It is a somewhat rainy Saturday evening in Montreal. We—Klara du Plessis and I (Geneviève Robichaud)—are expecting Marie Darsigny and Daphné B. at my place for dinner to discuss the fact that they write in a second language and across languages, sometimes combining both French and English. What struck me most was the level of intimacy we reached in such a short amount of time. While Klara and I had prepared a number of questions, what ended up happening was something much more organic, something that resembled a conversation much more than an interview.
[Editor’s Note: As a special installment of Klara du Plessis’s month-long residency, “Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective,” this interview with Daphné B. and Marie Darsigny is presented bilingually, following the conversation’s organic evolution.]
Klara du Plessis: You write both in French and English? Is it the context you happen to be in that dictates one language or the other?
Marie Darsigny: Yeah, pretty much. It’s funny because I wasn’t always bilingual. I grew up in a very French neighbourhood and my parents only speak French. At my primary school, we had English classes starting from fifth grade, but nothing amazing. Even in high school, it was nothing amazing either. I learned mostly from watching TV. I went to CEGEP in French. It was only when I went to university that I picked English and I wasn’t sure about my choice. It’s been crazy. The first paper that I wrote I got C+ and then at the end I got only As.
Daphné B.: Moi, I started writing in English. I don’t know why. There are many reasons I guess, but there’s also weird psychological shit. I’ve been dating a lot of anglophones throughout my life and I put myself, maybe subconsciously, in anglophone settings without knowing it.
KdP: You work at Drawn and Quarterly.
DB: Right now, yeah, but in the past, I’ve always been working in a place where I’d be the only francophone and it was just weird. It’s also about style. I have a lot of affinity with American writing. When I was younger I used to really have a crush on Hemingway.
MD: I feel like French people love English because it’s less lyrical, so if you don’t like stuff that’s really flowery, then you will probably be attracted to English, which is way more about action.
KdP: French has inbuilt rhyme schemes just because so many of the words have similar endings, the moment you conjugate a verb a couple of times, the work automatically rhymes. You don’t even have to be deliberately ornamental.
I … felt terribly guilty, basically like a clown, because I was teaching them to speak English with a Québécois accent!
DB: I lived in Asia for a year. I was there with my boyfriend who was American and I was teaching English as a second language. For me, this was really hard because I had just finished my French Literature degree and it was very important for me, as a part of my identity, to be francophone. I was writing in French and was an aspiring writer and poet. I was young. Then I wanted some experience outside of school and my boyfriend at the time had a residency that expired, so it was my only chance to be with him. Once I got there, I got a job, and the job was incredibly well paid but only because you’re supposed to be an anglophone. Your mother tongue is supposed to be English because the Chinese want to learn English without having an accent. I was put in that situation and felt terribly guilty, basically like a clown, because I was teaching them to speak English with a Québécois accent! I also felt cultural assimilation guilt because they were so in love with America and they wanted to be American. I was like, if you only knew who I was! I was living so much personal shit at the time, I had no Québécois friends there at all, and I couldn’t really connect with the French people there, so I wasn’t speaking in French at all. So, you know, when you feel emotion, you write. And I was writing in English. Also sometimes I was writing about Bryan, my ex, addressing him and thinking in English. There was also this monthly reading in a hairdresser shop with multicultural people and I started reading my poetry there, but the only way I could read it was by writing it in English to be understood.
Geneviève Robichaud: And when you came back to Montreal?
DB: I kept doing it. I can’t really explain why exactly, but maybe I was still processing my experiences there and it was very hard just coming back.
GR: And now, do you still feel that your practice is split?
DB: I feel it is still split, not because I write in English (I’m focusing on writing in French at the moment), but it’s more because of my references, my life, and the works I’m reading. I work at Drawn and Quarterly, so half, maybe three-quarters of my life is still anglophone. As for the book I’m writing now, my teacher is really on my back because there is so much English in it. Even when it comes to the construction of my phrases, the sentences resemble English. At one point, I’m like, this is me! Why would I want to change it? Maybe this is what I want to show. I don’t want to be politically correct with my French.
