The Next Chapter

How Canada Reads finalist Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette learned to love her absent grandmother

The writer, filmmaker and artist discusses her latest novel, which is in contention for Canada Reads 2019, alongside the book's translator, Rhonda Mullins.
Rhonda Mullins (L) and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette (R) are the translator and author of Suzanne, an English translation of the French-language hit, La femme qui fuit. (CBC)
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When Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette was growing up, her grandmother was essentially a ghost.

Suzanne Meloche was a member of the renowned French Canadian art collective, Les Automatistes. She was a painter, a poet and a mother who abandoned her two children to pursue her passions. After Suzanne's death, her granddaughter, Barbeau-Lavalette, set out to learn more about her life. The result is a novel, Suzanne, which is one of the five contenders for Canada Reads 2019.

Originally published in French as la femme qui fuit , 'the woman who flees,' the book was translated into English by award-winning translator Rhonda Mullins.

Barbeau-Lavalette and Mullins spoke to Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter about Suzanne.

The Canada Reads 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 3 p.m. (3:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Not knowing your mother's mother

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette: "I knew nothing. I just knew that she left my mother and that's about it. In fact, I think that I probably chose to ignore her. I was angry at her and I didn't want to know much more than that. She was a ghost. I didn't have much respect for her. I loved my mother so much and I just knew that she'd heard [Suzanne] was still alive and that she didn't want to talk to me, nor my brothers. I just didn't have much respect for her at the beginning.

"I didn't write it to understand her. I began to write just to try to feel a bit closer to my history, but my goal was not to understand. For me, it was not something I could understand. How can you survive without your kids? How can you just go away and never come back? But what is really beautiful and powerful at the same time is that I was writing from the beginning of her life. When I arrived at this crucial moment [when she leaves the children], it was hard for me to write. I had to write it several times because my editors said I wasn't connecting to my feelings. You try to protect yourself, you have to."

Building compassion by building a life

Rhonda Mullins: "I felt a lot of compassion [for Suzanne]. I know that in talking to readers, there's a lot of anger. A lot of people can't imagine how a woman abandons her children. But I think Anaïs wrote with such feeling that I couldn't help but be taken along by her compassion." 

Barbeau-Lavalette: "I think if you try to deconstruct [the perceptions] built around a human being that can so easily be pointed to as monstrous. There are some things we cannot understand because of our moral constrictions. I think if we just go inside and if you try to rebuild them, the emotional motivations, the monsters; they just disappear. They don't exist. They're human beings with specific paths. 

"When Suzanne left forever, it was the hardest moment. But it's the first time of my life that I felt like I wanted to hug her. She was younger than me, her kids were angry and they were cold. She faced hostility. She had big dreams: she wanted more than to be a mother and to feed her kids. It was supposed to be the moment where I would hate her, but it was the moment where I began to love her."

A storied life

Barbeau-Lavalette: "I found the picture in her apartment taken from a newspaper. It was deep in the civil rights revolts of the black people in the United States. My grandmother was there. She was the only white person in the middle of black people fighting for their rights. So I couldn't stay blind to all her history. She was not only a woman who left her kids and I needed to understand what was around this gesture. What was completing the portrait I had of this woman?"

Mullins: "There was almost this Forrest Gump quality to it — the way that she ran through all these these major historical events. It was a real juxtaposition with this incredibly intimate story. This woman caught up with important figures in the art world and the Québec political scene, in the States and other travels. There was this intersection between the intimate and the global that was fascinating to me."

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette and Rhonda Mullins's comments have been edit for length and clarity.

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