Writer Frances Brandow and I met in 2003 for coffee at the Brûlerie near the Université de Montréal, where one of her daughters was studying. She was small, with fading auburn hair and eyes the colour of cornflowers. Scottish looks, which surprised me because she lived in the Beauce region of Quebec.
We talked for two hours. About her short stories, and, as we grew comfortable, about her life. She was born in southern Ontario, where, one summer in her teens, she met a guy from Quebec. When she followed him back to his hometown soon afterward, she spoke only English. The winter I met her, some twenty years later, she was working as a translator. Apart from her fiction, her whole life was French.
Most of us writing in English in Quebec aren’t as isolated as Frances. In Montreal proper, around 19 percent of the population speaks English at home. Sizeable pockets of English speakers reside in the Townships and in western Quebec. But writers tend to be solitary. Often we need to be coaxed from our lairs.
And this is the genius of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. For fifteen years, it has been coaxing us non-stop into building a local English-language literary community. The writer from the Beauce was an early beneficiary, receiving help on a linked story collection the year the QWF mentorship program came into existence.
Imagine, for a moment, life without the QWF. In the mid-eighties, when I was trying to figure out how to make it as a writer, guidance was hard to find. I was working in an office by day and writing nights and weekends. Concordia University was the only place in Montreal offering English writing workshops, so that was where I went. Not for a degree, particularly. For community.
The QWF was born in the spring of 1998 out of the merger of QSPELL and FEWQ, two pre-existing groups promoting Quebec English-language literature and writers, respectively. It’s an astonishing success story. Currently, the QWF has around six hundred members. Every year more people join, and its activities keep pace. Writing workshops are the most popular, bolstering community and helping the established local writers who lead them pay rent. The mentorship program is fully subsidized, a blessing if you check out costs for similar programs at Humber College or elsewhere. Writers in the Community supports at-risk teens through a range of literary activities. Writers Out Loud showcases local talent at readings throughout the province.
The crowning jewel is, of course, the Gala. Every November, the QWF hands out $12,000 in prizes for Quebec’s best English books and translations. To mark this year’s 15th anniversary, the Gala will be held at the Virgin Mobile Corona Theatre on Notre-Dame, but the past several years it was held at the regal Lion d’Or. Last autumn, the hall was packed to capacity. Looking out at the sea of faces, master of ceremonies Josh Freed cracked a joke about Anglos convening on the corner of Papineau and Ontario – the heartland of French Montreal – to honour English words. It is a paradox. And most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Claire Holden Rothman’s new novel, My October, will be published next spring with Penguin Canada.
*This article has been modified to correct a factual error regarding QSPELL.