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  • Nancy Huston's Translingual Literary Universe

This article examines the formally complex translingual strategies of Huston's recent novels, Danse noire (2013) and Le Club des miracles relatifs (2016). The long-standing presence of multiple languages in Huston's fictions also extends to the diegesis of these novels, which feature a range of polyglot characters in diverse global locations who speak a vast array of languages. It posits that the linguistic cohabitation modelled in these texts proposes ways to capitalize better on and accommodate the multilingual interactions of our globalized present, prompting translingual reading strategies that are capable of responding to the translingual text's refusal of complete disclosure.

NANCY HUSTON'S IS AN inherently translingual writing practice. For this Canadian author, born in Anglophone Canada in 1953 and living in Paris since 1973, the code-switching, borrowing, and blending associated with translingual writing have been consistent features of her literary works. From her first publications written in her adopted French,1 Huston has demonstrated the heightened "sensibilité pour ne pas dire [. . .] sensiblerie linguistique" of the bilingual author, drawing attention to the sonorous resonances and semantic crossings within and between languages.2 With her return to her native English in her fourth novel, Plainsong (1993), Huston unwittingly stirred the coals of a fiery debate when her self-translation, Cantique des plaines (1993), was awarded the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction in French.3 The backlash that ensued focused on the fact that the award—for original fiction in French—had been conferred on a translation into French, albeit the author's own. Huston argued, successfully, that Cantique des plaines was an adaptation of the earlier written although later published Plainsong, thus retaining the prize. The controversy also served to signal self-translation as a creative literary undertaking as well as to expose the high stakes involved in the linguistic transposition of the literary text.

Huston's subsequent writing practice includes composing novels in French and English sections before translating 'back' to produce two monolingual versions of each,4 publishing classically bilingual texts (with the English and French versions appearing on facing pages),5 and crafting self-conscious works of non-fiction that draw attention to the linguistic texture of the French-language text inflected by author's native English.6 If Huston's twentieth-century works demonstrate the kind of "self-translation" described by Mary Besemeres as the act of articulating in a second language what was first experienced in another,7 her more recent twenty-first-century fictions denote a marked expansion in their linguistic textures and geographical settings in what Alison Rice identifies as a "transnational turn" in Huston's corpus.8 Going beyond her own experience of relocating from North America to France and from English to French, and telling stories primarily set in these locations and languages, Huston's twenty-first-century fictions since Lignes de faille (2006) contain "unprecedented travel" and move to "strategic places around the globe" in order to tell stories of intergenerational connections, legacies, and trauma that span nations and languages (Rice 286).9 Increasingly [End Page 109] incorporating multiple languages—primarily in the form of polyglot characters based in various locations around the globe—Huston's translingualism also extends to the diegesis of the text itself in her twenty-first-century fictions, set in such diverse locations as Brazil, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, and the US, and incorporating a vast array of languages into the French-language text, including English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Irish, Yiddish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian créole, and French-Canadian joual. Huston's twenty-first-century fictions thus extend Steven Kellman's observation that texts by translingual writers usually reveal traces of their author's other tongues while mostly being written entirely in one language or another in that they demonstrate unprecedented (for Huston) and atypical (for the genre) forays into a stunning array of other languages that include and go far beyond those with which the author is herself familiar.10

Despite the ease with which she switches between French and English in telling her own as well as imagined stories, Huston goes beyond the paradigm of the bilingual author who writes equally well in two languages; she also diverges from translingual writers who, writing in an acquired language, "font carrière dans une seule langue [et qui] fonctionnent dans un seul système littéraire."11 In The Translingual Imagination, Kellman identifies "ambilingual translingual authors" who have written a significant body of work in more than one language and "monolingual translingual authors" who have written in only one language, but one other than their first language (1–16). The hybrid nature of Huston's corpus, comprising fiction and non-fiction texts, single-authored and collaborative publications, and textual and multimedia works, sits uneasily in either of Kellman's neat binary configurations due, partly, to its multifarious nature and mode of production, and mostly, to her highly atypical practice of self-translation. Neither akin to the Argentine writer Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, author of two distinct bodies of work in Spanish and French, nor comparable to the hyperpolyglot Iranian writer Chahdortt Djavann who has produced literary works only in her adopted (seventh) language, French, Huston occupies an anomalous position in contemporary translingual writing produced in and through French. Huston's practice of composing works in both English and French, her near-consistent practice of translating her own novels between French and English,12 and her openness to a vast array of other languages pose—for critics and awarding bodies perhaps more so than for general readers (as this article argues)—a disruptive, even troublesome, literary translingualism.

This article explores Huston's translingual literary universe through an examination of the polyphonic linguistic innovations of her (at the time of [End Page 110] writing) most recent novels Danse noire (2013) and Le club des miracles relatifs (2016).13 Proceeding in two stages, the article identifies and analyses the formally complex translingual strategies employed initially in Danse noire and then in Le club des miracles relatifs, before concluding with a discussion of Huston's efforts to disrupt the monolingual paradigm that Yasemin Yildiz has shown to have long dominated national and world literatures.14 The conclusion posits that the linguistic cohabitation modelled in Huston's twenty-first-century translingual texts suggests ways to better capitalize on and accommodate the multilingual interactions of our globalized present, as well as to prompt translingual reading strategies that are capable of responding to the translingual text's refusal of complete disclosure.

Danse noire: linguistic pyrotechnics

Set in Brazil, Ireland, and Quebec, Danse noire is a formally sophisticated novel that transports the reader from Rio de Janeiro to Dublin and Montreal, and into the lives of its three protagonists: Milo, his mother Awinita, and his grandfather Neil. Adopting the Brazilian art of capoeira as both a central theme of the plot and a structuring device of the narrative, the novel is divided into ten sections, each prefaced with a capoeira term to signal the stages of the plot's development. Described by Diana Holmes as "a pyrotechnic display of self-reflexive devices that include not just capoeira as framing device and analogy, but also language-switching, dramatic shifts in spatial and temporal setting, and the intra-diegetic presentation of the narration as a film scenario," Danse noire opens with a conversation between Milo and his partner, Paul, where the former is dying of AIDS-related illness in a Montreal hospital.15 The two men, a filmmaker and producer, respectively, imagine the film they will shoot of Milo's life and family history: the reader is privy only to Paul's direct speech as he addresses Milo in a monologue that also doubles as the narration of the novel. The forementioned ten capoeira-inspired sections weave together the different, parallel strands of Milo, Awinita, and Neil's stories, constructed intradiegetically as film sequences, requiring the reader to make great mental leaps from early twentieth-century Dublin, to mid-twentieth century Montreal and present-day Montreal and Rio de Janeiro.

If the novel requires the reader to follow dramatic spatial and temporal shifts, it also demands translingual reading strategies that can respond to the text's linguistic transitions. Huston's first novel to include long passages of text in a language other than its primary one (French), Danse noire also incorporates a wide range of languages to a degree hitherto unseen in any of her fictional or non-fictional works. The most prevalent other language included [End Page 111] in the otherwise French-language text is English, also the author's first language: dialogues between English-speaking characters are extensively rendered in English with French translations provided in footnotes. That the footnotes are to be understood as subtitles in the film imagined by Paul and Milo is indicated in the metatextual directive that provides the translation of the Irish republican party's name in which Neil becomes involved in Dublin: "—Sinn Féin! s'écrie Thom en sautant sur ses pieds avec les autres pour lever le poing (et on verra en sous-titre la traduction de cette formule gaélique: Nous tous seuls!)" (Danse 62).16

Dialogues between Milo and his grandfather Neil are conducted and represented in English in the text, driven by the latter's "faim douleureuse et impatiente de la langue anglaise" following emigration to Quebec after a somewhat incidental involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising (Danse 241). A law graduate with literary aspirations, Neil winds up disappointed by his life and offspring with the conservative, Catholic, and nationalist Marie-Jeanne who fails to distinguish between English and Irish, referring to all English-speakers in Quebec as "les Anglais," to Neil's great despair. His speech is largely in English, increasingly in French with Marie-Jeanne, and underpinned by the Irish in which he dreams of composing his revolutionary, bilingual poetic works to reflect the "histoire bâtarde" of Ireland (Danse 105). Changing his surname from Kerrigan to Noirlac upon emigration—"Je me suis contenté de prendre le nom de ma ville natale et de l'exagérer un peu. Dublin en gaélique c'est étang sombre, alors que Noirlac en français signifie lac noir" (Danse 216)—Neil's linguistic proclivities provide evidence not only of the translingual character's (and the author's) heightened sensitivity to the sonorous and semantic resonances of language/s, but of the migrant's ability to reinvent themselves in another place and tongue. When Paul questions the veracity of Neil's account of his past and whether to include his 'exaggerations' in the film, the italicized, untranslated Italian that Paul uses to sum up his resignation seems thrown in for good linguistic measure: "Toute façon, on garde. Se non è vero, e ben trovato. . ." (Danse 249).

