Oration | Address to Convocation
Memorial conferred an honorary doctorate on Acadian novelist and playwright Antonine Maillet at the fall convocation on Oct. 20, 2000.
Since the publication of her first novel in 1958, Dr. Maillet has become a prolific and critically-acclaimed writer, publishing more than a dozen novels and as many plays, a number of which have been translated into English.
In the 1970s, she taught folklore and literature at Laval and Montreal universities and later taught at American universities.
Born in the Acadian community of Bouctouche, New Brunswick, Dr. Maillet studied at the Université de Moncton, completing a BA and later an MA with a thesis on Gabrielle Roy. She continued her studies at the Université Laval, earning a PhD in literature in 1970. Her dissertation, Rabelais et les traditions populaires en Acadie, catalogued over 500 archaic phrases and figures of speech from 16th century French that are still used in the Acadian communities of Canada's Eastern provinces.
In much of her writing, Dr. Maillet recounts the stories of the Acadian people in their own unique dialect. Her 1971 play La Sagouine, comprised of a series of dramatic monologues by an old Acadian washerwoman, introduced Acadian culture and language to a wide audience. The play was performed in both French and English throughout North America and Europe and the written text sold more than 100,000 copies.
Her next published work, Don L'Orignal (1972) also received an enthusiastic response from readers and critics, winning Dr. Maillet the 1972 Governor General's Award for Fiction (French). She continued to write novels and plays throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, publishing her most recent novel Chronique d'une sorcière de vent in 1999.
Dr. Maillet has received many honours, including the Prix Goncourt (1979), Grand Prix littéraire de la ville de Montréal (1973), Le Prix Québec-Paris (1975), and more than 25 honorary doctorates. She has been named a Companion of the Order of Canada (1976), an Officier des Arts et des Lettres de France (1985), an Officer of the Ordre National du Québec (1990), and is a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.
Oration in honour of Antonine Maillet
Shane O'Dea, University Orator
We, in this place, see ourselves as Newfoundland dogs: likeable, loyal and brave. Yet, perhaps, we should be seen as the codfish: hooked and gutted, salted and sold. Antonine Maillet would look at our history and then suggest we look at hers, the history of the Acadians, if we want a proper comparison to the fate of the cod. Having established themselves on the shores of the Fundy in the early 17th century, the Acadians developed a community and a culture until they were expelled by the English a century and a half later. It is the manner of their expulsion that would make them empathetic with our brother cod. A people quite distinct from the French who lived at Quebec or Louisbourg, the Acadians maintained a strict neutrality in the French-English conflicts.
Their principal commercial contact was with Boston and that connection was so influential that Frontenac, Governor of New France, was driven to remark, a little acidulously, that the Acadians had developed something of a "parliamentary" attitude. This, unfortunately, did not provide protection from the English who saw them only as having a religion and a language in common with their enemy. In le Grand Dérangement the Acadians had their lands taken, their houses destroyed and, to compound the injury, their families broken up as many were sent on separate ships to exile in the Carolinas, Martinique or France.
While the expulsion was the definitive event in Acadian culture, Acadia is, and was, much more than this. It is, as Antonine Maillet has said, un pays qui n'est pas ... un pays, un pays qui est un peuple (a country which is not a country, a country which is a people). In the 17th century the Acadians developed a dialect that borrowed from Bordeaux as well as from the Basque country and also incorporated terms from the Mi'kmaq. There was, from the very beginning, a great degree of co-operation between the aboriginal inhabitants and the newcomers. Because the settlers were interested in farming, they did not interfere with the native pursuits. Many intermarried with the Mi'kmaq, adopting native survival strategies, foodways and customs. The real depth of this inter-relationship can be seen in the origin of the name of this land, l'Acadie. It is suggested that it may come from the rustic paradise, Arcadia, or from the Mi'kmaq, a-kaa-di-k (the place of the event). It might also be a happy marriage of both.
The strength and depth of this people and this land is represented here today - no, that is wrong, for "represented" only suggests a symbolic presence - is fully present here today in Antonine Maillet. Monsieur le Chancelier, elle est l'Acadie: son passé, son présent, son avenir. She is a monument that both speaks of and is Acadia. Now this sounds a bit like we are celebrating attributive megalomania. Not so. We are celebrating a monumental body of work: over 30 plays and novels, a major study of the roots of her culture and an academic career. And it goes beyond this, for her merit is more than quantitative. Look at the recognition she has received: the Governor General's Award in 1972, Le Prix Québec-Paris (1975), Companion of the Order of Canada (1976), Officier des Arts et des Lettres de France (1985), Officier de l'Ordre National du Québec (1990). Those awards are her badges of honour but when, in 1979, she won France's Prix Goncourt, one of the world's greatest literary prizes, she won it pour l'Acadie et pour nous, for all of us.
Mr. Chancellor, we should really think of her as one of her own heroines - possibly not her prostitute turned charwoman, La Sagouine, but as Pélagie la Charette, the central character of her novel about the Acadian's 10-year trek north from exile. Pélagie, too, is a monumental figure - keeping her exiles together, sustaining a sense of the homeland and always warring against the negative forces that would destroy her people. I present to you, Mr. Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa) one who has taken from her history a sense of building and belonging, of co-operating and creating; a writer who has built a nation in the words of her art, Antonine Maillet.
