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Redefining American identity and overcoming trauma in two post-9/11 novels of Quebec.

This article examines the effects of 9/11 on Quebecois literature. A close analysis of the novels Les moines dans la tour by Roch Carrier and Compter jusqu'a cent by Melanie Gelinas demonstrates how the catastrophe in New York caused both authors to call into question their sense of "Americanness" as well as the role of writing in a post-9/11 environment. The creative process is ultimately seen as a means of overcoming personal and collective trauma and a tool for renegotiating the concepts of individual and national identity.

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"Nous sommes tous Americains! [We are all Americans!]," Jean-Marie Colombani declares in his September 12, 2001 editorial for Le monde, bearing witness to a widespread phenomenon of empathy for the victims of the attacks which took place in New York and Washington on September 11. (1) In France and Canada, public support for the United States waned over time, yet questions regarding identification with the American people remained. (2) This study examines how the 9/11 attacks altered two Quebecois novelists' perceptions of individual and national selfhood. A close analysis of Les moines dans la tour (2004) by Roch Carrier as well as Compter jusqu' a cent (2008) by Me1anie Gelinas shows how the catastrophe caused both writers to call into question their sense of "Americanness" as well as the role of writing in a post-9/11 environment.

A brief look at Quebec's history and literature prior to 9/11 attests to a preoccupation with national identity both in relation to English Canada and with regards to the United States. As early as 1737, French administrators, such as Gilles Hocquart, spoke of marked cultural differences between Europeans and the settlers of New France (Lahaise 7). At the same time, Francophone settlers considered themselves culturally distinct from their English-speaking counterparts. Cut off from France following British victories in the French and Indian war, French Canadians suffered a loss of freedom of religion, language, and law. While many of these rights were restored by the Quebec Act of 1774, tensions between French and English Canadians continued throughout history, with debates, and even violent protests, erupting over matters such as religious education, military conscription, social policy, and taxation. These conflicts led to various forms of Quebecois nationalism, including Duplessis's social conservatism during the first half of the twentieth century, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, and two referenda on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. As Richard Desrosiers explains, "if there is a constant in the history of the Quebec people, it is the rise in national self-assertion and the questioning of the link with the Canadian whole" (95).

At various times in history, French Canadians turned to the United States for help. During the Great Expulsion of 1755-1763, thousands of French colonists fled to Louisiana after British troops forcefully deported them from Acadia. Between 1840 and 1930, another 900,000 French Canadians emigrated to the United States, mostly for economic reasons (Lavoie 63). In 1847, and again in 1989, tensions between French and English Canadians were such that political parties formed in Quebec advocating annexation by the United States. (3) In the 1980s, the majority of businessmen in the cities of Quebec and Montreal supported free trade with the United States, in direct opposition to Canada's federal policy of economic protectionism (Desrosiers 95).

Quebec's literature prior to 9/11 mirrors this historical tendency to view the United States as a place of refuge from Canadian problems, but also portrays the United States as a threat to preserving Quebec's cultural heritage. Early novels such Maria Chapdelaine (1916) by Louis Hemon and Trente arpents (1938) by Ringuet present emigration to the United States as a phenomenon which threatens the values, language, and lifestyle of the Quebecois people. The title character of Maria Chapdelaine rejects her American suitor Lorenzo Surprenant and the "plaisirs vulgaires [cheap pleasures]" of life in the United States in favor of traditional Quebecois values and farm life (Hemon 166). On the other hand, Ringuet's protagonist Euchariste Moisan gives up his land and travels to the United States, where he finds himself lost in an American city and unable to communicate with English-speaking family members. Both novels imply that emigration to the United States ultimately leads to alienation and loss of one's cultural identity.

Following Quebec's failed referenda on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, travel narratives about the United States grew in popularity. As Anne-Marie Miraglia points out, crossing America meant fleeing the deceptions of Quebec (30). Still, following in the footsteps of Hemon and Ringuet, most Quebecois travel novels of the late twentieth century represent the United States as a threat to Quebecois identity. For example, in Volkswagen Blues (1984) by Jacques Poulin, the protagonist Jack Waterman and his metisse companion la Grande Sauterelle travel from Gaspe to San Francisco in search of Jack's lost brother Theo. When they arrive in California, they find Jack's brother devastated by illness and no longer able to speak French. Jack realizes that his identity lies in Quebec, alongside the Amerindian Other, embodied by la Grande Sauterelle. Likewise, in Une histoire americaine (1986) by Jacques Godbout, the protagonist Gregory Francoeur accepts a teaching position in California. After a failed marriage and a failed referendum on Quebecois sovereignty, Gregory hopes to discover wealth and happiness in the United States. Instead, he finds himself imprisoned on false charges of rape and arson, and becomes aware of what Emile Talbot calls "a reverse paradigm, namely that of California, indeed the whole United States, as a hopelessly violent society" (135).

Both Volkswagen Blues and Une histoire americaine may be read as a rejection of utopian American myths and a reaffirmation of Quebecois culture. Later novels of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Copies conformes (1989) by Monique LaRue and Petit Homme Tornade (1996) by Roch Carrier, continue to use the notion of a flawed United States as a mechanism for revalorizing the Quebecois homeland. (4) Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall argue that such trends of looking outward reflect a desire to establish individual and national identities separate from those of a powerful Other: "Identity ... is partly the relationship between you and the Other. Only when there is an Other can you know who you are. To discover that fact is to discover and unlock the whole enormous history of nationalism and of racism" (345). In essence, many Quebecois novelists wrote about the United States not only as a means of escaping problems with English Canada, but also as a way of examining their own sense of cultural distinctiveness.

Given the importance of the United States in promoting a return to the cultural values of Quebec, it is not at all surprising that the shocking events of 9/11 would disrupt the peaceful homecoming process of the late twentieth century and create a need to rearticulate individual and national selfhood in relation to a drastically and violently altered North American landscape. This disruption is quite evident in the post-9/11 novels Les moines dans la tour and Compter jusqu'a cent. Both narratives demonstrate a concern for renegotiating concepts such as Self, Other, and the role of writing in the face of personal and collective trauma.

The notions of individual and national identity are immediately obvious in Les moines dans la tour. The plot begins in Montreal just hours prior to the World Trade Center attacks, when an unnamed Quebecois architect is diagnosed with terminal cancer. While still mentally processing this news, the protagonist receives a phone call from a childhood friend who asks him to design a tower in honor of the Trappist monks who settled the region where he was born. The protagonist declines his friend's request and attempts to flee to New York City, where he hopes to forget both the cancer diagnosis and the request to serve his hometown community. In this initial plot set-up, it is already apparent that the tower represents Quebec; the architect's friend acts on behalf of a small-town "Comite du patrimoine [patrimony committee]" and indicates that the tower will serve as a reminder of the architect's native village and his cultural heritage (Carrier, Les moines 12). New York, on the other hand, represents an escape from problems in Quebec; in one paragraph alone, Carrier uses the verbs "decamper [to run off]," "s'echapper [to get away] ," "gagner le large [to go far away]," "fuir [to flee]," "s'evader [to escape]," "s'eclipser [to slip away]," and "partir [to leave]," leaving no doubt that the architect's journey to New York is motivated primarily by the desire to forget his troubles at home (21).

Up to this point, Les moines dans la tour imitates pre-9/11 novels by depicting the United States as a place of temporary refuge from concerns in Quebec. The initial portrait of New York is that of a safe haven; one learns that whenever the architect hits a private road block, he travels to New York to rejuvenate: "Tant de fois, alors que Montreal se faisait trop petit, il a file a New York. Rendu la, il pensera a la suite de sa vie [So many times, when Montreal seemed too small, he made off to New York. Once there, he would think about the rest of his life]" (21). The protagonist is not alone in his retreat to New York; a customs agent remarks that fleeing to New York is something of a national pastime:
   Beaucoup de Canadiens, ces jours-ci, ont besoin de changer les
   idees.... J'irais bien a New York, moi aussi, si je n'avais pas a
   m'occuper de tous ces Canadiens qui y vont.

   [Many (French) Canadians, these days, need to get their mind off
   things.... I would go to New York myself, if I didn't have to take
   care of all of these (French) Canadians going there.] (22) (5)


As in Volkswagen Blues and Une histoire americaine, travel to the United States offers a new perspective on troubles at home. Conforming to Hall's theory regarding identity, Carrier's protagonist looks outward for answers to questions relating to his Quebecois identity.

This pattern of escaping to the South is shattered by the events of 9/11. En route to the city, news of the terror attacks in New York and Washington interrupts the architect's travels and forces him to return to Montreal. From this instant on, the United States no longer provides shelter from Quebec's problems. Reinforcing this notion, just as the architect turns his car around, he receives a second call from his childhood friend requesting that he build the tower in homage to the monks. The protagonist is aware of his own ironic situation; at the exact moment that the towers fall in New York, he is asked to build a tower in Quebec. Wanting to escape to New York, he instead becomes one of many panicked travelers forming long lines to re-enter Canada. In this sense, early parts of the novel emulate pre-9/11 literary models such as Volkswagen Blues and Une histoire americaine, in which attempts to escape to the United States are met with failure and a desire to go home to Quebec.

On the other hand, the violent attacks on New York impede the protagonist's return to Quebec. Before he can cross the border, the novel itself ruptures; the architect's story comes to an abrupt halt and the novel morphs into the narrator's own commentary on the catastrophe. In a recent interview, Carrier revealed that he had begun Les moines dans la tour shortly before 9/11 but was himself so shaken by the attacks that he became unable to write:

Mes projets, ma pensee etaient kidnappes en quelque sort par les pilotes de ces avions. Ces attaques remettaient tout en cause ... questions de la civilisation, de l'hegemonie americaine. Et qu'est-ce qui arrive si quelqu'un veut attaquer la memoire d'un pays? Tout devient inutile si on ne peut pas la conserver.

[My projects and my thoughts were somehow kidnapped by the pilots of those airplanes. The attacks challenged everything ... questions of civilization, of American hegemony. And what happens ir someone wants to attack the memory of a nation? Everything seems futile if one cannot preserve it.] (Carrier, Personal Interview)

Carrier's second protagonist, the writer, reacts similarly to the terror attacks, and questions the validity of the architect's story in the face of global disorder. Before he can return to the story of the architect, the writer feels that he must examine the meaning of 9/11 and its impact on his own identity.

In the eight chapters that follow, the narrator renegotiates his sense of Americanness in a post-9/11 environment. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, he experiences a sense of shared late with the United States. Although the attacks took place far from Quebec, the writer can think of nothing else:
   Les terroristes ont frappe tres loin de sa petite maison. Les
   fleurs de son balcon n'ont pas tremble quand les tours du World
   Trade Center se sont eboulees. Pourtant, depuis six mois, il
   n'arrive plus a ecrire.... Les quelques pages de son manuscrit sur
   les trappistes au Nouveau Monde ont ete emportees comme cette neige
   de paperasse que l'explosion a dispersee sur New York et les
   banlieues.

   [The terrorists struck far from his little house. The flowers on
   his balcony didn't tremble when the World Trade Center towers
   crumbled. However, he hasn't been able to write any more for the
   last six months. The few pages of his manuscript on the New World
   Trappists were caxried away like the snowfall of papers that the
   explosion dispersed on New York and its suburbs.] (40-41)


The links between Quebec, New York, and the writer are evident in this passage. The balconies and snowfall, which reflect Montreal's unique architecture and wintry climate, are associated with the papers falling from New York's twin towers. These papers are, in turn, a double metaphor for the debris of 9/11 and the discarded Quebecois novel. As the narrative progresses, the ties between Quebec and the United States become even more apparent. The reader learns that the writer has family members living in New York City and that as a youth he played and hunted in the lands bordering the United States. He grew up listening to American music, watching American films, reading American novels, and admiring America's military victories overseas. A radio host attributes the modern Canadian lifestyle to American inventiveness, and the narrator himself accuses his fellow countrymen of complicity with the economic, military, and cultural policies of the United States: "Les Canadiens vivent comme des poux dans la toison du buffle americain.... Si le buffle est secoue, les poux se font brimbaler [(French) Canadians live like fleas in the wool of the American buffalo. If the buffalo is shaken, the fleas fall out]" (39). Although he later regrets the disparaging tone of his statement, the writer insists that Montreal and New York are inseparable from one another. When he looks at Montreal's skyline, he senses the invisible effects of 9/11 on the city: "il dirait que sa ville est grise de la poussiere du World Trade Center [he would say that his city is gray from the dust of the World Trade Center]" (71). In this context, the acts of terror which took place in New York can be viewed as an attack on the Quebecois people as well.

On the other hand, the writer claims an individual and national identity completely separate from his American Other. The discourse of Les moines dans la tour becomes increasingly politically charged as Carrier's narrator addresses the vices of the US government. He criticizes US policies in the Middle East and condemns past actions of the US military such as dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and arming the Taliban. He also composes humorous yet scathing critiques of President George W. Bush and the post-9/11 drive to war:
   Aux Etats-Unis, on aime les films ou un petit cow-boy part a la
   recherche d'un grossier mecreant. Les citoyens americains ont du
   respect envers un president qui envoie leurs fils et leurs filles a
   la guerre. Le court cow-boy du Texas fait peter son long fusil. La
   soumission au court cow-boy devient un devoir patriotique. Pour
   remercier le bon peuple, il reduit la taxe des riches dont les
   affaires sont si corrompues qu'eux-memes s'apercoivent qu'elles
   puent.

   [In the United States, they like movies where a little cowboy goes
   in search of a crude disbeliever. American citizens have respect
   for a president who sends their sons and daughters to war. The
   short Texas cowboy fires away with his long shotgun. Submission to
   the short cowboy becomes a patriotic duty. To reward his good
   people, he reduces taxes for the rich whose affairs are so corrupt
   that they themselves sense how badly they smell.] (60)


This and similar passages in the novel reveal the narrator's disdain for President Bush, American corporate greed, and widespread US support for foreign wars. These anti-American ruminations not only serve as opposition to the White House, but also work to distinguish Quebec's post-9/11 culture and politics from those of the United States, and the Quebecois people from their American Others. Les moines dans la tour may be seen in this regard as a renegotiation of Quebecois identity along lines of differences as well as commonalities with the United States.

Identity is not the only factor in the novel affected by events in New York; the violence of 9/11 also threatens to silence the writer's creative voice. Carrier seems to borrow the French philosopher Jacques Derrida's idea of the "unspeakable" in reference to the terrorist attacks. In bis dialogue with Giovanna Borradori, Derrida describes 9/11 as "that which is unspeakable and that which should be told" (Borradori 61). This theme of muffled creativity is evident in the narrator's inability to compose:
   Pendant six mois, il subit ce silence: comme si le World Trade
   Center avait croule sur son dos. Son stylo est encombrant. Les mots
   n'y viennent plus. Comme ils ne montent plus a la bouche. Son
   cerveau s'evertue. Sa bouche s'efforce. Le substantif requis ne se
   presente pas.... Parce qu'il n'a pas ecrit, cette journee sera
   aussi une page blanche. Les attaquants gagnent.

   [For six months, he endures this silence: as if the World Trade
   Center had collapsed on his back. His pen is heavy. The words don't
   come. Just as they don't come to his lips any more. His mind
   labors. His lips struggle. The required noun doesn't present
   itself.... Because he has not written, this morning will also be a
   blank page. The attackers win.] (26)


The writer's inability to find the "required noun" is an allusion to the unnamable nature of 9/11 and points to a phenomenon of confusion following the terror attacks. Derrida also discusses 9/11 in terms of individual thought processes. He argues that the day's greatest impact was not the terrible loss of life, nor the fall of the towers, but the disaster's effect on the mind: "No, it was not only all that but perhaps especially, through all that, the conceptual, semantic, and one could even say hermeneutic apparatus that might have allowed one to see coming, to comprehend, interpret, describe, speak of, and name 'September 11'" (Borradori 93, emphasis in source).

