A few posts back, Carmine Starnino, the editor of the Signal Editions poetry series, began a post on this blog by writing, “The Vehicule blog doesn’t belong to me. It’s an extension of the press I work for. Everyone at the press makes use of it, but not as heavily as I do…” Theoretically that may be so, but in practice everyone else’s thoughts at the press have sat unblogged for years, collecting dust, while this space has transformed into a busily trafficked intersection for Canadian poetry.
Truth be told, it’s somewhat intimidating being the first other person at the press to come down here after all this time. I’m half expecting the room to go awkwardly quiet as the door creaks shut, or for someone to cryptically tell me that I’ve dialed the wrong number even though there’s not a phone in sight. You see, I’m new here, the new editor of Esplanade Books, Véhicule Press’s fiction line, and like most newbies I’ve been advised to blindly break up this cabal and bring this blog back to its original symmetry.
I’ve been asked to look forward to what I want to do with Esplanade Books. It’s not as if, blogging aside, good things aren’t being done with Esplanade Books already. For the past decade, founding editor Andrew Steinmetz has published twenty books that have gone on to make reputations for their authors. Jaspreet Singh recently published his second novel, Helium, with Bloomsbury. After a glowing reception for his Esplanade short-story collection, A Short Journey by Car, Liam Durcan published his second book, Garcia’s Heart, with McClelland & Stewart in 2008. Andrew Hood, Missy Marston, and David Griffin all leapt out of the gates like muscular greyhounds with their first books, and as a result they have literary careers underway. Guillaume Morissette, Steinmetz’s final Esplanade selection, is about to find new readers with the Spring 2014 publication of his novel New Tab. Andrew published my second novel in 2011, and now I’m minding the kennel.
So Esplanade comes with a well-earned reputation for taking chances on original, untested voices. That aspect of the imprint will stay right where it is, and here I can only hope to find the caliber of writing that Steinmetz had a knack for finding. New writers, original voices, literary authors who don’t want to conform their craft or perspective, writers who have something to say that may not be palatable to large numbers of casual readers – their books will still have a home here.
When I was much younger, I used to spend hours skimming through my university’s bookstore in between classes, marveling at the spectrum of titles that houses such as New Directions and Dalkey Archive published. Within those imprints, adventurous new voices shared lists with all forms of translations, and both sides were elevated, in my eyes, from their proximity to one another. Here were English-language writers, I would think, who are operating within the sphere of world literature. The ideas those houses put forward were stronger and more reputable for it.
I tend to believe that the state of translation in this country is paltry. I’m not referring to the translations themselves, but rather to the way they’re brought to publication and packaged. Cormorant, Anansi, and Biblioasis all publish a steady stream of French-Canadian writing in translation, and yet the world of Quebecois literature barely registers in English Canada. My sense is that readers have no context for what they’re reading, and so have difficulty attaching cultural value to it. In other artistic domains, brands such as the Criterion Collection or Numero Group have gone to admirable lengths to situate hitherto obscure films and recordings within the larger zeitgeist of the culture that gave rise to them. Quebecois literature, I feel, should be presented in a similar light for Canadians and Americans.
Beyond presentation, a looming generational schism is brewing within the world of translation. Sheila Fischman, Donald Winkler, Linda Gaboriau, Judith Cowan, Lezer Lederhendler, David Homel, Fred Reed have all performed a wonderful service in bringing Quebecois writing into English, but they are all of a generation when the idea of biculturalism was at its peak. Where are the younger translators? What are they reading? A translation community, which is so significant to our understanding of the two cultural streams that make up this country, is not healthy if it’s in danger of dying out with a generation. There needs to be a place for new, committed French-to-English translators with sharp tastes to publish their work, and in doing so curate our understanding of this furthest orbiting part of Canada’s culture.
I think the act of curating translations for the rest of the country would naturally be part of the competitive advantage of any English-language press based in Quebec – this is our backyard and we understand the culture better than readers in Toronto or elsewhere. We can see what’s new and exciting simply by looking around. We have the linguistic abilities to read the works firsthand, to follow them as they emerge and appreciate what effect they have among Quebecois readers – whom, it must be noted, take their literature very seriously. We’ve given up a tremendous opportunity to be ahead of a curve that’s currently being curated out of Ontario.
Beyond a new emphasis on developing younger translators and delivering better-packaged translations, I would like to see Esplanade Books publish more novellas. The novella still stands as my favourite kind of book to read: so little, such an object, so commercially unviable yet curiously authentic. Many writers I speak to at one point or another confess a passion for the form, insist that it is what they would write if left to their own devices, and then lament that they are actively discouraged from doing just that because they’d have nowhere to publish novellas.
And yet novellas have so much to offer the advancement of fiction; they allow a playground for experimentation with structure, voice, atmosphere, and theme that is not suited to the more burdensome timelines of the longer novel. I’m curious how much more range we’d discover in Canadian writers if readers were given a chance to read what could be imagined in between the short story craft we are known for, and the novels that are most commercially viable. There are many established writers out there whom I’m certain would want to take advantage of this form otherwise discouraged, and when the right novella comes along, I would like to publish those left turns of an author’s catalogue that end up leading nowhere in the larger picture of their oeuvre. Those often turn out to be the most enigmatic and compelling vantage points into a writer’s persona.
Editor, Esplanade Books