Category Archives: Franco-American

The Invisible Made Visible: A Gathering of Franco-American Writers, Artists, and Creatives

Last weekend, I went to the Franco-American Centre at the University of Maine at Orono, which hosted “its sixth annual gathering (or Rassemblement) of Franco-American writers, artists, and creatives. The annual event, organized by UMaine’s Franco American Programs, aims to create a culturally supportive space in which members of the Franco-American creative community can share their work.” (The quotation was taken from an invitation sent by the Centre’s director, Susan Pinette, and I used this because it states so well the raison d’être for the event.)

I’ve been going to Rassemblement from the beginning, and what a treat it is to spend time with so many creative Franco-Americans.

In the past on this blog, I’ve written a brief history of Franco-Americans in Maine and how they comprise about a third of the state’s population. (Most of our ancestors migrated from French Canada in the mid- to late 1800s.) Because of the history of discrimination and repression, many Maine Franco-Americans feel invisible, and I understand this is also true for Franco-Americans in other parts of New England.

When we come together for Rassemblement, we Franco-American creatives no longer feel invisible.  We read our poetry and fiction. We present our research projects. We perform our pieces, many of them centered on what it means to be Franco-American in all its various aspects. We listen attentively to each other, so grateful not to feel invisible anymore.

This year, there were a number of young Franco-American students who either read poetry or spoke about being Franco-American. What a treat to have them there! Most of the “regulars” who come to Rassemblement are what might be considered, ahem, mature. To have so many younger folks there was like having a fresh breeze blow through the event.

There were so many terrific presentations at Rassemblement, and I feel bad that I can’t describe them all. However even brief descriptions would make this post much too long.

Here are a few highlights from the Rassemblement:

Susan Pinette, the wonderful director, kicking off the event on Saturday morning.

The fabulous Susan Poulin, reading about her extraordinary aunt who was a nun.

Mitch Roberge, a UMO student, reading “Speak White,” a poem he wrote in French.

Steven Riel, a very fine poet, before his reading. Here’s an especially beautiful line from one of his poems: “Moonlight enters without knocking.”

And the talented Greg Chabot, performing one of his pieces about being Franco-American. Chabot maintains that “visibility comes from creation.”

I, of course, read from my novel Maya and the Book of Everything, and I was so proud to see it displayed on the table with other books and CDs.

And as a cherry on the sundae, I stayed at a nice little hotel down the road from the Franco-American Centre. By gum, it even had a room with a view.

A weekend with Franco-American creatives. A room with a view.

Who could ask for anything more?

Well, perhaps one not-so-little thing. I wish that you, readers, could have come to the event to hear all the talented Franco-American creatives present their work, to see the invisible made visible.

Abby Paige at the Franco-American Centre: Tous mes Cousins / All My Cousins

Last night Clif and I went to the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine at Orono to see Abby Paige, a terrific performer and writer.  She presented her work-in-progress Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins, an  “intimate new bilingual play about what it means to be French, to be family, to be Franco-American in French Canada, and to be fed up with Jack Kerouac.”

The talented Abby Paige

A very brief history of Franco-Americans in the United States: From the post Civil War era to the 1930s, one-third of French Canada immigrated to the United States, mostly in New England.  Impoverished and hungry, they came to work in the factories the region was so famous for. In forty years, towns went from having no French speakers to having anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of the population speaking French. Having so many French-speaking Catholics settle in Yankee Protestant towns brought, shall we say, a certain amount of tension. And discrimination. For those of us who are of French Canadian descent—and I am both on my mother’s and father’s side—there is a distinct feeling of not belonging, of not being French Canadian and of not being fully American.

This is an ideal, albeit uncomfortable, place for an artist to be, the rough grain of sand that produces the pearl, as the saying goes. Abby Paige, who was born and raised in Vermont, is of French Canadian descent on her mother’s side. She now lives in New Brunswick, and Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins explores the notion of not being French enough in Canada and perhaps being too French in the United States.

Abby Paige does this brilliantly, with multiple characters and their monologues—herself, a breathless teenager, an uncle, and Jack Kerouac, who both irritates and fascinates her.  Abby Paige’s transition from one character to another was seamless, and when she went from being the teenage girl to being the uncle, she was almost unrecognizable. I especially loved the uncle’s monologue, where he told of how he occasionally went to an Italian friend’s home, where spaghetti was served—a real treat as the uncle didn’t get this at home—and where there was a picture of Mussolini in the basement.