Carrier delves further into the idea of post-9/11 confusion by focusing on the Tower of Babel. The narrator quotes passages from the Bible referring to the confusion of languages and asks himself if God came down to purposefully bewilder man: "Dieu est-il descendu parmi les humains pour semer le desordre? [Did God descend among humans to sow disorder?]" (29). The narrator insists that there is a link between the World Trade Center catastrophe, the destruction of the tower of Babel, and the disappearance of all other towers of the past. While the writer does not fully comprehend this link until the end of the novel, he argues repeatedly that it centers around a loss of collective memory, an "amnesie generale [general amnesia]" reinforcing the idea that it is not only the individual who is silenced by such confusion but the histories of entire nations which risk disappearing with the fall of each tower (30).

The notions of confusion and silence remain present when the architect's story resumes. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the tower of Babel, the architect and the writer act as mirror images of one another. In the wake of 9/11, the writer cannot wield his pen; overwhelmed by his cancer, the architect cannot design his tower. Like his double, the architect has trouble naming his trauma, and, in fact, uses the indefinite pronoun "CELA [IT]" to refer to his own eventual death (98). This fear of the future recalls another post-9/11 notion referred to by Derrida, who argues that events "to come" are worse than any event itself: "Traumatism is produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come, rather than by an aggression that is 'over and done with'" (Borradori 97, emphasis in source).

The "to come" weighs heavily on the architect. His body is portrayed as a tower in danger of collapsing; his cancer is a "bourreau [torturer]" who will soon end his life (152). The architect's fear of his illness and death-to-come threatens his creative ability as well as his body. The architect's love interest points out this link between the body and the mind: "Mon pauvre toutou, si tu n'es pas capable d'avoir une erection, tu ne seras jamais capable de batir une tour [My poor little puppy, if you aren't able to have an erection, you will never be capable of building a tower]" (117). Carrier's play on the word "erection" as both a sexual occurrence and a word for construction underscores the notion that creativity is an act requiring both a spiritual awakening and physical assembly: in the builder's case, it is an assembly of bricks; in the writer's, one of words: "une tourelle de mots [a tower of words]" (54).

In order to overcome the threat of cancer and the trauma of 9/11, both the architect and the writer must regain their abilities to create. The writer sees art as an act of resistance against terror: "Contre les predateurs, il doit elever sa tour de mots [Against the attackers, he must raise his tower of words]" (65). In the face of global violence, the writer reaffirms the value of the individual: "Son histoire vaut la peine d'etre racontee; la vie des trappistes a valu la peine d'etre vecue [His story merits being told; the life of the Trappists was worth being lived]" (101). Placing value on his stories reaffirms his own sense of self-worth: "Reclamant son droit de raconter, l'ecrivain affirme son droit de vivre [Reclaiming his right to narrate, the writer affirms his right to live.]" (101). Writing the monks' story also preserves national memory. In order to finish his novel, the writer must experience an anger that goes beyond that of individual suffering:
   Et il impose a son personnage cette colere qui surgit de plus loin
   que son premier cri sur la Terre, de plus loin que l'inquietude de
   ses parents, de plus loin que l'histoire qu'il connait, plus qu'une
   colere, une tristesse de bete blessee dans une grande foret au
   milieu de la nuit noire.

   [And he imposes his character with this anger that rises up from
   before his first cry on Earth, from before the anxiety of his
   parents, from before history as he knows it, more than an anger, a
   sadness of a beast wounded in an immense forest in the middle of
   the dark night.] (101)


Rediscovering this primal cry, the narrator is able to instill his character with new life; re-imagining the suffering of the monks allows him to conquer his writer's block. The act of remembering links traumas of the past with the aftermath of 9/11 and frees the writer from his self-imposed silence. The architect, in his turn, is able to return to his native village to build the monument to the monks, an act of creation which rejuvenates his spirit and rids his body of cancer. Memory and creativity thus transform physical suffering and psychic pain into a work of art which preserves both individual and collective identities.

Interestingly, these identities are now broadened to include elements from beyond Quebec's borders. Though situated in a distant Quebecois forest, the architect's memorial honors both the monks and the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. This dual commemoration is meant to serve as an act of resistance against the terrorists:
   L'ecrivain inventera cette tour en souvenir de moines oublies parce
   qu'il n'accepte pas que les tours du World Trade Center aient ete
   pulverisees par des terroristes persuades que la meilleure facon
   d'ameliorer la vie sur la planete est d'imposer la mort a des
   innocents.... Au centre de sa tour, se dit l'ecrivain, brulera un
   lampion pour evoquer les vingt-trois mille tubes fluorescents et
   les deux mille neuf cents vies qui ont ete eteints, par les
   terroristes, au World Trade Center.

   [The writer will invent this tower in memory of the forgotten monks
   because he can't accept that the World Trade Center towers were
   pulverized by terrorists persuaded that the best way to improve
   life on the planet was to impose death on innocents.... In the
   center of his tower, the writer tells himself, a light will shine
   to evoke the twenty-three thousand florescent tubes and two
   thousand nine hundred lives that were snuffed out, by the
   terrorists, at the World Trade Center.] (68)


Like the monument itself, the unveiling ceremony at the end of the novel is visibly marked by a broader vision of Quebecois identity. Flags representing the countries of origin of each of the monks surround the site of the memorial, in acknowledgment of Quebec's culturally diverse heritage. The announcer makes vague references to the attacks on New York, and the architect delivers a speech associating his tower with all the other towers, mosques, pyramids, and temples built throughout history (213). At one point, an airplane flies overhead, and spectators wonder if their new tower will be subject to attack like the towers in New York. These thoughts show how profoundly 9/11 affected the Quebec psyche. The narrator makes this point himself: "Quand les tours du World Trade Center ont ete frappees, chacun en Amerique a senti sa maison secouee [When the World Trade Center towers were struck, everyone in America felt his house shake]" (58). The unveiling ceremony affirms that 9/11 has become a permanent part of Quebecois identity and national memory.