Declan, one of Neil's disappointing sons and Milo's feckless father, and Awinita, a young indigenous Cree woman who supports herself and her family through sex work, also communicate in English in scenes where they meet, conceive Milo, and make plans for an unlikely future together that predictably never eventuates. Unemployed, disowned by his father, and newly released from prison, Declan proposes living with (and off) Awinita on the proviso that she find alternative work and submit to his command: "Well, you better be listening. Once we're married, I want this talkin-back to stop, that [End Page 112] clear? [. . .] You should get off the game, Nita, find some other line of work" (Danse 441–42). While Declan's speech occasionally takes place in French, Awinita's is consistently in English. When Declan recounts, at length, the story of his mother's death after giving birth for the thirteenth time and his father's emigration and fruitless efforts to pass on his literary leanings to his sons, he shows scant interest in inquiring after Awinita's own story, and her laconic reply is rendered phonetically in English: "[You're] Not so different [. . .] You're a guy, and guys like de sound of deir own voice" (Danse 131).

Awinita's own first language, Cree, is never explicitly represented in the text and only ever tacitly referred to, whether in reference to the language in which she cries out for her mother when her contractions begin, or in the speech of her mother whom she goes to visit in the indigenous reserve of Waswanipi. The conversation between the two women is reported in the narration as occurring in Cree, yet, unlike conversations conducted in English, the mother's words are transcribed in French in the text: "La faim est venue cette année, au printemps, mais aucun de nous n'a succombé. La vie vit. Le monde suit son cours. Et tous nous retournerons dans les bras de notre mère la terre" (Danse 236). The effect of the defamiliarized French into which the mother's words are transposed reminds the reader of the linguistic gap between the characters' exchange and the reader's perception of it while also recalling the silencing of indigenous American languages as a result of the European colonial project both north and south of the Darién Gap. The legacy of European colonization for indigenous American languages and cultures is further reinforced when Declan asks Awinita if she knew the family of Deena, one of her friends and workmates who was murdered, to which she replies, "How could I? I'm Cree, she Mohawk. Our reserves are days apart" (Danse 440). Intergenerational ties are finally completely severed when Awinita, living in desperate poverty and in the grip of addiction, must give up her son for adoption at birth, forever disrupting the chain of transmission of language and culture from mother to son.

Milo is thus denied the mother tongue that Awinita inherited from her own mother, and German instead becomes his "foster-mother tongue." In a refraction of the childhood experience of Huston, who picked up German as a young girl during a stay with her German stepmother's family, Milo acquires this language from one of the foster mothers to whom he is entrusted.17 After being surrounded by the French of the racist and abusive French-Canadian Catholic nuns who oversee his birth and first six months of life at the hospital, he is fostered by "ses nouveaux parents allemands" (Danse 55). His foster mother's injunctions to him appear in unitalicized German immediately followed [End Page 113] by French translation in the main body of the text: "Nein, nein, die Hunden sind zu schmutzig, Milo!—Non, non, Milo! les chiens sont trop sales!" (Danse 57). After a subsequent period spent with a further set of foster parents, a Dutch couple who have cast aside the Dutch language in favor of English in order to ensure their assimilation into (anglophone) Canadian culture, Milo reaches the age of four with knowledge of three languages: "il parle bien l'allemand et un peu le français et l'anglais" (Danse 93). Milo thus joins the cast of polyglot characters that populate Huston's novels, later recalling his multilingual childhood as "une douce cascade de voix d'hommes et de femmes [. . .], voix françaises et anglaises, allemandes et néerlandaises, cries et gaéliques" (Danse 20).