We learned from the discussion after the presentation that to many French Canadians, Franco-Americans are failures who deserted their homeland. To my way of thinking, this is a mighty strange way of looking at the situation. After all one third of the population left French Canada because conditions were too miserable for families to thrive. Abby Paige explores this dichotomy in Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins in a scene where she speaks halting French at her son’s bilingual school in Canada and endures the patient but condescending attitude of the teacher.

Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins is an impressive beginning of an exploration of not only identity but also of the history of New England and French Canada. I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished show.

 

 

Franco-American Gathering: If We Don’t Speak Our Piece, Then Who Will Speak It for Us?

Last Saturday, I went to a Franco-American gathering of artists, performers, writers, thinkers, and friends. It is a yearly event held at the Darling Marine Center in beautiful Walpole, Maine. The center, a branch of the University of Maine, is tucked in the woods, and the ocean glimmers through the trees. In the conference center where we met, there is a great room with a stone fireplace, long tables for eating, and a kitchen off to the side where the staff cooked delicious meals for us.

A glimmer of ocean
A glimmer of ocean

I always look forward to this event, where I get to chat with some of my favorite Franco friends, but this year was especially fruitful for me. Thoughts and ideas were clarified, which in turn has made the way clearer in my personal life. I’ll be exploring one of those ideas in this post, but before I do, I thought it might be good to give a brief history of Franco-Americans in Maine, which, to a large extent, applies to New England as well. Our story is not well known, but more of that later.

In Maine, Franco-Americans are primarily those of French descent who came from Canada. In the mid-1800s, there was a mass migration of families from Québec and eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces. They left their farms, where they could barely feed themselves, to work in the burgeoning factories that the industrial revolution brought to New England. They were mostly Catholic, and French was their first and often only language.

Another way French Canadians came to Maine was even earlier, in the mid-1700s. During the French and Indian War, there was a mass deportation of French Colonists—Acadians—from Canada’s maritime region. Rather than being deported, some of these hearty Acadians took to the woods and settled in northern Maine.

In my family, I have both Québécois and Acadian ancestors, all coming to Maine from different routes but settling here for many, many years. Indeed, I am a fifth-generation Mainer of Franco-American descent. My great-grandmother never learned to speak English, and my mother didn’t speak English when she started Kindergarten.  Unfortunately, in a sad flip, many of my generation did not learn to speak French at all, but that is a topic for another post.

In Maine, Franco-Americans are the largest single ethnic group, about 25 percent of the population, but for the most part, you’d never know this.  When people think of Maine, if they think of it at all, they think about the coast and lobsters and the taciturn Yankees—the ethnic group, not the baseball team.  The Yankees are here all right—I even married one—and their story deserves to be told.

But so does ours, and all too often it isn’t. Several years ago, when my mother and I visited Waterville’s Historical Society, there was nothing about the city’s Franco-Americans, even though they made up 40 percent of the population. Franco Americans worked in the factories, and they drove the city’s economic engine, but there was no trace of them in Waterville’s historic records. (I hope this has changed, and I plan on checking someday soon.)

This brings me to a presentation given by David Vermette, whose blog French North America is featured on the sidebar of blogs I recommend. He read from his post Why are Franco-Americans so Invisible?

David Vermette
David Vermette

 

Well, why are we? David lists various reasons, from “We are associated today with Canada and therefore beneath the notice of most Americans” to “Our Canadien/Acadien ancestors were in North America long before the United States and today’s Canada existed” to “We do not fit into the existing narratives of U.S. settlement history” and finally “Our national character.

I think David, a wonderful speaker and writer, is correct on all counts, but I’ll touch briefly on the last—our national character. Ethnic groups do indeed have a character, and David makes a distinction between generalizations and stereotypes and notes “there are fair generalizations that can be made about coherent cultural groups.”

Among other traits, David spoke of how Franco-Americans value humility: “A Maine Acadian wrote to me, We were taught that you don’t speak well of yourself. You let others speak well of you.In the USA of Donald Trump and Kanye West, this trait is radically counter-cultural.”

David then went on to ask, “If we don’t speak our piece then who will speak it for us?”

Who indeed? It’s long past time for Franco-Americans to speak up, to make a “ruckus,” as David puts it. Our history, our story counts, too, and it should be woven into the narrative of Maine and New England.

I plan to do my little bit, and from time to time I’ll be writing about the Franco-American story on this blog.  I sure wish my mother and grandmother were around to help me.