Essay collections from Québec may most often be written in French, but they feature a distinctly North American perspective on history, literature, and politics. “They deserve to be read in other languages because of their quality and the authors’ and publishers’ abilities to think outside the box,” says Robin Philpot of Baraka Books, a publisher of a wide variety of political and historical essays. “They often go where others fear to tread.”
Baraka Books authors include Fred Jerome (The Einstein File, New Updated Edition with forewords by Ajamu Baraka and David Suzuki) and Ishmael Reed (Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico, forthcoming). Philpot says that Québec essays combine the belief in books as a major vector of change, common to French nonfiction, with American straightforwardness.
“Québec essays, more than ever, are looking to provide possible solutions to the serious problems we’re facing today,” says Alexandre Sanchez of Lux. “The clock is ticking, and many of us are exploring the ways of life of the First Nations, various struggles against sexism and racism, social history, protecting the environment, and more.”
Écosociété, Lux, and Septentrion are some of the province’s best-known publishers, and they’ve each made their name with hard-hitting essay collections. Écosociété was set up in 1992 by a group of activists concerned with environmental, economic, and political issues; the press started publishing Noam Chomsky early on, in 1995. “Reading, thinking, and acting are the three verbs that have driven Écosociété from the get-go,” says Elodie Comtois, who works for the publishing house. “Readers, both in Québec and in Europe, are curious about our essays. Our sales have increased considerably over the past few years. A lot of hard work goes into our books to draw attention to various issues affecting our society, and we’re seeing that the public is hungry for more.”
Lux describes itself as “one of the leading independent radical publishing houses in the French-speaking world.” Its list of writers is impressive, including Normand Baillargeon (whose Petit cours d’autodéfense intellectuelle has been translated into more than 10 languages, into English as A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense by Seven Stories Press); the ubiquitous Serge Bouchard, an anthropologist who specializes in Native American culture and is a familiar, reassuring voice on the radio; and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (one of the more vocal voices of the 2012 student strikes in Québec). But for Lux’s Alexandre Sanchez, the most recent success is La médiocratie by Québec philosopher Alain Deneault, which he calls “a masterpiece of contemporary critical thought.”
Bouchard won his first Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017 for Les yeux tristes de mon camion, and in fact the finalists for the 2017 Governor General’s Awards in nonfiction provide a useful summary of the varied thinking that is currently being acknowledged and rewarded. Gérard Bouchard’s Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries, translated by Howard Scott, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in translation; originally published by Les Éditions du Boréal as Raison et déraison du mythe, it highlights the power of myth in our everyday lives. Fellow finalists Je sais trop bien ne pas exister (Nicolas Lévesque, Varia), La solitude de l’écrivain de fond (Daniel Grenier, Le Quartanier), Propositions de clarté (Benoît Côté, Éditions Nota bene), and Soigner, aimer (Ouanessa Younsi, Mémoire d’encrier) reveal a range of voices and subjects, from Grenier’s look at American author Wright Morris to thoughts on caring for others from poet and psychiatrist Ouanessa Younsi.