French is Milo's least proficient language when, at the age of six, his grandfather learns of his existence and takes him to live on the family farm that he inherited from his father-in-law and now shares with his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, her husband Régis, and their children. Upon arrival, "Milo est paumé. Même s'il pouvait ressusciter les rudiments de français qu'il possédait naguère, cette version rurale de la langue, saccadée et comme oblique, lui serait opaque" (Danse 143). While Danse noire is written in 'standard' French, large swathes of dialogue between francophone characters in Quebec are phonetically rendered in French-Canadian joual. The tensions between Neil's nostalgia for the English language and his daughter's staunch nationalism come to the fore during the first meal that Milo shares with the family: "Neil se penche pour lui traduire une phrase à l'oreille, mais Marie-Thérèse le surprend chaque fois et réagit en frappant la table.—Papa ! Pas d'ça icitte! C't' une maison francophone. Autant qu'y s'habitue tu-suite. On r'commenc'ra pas avec tes maudites idées d'biling', pas question" (Danse 143). As well as contributing to the linguistic texture of the translingual text, the transitions between 'standard' French and joual signal the kind of code-switching that Kellman describes as common to translingual literary texts that "represent speech as it is actually spoken," thus creating internally translingual texts that switch between "colloquial and formal or between regional and standard forms of the same language" (Kellman 15). Despite Marie-Thérèse's persistent resistance—'C'tassez de l'anglais, là. Viens icitte tu-suite!' (Danse 253)—Neil and Milo manage to forge a strong connection, built in English and around a shared love of reading that sustains Milo through a violent and abusive childhood. The emotional, cultural, and linguistic maternal bonds that were severed by poverty and dispossession are partially recovered in their paternal form, after skipping a generation, in the close relationship that Milo manages to build with his grandfather. [End Page 114]

The other significant relationship that Milo forms in Danse noire—with his partner—is also circumscribed by the languages they speak and share. Other than learning that he is "le gamin juif de Buenos Aires" (Danse 452) who 'made it' in New York as a big-time film producer, the reader discovers little about Paul, given that his monologue (and the novel's narration) focuses on Milo's life and family history. The reader does not learn if Paul has retained the Spanish that he would have acquired growing up in Buenos Aires. Paul's speech is, however, peppered with Yiddish terms, both when he refers to Milo in his monologue, transcribed in French in the text—"espèce de bâtard meshuga" (Danse 15)—and when he addresses Milo directly, in English: "You're completely meshuga, Astuto" (Danse 21). Paul refers to Milo throughout the text with his capoeira name, Astuto, conferred on him by the capoeiristas with whom he learnt the Brazilian art during a period they spent together in Rio de Janeiro making a film on the subject. Paul thus draws Portuguese, a language charged for both men with the affect associated with the personal and professional Rio sojourn, into the narration of the text alongside the untranslatable terminology for the concepts, rituals, and instruments of capoeira as used, for example, when he hears "le rythme distinctif d'un atabaque de capoeira" and concludes that "[il] doit y avoir une roda dans les parages" (Danse 16). As mentioned above, Portuguese also frames the text itself in translated section headings such as the one that introduces the novel's second section: "GINGA: De gingare, se dandiner. Mouvement de base de la capoeira, manière de se déplacer en balançant le corps avec du swing" (Danse 51).

In addition to forming part of the characters' lives and worlds, the self-conscious translingualism of Danse noire repeatedly brings the reader back to their own linguistic positioning, as Holmes explains: "At a diegetic level, [the text's language-switching] gives some sense of the characters' own, sometimes disorienting, occupation of a multilingual world, but the jolt of (at least temporary) incomprehension certainly interrupts the fictional illusion by demanding attention to the linguistic surface of the text" (Holmes 304). Published three years after Danse noire, Le club des miracles relatifs also draws the reader's attention to the linguistic surface of the text through a number of translingual, self-reflexive, and de-immersive narratives devices.

Le club des miracles relatifs: a transnational dystopia

Many of the linguistic and formal innovations of Le club des miracles relatifs converge around its singular protagonist, Varian. Born in 1979 on the Île Grise, a fictional Newfoundland in an equally fictional Canada referred to in the novel as OverNorth, Varian, like Milo, is also raised in German by his [End Page 115] mother Beatrix, German being the language that she had suppressed since arriving from Germany as a refugee from the Second World War. For Beatrix, raising her son in the self-censored mother tongue enables the recovery of the cultural ties that were disrupted along with the linguistic ones: "Les journées qu'elle passe seule avec son fils lui paraissent divines. Elle le dorlote en allemand et en anglais, lui chante les chansons que sa propre mère lui chantait quand elle était ein kleines Mädchen, lui chuchote à l'oreille des mots de Liebe und Leben" (Club 24–25). German terms and phrases associated with Beatrix's mothering puncture the surface of the text's narration, at times, although not always, followed by a French translation, thus echoing Huston's earlier association of German as a 'step-mothering' tongue in her own, personal experience, and its presentation as a mothering tongue in L'empreinte de l'ange (1998), which transcribes the protagonist Saffie's German mother's remembered speech directly in the text.18

Varian is also a gifted and precocious child who loves reading, although where Neil bequeaths Milo the works of Joyce, Keats, Wilde, and Shakespeare, Varian prefers encyclopedias to novels, and facts to fiction, despite his mother's efforts to share with him her father's extensive collection of literary works in German. His difficulty in getting to grips with figurative language is reflected in the distaste he feels for the ambiguities and double-entendres of the Scottish limericks that his father recites. In a further parallel with Milo, he excels academically at school, skips ahead two years, and becomes ostracized from his peers: where Milo spends his boarding school years fending off the wandering hands of Catholic priests, Varian spends his defending himself from the physical and psychological bullying of his classmates. Varian's academic success at school is seen by Beatrix as confirmation of his genius as well as deferred retribution for the racial abuse she suffered as a refugee: "Mein Kind, mein Genie Kind, se dit-elle tout bas. Mon génie d'enfant. Menschen werden sehen, was die Deutschen tun können. Ils vont voir ce dont les Allemands sont capables" (Club 105). An intellectually gifted but socially awkward child, coddled by his mother and a disappointment to his normatively masculine father, Varian's behavior, and notably his inventive speech and its failure to respect the boundaries between languages, denote difficulties that will continue to plague him in his adult life and eventually lead to the novel's explosive dénouement: "Mime et maman et marmonner Mutti et Mutter et marmotter et mummy mummy marmutter et mère et murmure et meine Mutter mother miamteur" (Club 36).

The neologisms and typographical presentation of sections of the narration such as the above replicate the stilted delivery of Varian's speech and [End Page 116] interior monologues through childhood and into adulthood, narrated in chapters that switch back and forth between the past and the present. In 2001, Varian leaves Île Grise in search of his father who fades out of contact after leaving the island in search of work in the booming tar sands mining industry in the north. Varian's quest will take him seven years, leading him to what Susan Ireland and Patrice Proulx describe as the transnational "dystopia" of Luniville, a fictional Fort McMurray in a fictional Alberta referred to as Terrebrute in the text, "où les habitants parlaient cinquante langues mais n'avaient rien à se dire" (Club 286).19 In Luniville and its nearby fracking operations, Varian discovers a natural world devastated by deforestation, species extinction, record temperatures, and oil spills, and a human environment populated by a transnational army of workers reduced to minimal human contact and exchange: 'La majorité de ceux-ci venaient des pays étrangers et leur anglais était aussi rudimentaire que son arabe espagnol ukrainien portugais pilipino ou chinois Mais même les anglocitoyens originaires de l'OverNorth semblaient réticents à employer des mots de plus d'une syllabe' (Club 70).

With the largely male transient worker population lodged in housing that is likened to beehives, their lives reduced to physical labor and mindless if not downright violent leisure activities (in the form of violent videogames and hardcore pornography fueled by substance abuse), the social crisis depicted in Luniville is equal to the environmental crisis.20 Far from the transnational utopias of much contemporary fiction that celebrates the cultural diversity of the globe's metropolitan centers, Le club des miracles relatifs casts a stark if not apocalyptic warning against the Babelian dystopias born of multinational capitalism that combine the exploitation of the earth's natural resources with that of the most marginalized sectors of its population. Portrayed as isolated from one another by mechanized and dehumanizing labor and alienating living conditions, the shadow population of tens of thousands of male workers who live in Luniville and work on the fracking sites of Terrebrute remain anonymous and featureless throughout the novel, brutalized figures deprived of humanity, as reflected in the paucity of their language that fails to capitalize on the great wealth of languages they speak between them but fail to share.

Varian is eventually charged with belonging to a subversive, "eco-terror-ist" organization by the Terrebrute authorites and subjected to imprisonment, interrogation, and torture for his involvement in what is, in fact, a clandestine book club that forms at his workplace. Employed as a nurse at the "Centre de maintenance respiratoire" of one of Terrebrute's mining companies, Varian asserts that rather than having their eyes, skin, throats, and lungs treated for [End Page 117] contamination, the workers are in greater need of having their souls decontaminated from the banality of their existence, thus "le Club des miracles relatifs" is formed in a reconfiguration of the health center's initials. Varian's colleague Luka enlists his sister Leysa, a lecturer in Russian literature at the university of "Rodeotown" (understood to be Texas) in "UnderSouth" (understood to be the US), to read the works of Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Ulitskaya to the patient-workers in an effort to restore the humanistic language and values that have been evacuated from their lives. Cited in French translation, the Russian intertexts that are purportedly read in English translation by Leysa to the workers thus bridge the chasms depicted in this transnational dystopia by articulating a common humanity that spans national and linguistic divides, expressed in the literary language that Varian had spurned in childhood.