Les moines dans la tour is not Quebec's only literary response to the 2001 attacks. Compter jusqu'a cent also begins with a direct reference to the events of 9/11: "Dix ans avant le 11 septembre 2001 [Ten years before September 11]" (Gelinas 13). Gelinas relates the story of a young Quebecois woman who survives a violent sexual attack at age nineteen but is unable to write or speak of it for ten years. The terror which the protagonist witnesses on television on 9/11 triggers the release of painful memories and emotions which she has suppressed since the day of her own assault. The title Compter jusqu'a cent is derived from the aggressor's orders to count to one hundred before leaving the scene of the rape, and following the introductory chapter "zero" there are exactly one hundred numerically-labeled chapters, with the noteworthy exception that in the titles for chapters seven, seventeen, twenty-seven, and so-forth, the number "sept [seven]" has been changed to "septembre," as in "septembre," "dix-septembre," "vingt-septembre," etc. This play on words emphasizes the centrality of the events of 9/11 to the novel and provides the first evidence of a link between the two traumas of rape and the World Trade Center attacks.

Like Carrier's novel, Compter jusqu'a cent contains opposing images of the United States. The United States, and specifically New York City, represents both the foreign Other and a sense of Self; the American city is at once a site of trauma and a place of healing. These dual functions of the city recall the double traumas of rape and terror, as well as the double structures of the World Trade Center towers. New York's dualities also reflect the protagonist herself, whose voice is split into two, like the architect and the writer in Les moines dans la tour. Gelinas's narrative shifts continually between "je [I]," the original narrator who lost her voice during the sexual attack, and "Anais," the imaginary alter ego who speaks and writes in the place of "je" until the trauma of 9/11 opens the floodgate of her recollections.

Narrative portions of Compter jusqu'a cent taking place before 9/11 conform to previous Quebecois literary models which portray the United States as a foreign paradise. However, in Gelinas's novel, New York offers an abundance of sensuality rather than economic advantage; the protagonist is enticed not by money, but by the city' s ability to awaken her own passions: "En absorbant New York par tous ses pores, elle voulait souffrir encore la penetration [Absorbing New York through all of her pores, she wanted to experience a penetration again]" (49). New York is a utopia, but a forbidden masculine utopia, a sexual Other who threatens the protagonist's already broken body: "Je vis sur une i'le, mon continent est une ile au corps de femme, et New York est la pomme defendue [I live on an island, my continent is an island in the body of a woman, and New York is the forbidden apple]" (108). The protagonist's lover awaits her in a New York high-rise hotel, but she is afraid to go to him because he is a stranger, "un inconnu," and she fears that he could be another aggressor, like her English-speaking rapist (42).

As in Les moines dans la tour, the violence of 9/11 drastically alters the portrait of New York. The city loses its sexual power and becomes a victim like the protagonist herself:
   New York, sous mes yeux, changeait de visage et d'identite.
   Ce n'etait plus la cite des reves .... Ce n'etait plus la
   megapole ou passer des week-ends sulfureux. New York,
   victime coupable de ses etranges edifices, de ses arbres
   devins, perissait comme un chien sous la trombe de vaisseaux
   fous. C'etait la fin d'un certain romanticisme.
   C'etait la fin d'un autre temps.

   [New York, under my eyes, changed its face and its identity.
   It was no longer the city of dreams .... It was no
   longer the megalopolis where one spends sulfurous weekends.
   New York, guilty victim of its strange buildings, of
   its divine trees, perished like a dog under a deluge of
   crazed vessels. It was the end of a certain romanticism. It
   was the end of another era.] (92)


Its own towers violated by the 9/11 hijackers, New York no longer represents a safe haven from Quebec. The protagonist's American dream dies at the moment of the attacks and she must now negotiate her own identity in relation to a radically changed Other. The freshly victimized New York remains foreign to the French Canadian, who questions her own ability to comprehend the English-speaking city: "Qui suis-je pour me dire de New York, alors que je ne parle pas la meme langue que son monstre? [Who am I to talk about New York, when I don't even speak the same language as its monster?]" (108).

On the other hand, the protagonist's identity is intimately tied to New York; the city represents her sense of Self as much as it does the foreign Other. Like Carrier's protagonist, the Quebecois woman has ties to the United States which go back to childhood. One learns that her family made frequent trips to New York, and that, as a youngster, she mistakenly called the city "Nous York." The use of "Nous" instead of "New" is an unmistakable reference to a shared identity with the metropolis. Indeed, the narrator identifies New York as the place where she most often found happiness during childhood, and reveals that the city filled her dreams even when she returned to Quebec: "New York, cette ville magnifique, symbole de la liberte et de tous les possibles [New York, this magnificent city, symbol of liberty and all possibilities]" (84). New York in a sense belongs to the protagonist; she calls Broadway "mon aorte [my aorta]," Central Park "mon trou de verdure [my pocket of green]" (91). (6) In these examples, New York is not a phallic and threatening outsider but rather an essential part of the protagonist's own physical and psychological landscape.

