Writing was not Marie-Hélène Voyer’s greatest ambition, because she saw herself above all as a reader. It was boredom and the slack period of the pandemic that led him to write two books in parallel: the essay L’habitue des ruins – the coronation of oblivion and ugliness in Quebec and the collection of poetry Mouron the fields. With the result that these two titles, a rare thing in a writing career, are now in the running for the next Booksellers’ Prize in the essay and poetry categories. A double, what.
“I’m very touched and at the same time, I don’t think about it too much, it’s a little unreal, so it protects me against the big head,” says the 40-year-old author and mother of three. and professor of literature at the Cégep de Rimouski, while we are doing our interview virtually, because neither of them could make the Montreal-Rimouski trip.
For my part, I am not surprised by this double. What I love most about this profession that I have been practicing for 20 years is coming across a new voice that convinces me in a few pages that it will never leave my life. The habit of ruins is a vibrant plea for the protection of our heritage that sometimes borders on the pamphlet – she discovered with the books of Pierre Falardeau that one could write “en crisse” -, while Pimpernel is a tribute poignant to the women of the rural world in which she grew up – in particular her mother, whom she lost too young, and in a tragic way. A suicide.
If I had not known that Marie-Hélène Voyer was born in 1982, I would have bet that she was much older, so solid is her writing and her language, tinged with the influences of poets like Miron or Saint-Denys Garneau and the speech of the people of his world.
What a strange irony, all the same, for the one who dreamed of setting fire to the family farm when she was a child. Like many young people who grew up in the regions before the internet, Marie-Hélène Voyer felt like she was dying of boredom in her corner of Quebec and dreamed of great culture. She picked up the Macadam Tribu program on the radio despite the frying and begged for increased borrowing from the library to stock up on books before the weekends.
During her studies in literature in Quebec, the family farm was destroyed by fire, as she had wished in her childhood. And it was this loss that made him realize his attachment to his roots. There was nothing left but writing to reconnect with his memories and his origins. “It’s a very belated reconciliation with that founding boredom that I think made me, ultimately. I feel like it took a great loss for me to realize that this was the breeding ground for everything I was. Everything I hated, all the incantations I made for this place to disappear, it was a prophecy, after all. I think that I live better than ever in these territories of my childhood since I revisit them through writing. The characters who have inhabited these places too. I call them characters on purpose, because they were larger than life good men and women who raised me and showed me everything. »
In particular her father, a great storyteller and an avid reader, who is in the process of typing the entire catalog of La Peuplade where his daughter is published, and who rereads Anna Karenina once a year. In Pimpernel, she says that when she confided in her mother her desire to do “long studies”, she replied: “Life will put you in your place”. Far from resenting him, she understood.
For Marie-Hélène Voyer, there is no beauty without a story. “It’s what made my view of the world,” she says. One of the most annoying things about my childhood was when on Sunday afternoons my dad would make me take him for rides in a pickup truck through the rows listening to country music. We passed in front of the houses and he told me about each of them. Ultimately, for me, that’s what’s beautiful. Anything that is crossed by different stories, anything that has a depth of stories, in the plural. Like Michel Garneau’s little childhood stories in L’hiver, hier. My entire library could burn that if I kept Winter, Yesterday, I wouldn’t miss anything because it’s all there, in the way of telling a place. For me, it touches the essence of beauty. »
We understand better why she defends so fiercely the idea of heritage, in this province where every week, we hear horror stories about it. Because by demolishing in the most total indifference of historic places and buildings, it is also stories and memory that are confiscated, most of the time for simple profit. In The Habit of Ruins, she writes this about the wealthy suburbs where replicas of castles are built: “We raze ancestral agricultural landscapes, we demolish authentic heritage houses, precious and irreplaceable traces of our history, all that to build something new that mimics the old; we demolish our architectural heritage, symbol of our origins, but above all testimony to the inventiveness of our ancestors in terms of adapting to the rigors of the territory, to build something new that mimics the elsewhere. »
Marie-Hélène Voyer has no desire to glorify the past or to say that “it was better before”. It is in fact against voluntary amnesia and the rampage that she rises up. “I believe I have a desire for loyalty, not petrification. Of respect by thinking of those who preceded us, quite simply. Also a kind of fed up with these speeches where we pride ourselves on wanting to recycle everything and to do in sustainable development. It seems that heritage is impervious to all these issues of recycling, recovery, and that it is more the discourse of what-for-good or too-late that prevails over the rest. I believe more in the stories that places carry, which are not empty shells, than in a monumental past or a “great” story. That’s the most precious thing, from my point of view. »
From mine, I will welcome all the stories that Marie-Hélène Voyer wants to write, because I find them so beautiful, so essential. Good news: this is the furrow that she will continue to dig, if she has not taken up the torch of farming, which makes me believe that writers have the task of being sowers.
It also makes me smile that a pure-bred Montrealer like me is so excited about what a girl from Bic writes who rarely leaves her corner. I think this is because the heritage crisis, like the housing crisis and the climate crisis, is happening across Quebec. And that our destinies are all linked to these issues.
I’m not very picky, and I’m not going to pretend to be a great connoisseur. Me, a coffee, as long as it does its coffee job, I’m happy.
Jacques Ferron, that’s for sure. If I could donate a kidney for him to come back, I think I would. Michel Garneau, Pierre Perrault… I know it’s not equal, I would have to appoint women, but what do you want, I come from a world of good men.