Jovette Marchessault: A One-Woman Constellation

I first heard about Indigenous Québecoise writer Jovette Marchessault a year or so perhaps after arriving in Canada. I was hungry for information about Canadian women writers, and writers whose work departed from the twin traditions of linear prose narrative and/or lyric narrative poetry which dominated so much of North American writing at the time. I was unaware of the great gulf which divides Anglophone and Francophone literature in Canada, and homesick for the landscapes in which I grew up. The titles of Marchessault’s trilogy, Like A Child of the Earth, Mother of the Grass and White Pebbles in the Dark Forests instantly appealed to me, not to mention the photographs of some of Marchessault’s own sculptures featured on the covers of the English-language Talonbooks editions. Opening them up, I fell deep into the images, rhythms and currents of Marchessault’s narratives, which unfold not only forwards or backwards but somehow in all directions at once. The writing is gripping, wild, fantastical and permission giving, its storytelling voice seamlessly interweaving autobiography, history, cosmology and anecdote. Reading these novels, I felt strangely at home.

Jovette Marchessault by CS

Today these works might be described as auto-fictions, although that category already feels too tight. Lyric, poetic, playful and extremely visceral, they narrate a life which is at once Marchessault’s and also bigger than hers, a world in which spiritual, magical and imaginative realms are indivisible from the physical. Children, animals, birds, ancestors and mythic beings are always present and interconnected even whilst the city of Montreal, its streets and communities, or the smeared windows of a Greyhound bus engulf the reader’s viewpoint. When I first read her trilogy I was only partially aware of the degree to which they are celebrations of an Indigenous worldview; re-reading them now, I feel grateful for having encountered Marchessault’s work when I was still relatively new as a settler here. While not denying life’s hardships, Marchessault insists on celebrating the spiritual richness and wealth of her upbringing as a rural, working-class, Indigenous child, and in particular, the brilliance her grandmother, to whom Like A Child of the Earth is dedicated.

Lesbian and feminist sculptor, visual artist, theatre artist and playwright Jovette Marchessault was also mostly self-taught, and spent many years traveling across the Americas before exhibiting her Telluric Women sculptures and publishing her fictional trilogy between 1975 and 1987. She spent much of the 80s writing and performing for the stage, as well as co-founding a publishing house and lecturing in theatre. Her many honours included a Governor General’s Award for Drama, and the Prix France Québec. Marchessault’s career was exuberant, multifaceted and inspirational, however, even if she had only published her trilogy, she would have facilitated a great leap (not just forwards and backwards but in all directions) for readers and writers to come.

Marchessault died in 2012. I’m surprised sometimes how few folks have heard of her, when I mention her, although while researching this blog post I discovered the Montréal-based Jovette Marchessault Award for Women Theatre Artists, and information regarding a 2019 staging of an adaptation of one of her plays, Night Cows, so her theatrical reputation at least seems robust.

“My origin is celestial,” begins Yvonne Klein’s translation of Like a Child of The Earth, the first volume of the trilogy. To me, Jovette Marchesssault is like a constellation. Long may her multiple bright points of light inspire all, especially “marginalized” (depending on where the “centre” is, of course) readers, watchers and listeners to name their own multifaceted truths.

NB: If you speak French (or even if not) you will enjoy this little video of some of Marchessault’s sculptures. If you have more time, here is an NFB movie about Marchessault and two other formidable Québecoises writers, Louky Bersianik and Nicole Brossard. Here’s a link to Talonbooks, who published Yvonne Klein’s translations of the trilogy.

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