'She was a rebel': Yanic Truesdale & Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette discuss her runaway grandmother
The novel is inspired by the life of Quebec painter and poet Suzanne Meloche, grandmother of Barbeau-Lavalette, who abandoned her husband and two young children in pursuit of a life outside the traditional roles of wife and mother.
The Canada Reads 2019 debates take place March 25-28, 2019. They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), be live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.
Yanic Truesdale (YT): What did you know about Suzanne before starting to write the book?
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette (ABL): Almost nothing. She was a ghost. She was the one who hurt my mother and the only thing I knew was that I hated her. It was instinctive — you protect the one you love. She was the woman who made my mother sad, even when she was an adult. She also was the one who refused to talk to me or to my little brother. I knew that she was alive, but I didn't care much.
YT: What started the desire to write the book?
ABL: The beginning of my interest for that woman is when she died. Sadly, that was the first time when we were invited to her place because we were the ones who needed to empty it.
YT: What a strange thing.
ABL: It was strange... but it was interesting because through her smells, her clothes, her objects, I was feeling, for the first time, that she was really more than the one who left. I remember going through her makeup bag, putting on her lipstick and wondering, who were you? I had to go to a private detective to find out more about her.
YT: I find that fascinating — that's how you reconstructed her life since you had so few details about her. You hired a detective to go get you information about this woman.
She didn't leave any clues.- Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
ABL: She didn't leave any clues. It was hard to try to have a feeling of her whole life. So, with the detective, we succeeded in finding her paintings, friends and lovers.
YT: She had many lovers.
ABL: She did, which is really avant-gardist for a woman of that time, to be a such a free thinker.
YT: When I read your novel, I very much saw my own grandmother. To this day, I wonder why she married my grandfather. It didn't seem there was much love there. But women at that time had no other choice but to be a wife or a mother. It's very present in your book when Suzanne's mom doesn't allow anyone to touch the piano because it represents a dream she could not follow. When I was reading Suzanne, I saw a woman who was just reacting to her mom's story and didn't want to replicate that.
ABL: We are all really more than just "mother" and "father". But, especially for women at that time, we had to fit in that square. Suzanne was stuck in that square. But I think it's hard for me to forgive. She hurt my mom and she broke my uncle. My mom survived and she had kids. But my uncle was a one-year-old child when she left and he did not overcome her absence. He was schizophrenic and ended up homeless. He had it rough. But still, he's a beautiful person.
YT: I think that's one of the beautiful things about your book is that you start by hating this person, which is very understandable. But what did you discover as you dug into this person that you hated?
She was a rebel and I love rebels.- Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
ABL: Well, she had an extraordinary life. At the beginning, I started with a ghost. She hurt my mother and that's all I knew. But then I discovered that… she was a wild one. Since her childhood, she was different. She didn't want to follow the rules. She was a rebel and I love rebels. The initial desire to write about her comes from the specific moment where she leaves the two kids. It was a really hard moment to write, but at the same time it's the first time where I felt the desire to hug and protect her. The desire to say, "You're so alone." I just realized how she was so alone and was trying to survive her loneliness.
YT: It was almost a helpless gesture. She needed to go on with her life story and felt she couldn't take care of her kids in the right way.
ABL: I think at that moment, she needed to find an adventure that would excuse her gestures. She went to the United States. It was the end of the 1960s, at the beginning of the Black Panther and Freedom Riders movements. She took part in this civil rights fight and she was one of the only white women involved. She needed to find something that would be bigger than her.
YT: What advice do you have for me for the Canada Reads debate?
ABL: I have total confidence in you. I just feel that you will take this book with your heart... I know that this book talks to you.
It's a very intimate book. It reads like a letter.- Yanic Truesdale
YT: It's a very intimate book. It reads like a letter, given the fact it's written in the second person. It makes you connect directly with the events. There's no filters between you and the characters in the story. Is there anything that is crucial to share about the book when I talk about it?
ABL: I think it is a personal story, but also it's touching something universal. I'm happy that you are defending the book because you're you and also because you're a man. I think this book speaks especially to women, but also to men because it speaks about this specific paradox we live — men and women — between having our individual dreams and cultivating connections with the ones we love. It's a really contemporary dilemma.
Yanic Truesdale and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
- Chuck Comeau defending Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung
- Lisa Ray defending Brother by David Chariandy
- Ziya Tong defending By Chance Alone by Max Eisen
- Yanic Truesdale defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins
- Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong