude Jutra. In 1982, Hébert won the Prix Femina for another novel, Les four de Bassan.
Michel Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942. His first play, Le Train, won the Radio-Canada Young Authors’ Competition in 1964. With his early success, Tremblay quickly further established himself as a prominent artist of the second half of the 20th century in Québec with Les Belles-Soeurs, his second play, published in 1968. The play is written in ‘joual,’ a dialect associated with the working class of Montreal. In the play, the social, sexual and political concerns of the time are analyzed through the voice of 14 working-class women, working together in the same kitchen. Tremblay’s characters often appeared in later works, leading the opportunity to examine them entirely. Openly gay, Tremblay also portrays the struggles of homosexuals in society at the time. Tremblay was awarded the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France and the Prix David from Québec for his entire literary contribution.
Born in Québec (1939), Marie-Claire Blais is probably the most applauded French-Canadian novelists of all time due to her immense contribution to Canadian literature. She wrote La belle bête (Mad Shadows) at the age of 20, a classic of Québec literature. She gave life to all kinds of characters, from prostitutes to homosexuals to mothers and children lacking of love. Blais has been incredibly productive since her first novel was published in 1959, publishing a new novel nearly every year. She has also written beautiful manuscripts, poetry and plays. Her works have been translated into both English, and other languages, including Russian and Chinese. She has been awarded several times for her work and devotion to literature, receiving France’s prestigious Prix Medicis for the novel Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (1960), which is probably her most acclaimed work, plus many other distinguished awards and recognitions, both national and international, such as Le Prix France-Québec (1965), the Prix Anthanase-David (1982), and Cambridge’s International Woman of the Year award for her contribution to literature and creative writing in 1995-96.
Nicole Brossard is a poet, novelist, essayist, lesbian, post-modernist, formalist, feminist, and a revolutionary author. Brossard writes against patriarchy, linearity and anything attempting to restrict women’s voices. Popular for her literary activism, she is a prolific and influential French-Canadian writer. She has been twice awarded by Canada’s Governor General prize of poetry for Mécanique Jongluese in 1974, and for Double Impression in 1984. Brossard is also one of the few who has received the highest recognition in Québec’s literature, le Prix Athanase-David (1991), for her entire oeuvre. Other prestigious awards include Le Grand Prix de Poesie de la Foundation les Forges in 1989 and 1999. Brossard’s work has been translated into different languages other than English such as Spanish and German. In 2006, the Canada Council recognized her entire production — more than 30 books — with the Arts Molson Prize. Brossard’s best-known and more studied novel is Le desert mauve (Mauve Desert), published in 1987 and in English in 1990.
Known as a prolific novelist, children’s writer, essayist, journalist, poet and filmmaker, Jacques Godbout’s novel Salut Galarneau! (1967) is probably his most popular work, winning the Governor General’s Award for Fiction that year. In 1958, Godbout co–founded the review Liberté, a critical forum for contemporary ideas, and became the first president of the Union des écrivains québécois in 1977. The term ‘The new novel’ began with L’Aquarioum, his first romance, written in 1962. He has also written many radio dramas in French for both Radio Canada and French national radio. As a journalist, Godbout is popular for his political commitment, his irony and humour, and his writing for diverse publications such as the newspaper Le Devoir. Some of his many recognitions have been the Prix Ludger–Duvernay (1973), the Prix Belgique–Canada (1978) and the Prix du Québec (Athanase–David) in 1985. Godbout was named Chevalier of the National Order of Québec in 1998, and the Académie Française gave him the Prix Maurice-Genevoix in 2007.
Laberge is one of the most important names in Québécois literature. A dramaturge, comedian, and romancer, her literary work is impressive, versatile and prolific, with intense emotion, drama, and sometimes violence. She studied journalism at the Université Laval but soon enough devoted herself to theatre, joining the Board of Directors of the most important Québec theatre companies, including the Conseil québécois du théâtre. In Europe, Faberge is known for her plays, including L’Homme gris (1984), which won the Prix Ludger–Duvernay (1997) as well as international attention and recognition in Paris, Brussels, Germany and Italy where the play was translated and performed. The play C’était avant la guerre à l’Anse à Gilles achieved the Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1981. Laberge has been twice named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1989, 2004), Officer of the Order of Canada (1996), amongst other prestigious awards.