MD: It’s funny that you’re saying that your teacher is telling you that your grammar is English because I feel like there is a trend in Quebec poetry of using Franglais. OK, so it’s not the same. When I write a book in French and use English it’s going to be full sentences, not just one word.
KdP: I think there’s a difference between writing multilingually and mixing languages. I’m thinking of an example from your book, Daphné, Bluetiful, where you say, “Home sweet homme,” and you’re making a word play between two languages. Compare that with putting an entire phrase or sentence within the larger context of another language. Are you conscious of these different modes of using bilingualism?
MD: It’s just Montreal. I don’t know if people outside of the Greater Montreal Area use Franglais as much as we do here. Except Chiac, which is sometimes kind of similar.
GR: Because Chiac is a French dialect that has English integrated into it, I’d find it difficult to express what that difference [with Franglais] is exactly, but my first intuition would be to say that there’s something more syntactic about Chiac’s incorporation of English. I’m not sure that the verbs take on an English twist in Franglais as much as they do in Chiac. I’m thinking, for instance, of the way we’ll say things like driver or watcher (pronounced é not err).
There are aspects about where one writes from that I’d be interested in exploring with you. I’m thinking, for instance, about the place of popular culture in your writing.
MD: I was just thinking when I was at Concordia, I really enjoyed writing about the ’90s in general and sometimes I would make references that people wouldn’t get.
KdP: The MySpace poems!
MD: Sometimes I would also make more precise references to Québécois stuff so that’s when I realized that for that reason writing in French makes sense. I can use the references of my youth and people get it. I also always make references to American stars. And most of my idols are probably American. Pop culture is definitely something that matters for me and it’s always in my work.
KdP: You said you learned to speak English through pop culture, so there’s maybe even a linguistic association to it.
MD: I would read the booklets that came with cassettes or CDs and I would read the lyrics because I didn’t even know what the songs were about. Even then, sometimes it wouldn’t make more sense.
GR: All these anecdotes bring about another question in my mind, which has to do with inserting the body into your writing. Both of you [Daphné, Marie] write from what could either be considered a confessional standpoint or else a kind of writing that remains quite close to something the reader could imagine as intimate details from your “real” life. Can you speak a little bit about this idea of putting your body in your writing?
MD: It doesn’t make sense for me to write fiction, meaning it doesn’t make sense for me to talk about stuff that I don’t know. I don’t feel qualified to do so. I don’t really enjoy doing research either and if I wanted to work on something very different from my life I would want it to be accurate. Plus, I feel like I have so much material in my life. I have a friend who’s recently become a sex worker and we asked her if she liked it, and she was like, “Uh not really.” Then we asked, “Then why are you doing it,” and she said, “J’avais besoin de matériel d’écriture.” For me the “matériel” is already there. It’s always there. I can always dig into my own experience and come up with stories about stuff that happened to me. I like finding extraordinary ways to put the ordinary.
DB: It just feels to me that writing is a way to understand myself and that’s a need that I have. I’m not going to fulfill that need if I write about a rabbit named Bunny.
MD: Or fantasy and witches!
DB: It’s visceral. It’s also something that I use to make sense of my life as well as the nonsense of it, death.
I don’t usually talk about it but I used to have another name, Daphné Cheyenne, and I abandoned it because it’s culturally appropriative, but it was very hard for me because it was my name for six years. At one point, it really became part of my identity. It’s fiction, but it’s not fiction. Right now, this is a little bit of what I’m writing about. Why is it that I had to change my name in order to write? I don’t feel like I will find the reason, but I am trying to understand why it was such a big deal to erase my family name. I still feel like I’m grieving my name and what I perceived as my name. It’s hard.
GR: You should write a book about that!
DB: That’s my current project. It’s called Delete. I started writing it right when I told my publisher that we needed to change my name, I can’t be called Daphné Cheyenne anymore. It was really hard. But yes, put your body in your writing: menstruation! Whatever we feel is bodily. I know Marie writes about the body.
