I grew up on a dairy farm in Lacolle, a Quebec country town that shares a border with New York State. It might however be more accurate to say that I grew up on television, movies, books, and music. In elementary school, I started looking through the TV guide and selecting the shows I wanted to watch, making myself a schedule for the year. The minute I would get home from school, I would turn the TV on and watch it until it was time to go to bed.
Over time, my ear grew accustomed to the language and I started picking up words here and there based on repetition and visual cues. Then sentences. Then entire episodes. One of my friends later made fun of me, saying I learned English because of my attraction to John Stamos. She might be right.
By the time I was fifteen, I would only watch American movies in their original language. Our senior year, my best friend Emilie and I would rent slashers on Friday nights and watch them together. It was my way of emulating Dawson and Joey in Dawson’s Creek.
I remember something else. For Valentine’s Day, students could send each other gifts through internal mail. Gifts were delivered during class and, in order to get one’s gift, one had to perform a task chosen by the sender. When I showed up to school one morning after having missed the previous day because I was sick, a friend told me they’d come to deliver a gift for me the day before. I must have felt something was up because I asked all my friends if they were the ones who’d sent me the gift. They all said no. Later that day, the delivery service showed up to my French class. They said that, to get my gift, I had to sing, “Je m’appelle Paulette / Je suis une tapette” (My name is Paulette / I am a faggot). In what was an unusual moment, I stood up for myself and told them I wouldn’t. They didn’t know what to do. No one had ever refused a gift before. The teacher supported me, saying that she didn’t think it was funny either. They said they were willing to give me the gift anyway. I told them I didn’t want it. They said they knew what it was, that it was nothing bad. I wish I’d kept standing up for myself, but I caved. The gift was nothing bad, but it was clearly just an excuse to get me to say I was a faggot: a granola bar and bits of an eraser.
Then I did a BA in Communication Studies and English Literature at Concordia University, where I read Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé in English, where I read about Quebec cinema in English. I went to McGill University for half a second, where I read Camus and Foucault in English. Then I went back to Concordia to do an MA in Film Studies, where I read Barthes in English and read about Quebec cinema some more, in English. I also started writing dance reviews. In English.
In February of the same year, I went to see choreographer Susanna Hood’s Costing Not Less Than Everything with the intention of reviewing it. In the piece, dancer Holly Bright stands naked and, as soon as the light from the projectors hits her body, she crashes to the floor. She attempts to get back up, but her arms, crooked, refuse to cooperate.
The review of the dance show would only come out in French. So I wrote it in French, even though I was writing for an English website at the time.
When I came back to Montréal, I made a conscious decision to listen to more French music. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the first genre that struck a chord with me was black metal (Gris, Forteresse, Sui Caedere, Sombres forêts), with its vocals abstracted beyond recognition. Black metal felt like the colour of my soul. Then the darkness of minimal synth also won me over (Automelodi, Police des moeurs, Xarah Dion, Essaie pas).
A few years ago, a man I fooled around with showed me a picture of his friend’s Halloween costume. Her long brown hair was frizzy. She simply applied some makeup to create dark circles under her eyes. She was “dressed” as Québec rocker Gerry Boulet. I was aware that if you showed this picture to anyone who’s not French Québécois, all you’d get is a blank stare; yet I was laughing so hard that I had trouble standing up. That’s when I realized that Québec culture is one big inside joke. Like all cultures.
This year, I stopped talking about dance on the radio because listening to myself was painful. I was struggling with the language. Someone on Twitter recently claimed that French sounds like it’s in cursive, but that’s not my experience. Each word is like a heavy building block I have to drag out of myself and put one after another to form a sentence. It’s the language that was used to hurt me and still today I can feel a burning tightness in my chest whenever I attempt to use it. English is the language I used to escape, to medicate myself, and I developed an addiction to it. When I speak English, I feel like I’m reading from a script, like I don’t even have to think about what I’m saying because somebody else wrote it for me.
I now live in Petit Laurier, the Montréal neighbourhood also known as Petite France due to its high concentration of French immigrants. After having gone through all of the gay Anglophone Montrealers who would have me, I’m now with my first Québécois boyfriend. Most of the time, I speak to him in English.