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Three Solitudes

by Nathalie Guilbeault

Words mean everything to me. I love to dissect their meaning, weigh their purpose in a sentence, and evaluate the efficacy with which they deliver their message. Words affect me. Words move me. Words rule my world. I am a writer, yes, but also a coach. I know how choosing the appropriate word, term, or expression can significantly alter the course of a conversation, a session, a relationship even.


When I decided to write my first book, Inhaled, I had a choice to make—an important one.  In which language would I deliver these words? How to best impact the reader? Would I write in the language of the oppressor, English, or in the language of my ancestors, the language of the oppressed, French? I was raised in a strictly French-speaking home. Even though half of my school life unfolded in English, speaking French at home was a priority, a must, a non negotiable. My parents had foresight. They, as French-Canadians, had been victims of the Anglo-Canadians' patronizing ways, the target of their humiliating comments, the object of their spitefulness. My parents had made the choice to protect me from the feeling of indignation they would carry most of their life. I was to learn English yes, but under no circumstances was I to ignore my heritage, my past, and my roots. My mother, whose French-Canadian accent had never been heard nor suspected, often mistaken for a Parisian herself, was obsessed with vocabulary, grammar and verb conjugation. She made sure all my tenses were mastered by the age of ten, paving the way to the only trophy I would ever win: the elementary grade three French grammar award. I would give life to their own ambition, they hoped, an ambition I tried to transfer as well to my own children. They, too, would be harassed by a mother obsessed with the sustainability of the French language, the preservation of the French-Canadian culture and its integrity. A pain in the ass, the annoying French sort, is what I would become in my own home. No less.


Quebec basks in a sea of English speaking individuals, locked in by English Canada on one side and by the United States on the other. Unsurprisingly, English seeped into my everyday life, firmly planting itself once I married an English speaking Canadian. I had caught the virus, I had committed treason to some; betrayed my French roots to many. Canadian author Hugh MacLennan brilliantly highlights, in his iconic novel, Two Solitudes, the many ways in which our Canadian identity can become entangled in high wired principles that only feeds and festers animosity. The fear of diluting our core, our origins, our purity is at the heart of this turmoil, a turmoil I never quite escaped. I think I incarnate MacLennan’s version—vision maybe? of what he predicted would emerge from this conflicted identity: a new breed of Canadian. Maybe it is what I have become, a hybrid of some sort. But I am a flawed specimen, of that I am more aware, more certain, more convinced. I float between two worlds filled with words that mesh and melt into each other to form the Gallicism and the Anglicism I have been accused of using. I seem to be unable to shake their grip. I am stuck between these two worlds, I will never be able to fully please.


In the end, my choice to write in English points to a truth—the heavy kind, the kind that tugs at you, nagging at your conscience. My ancestors, with their pasts, their stories, and their legacies, they are the ones I fear most. Don’t get me wrong, the judgment of the English-speaking community I do fear, but to a lesser extent. The scathing and merciless opinions of the French-speaking community, whether from the New or the Old World…well…that causes me to question myself, my writing capabilities, my relevancy in the writing world. Do not worry, I do not discriminate in all matters as I hope and pray for both their literary indulgences.


Would I still have made the same decision had my story unfolded in French? Who knows? Maybe I simply linked the words to the emotions, letting the emotions organically dictate the choice. I guess that is what I like to tell myself. To feel better about my choice. Because it is a choice—to write in English.  I simply love the language, you see, it carries all that is meaningful to my love of writing and being. A perfect rhythm. Frankness. Movement. Coherence. I need to feel it. But the guilt is there, present with me all the time. Like living with two loves and somehow  pointing to a preference without leaving the other one. But the other doesn't suspect. No. It knows.  And you feel it. A betrayal that never gets  to heal. And so, there is a limbo, a no-man's-land, a language conundrum  in which I feel caught.


MacLennan was pointing to the birth of a Neo-Canadian.


This, for me, points to the birth of a third solitude.

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