The lecturer in Russian literature, Leysa, is one of the few female characters—along with Varian's mother—who is present throughout the novel, yet the story of Varian's past and present, which dominates the narrative, is intercalated with chapters that profile in short, sharp bursts some of the women who live, work, and study in Luniville. One of these is Eris Khallil, the daughter of two of the pillars and founding members of the Lebanese community in Luniville who arrived as refugees from the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Eris is in love, in equal measure, with the Colombian Juan Camilo and his popstar compatriot Shakira, with whom Eris identifies due to their shared Lebanese origins: "Le père de Shakira, tout comme le père d'Eris, est d'origine libanaise. . . Ah mais la ressemblance s'arrête là, car le daron de Shakira a émigré vers le sud et celui d'Eris, hélas! vers le nord" (Club 172). Shakira's status as the ultimate symbol of contemporary translingual global popular culture is not lost on Huston as she has Eris sing, in French translation and in the English and Spanish original, Shakira's language-switching global smash hit, Hips Don't Lie: "Tu vois pas amour qu'c'est juste parfait ainsi / Don't you see baby así es perfecto?" (Club 176). The highest selling single of the twenty-first-century so far, reaching number one in over fifty-five countries, recorded with Wyclef Jean, himself a child refugee from Haiti who grew up in New York and went on to form The Fugees, a name that revindicates his (and others') experience as a refugee, the track metonymically signals the vast contemporary networks of displaced people and families, uprooted by conflict and agents of new, hybrid cultures and forms of expression in their places of arrival. Drawing together three countries that have seen significant conflict-driven diasporas in the twentieth century—Colombia, Haiti, and Lebanon—Eris also highlights the break with the parents' traditions that may characterize [End Page 118] the experience of children who have experienced or been born in displacement. Seventeen years old and recently graduated from high school, Eris rejects the Islamic precepts of her parents and retaliates against her mother who beats her "pour la ramener dans l'Oummah" on the advice of an online imam (Club 171). In a translingual merging of the sacred and the profane that fuses the cross-cultural inheritance of each, Eris and Juan Camilo "se sont mis à danser ensemble sur les rythmes de Hips Don't Lie, tout en scandant chacun sa prière quotidienne, lui en espagnol et elle en arabe: "Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos Allahu Akbar Sanctificado sea tu nombre Subhana rabbi al adheem" (Club 177).

Huston's female characters in Le club des miracles relatifs thus depict linguistic proliferation as a symptom of conflict and displacement from which literature and music provide some relief. This situation is also illustrated by Farah Chauvet, a twenty-three-year-old Haitian woman who plays the music of Boukman Eksperyans as she leaves work at a highly fortified women's refuge in Luniville in order to block out the scenes of extreme violence that she witnesses there. Indeed, Farah's is a life irrevocably marked by violence as a single mother who was born in Haiti but grew up in Miami, "où ses parents se sont réfugiés en 1979 quand Baby Doc leur a rendu la vie invivable au pays" (Club 109). Multilingual memories of Christmas in Miami—"Jwaye Nwèl, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad" (Club 118)—flood her thoughts as she drives along the highway after leaving work late on Christmas Eve—the busiest day of the year at the refuge—to pick up her small daughter from childcare. The narration mimics Besemeres' notion of "self-translation" as Farah's memories are transposed from the English in which they were experienced into the French in which the novel is principally written, interspersed with "le créole qui est sa langue maternelle" (Club 109). The phrases in créole are at times followed by a French translation—"sa a entranj, c'est bizarre"—but not always: "jwe sans danje" (Club 108). As she slows down to pick up a hitch-hiker, Farah recites to herself, "comme dit ma manman, Tro pese pa fe jou l'ouvri. Si on est trop pressé, le jour ne commence jamais" (Club 122).

