For the next few Wednesdays, I'll be featuring writers I like and how they hone their craft, use the internet, get writing ideas from life, and rake in the dough.
Rhea Côté-Robbins is a Maine author and Franco-American activist. Her first book, Wednesday's Child, chronicles the life of a young woman growing up in a mill town. She has since edited an anthology of early Franco-American women writers' translations, Canuck and Other Stories, and written a sequel to Wednesday's Child titled, 'down the Plains. Cote Robbins is a professor at the University of Maine in Franco-American Women's, Maine and University Studies. She's the Founder and Executive Director of the Franco-American Women's Institute and publishes the Franco-American News and Events blog (to which I occasionally contribute).
Your first book Wednesday's Child is a creative nonfiction memoir about what it was like growing up in a milltown. How does this straddle the divide of fiction and nonfiction? It seems like this would be a challenging first book to write in many ways.
I believe that there exists a Franco-American women's literary tradition, and whether we, as Franco-American women, know this or not, I believe that we participate in this written tradition. My own book, Wednesday's Child, came out of an event which happened in my girl days, 1969 to be exact, and at the moment of insight I decided to write my story so that others could understand what it was like growing up in the South End of Waterville. I was sixteen at the time and I knew that the story I wanted to tell was an important one and that the story deserved to be told. Now, many years passed before I did write the story, but the story only got better as a result of the wait. Like any art form, whatever life happens in the between times becomes a part of the ongoing, creative process.
The book was challenging because there is a myth that there is not a Franco-American literary tradition, and as a result, each and every Franco-American begins at square one. We are always having to re-tell the story, each and every one of us, of how we were discriminated against, and the story stays stuck there for many people. My idea is to create a literary movement so that more and more Franco-Americans come out of their writing/writer's closet and proclaim their independence to be artists in their own right/write.
The classic scenario is to isolate and create a feeling of the writer being all alone in their art. When, in reality, the opposite is the true state of affairs. If anything is difficult, I find getting past the barriers created by the myth of Maine that the only literature happening here is based in "yankee" ingenuity. Well, I believe there is so much more to the whole story than that, and I would like to see the story expanded and enlarged to encompass the Franco-American literary voices–which includes mine.
Wednesday's Child is taught at several universities and colleges as well as read in the community. I think this is an indication that the story remains important, alive and vital to the larger story plane of the continent.
How did you decide that the Franco-American female experience was the most powerful thing you could write about and ultimately dedicate your life to? I'm sure you could have written about a number of things.
The Franco-American culture workers over the past century and more have done much to contribute to our treasure trove of life experiences–something like an Everything in the Whole Wide World of Franco-American Interpretation Center…I was going to say museum, but museum connotes past tense. The Franco-Americans are not past tense. We do need interpretation, although. My thought on writing about the Franco-American female experience has to do with going deep into the meaning of the culture and what is usually hidden, kept from the public eye, secret, or overlooked is the definition of what does it mean to be Franco-American and female and living in the state of Maine. That, in fact, was my working question for my book. The working question kept me focused on what I wanted to examine in depth and write about. I am absolutely enthralled with the common, everyday aspects of our lives as Franco-American women. I take some of my inspiration of Laura Thatcher Ulrich and her examination of ordinary women's lives. She has studied the life of a dish towel–from growing flax to its final weaving and use, which takes over a year to make a dish towel from scratch by the way, and then she writes about this. I find that inspiring and fascinating. What I want told as an art form, not simply as stories about the good old days, and told in such a way that elevates the Franco-American story to the level of great literature. I think what it takes is attitude. And a good computer. And an agent. And a publisher. And book sales. And major prizes won. I want that for myself and for the Franco-American story about Franco-American women telling her own story.
You've had the Franco-American News and Events blog since before blogging got really big. How has the blogosphere and your audience changed over time?