MD: I really write more about not being in my body. I’ve always felt that I’m an alien, not well in my body, so that’s usually how I talk about it.
DB: Moi au contraire … comment je dis ça … out of my mind. Je me sens vraiment corporelle. Admettons que je dis, “Ah, cette personne là je l’ai vraiment pas aimé,” c’est pas quelque chose que je peux expliquer. C’est comme un feeling dans mon corps. Pis je sais que quand j’étais en Asie, ça c’est une des choses que j’ai essayé d’écrire aussi en essayant de faire du sens de c’était qui Daphné Cheyenne, mais j’ai pas écouté mon corps pis ça a été un traumatisme. Pendant des mois je me réveillais pis j’avais des tremblements dans les yeux, dans les doigts, j’avais comme des boules dans la poitrine pis à un moment donné, j’ai décidé de me truster, mais c’est pas rationnel. Tu peux pas penser avec ta raison. Tu peux pas trouver des explications parce que des fois t’as pas accès à certaines informations, ça fait que c’est juste quand tu laisses ton corps parler pis là j’ai eu des épiphanies par rapport à plein de situations qui ont fait que je suis revenue à Montréal. Après ça, en prenant un lift un jour avec une sexologue elle m’a dit, “Peut-être que ton corps est genre angry que pendant un an tu l’as comme shut down, tu l’as pas écouté,” pis pour moi ça fait vraiment beaucoup de sens. En tout cas, cette année, j’essaye vraiment de faire attention à ça parce que c’est fou comment le corps parle pis la société conditionne les gens à pas l’écouter pis de toujours essayer de trouver une explication rationnelle.
KdP: What I was starting to think about when you were talking about changing your name is also that traditionally women give up their names when they get married and so, in a way, doing that for yourself feels like a feminist statement, an empowering step for yourself.
DB: Oui, vraiment. C’est une manière de se remettre au monde.
GR: Marie, does any of this body talk resonate with your experiences writing for fashion magazines?
MD: Yeah, it’s like I had two lives. I studied journalism as a certificate, as a minor. I was always interested in fashion and I wanted to write for fashion magazines, which I did, but then it’s like, it doesn’t really fulfill what I needed to do. I could do it for a living, of course. I’m glad that I had this experience and I would be willing to do it again, just because it pays. But other than that I’m very critical of it and it’s something that I sometimes make reference to in my work because I feel it was really disingenuous for me to work in a fashion magazine while promoting, say, mental health or feminism. It didn’t make sense. I felt very disconnected from my own values. I still feel like I have such strong values and am so sensitive, so for me, hanging out with a crowd that isn’t 100% my kind is really hard.
DB: Si j’essaye de penser pourquoi j’écris en anglais, pourquoi Daphné Cheyenne, pourquoi je me suis toujours pognée dans des milieux anglophone, j’ai l’impression que ça répond quasiment à quelque chose d’inconscient, je ne sais pas c’est quoi, mais c’est psychologique de nature.
MD: Des fois c’est un peu que tu veux escape ta vie parce que dans le fond c’est ça, moi j’ai toujours daté des filles qui étaient anglo pis c’est comme si quand je voyageais, comme Boston par exemple, pis je parlais en anglais c’est comme si je me réinventais parce que j’avais comme le droit de dire ce que je voulais pis y’avait personne qui allait me contredire. Pis vu que c’était pas ma langue c’est presque comme si je jouais un personnage.
DB: C’est vrai qu’on est pas pareil quand on parle une autre langue. J’ai l’impression, par exemple, de rentrer dans le personnage de la fille cute qui a un accent.
MD: C’est vrai. Les gens te donnent une passe quand c’est pas ta langue.
DB: Je trouve ça surtout intéressant parce qu’on parlait d’écriture intime pis sa relation avec la construction identitaire pis ya toujours une performance anyway, mais je vois aussi comment la langue peut faire partie d’une performance.
MD: Absolument, pis quand t’habites à Montréal c’est un choix que tu peux faire, tu peux vivre en anglais si ça te tente.
DB: C’est vrai que c’est empowering. Quand, par exemple, j’ai intégré la scène anglophone, j’ai eu l’impression que j’avais jamais été intégrée dans aucune scène littéraire. Pis là, c’était même pas ma langue. D’ailleurs je sais pas si y’a un genre de coming back parce que récemment, à un évènement, je me suis fait demander, “est-ce que t’es une anglophone? On dirait que t’as un accent anglais.” Mais peut-être c’est qu’à un certain moment t’as de moins en moins de contrôle sur l’espèce de glissement identitaire qui se produit, pis la langue que tu vas utiliser, la langue que tu lis. Ben là y’avait quelque chose que je ne pouvais plus contrôler. Je trouve ça bizarre parce que je ne me considère pas du tout anglophone, mais je me suis fait dire que j’avais un accent anglo.
MD: C’est weird, ça. C’était peut-être la construction des phrases.
DB: Aucune idée. C’est qu’à un moment donné, autant en français qu’en anglais, tu vas te sentir comme un étranger; tu te sens jamais en terrain connu.
MD: Moi ça m’arrive constamment dans la vie de me sentir comme l’autre. Par exemple, quand je travaille en mode je suis l’autre parce que je suis la fille artiste, intelligente qui a fait des études, pis quand je suis en littérature je suis la coconne qui a étudié en mode pis qui aime ça avoir l’air belle.
… pis je parlais en anglais c’est comme si je me réinventais parce que j’avais comme le droit de dire ce que je voulais pis y’avait personne qui allait me contredire.
Fait que je suis habituée de pas être dans la bonne gang. Je suis toujours l’autre, pis c’est un peu ça la langue aussi, comme quand je suis dans un groupe anglophone je suis l’autre parce que j’ai un accent français pis je parle pas la langue, pis quand je suis dans un groupe francophone je suis l’autre parce que je suis celle qui a été on the dark side.
DB: Mais y’a tu pas quelque chose avec la langue qui est riche? Moi je trouve que ça donne une perspective.
MD: J’aime ça, mais je parle d’une perspective où tu te sens moindre.
DB: Mais c’est sûr que tu ne feras jamais partie d’un ou de l’autre, pis moi je me sens toujours comme entre les deux.
Marie Darsigny is a Montreal-based artist currently completing her MA in Études littéraires profil création at l’Université du Québec à Montréal, with a concentration in women studies. She has a poetry collection published by Metatron, as well as an upcoming recueil de poèmes published by L’Écrou. She is the co-founder of Filles Missiles, an online platform and paper magazine promoting art and literature by Québécois women. Follow her on Twitter @mariedarksigny.
Daphné B. is a Montreal-based poet. Her debut book of poetry, Bluetiful, was published last year by L’Écrou. She is the co-editor of Filles Missiles, an occasional contributor to Plus on est de fous plus on lit, and works at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly. Her work has appeared in Exit, Spirale and will soon be in Nouveau Projet. She is also one of the many writers behind Nuits Frauduleuses (Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @daphnebbbbb.
Geneviève Robichaud is a PhD candidate in the Département de littératures et de langues du monde at the Université de Montreal. She is also a CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) Board Member and a member of the IRTG (International Research Training Group). Her writing has appeared in The Capilano Review, Lemon Hound, The Puritan, and elsewhere. She is the author of Exit Text (Anstruther Press, 2016), a nano-essay written in fragments which attempts to capture or witness the errant and secret life of ideas.
Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing alternately in Montreal and Cape Town. Her chapbook, Wax Lyrical, was released from Anstruther Press, 2015, and a full-length collection of multilingual poems is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press. She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series, writes reviews for Broken Pencil Magazine, The Montreal Review of Books and The Rusty Toque, and is currently employed at Vallum: Contemporary Poetry magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ToMakePoesis.