In an echo of the focus on the dispossession of Canada's indigenous peoples in Danse noire, Le club des miracles relatifs focuses on the intersections of disadvantage in its penultimate chapter. Telling the story of Marnie Vermillion, an indigenous woman from Peltham (a fictional Fort Chipewyan in the Athabasca River delta), it describes a town contaminated by the mercury and arsenic that flow into the delta from the Terrebrute fracking site and a consequently decimated community. Demonstrating the historical evolution of the cultural discontinuity seen between Awinita and Milo in the mid-twentieth [End Page 119] century, Marnie is shown to be entirely dispossessed of the language and culture of her ancestors at the beginning of the twenty-first. As she walks through the town and past the brand new cultural center sponsored by the "Libre-Monde Noir" mining company, she reflects, "On n'avait pas besoin de centres culturels dans le temps [. . .]. Le centre de notre culture était partout" (Club 369). The suppressed citation of the indigenous language (Cree) in Danse noire is, in turn, completely silenced in Le club des miracles relatifs, and the reader does not learn to which first nation Marnie belongs, nor what language she might have spoken had the chain of transmission not been broken. The accumulation of languages is thus shown to be practiced by those who have been displaced to Terrebrute by conflict, violence or economic necessity and who turn to written or oral culture for comfort and survival, while the privation of language is shown to be suffered by its originary, indigenous population, who are also dispossessed of culture and territory.


Huston's twenty-first-century translingual texts, which illustrate the cohabitation as well as the discontinuation of languages in the lives of her characters, also address the linguistic positioning of her readers, as Holmes suggests when describing "the de-immersive effect of the multilingual text [which] depends in part on the reader's own degree of ease in switching between languages" (310).

For Genevieve Waite, "Danse noire's linguistic complexities frequently obstruct the monolingual and bilingual reader's understanding of the text," resulting in a "somewhat disorienting exercise in fiction."21 She judges that when "foreign-language" terms are used "sparingly" in Huston's polyglot texts, "they remain well within the multilingual threshold for the monolingual and bilingual's 'readerly' experience" (108). Although she does not specify the languages of her mono- and bilingual readers, these can be assumed to be French and English, given the text's predominant languages, which thus indicates a common assumption highlighted, and belied, by Rainer Grutman: that writers and their readers share a common language or languages, whereas readers and writers may in fact navigate a different range of languages (35). Nor does Waite provide detail of the "multilingual threshold" beyond which the text would lose its readability, yet her analysis would seem to preclude any reader familiar with more than the two of her imagined reader. That readers with other combinations of the French, English, joual, Irish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Yiddish, and sublimated Cree present in Danse noire might find Huston's language-switching less troubling remains unexplored. [End Page 120]

Huston's expansive use of languages in Danse noire and Le club des miracles relatifs displays a confidence in her readers' ability to handle these texts' linguistic complexities, including elements that may lie beyond readers' comprehension, as indicated by the frequent lack of translation of words and phrases in languages other than the one in which the texts are principally written, a strategy that, following Huston's lead, has also been replicated in the present article. Huston demonstrates an awareness that many readers most certainly use some of those languages, and in combinations different from her own. By the same token, Huston's unprecedented translingualism demonstrates little concern as to whether it may be experienced as problematic or disorienting by critics, awarding bodies or other institutional entities, echoing admonitions made by Doris Sommer in her seminal publication on minority writing in the Americas that might apply just as well to translingual literary interventions in the major language of French (and, indeed, to writing that straddles both categories).22 In particular, Sommer critiques the desire for mastery exercised by speakers of major languages (such as English and French), and especially by professional or academic readers: "Years of training in literary traditions understandably add up to a kind of entitlement to know a book" (Sommer 10). For Sommer, "asking about the place from which one speaks, the locus of enunciation, is a question sometimes put to narrators and characters, but hardly ever to readers" (Sommer 9). Huston's translingual texts raise not only Holmes' question of readers' own degree of ease in switching between languages, but also Sommer's interrogation of the sense of entitlement of readers of majority languages accustomed to the fulfilment of the expectation of intelligibility: for such readers, the resistant translingual text might well be experienced as frustrating or even confrontational, and the textual refusal of complete disclosure will be as much political as aesthetic.

While Huston may be considered an example of the way in which "twenty-first-century novelists design ways to undermine the contemporary monolingualization of world literature,"23 Yasemin Yildiz disabuses readers of the misapprehension that multilingual writing be perceived "as a remarkable new development of the globalized age" (2). Arguing that a monolingual paradigm that first emerged in late eighteenth-century Europe has obscured from view the widespread nature of multilingualism, exerting a pressure that has led to self-reproducing processes of generating "more monolingual subjects, more monolingual communities, and more monolingual institutions" (2–3), Yildiz observes that this monolingual paradigm is facilitated and supported by what Michael Clyne has termed the "monolingual mindset."24 Translingual efforts such as Huston's have recognized and are capitalizing on the multilingual [End Page 121] interactions that have characterized human society and which are receiving a renewed focus in the globalized present.

While around the globe people displaced by conflict, violence, poverty, and climate change are perishing in boats, at borders, and in onshore and offshore detention centers, shifting the conversation from the 'thresholds' of 'foreign' languages that can be tolerated, whether in the literary text or the nation, to the translingual strategies that can accommodate the different languages of the multicultural societies in which we already live is of pressing urgency. Nancy Huston's translingual literary universe poses confronting questions of how monolingual privilege, linguistic privation, and enforced multilingualism interact, and provides clear and timely insight into the advantages, and failures, of adopting translingual strategies. [End Page 122]

Kate Averis
Universidad de Antioquia


1. Nancy Huston, Jouer au papa et à l'amant: De l'amour des petites filles (Paris: Ramsay, 1979); Dire et interdire: Éléments de jurologie (Paris: Payot, 1980).

2. Nancy Huston, Nord perdu, suivi de Douze France (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1999), 48.

3. Nancy Huston, Plainsong (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993) / Cantique des plaines (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1993).

4. See Nancy Huston, La Virevolte (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1994) and Instruments des ténèbres (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1996).

5. Nancy Huston, Limbes/Limbo: Un hommage à Samuel Beckett (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1998).

6. See Nancy Huston, Nord perdu and Désirs et réalités: Textes choisis 19781994 (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1995).

7. Mary Besemeres, Translating One's Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross-Cultural Autobiography (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002), 12.

8. Alison Rice, "Deferring the Familial Default: The Transnational Turn in Nancy Huston's Lignes de faille," Nancy Huston, Kate Averis, ed., Nottingham French Studies, 57:3 (2018): 286–97.

9. Nancy Huston, Lignes de faille (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 2006).

10. Steven G. Kellman, The Translingual Imagination (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000), 15.

11. Rainier Grutman, "L'écrivain bilingue et ses publics: Une perspective comparatiste," in Ecrivains multilingues et écritures métisses: L'hospitalité des langues, Axel Gasquet and Modesta Suárez, eds. (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2007), 38.

12. All of Huston's novels except Trois fois septembre (Paris: Seuil, 1989) have been published in English and French versions in the author's own translations.

13. Nancy Huston, Danse noire (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 2013); Le Club des miracles relatifs (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 2016).

14. Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (Fordham U P, 2012).

15. Diana Holmes, "Dancing in the Dark: Immersion and Self-Reflexivity in Nancy Huston's Danse noire," Nancy Huston, Kate Averis, ed., Nottingham French Studies, 57:3 (2018): 298–99.

16. All citations of Danse noire and Le club des miracles relatifs are from digital editions and give text locations as read on a 13-inch screen.

17. Huston discusses this experience in "En français dans le texte," Désirs et réalités, 263–69.

18. Nancy Huston, L'empreinte de l'ange (Arles: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1998).

19. Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, "Human and Inhuman Transformations in Huston's Dystopian Novel Le club des miracles relatifs," Nancy Huston, Kate Averis, ed., Nottingham French Studies, 57:3 (2018): 311–24.

20. See Kate Averis, "American Narratives of Social and Environmental Crisis: Laura Restrepo's La novia oscura (1999) and Nancy Huston's Le club des miracles relatifs (2016)," Women's Contemporary Historical Fiction, Tegan Zimmerman, ed., Journal of Romance Studies, 18:3 (2018): 357–75.

21. Genevieve Waite, "Nancy Huston's Polyglot Texts: Linguistic Limits and Transgressions," Literary Translingualism: Multilingual Identity and Creativity, Claire Kramsch, ed., L2 Journal, 7:1 (2015): 109–10.

22. Doris Sommer, Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1999).

23. David Gramling, The Invention of Monolingualism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 25.

24. Michael Clyne, Australia's Language Potential (Sydney: U of New South Wales P, 2005), xi.

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