Given these intimate physical and spiritual ties to New York, 9/11 is experienced as a second trauma, equal in significance to her own rape ten years earlier: "Deux mille un. Mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-onze .... Toujours la meme histoire [Two thousand one. Nineteen ninety-one .... Still the same story]" (255). The destruction of New York's towers forces memories of her past trauma to the surface:
   [C]ette ville, dont elle etait encore tout impregnee du secret,
   lui renvoyait l'image d'une terreur ancienne tapie au
   fond de sa memoire severe. L'attentat dont elle etait en
   cette minute le temoin rappelait un vieil ecueil a la surface.

   [(T)his city, from which she was still secretly impregnated,
   made her revisit the image of a past terror hidden
   in the utmost depths of her memory. The attack she
   was witnessing at the moment brought an old wound to
   the surface.] (53)


As in Les moines dans la tour, New York's collapsed towers mirror the fallen structure of the protagonist herself. This tower/body metaphor is apparent in the narrator's declaration, "La femme dans son corps est un edifice fragile [Woman in her body is a fragile structure]" (294).

As in Les moines dans la tour, New York's towers are not only linked with personal identity, but also serve as a reminder of a collective Quebecois identity. As in Carrier's novel, New York and Montreal act as mirror images of one another. The first rendez-vous between the protagonist and her lover takes place on her way to Mille de la Gauchetiere, Montreal's tallest tower. Their second encounter takes place at the sky top lounge of the Mille's sister tower, Place Ville-Marie. These towers recall in an obvious manner the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Underscoring this association, the couple's discussions while in the Quebecois towers revolve around a mutual love of New York City: "Parler de New York dans le ciel de Montreal etait un ravissement [Speaking of New York in the skies of Montreal was ravishing.]" (84). Montreal's rhyming towers (Mille/Ville) are sexualized in a similar fashion to those of New York City: when Marcus (the lover) tells Anais that he read somewhere that Place Ville Marie was the "nexus" of the city, she hears only "sexus" (65). There is even a Quebecois Broadway, in the grandmother's native Shawinigan, and its importance mirrors that of New York's famed avenue: "Broadway, c'etait son artere principale; elle lui etait aussi vitale que l'artere la plus celebre de l'Amerique [Broadway was her principal artery; it was as vital to her as America's most famous artery]" (110). The Quebecois imagery also recalls the attack on New York: The name of the Ville-Marie's lounge, "Le 737," brings to mind the jets which crashed into the World Trade Center, and, at one point, the narrator refers to the Mille de la Gauchetiere as "Ground Zero," and imagines it falling into ruin like its American counterparts (220).

Because New York is so intimately linked to Quebec, the 9/11 attacks are a source of unbearable pain and loss. As in Les moines dans la tour, the fall of the towers threatens the survival of the protagonist; Anais is no longer able to function in place of her original Self destroyed during the rape. She writes in her journal:

C'est le soir en plein jour. C'est l'hiver en plein ete. Je suis muette. Je suis morte. Tout en moi rappelle la penombre. Mon corps est un temple ou repose l'alienation de ma parole.

[It's nighttime in the full light of day. It's wintertime in the middle of summer. I'm mute. I'm dead. Everything in me recalls the darkness. My body is a temple where the alienation of my speech is buried.] (Gelinas 79)

These strong emotions lead to suicidal attitudes and behaviors. The protagonist imagines herself leaping from the Mille:
   Dans l'ascenseur, j'avais imagine que je me jetais en bas
   de la tour. Et que tout en bas, je n'etais plus que cent litres
   de sang etales sur une toile d'asphalte.

   [In the elevator, I imagined throwing myself from the
   tower. And that on the ground, I was nothing more than
   five liters of blood splattered on a canvas of asphalt.] (164).


Likewise, she crosses a busy Montreal street without looking, in hopes of being crushed again: "J'avais traverse la rue sans regarder: je voulais retrouver l'odeur du goudron et le poids d'une bete meurtriere sur moi [I crossed the road without looking: I wanted to re-experience the smell of tar and the weight of a deadly beast on me]" (164).

These suicidal thoughts and actions amount to what Freud calls a "repetitional compulsion," a desire to act out or repeat traumatic events (36). Unable to mentally process 9/11 or the trauma of her own rape, Anais seeks to re-live both experiences in order to somehow master them. In his dialogue with Giovanna Borradori, Derrida speaks at length about this desire to repeat 9/11 in order to overcome its trauma:

This is the first, indisputable effect of what occurred ... we repeat this, we must repeat it, and it is all the more necessary to repeat it insofar as we do not really know what is being named in this way, as if to exorcise two things at one go: on the one hand to conjure away, as if by magic, the "thing" itself, the fear or terror it inspires ... and on the other hand, to deny, as close as possible to this act of language and this enunciation, our powerlessness to name in an appropriate fashion, to characterize, to think the thing in question, to get beyond the mete deictic of the date: something terrible took place on September 11, and in the end we don't know what. (Borradori 87, emphasis in source)

Derrida refers to the repetition of 9/11 primarily as a media event, focusing on the recurrence of images on television and in the newspapers. For Anais, however, the desire to repeat 9/11 goes beyond mere spectatorship; the protagonist's suicidal thoughts and behaviors constitute what Freud terms a "death drive," or desire to return to a prior organic state (76). The shock of 9/11, combined with the past trauma of rape, jeopardizes both the physical and spiritual well-being of the protagonist, and threatens to end the narrator's story altogether.