Address to convocation
by Dr. Antoine Maillet
Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Chairman of the Board of Regents, Mr. President, Mr. President of the Alumni Association, members of the Senate and faculty, members of the graduating class, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and, if you allow me, mesdames et messieurs.
That will be all in French, don't panic.
I hate to use, as a writer, conventional introductions. But there are a few words that belong here that may seem conventional because I feel so deeply. I am honoured, I am grateful, I'm pleased to be here, especially because you make me feel so much at home. I feel at home for all the reasons that you have heard Mr. O'Dea say a few minutes ago. Being an Acadian, I share with Newfoundlanders the sense of memory, of appartenance, of a natural culture, of something that we have in common and that we want to say to the rest of Canada -may Canada hear us! - and that is, we know who we are. If you ask a Toronto person, "Who are you?" his eyes will be glazed, he will stutter, he will hesitate, he will say a long sentence and finally end it with "...Canada." Same thing with Montreal and Quebec. But if you ask a Newfoundlander or an Acadian, "Who are you?" - we know who we are. We have memory, we have a history, we have something that really makes us what we are, and that for the country is very important. Most of all we are the founders of this land.
Now, being a writer, I'm also a storyteller, so allow me to tell you just a little story that might say more than all the words I could tell you. It's that of - and I'm saying this to the people that were here at the dinner last night, I'm not going to repeat the same story I gave you last night, that of the little mice. No, this is a story of two frogs that fell in a bowl of milk, maybe cream. They were frogs from here. Now imagine a frog in a bowl of milk or cream. How do you get out of there?
There is no way, no ladder, no nothing, so one frog said, "There is nothing I can do! I'm going to die, I'm going to drown. At least I'll drown in cream, so that's not that bad, but I can't make it." And so the little frog just let herself go and drowned. The other little frog said, "Okay, I know I'm going to die; that's my fate, but at least I'm going to oppose this bowl of cream with a good fight. I'm going to swim, I'm going to battle, I'm not going to let myself go that easily." And there goes the little frog swimming, battling, fighting, and awakening the next morning sitting on a chunk of butter. The little frog had invented the churn. La petite grenouille invente la baratter.
Now we all descend from that little frog, otherwise we wouldn't be here; that's part of evolution. We are here because we descend from one that survived. We are survivors of a survivor who fought. I think this is a story of your country and mine, or your people and mine, maybe of the whole of the country. We are survivors from the big bang. In fact, we were there already. We had to go through the whole of evolution. (Of course, I still remember, when I swim, the time when I was a fish.) Yes, we went through all that. And we had to go through the monkey; some are still not that far away from it; I include myself. We went from Adam and Eve, or whoever was at the beginning, through so many ordeals.
I know that true story of a man named Oliver who came out of deportation, le Grand Dérangement, and who established himself; in fact, there is a descendant of Oliver three generations later in Le fond de la baie; that's between Halifax and Montreal. Well, when he built his house there was a little river, what we call a barachois (which is a fiord, but a small one) right by his house, and the neighbours came to help. Suddenly a man saw something floating in that little river. He didn't know what kind of a ball that was, and he went to pick it up: It was a little boy of two years old. And so they brought him back to life. He was going down for the third time; you people of the sea, you know what that means - not coming back for the fourth - and so they brought him back to life. That little boy, just one second from disappearing, got older, gave birth to Leonide; his name, that little boy's name, was Thade, and he gave life to Leonide, my father. Which means that my life stands just this far from not existing.
Well, imagine all of your lives from Adam and Eve until today, all of the combinations, if you're a mathematician, to the end results, how many chances you have had to not exist. Just my father marrying my mother - and we are here instead of somebody else. Somebody else waiting, saying, "If I only had existence, boy, what would I do with my life!"
We are the lucky ones. We won the lottery. Now what are we going to do with it? I don't need to tell you about all the luck you have had in life. The luck of being born here, being born in this time, this spacio-temporelle, which is a great moment and a great place. But the mere luck of being alive - that is something that you're going to carry with your diploma and say forever, "Every time I wake up, I look: thesun is there for me, the sea is there for me, the world is there for me, but it's not there for the ones who were never born."
After that you have a diploma, go and give back to the world something to remember you, do something in science, in medicine, in arts, in social work, in everything. Do something so that the world will remember and be grateful that you are alive, and not the baby brother who was never born. I want to tell you that I'm not only happy to be born, I'm happy to live now, to live here and to be able to tell the rest of the country that this country has a lot of assets, among others to have the possibility of being bilingual, bicultural, multicultural. To be open to others, to have a quality of life that makes everybody envy us. So whenever we feel depressed because the wind was blowing hard last night, well, we can say it might blow us as far as to the end of the world, where we will tell everybody this is a great time to be born, this is a great place to live, and it's not true that "This world is a bowl of cherries; what am I doing in the pit?" We're not in the pit, we're in the bowl of cherries. Or another saying, "Stop the world, I want to get off."
Don't get off before you have had the time to tell yourself and tell the world that you have won the lottery.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland