You no doubt heard that renowned and critically acclaimed Acadian author and playwright Antonine Maillet was recently awarded the Symons medal at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The Symons medal is an award of high esteem for Canadians who have contributed exceptionally to culture (think David Suzuki and Paul Gross).
I attended her lecture along with half of the Acadian community of Prince Edward Island and was unsurprised by how well she spoke, but mildly surprised by her unabashed promotion of literary studies.
She regaled her captive audience with personal anecdotes, literary references and delightful fables (one in particular comes to memory about a frog who swam so hard to get out of a bucket of cream that he churned it into butter, enabling him to simply hop off the hardened surface—much like Acadians who have struggled to overcome obstacles despite seeming hopelessness).
She made obscure French literature accessible to the public by associating centuries-old stories with our current human condition. She not only described, but also demonstrated the importance of classic literature, novels, poems and plays, by making it relevant in her hour-long speech about Canada’s cultural history and three ocean coasts. As delightful as her talk was, I was left with questions about her persistent push for the study of literature.
I have a Ph.D. in comparative literature and am no stranger to either loving literature or being around people who casually reference obscure authors in everyday conversation. However, at Antonine Maillet’s talk I found myself looking around the room almost anxiously, gauging audience reaction. You see, I understand the relevance of literature and poetry, but novels and poems are no longer dominant forms of media among the general public. Getting a degree in literature is considered by some to be career suicide. Trying to be a career writer of classic literature will probably leave you poverty-stricken.
Don’t get me wrong, I wish pursuing literary studies and writing were lucrative. But there is a reason why Virgina Woolf wrote the famous words, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”: even those for whom literature is a life force must admit that in a practical sense, it can drain your resources.
I loved Antonine Maillet’s lecture and I relate to everything she said. But I wonder what form common story-telling will take in the future—if not novels and poetry, will it be chronicles of Youtube stars, web series, online fanfiction? Who are the raconteurs of tomorrow and what shape will their stories take? I hope that Antonine Maillet’s message does not necessarily result in more English B.A.’s, but rather in creative story-telling “entrepreneurs” who are aware of societal trends, and who express the human condition just as eloquently as Rabelais, but by way of modern means—for the protection of their own career and finances.
- Natalie Pendergast, Ph.D., of Oyster Bed Bridge, works as a communications officer in Prince Edward Island. She shares her unique perspective as an anglophone working in the francophone community with Journal Pioneer readers, and reflects on current affairs pertaining to la francophonie in her bi-weekly column.