Sometimes blogging feels like you are suspended in outer space talking out loud to yourself…you feel deliciously alone. And then, someone leaves a comment. Or, sends you an email suggesting a story I might have missed. And then they send more suggestions. And then they send links and stories. You realize someone is reading the material. Oh, oh, I'm not alone. I was hoping I was the stealth blogger and that no one was paying attention.
Jacques Boudreau who blogs/blogues from QC on the FA News and Events blog, was one of those folks who took notice of this little event happening in the blogosphere. So, I invited Jacques to go ahead and join the blogue and put up the pieces he was finding. He wanted to know, what about French articles? Sounds good to me. What happens is that the blogs capture the attention of folks from all over the world. So, lots of people have lots of time on their hands, I'm thinking, or, they resist
other temptations by cruising the internet blogs.
My first blog happened in March of 2003. A friend put me onto blogging. I think I suffer from a condition knows as loquaciousness; I have a surfeit of words and if I don't let them out somehow, I combust internally. My maman used to call me "the talking machine." I used to really bother people back in the day when letter writing was the way to chat and send them 10-page letters. It was very embarrassing. So, I found the joy of journaling and I am on my 130th+ volume; write everyday, and
that does not count the emails, blogs, etc. I don't watch much TV, although. But I do read many books in the course of a month. I think I am a word addict. Blogs are the proof that there are many like me out there; they may or may not know from what they suffer, but they are prac
ticing their addictions with fervor and a writer's religion.
Blogs, to me, are proof that we are all story makers.
Does your teaching inform your writing? Another UMO professor I interviewed has said that teaching has not necessarily helped her writing but has really helped her editing.
Teaching and writing are like editing and writing, for me. Two different worlds. And anything that is not me writing, or my writing, frankly, interferes with my writing. Keeps me from the act of writing. Now, above I said that all things feed into the act of creativity. But, at some point, you have to sit down and do the deed. I also find I don't necessarily want my student's writing voice in my head. Nor, do I want to be in the position to point out grammar errors. But that is part of the job and I do it, but I am very aware that I am not doing my own writing when I am teaching. I believe that time off from the teaching is a time when I don't want anyone else's voice in my head. I think because I am so "slayed in the soul" from someone else's work, that I take on their voice, etc. I don't just read a book; I live the book I'm reading. Comes from being a shy child perhaps?
What do you think most people misunderstand about Franco-Americans? How do you try to change this view with your writing and teaching?
Oh, boy. Big questions. One, I don't think Franco-Americans are dead, gone anywhere too far, nor out of touch with their culture. I think, if asked, or pushed, the surface scratched, the living blood proof of Franco-American is alive and present.
Two, I don't think Franco-Americans speak a bad French. They don't speak slang French. They don't speak a dialect. The Franco-Americans speak French. Just French without any adjectives. Trying to erase that myth might take a word bomb of sizable proportions. Some cataclysmic event equal to tip the linguistic universe on its ear to create a space for Franco-American French as a living language of a living people. To hear some folks say that they never hear French spoken in towns in
Maine must mean they have their ipods on or something. I hear French everywhere.
Three, Franco-Americans don't know their own stories, histories, writers, etc. They need to be more self-aware of the power of their stories.
Four, Franco-Americans love their priests and their nuns–religious and otherwise. They are used to being led and told what to do. I would like to see them aware of their "follower" status and change it to refusing to be led, especially when it comes to non-Francos telling Francos who the Francos are. Sounds harsh, but I think there needs to be a reckoning of the days when Franco-Americans could not speak for themselves, were spoken for, and we need to lose that habit fast. Especially the women. It is good to have the validation, we all need to support one another, but I do think that non-Francos could listen more to Francos instead of talk for them.
Five, since this is wish list time, to go with the above, Franco-American artists creating till we all fall down from the sheer weight of the outcome. And in some kind of concerted act of committing political act on behalf of all Franco-Americans.
I think the arts are the answer to what does it mean to be Franco-American because the arts are a language that many can understand.
Want to be a part of this series? If you get paid to write, you qualify! Email me and we'll talk!