In 2013, I wrote an essay for the Newfoundland Quarterly about how my hometown of Placentia, the French capital of Newfoundland from 1660 to 1713, has a French history rather than a French heritage — that the town today likes to pretend it has some special Frenchness, but that this claim is false and has been since the mid-18th century. I meditate on what our imagined Frenchness means, how it figures into our sense of identity as Placentia-people (Placentians?), and why we vigorously maintain this imaginary French heritage when all the facts are aligned against its existence.
Le Gaboteur, the French-language newspaper for Terre Neuve et Labrador, took note of my essay and recently asked if they could translate it and publish that translation. Of course I instantly said yes — it’s thrilling when someone does something creative with a text I’ve produced, and I consider translation to be a creative act. Also, I’m very pleased that my ideas will have a second jog around the block, as it were, and that they will be read by people who have a significant interest in the stakes of my essay.
The translation was completed last week, and it appeared today in the most recent edition of Le Gaboteur. If you have (or get) an online subscription, you can read it here. If you live in a part of Terre Neuve et Labrador where Le Gaboteur circulates, you can pick up the November 24 issue and turn to pages 9 and 10.
What follows is a modification of a presentation I gave last fall to the Research Roundtable, an annual event at the University of Toronto’s Graduate English program, where upper-year PhD candidates and faculty give twenty-minute presentations about their work. I’ve adapted that presentation into this blog post. While my thinking has changed over the last year, what follows more or less accurately reflects my main scholarly project at the moment: the disruptive and sometimes queer ways that Newfoundland’s literature is positioned within Canada.
I’m from Newfoundland (a great help in my work), and one of the origin points of my project was the realization that I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada. Yet my family isn’t a recent arrival in North America — I’m an eighth-generation Newfoundlander; my family has been here for so long that it’s not clear where in Europe we even came from (although Southeast Ireland and/or Southwest England is a safe enough bet). This realization—that I was the first in my family to be born Canadian—troubled the neat categories I’d been trained since childhood to use when thinking of the broad categories or ‘types’ of Canadians: ‘old Canadians’ (the English/French ‘two solitudes’ sorts), ‘new Canadians’ (recent or ‘recent’ immigrants), and Native Canadians (First Nations and Inuit). My family, and other Newfoundland families like it, fit none of these categories.
Many communities fall through the cracks between these three broad and overly-simplified categories: African-Canadian descendants of Black Loyalists and Jewish Canadians, to name just two examples. But my family were – are – Newfoundlanders, and that goes beyond the standard model of regionalism and into some strange territory: my family came to Canada in the mid-20th century from a foreign country, but that foreign country doesn’t exist anymore. They arrived in Canada on April 1 1949, but they traveled nowhere. They immigrated without moving. A diaspora without moving? A displacement that yet retains place? In one sense, I felt that I had stumbled on an utter conundrum, a conundrum no one had yet unpacked.