On the other hand, Compter jusqu'a cent emulates Carrier's novel in depicting the events of 9/11 as an impetus for healing as well as a source of trauma. Compter jusqu'a cent is filled with images of transformation and rebirth, the most notable of which is a moth which appears out of the dust at a New York cafe when Anais meets Vera, a young girl who resembles "je" before her sexual attack. Vera, a tightrope walker, represents both bravery and truth, two skills necessary for relating a trauma. The young girl's profession recalls feats of the French daredevil Philippe Petit, best known for his high-wire walk between New York's twin towers in 1974. The narrator refers to Petit's skywalk later in the novel:
   J'avais vu le funambule a la television. Il avait accompli
   cet exploit de marcher dans le vide entre les tours jumelles
   devant des millions de spectateurs ahuris.

   [I had seen the tightrope walker on television. He had
   accomplished the exploit of walking in the void
   between the twin towers in front of thousands of
   amazed spectators.] (173)


Like the moth, tightrope walking signifies a metamorphosis. Anais sees funambulism, and more specifically the tightrope walker's struggle to remain balanced, as "un indice de la difficulte de transformer toute matiere, tout element, en bijou [an indication of the difficulty of transforming any matter, any element, into a treasure]" (177). She compares her own act of writing to the exploits of the tightrope walker: "Pour ecrire, il faut le rythme et le temps du funambule [In order to write, one needs the rhythm and the timing of a tight-rope walker]" (181). Like the tightrope walker, the narrator balances herself between two metaphorical towers of life and death. She realizes that her creativity is what saves her: "L'ecriture me garde en equilibre sur le seuil de la vie et de la mort [Writing keeps me in equilibrium on the threshold between life and death]" (182).

While she recognizes the restorative powers of writing, the protagonist faces the same dilemma as the narrator of Les moines dans la tour: How does one write about an event beyond comprehension? The protagonist cannot even say the word "viol [rape]"; like Carrier's architect who refers to his cancer as "CELA," she alludes to her assault simply as "ca [that]" (147, emphasis in source). Gelinas too draws from Derrida's concept of the difficulty of speaking the unspeakable. In the novel's afterword, Gelinas refers to what Derrida calls the "possibilite impossible [impossible possibility]" of relating traumatic events (316, emphasis in source). The fact that such traumas are unpredictable, unknowable, and beyond ordinary language means that they are nearly impossible to describe. Furthermore, attempting to relate such events means exposing oneself to the Other (in this case the reader), and, in the instance of rape, risking the loss of one's "intimite [intimacy]" a second time (Gelinas 317). Retelling her story means adopting Derrida's notion of unlimited hospitality to the stranger, which always implies a risk. However, this "aveu [confession]" also represents the protagonist's only hope for overcoming her trauma (Gelinas 318).

To write the story of her own rape, the victim must rediscover her primal cry, and only the terror of 9/11 is forceful enough to release this cry. After the attacks in New York, the protagonist relives her own assault through memory and writing; Anais dies and "je" is reborn. Through memory and writing, the moth rises from the ashes and transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly; trauma becomes art. Opening herself to the reader, her true lover, the narrator proclaims victory and revenge against her aggressor:
   "Le viol est un instrument de musique" et je fais un poeme! Ma
   langue est ma signe, ma seve .... Pour elle seule je m'agenouille
   et me soumets! Et c'est avec elle souveraine, que j'encule a mon
   tour mon sale bourreau de merde.

   ["A viola(tion) is a musical instrument" and I'm making a poem from
   it! My tongue is my sign, my sap .... For it alone I kneel down and
   submit! And with it as my sovereign, I rape my filthy attacker in
   turn.] (303) (7)


The protagonist's creation of a new identity becomes possible through writing. The link between her own suffering and the assault on the World Trade Center has allowed her to revisit her past and to reconstruct a new authentic Self who does not give in to her fears.

In conclusion, both Les moines dans la tour and Compter jusqu'a cent show how the attacks on New York had a powerful impact on literature outside of the United States. In Quebec, historical ties and proximity to the United States, and New York in particular, made the terror attacks an unavoidable topic, and forced authors such as Carrier and Gelinas to question the role of writing in the face of human suffering. Ultimately, both writers set out to achieve Derrida's "impossible possibility" of describing incomprehensible pain in order to transform catastrophic happenings into works of art. While Les moines dans la tour and Compter jusqu'a cent treat radically different personal crises (cancer and rape), both novels reaffirm that even the most severe emotional anguish can serve as a source of creativity. In the words of David Simpson, "time produces culture"; just as the Holocaust "can be and has been commemorated," the events of 9/11 too can serve as a source of artistic inspiration (161).

On the other hand, neither Quebecois novel should be read merely as an attempt to overcome trauma. The shared experience of the terrorist attacks also caused both authors to examine in depth their historical, cultural, and even spiritual ties to the United States. As Paul Gilroy points out, collective suffering often increases feelings of shared identity: "The recurrence of pain, disease, humiliation and loss of dignity, grief, and care for those one loves can all contribute to an abstract sense of a human similarity powerful enough to make solidarities based on cultural particularity appear suddenly trivial" (17). In this vein, the trauma of 9/11 forced both Quebecois writers to realize how much they had in common with their neighbors in the United States. Conforming to what Winfried Siemerling describes as a new trend of "North American perspectives that cross both national and linguistic boundaries" (13), both novels attest to a shared fate with the United States: They portray the attacks on New York as attacks on Montreal, and 9/11 as an assault on their own traditions and values. While both authors continue to negotiate and valorize their unique identities as Quebecois, the United States is no longer simply a foreign Other. Instead, there is a new sense of an American, or continental, identity that links Quebec to the United States. In the end, Les moines dans la tour and Compter jusqu'a cent may be read as testaments to the transcultural impact of 9/11 ; Carrier and Gelinas seem to echo Jean-Marie Colombani in declaring, loudly, "Nous sommes tous Americains!"

