Arts & Entertainment, Books

Bonding over books

The McConnell Buildings on McGill University’s and Concordia University’s downtown campuses appear inconspicuous, their exteriors giving no sign of what dwells within. This proves true with the one at McGill (did you know there’s a bar in the basement?), but was especially apparent at Concordia’s McConnell Building on Nov. 3 and 4. 

On these dates, entering through the building’s front doors and turning into the Atrium would have led you to the 2023 Read Quebec Book Fair, a cozy bazaar representing the breadth of English-language publishing in Quebec. People milled around, dressed in business-casual or university-student attire (complete with backpacks adorned with red squares in solidarity with tuition fee increase protests), and chatted with booksellers and publishing houses such as Drawn and Quarterly, the Montreal Review of Books, the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec (AELAQ), and Metonymy Press. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming—the attendees’ shared love of books eased the usual awkwardness of introductions. 

The fair included events like “Eight Voices: Finalists for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Spoke Word Prize and a live podcast recording of Getting Lit with Linda. The range of offerings brought together aspiring writers for “Perfect Your Pitch” workshops, families with children eager to make their own comics or write postcards to the future, and even film lovers with a screening of Scarborough, adapted from the 2017 novel of the same name.

“I remember […] putting pen to paper trying to tell the stories of what it was like to be a low-income person in Scarborough and seeing communities being affected by political whim,” Catherine Hernandez, author of Scarborough, said in an interview with The Tribune. “To have people feel like […] their lives are seen, it was really profound for me.”

Not only do book fairs and events such as these allow authors, booksellers, and publishers to connect with the community, they also centre local writers’ voices, giving them a platform to display their literary talents.

“For authors, the great thing about a festival is that people don’t just want a book, they want to know the person behind the book. [Audiences] get to see the passion you have as an author,” Hernandez said.

Another notable aspect of the fair was the variety of English translations of Quebec books written in French. According to Robin Philpot, publisher at Baraka Books, this was a deliberate move to introduce Quebec literature to anglophone readers. 

“For a long time, nobody in English Canada or the United States knew there was a Quebec literary world,” Philpot noted in an interview with The Tribune. “[T]hen there became a certain interest in Quebec fiction because […] [of] its different worldviews than English Canada or the US.” 

Baraka Books, he explained, was created specifically to publish translations of Quebec literature, ranging from fiction, non-fiction, and history books, so that readers could explore the province’s unique worldviews from the source.

“Often people tell the story of Quebec but they tell it from Toronto or from people who hardly speak French.”

The importance of engaging with local publishers, discoverable at events like these or at independent, community-oriented bookstores such as Librairie Drawn and Quarterly, cannot be overstated. They centre regional writers and their diverse worldviews, creating a starting point for dialogue and understanding. 

“We created an imprint [called QC Fiction] of younger writers who do interesting writing in Quebec, but [whose writing is] not known about. If the author’s not known, it’s hard to make a move in the English-speaking world. They don’t know the French-language writers in Canada,” Philpot said.

He added that while it is a challenge, Baraka Books chooses titles it feels are representative of Quebec literature. The fact that some of these books have been adapted for English-language courses in Canada makes Philpot and his staff feel all the more successful. 

By giving a new audience—one who might otherwise be hindered by the language barrier—access to Quebec’s rich culture, the literary world becomes more representative of various lived realities. Read Quebec Book Fair looks beyond the fan favourites of #BookTok, prompting readers to head to their nearest local bookstore and introduce themselves to the talent residing in our communities. 

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