Jack Kerouac, whose parents hailed from Québec and whose ancestors included Indian men and women, is considered by some to be a Québec writer in exile. Kerouac is known to have said that he “refashioned English to fit French images,” and his quest for recognition as being indigenous to North America could be a metaphor for Québec. The only difference is that most of those French images are now well rendered in French, thanks to a vibrant publishing industry that has flourished since the late 1960s.
In her only book about her adopted country of Canada (The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty), Jane Jacobs wrote that Québec has its old and its new story. The old story began with the founding in the early 17th century of New France, an area that encompassed most of North America, which now explains all those French place names throughout the American Midwest. Then came defeat by the British in 1759 during the Seven Years’ War, known to Americans, tellingly, as the French and Indian War. Defeat was followed by the struggle to survive under British colonial rule and then within the Canadian federation, established in 1867.
The new story, according to Jacobs, began in the 1960s with the “quiet revolution.” It involved Québec’s French-speaking majority gaining control over the levers of economic, cultural, social, and political power—French is the #1 language for about 90% of Québecers. The results were far-reaching. Major strides were made in education, the economy bloomed, poverty was reduced, and the role of the French language was greatly enhanced, becoming the lingua franca, after English had dominated in most areas for more than a century.
In writing the new story, Québecers—now eight million—have had to counter forms of cultural domination that stem more from demographics than from any malevolent über power. Overwhelmingly English-speaking North America (some 330 million) boasts powerful cultural industries with global reach. If Finns or Senegalese, for example, despite the great distance separating them from North America, feel a threat to local culture, it’s not surprising to learn that Québecers too feel threatened.
French is a strong international language, which is obviously an asset for Québec. Yet France, with a population of 65 million people and its own global cultural industry, has also represented a threat, particularly in writing and publishing.
Like the judoka who uses their opponents’ power to defeat them, Québecers have turned these threats to their advantage. Yet the prerequisite has been the development of a vibrant society and a thriving culture.
For the book industry, this has meant building on homegrown talent and then ensuring that all links in the book chain are solid and viable, from writers, through publishers, printers, and distributors, to booksellers, libraries, and now e-book aggregators. Government support, both legislative and financial, has been crucial. The results speak for themselves. For instance, unlike elsewhere in Canada and the United States, Québec has not experienced the meltdown of indie bookstores. Even small towns still boast a respectable number of bookstores.
Thus in the presence of huge players who dominate the English- and French-language book industries, Québec publishers have learned to put their authors’ books into the hands of readers—and into e-book readers—everywhere. Not only in these two languages but also in many other languages. Similarly, through acquisitions, they have introduced authors from throughout the world to Québecers and to other French-language readers in the world.
So if Jack Kerouac had been born in 1992 instead of 1922, he would have been able to publish some of his “French images” directly in his mother tongue.
Robin Philpot is the publisher at Baraka Books, which reissued Jane Jacobs’s The Question of Separatism last year.