Works Cited

Bernard, Jean-Paul. "Interview with Gilles Gougeon." A History of Quebec Nationalism. Trans. Louisa Blair, Robert Chodos, and Jane Ubertino. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1994. 17-26.

Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Brossard, Nicole. Le desert mauve. Montreal: Hexagone, 1987.

Carrier, Roch. Les moines dans la tour. Montreal: XYZ Editeur, 2004.

--. Personal interview. March 19, 2010.

--. Petit Homme Tornade. Montreal: Stanke, 1996.

Colombani, Jean-Marie. "Nous sommes tous Americains." Le monde (Sept., 12, 2001. <http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/523345/posts>.

Degryse, Marc. Erick, l'Amerique. Montreal: Quebec-Amerique, 1993.

Desrosiers, Richarcd. "Interview with Gilles Gougeon." A History of Quebec Nationalism. Trans. Louisa Blair, Robert Chodos, and Jane Ubertino. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1994. 87-96.

"Elections generales, 1989, 25 septembre 1989." Directeur general des elections du Quebec. <http://www2.electionsquebec.qc.ca/corpo/francais/ elections-generales-provincial.asp?even=1989&mode=n5&section= resultats_gen#resul>.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. John Reddick. London: Kessinger, 2010.

Gelinas, Melanie. Compter jusqu'a cent. Montreal: Quebec-Amerique, 2008.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Godbout, Jacques, Une histoire americaine. Paris: Seuil, 1986.

Hall, Stuart. "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference." Becoming National: A Reader. Eds. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny. NY: Oxford UP, 1996. 337-49.

Hemon, Louis. Maria Chapdelaine. Montreal: J.A. Lefebvre, 1916.

Jasmin, Claude. Paques a Miami. Montreal: Lanctot Editeur, 1996.

Lahaise, Robert. "Interview with Gilles Gougeon." A Histoty of Quebec Nationalism. Trans. Louisa Blair, Robert Chodos, and Jane Ubertino. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1994. 3-16.

Lavoie, Yolande. L'emigration des Quebecois aux Etats-Unis de 1840 a 1930. Quebec: CLF, 1981.

LaRue, Monique. Copies conformes. Quebec: Lacombe, 1989.

Miraglia, Anne-Marie. "Le recit de voyage en quete de l'Amerique." Dalhousie French Studies 23 (Fall-Winter 1992): 29-34.

Pean, Stanley. Zombi Blues. Montreal: La courte echelle, 1996.

Poulin, Jacques. Volkswagen Blues. Montreal: Quebec-Amerique, 1984.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Rimbaud Complete. Ed. and trans. Wyatt Mason. NY: Modern Library, 2003.

Ringuet [Philippe Panneton]. Trente arpents. Paris: Flammarion, 1938.

Simpson, David. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.

Siemerling, Winfried. The New North American Studies: Culture, Writing and the Politics of Re/cognition. NY: Routledge, 2005.

Talbot, Emile. "Reading Ambiguity: Violence, Character, and Change in Jacques Godgout's Une histoire americaine." Dalhousie French Studies 36 (Fall 1996): 135-43.

"U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative: American Character Gets Mixed Reviews." Pew Global Attitudes Project. June 23, 2005 <http://pewglobal.org/2005/06/23/us-image-up-slightly-but-still-negative>.

Notes

(1) All English translations in this study, which follow the French originals in square brackets, are mine.

(2) A Pew Research Center poll confirms that attitudes towards the US in France and Canada became slightly more positive in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but increasingly more negative in the months leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. See "U.S. Image Up Slightly."

(3) Both of these annexation movements were short-lived. From 1847 to 1848, members of the nationalist Rouge party supported annexation by the United States (Bernard 24). Parti 51, so-named for the desire to see Quebec become the 51st US state, dissolved within a year of its formation after receiving only 3,846 votes in the 1989 elections ("Elections generales" n. pag.). Still, these movements are significant to history as public acknowledgments of an American alternative to Canadian nationhood.

(4) Additional Quebecois novels taking place in the United States during this time period include Le desert mauve (1987) by Nicole Brossard, Erick, l'Amerique (1993) by Marc Degryse, Zombi Blues (1996) by Stanley Pean, and Paques a Miami (1996) by Claude Jasmin, among others.

(5) The term "Canadien" can be translated into English as either "French Canadian" or simply "Canadian." The parenthetical use of the word "French" in my translations throughout this study is intended to preserve both meanings.

(6) The phrase "trou de verdure" is a reference to Arthur Rimbaud's famous poem "Le dormeur du val [The Sleeper in the Valley]" (1870), which evokes the image of a soldier's peaceful, albeit final, resting place. Wyatt Mason translates "Le dormeur du val" as "A green hole" (Rimbaud 33).

(7) The French word "viol" refers to both the viola and the act of rape; my use of the term "viola(tion)" is an attempt to achieve both meanings in English.
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Author:Zahnd, Elizabeth A.
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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