Prominent Quebec Writer comes to UMass Dartmouth

Prominent Quebec Writer comes to UMass Dartmouth
by Karen Bowes, Staff Writer

Dartmouth-Marie-Claire Blais, one of Quebec's most honored writers, came to UMass Dartmouth last week to read from her latest novel, Thunder and Light, part of the trilogy entitled In These Festive Nights.

Ms. Blais has won many awards in her 30 year career as a writer, having published novels, poems and plays that have been translated into over 20 languages.  She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, given The International Woman of the Year award from The International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England in 1995 and awarded a Decree of International Letters for Cultural Achievement in 1997 from the American Biographical Institute.

Ms. Blais described the characters in her latest book as being "like a chorus, coming from all races, rich and poor." The author read a passage, first in English and then in French, the latter being her native language and the language she writes in. "The story is about many people, many consciences, people who are suffering, young and older," said Ms. Blais.  "You can hear them in some sort of prayer."

Dr. Mel Yoken, Professor of French at the University, introduced Ms. Blais to the crowd at the library in French.  He said that he was honored to have her here after trying for over 12 years to get her to come.  Due to her busy schedule, Dr. Yoken explained, she was never able to make it until now.

Ms. Blais began writing very young.  Her first novel, La Belle Bete, translated as Mad Shadows, was published in 1959 when she was just 20 years old.  The novel is considered a masterpiece by some, including, Dr. Yoken, who uses it every year in his classes on Quebec literature."Frankly, I think she is one of the most important writers there is," said Dr. Yoken.

Ms. Blais often utilized the power of violence in her works, exploring the psychological motivations behind such behavior.  In La Belle Bete, for example, she writes about a young girl who disfigures her sister and is tormented by a lucid sense of sexism within her family, especially in comparison with her brother.

When asked about the inspiration behind the novel, Ms. Blais replied, "It came out of a sense of justice.  Women are not equal to men in a family.  Her brother was loved but she was rejected.  It was spontaneously written."

Ms. Blais answered questions from the audience, mostly made up of French students from the university.  She explained why La Belle Bete was not translated simply as the Beautiful Beast stating that it sounded a little too much like Beauty and the Beast.  She took the English title from a poem from French poet Baudelaire.

Ms. Blais responded to a question about style, explaining that a passage of about eight pages could easily be written as one sentence. "What I just read was just one sentence," said Ms. Blais, "because when we live, we never stop.  Our blood is always pumping.  We are always breathing." "What's the toughest thing about being a writer?" asked a young French student. "You have to be tenacious," said the author.  "You have so many problems in the beginning, you have so many problems all the time!  In the beginning though, writers are discouraged.  Some feel so lonely and they stop because they are not encouraged."

Ms. Blais suggested to the audience that they not be afraid to publish, or to try to get published because once done, the writer will feel less alone because others will begin to comment on his/her work.  Whether those comments are good or bad does not matter.  Ms. Blais said she felt strongly that writers needed to be encouraged more in our society, so that great literature could ultimately be written and published.

Ms. Blais ended her talk be signing autographs and chatting with students.

(published in The Chronicle May 8, 2002) 
Note:  Marie-Claire Blais is an honorary life member of the Boivin Center.