Nancy Huston and the Art of Negotiating Strangeness

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,348 words

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[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Harrington discusses Huston’s bilingualism and its effect on the development of her literary style. Harrington also considers the implications of self-enforced exile, a condition Huston calls the feeling of “étrangéité,” or strangeness, and examines Huston’s assertion that living abroad and speaking a foreign language is similar to playing a role.]

Despite the fact that Nancy Huston settled in Paris over thirty years ago and has long since established a life for herself there, her work is permeated by the idea of literary and linguistic nomadism. A native of Western Canada, Huston claims that it was not until she experienced the feeling of “étrangéité” living in France, immersed in the French language and culture that she discovered her literary voice (Ploquin 6). Difficult to categorize on both a national and linguistic level, she has published extensively both novels and essays since she moved to France as a young woman in the 1970s. While she is a native speaker of English, Huston originally began writing in French and now translates all of her own work, from French to English or vice versa. Most notably in her non-fiction texts, she explores the uncertain position of living “entre-deux-langues” and the bilingual individual’s constantly evolving relationship with both his or her native and adoptive languages. Moreover, her work bears witness to the expatriate writer’s experience in which, with distance, loyalties and one’s relationship to one’s homeland inevitably change over time. Although writers like Samuel Beckett, Romain Gary, and Joseph Conrad were once considered exceptional cases of writers living outside of their country of origin and writing in a language other than their native one, Huston’s work suggests that this phenomenon is becoming more and more common. Her writing reaches out to a new generation of authors and individuals whose daily existence is framed in this same “étrangéité.” Huston affirms that her situation living and writing in two cultures and languages has been the single most important factor in shaping both her work and who she has become today:

Logiquement, si je voulais éviter l’inconfort de ces situations, je devrais m’installer quelque part et n’en plus bouger. Pourquoi alors est-ce que je suis toujours en transit, toujours en partance pour un pays étranger quelconque? Ce n’est pas, comme tu as l’air de le dire, parce que je suis souple et aventureuse. C’est un besoin. Le Voyage, par tous les moyens de transport possibles, forme la trame centrale de mes rêves heureux et malheureux depuis l’enfance.(Huston and Sebbar 183)Huston has invoked in numerous essays and interviews that when her mother abandoned her family when she was six years old, it was learning a foreign language that saved her. Her father’s second wife was German, and before they were to be married, Huston’s future stepmother took her to stay with her family in Germany for several months. There, she very quickly picked up the language and, as she explains, in doing so, discovered the possibilities, offered by a foreign language...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100117434