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Tyee Books

Ex-Canadian Writer Returns Home

Nancy Huston on language, misunderstanding and war.

By Rob Annandale 4 Oct 2007 |

Rob Annandale is on staff of The Tyee.

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Nancy Huston has a 'permanent cultural misunderstanding.'
  • Fault Lines
  • Nancy Huston
  • McArthur & Company (2007)

Nancy Huston was six years old when her mother walked out on the family. That's the same age as the four narrators in her new novel Fault Lines, which tells a family's story backwards over four generations as they struggle with war, geographic dislocation, increasingly pervasive media and a whole lot of cultural confusion.

Huston has more than age in common with her characters. Describing her former self as a child who was "very bright and neurotic because I could tell that adults were lying to me," she relates strongly to all four narrators, from Kristina who is adopted twice into new cultures to little Sol who masturbates to images of dead Iraqi soldiers on the Internet.

Her own cultural experiences -- both personally and professionally -- may also explain why language, understanding and misunderstanding fascinate her so much. Huston was born in Calgary but more than three decades in Paris have long since erased any trace of an Alberta twang, leaving a slight French accent in its place. While her work has won her critical acclaim -- most recently, France's Prix Femina for Lignes de faille, which preceded her own English translation by a year -- her bilingual output has left her living what she describes as a "permanent cultural misunderstanding." Since her first novel came out in the early '80s, she says she has encountered more than her share of hostility from those who like writers to fit neatly and tidily into one cultural box or another, whether French, French-Canadian or English-Canadian.

She spoke to the Tyee about language, culture and war.

On a bilingual country that can be pretty weird about bilingualism

"I think the misunderstanding is the worst in my home country of English Canada, as far as I can judge from the feedback I've been getting for the last 20 years. Maybe because the language I chose [to write in] is the other language of Canada, which has created all the confusion and controversies about prizes and things like that.

"If I'd had a junior year abroad in Germany or Russia or something like that and had started writing in those languages and somehow made a name for myself, maybe they would have been calmer about it.

"But as it is, I often feel I'm being accused of being a turncoat, of being a snob, of being a renegade or I don't know. Anyway, to put it briefly, I have never had articles as unkind anywhere in the world as in English Canada.

"I have the feeling that Canada is more willing and desirous of embracing -- maybe it's just natural -- the people that immigrated there, like Ondaatje who got there in his 20s -- older than I was when I came to France -- but he's definitely a Canadian writer. It's not that I'm clamouring for the title of Canadian writer. It's just that I wish they'd calm down about it and stop getting on my back."

On language and understanding

"I think that everyone should learn a second language in childhood. I think that's the only hope for humanity. I think that translation per say is the hope for humanity. I think it's so important to relativize one's own culture by getting deeply acquainted with another one.

"I think, for example in France, that kids should be taught Arabic as of kindergarten. I don't know how many millions of Arabs are living in France, but it's a language that's used in the streets, in the stores, in the mosques, in the marketplaces and so forth. If it sounds like ridiculous babble to our ears then we cannot believe that these people are intelligent, sentient beings.

"And it's so important for kids as of that very, very small age to be able to understand each other and to understand what's happening in the streets and to take it into their bodies. The brains at that point are still bodies, so before the prejudices start forming."

On what makes us who we are

"What I was interested in, in the book, was seeing the convergence of all sorts of different forces around small children, starting with the really concentric circle of the family but through the family, receiving messages and inferences from larger circles like religion, the media and world politics. All of that forms us and it's really impossible to distinguish [influences] because who our parents are is something that's been formed in turn by many other forces. And so we're picking that up from a very early age, before we're even ourselves, before we even have an "I" to speak of or to speak with."

"What impressed me most as I was writing this book, since I wrote it in chronological order, was the sense of crescendo of the invasion of the outside world into the psyche of these children as time advanced. Kristina was just getting little bits and pieces of current affairs through her grandfather's responses to radio. By the time you get to Sadie, you've already got television but it's still very controlled and kept sort of in parentheses. Randall in '82 is already video games and full-time TV. And Sol is just directly connected to the cosmos. So you wonder where it can go from there. Maybe we'll just plant a TV set right in our brain."

On why philosophy needs babies

"I think it would be so important for philosophers to spend time with children, observing very small babies and all ages. It seems to me that the separation between people who are specialists in developmental psychology and people who are specialists in so-called philosophy is really very regrettable. Because philosophers tend to reason as though we were born adults with reasoning minds and consciousness and that's just so far from being the case."

On the trend of adopting children from other countries

"I have a lot of friends who have adopted kids either from Africa or China and it's never something simple and straightforward. I think a kid's adaptation to his or her country, either because they're a visible minority or because the parents aren't very good parents, it just never works out -- or very, very rarely -- smoothly in terms of the sort of smiling general happiness that everybody pretends should be there.

"But then problems create very interesting people. So I would never say I'm against that kind of thing. You have to be able to deal with those particular problems. People who have babies that come out of their own bodies also manage to screw them up very badly. You don't have to adopt them to be able to do that."

On the war machine

"Everybody agrees that six-year-old children are completely innocent but how does it happen that every generation, between 16 and 20, we somehow fabricate kids who are willing to die or kill for their country or for some cause that they feel that strongly about? That's been going on since humanity began. So how do you keep doing this?

"I think [war] is evolving in ways that are quite frightening. Not only is the number of victims greater and greater but the distance, both the physical involvement and the psychological involvement are kept at a greater and greater distance.

"I wouldn't say I'm optimistic. I think we're heading in that direction. I think that despite so many beautiful and creative and intelligent people that live in countries all over the world, the leaders tend to be obsessed with the power position of their respective countries and to be very ruthless about how to improve it."

Nancy Huston will be appearing at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival at The Weight of History on October 17 (with James George, Jen Sookfong Lee and Linda Rogers, moderated by Kathryn Gretsinger) and An Intimate Evening with Nancy Huston on October 18.