Also known as: Elise Turcotte
Birth: 1957 in Sorel, Canada
Occupation: poet, novelist
Biographical Essay: For years, Élise Turcotte may have been Quebec's best-kept literary secret. As a children's writer and a poet and novelist, she had published an impressive body of work. But because her first language is French, her writing was virtually unknown outside her home province.
In 2003, however, two events propelled her onto the national literary scene.
The first was the publication--to rave reviews--of an English translation of her second novel, L'lle de la merci; the second was the Governor General's Award bestowed on her third novel, La Maison étrangère.
Suddenly, the secret was out, and English-speaking literati were clamouring to find out more about this author, who was born in Sorel, Quebec, in 1957.
Turcotte started her literary career as a poet, supporting herself by teaching creative writing at a Montreal CEGEP, a collège d'enseignement général et professionel. In Quebec, CEGEPs serve as an intermediate step between high school and university.
During this time, Turcotte published a number of children's books, as well as several prize-winning volumes of poetry--and began to hone the deceptively simple style that has become the hallmark of her work.
In the past 15 years, she has successfully transferred this spare, minimalist approach to a short-story collection, Caravane, and three novels for adults: Le Bruit des choses vivantes, L'lle de la merci and La Maison étrangère. All have illuminated questions that plague her troubled characters-and intrigue readers. "The moments that are interesting to me are those when someone loses something, where the reference points change," Turcotte told Pascale Navarro of Voir.
Through the 1980s, a steady stream of children's books and poetic works established Turcotte's reputation in Quebec as a writer of rare sensitivity and grace, but she remained largely unknown in the rest of Canada. Then, in 1991, she published her first novel, Le Bruit des choses vivantes. The book, which told the story of a single mother and her young daughter and their pursuit of a life of the imagination, won the Prix Louis-Hémon.
This award, one of the most prestigious for Quebec writers, sparked the interest of Cormorant Books, and in 1993, Le Bruit des choses vivantes was published in English as The Sound of Living Things. Though the translation attracted modest attention in English Canada, it would be another 10 years before Turcotte's name became widely known in the rest of the country.
In the meantime, Turcotte published a short-story collection, Caravane, in 1994 and a second novel, L'lle de la merci, in 1997. In mid-2003, Cormorant Books published The Body's Place, a translation of L'lle de la merci-and this time, English reviewers sat up and took notice of this new voice from Quebec.
The book tells the chilling story of Hélène, a Montreal teenager whose classmate is brutally raped, murdered and left under some brush on the l'lle de la merci in the St. Lawrence River. As Hélène becomes obsessed with how the dead girl must have felt about what was happening to her, she tries to deal with her own sense of alienation from her family and her awakening sexuality.
The book was embraced by English-speaking reviewers. "Turcotte ... has created a shimmering surface that moves in and out of concreteness and abstraction," wrote Geoff Hancock of The Globe and Mail. "She adroitly catches the mind of a teen, and the burden on a community in emotional turmoil. She has subtle insights into the mind of children and how the world impinges on them with too much news, too much information and not enough love even 'in small doses.'"
Later in 2003, La Maison étrangère, Turcotte's third novel, won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in French. And a little more than a year after that, Cormorant published The Alien House, an English translation of the book, to rave reviews.
Once again, Turcotte's story mined themes of alienation. The novel focuses on Élisabeth, a fortysomething scholar whose specialty is depictions of the body in medieval art and literature. As the story begins, Élisabeth's lover of six years has left her without explanation, and as she tries to understand this loss, she begins to recognize her alienation from her own body, the alien house of the book's title.
As Élisabeth explores her attitude toward her body, she does find a kind of enlightenment. "In the second part of the novel," Turcotte told Navarro, "I worked a lot on the body and on the motif of the embrace of love in particular. It is through this that the woman gets the closest to herself ... because I think that when you are in the ecstasy of love, the part of yourself that expresses this, that you give of yourself the most, is that which is outside your 'social personality'; it is truly your being, the indecipherable aspect of yourself, of the soul, that you give from."
Critics were unanimous in their praise of The Alien House. "Turcotte's novel resembles a tapestry, weaving repeating images together to create a beautiful and intricate fabric," wrote Ilana Stanger-Ross of The Globe and Mail. And Elizabeth Mitchell of the Toronto Star wrote: "The words suck you in and the narrative seems to step aside to make room for the many thoughts clamouring for attention ... Turcotte presents a peek at the ambiguous nature of love: how we detest and insult it; how we long for it; and how we continuously fail to recognize what is all around us."
All three of Turcotte's novels were translated into English by Sheila Fischman, who has also translated the works of other contemporary Quebec writers, such as Marie-Claire Blais, Roch Carrier, Anne Hébert and Michel Tremblay. Fischman, who has won a slew of awards, including the 1998 Governor General's Literary Award for her translation of Tremblay's Bambi and Me, has been praised for her sensitivity in transforming Turcotte's words into English.
"Under the expert hands of translator Sheila Fischman, Turcotte's prose wraps around the ordinary, giving it an opulence and weight that often gets missed in the rush of the day to day," wrote Mitchell.
Though Turcotte writes in French, she rejects any suggestion that her sensibility is European; rather, she views herself as a North American and believes that using French, a minority language in the North American context, gives her a certain artistic freedom. "I feel I belong in America," she told Déclic, a French magazine. "I am a North American who speaks French ... The force of the American territory gives force to my writing. It gives my writing its specificity and modernity. Canadian French is undoubtedly the language of freedom."
Because she started as a poet, Turcotte is highly attuned to the sound of language. And whether she is writing poetry or prose, she is always aware of the effect of the words on the page. "I say aloud the words I write to perceive the rhythms," she told Déclic. "There must be an appropriateness between what one wants to say and the sentence."
Like Élisabeth in La Maison étrangère, Turcotte has endured her own journey of self-discovery. "I admit to having gone through a pretty dark period myself a few years ago," she told Navarro. "It was at that time that I wrote my poetry collection, Sombre Ménagerie. But I believe that it's unnecessary to fear going to the bottom of yourself to find a little light." It is this light that illuminates the questions Turcotte raises in her novels.
Personal Information: Two children. Education: M.A., literature; Ph.D., creative writing. Addresses: Publisher--Leméac Editeur Inc., 4609 Rue d'IberPublisherville, Montreal, QC, Canada H2H 2L9.
Awards: Prix Émile-Nelligan, 1987, for La Voix de Carla; Prix Émile-Nelligan, 1989, for La Terre est ici; Prix Louis-Hémon, 1991, for Le Bruit des choses vivantes (The Sound of Living Things); Grand Prix du Festival internationale de la poésie, 2002, for Sombre Ménagerie; Prix de poésie Terrasses Saint-sulpice de la revue Estuaire, 2002, for Sombre Ménagerie; Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (French), 2003, for La Maison étrangère (The Alien House).
Career: Teaches literature at Cégep du Vieux Montréal; published several poetry collections, including La Voix de Carla, La Terre est ici and Sombre Ménagerie; published first novel, Le Bruit des choses vivantes (The Sound of Living Things), 1991; subsequently published short-story collection, Caravane, and two more novels, L'lle de la merci (The Body's Place), 1997, and La Maison étrangère (The Alien House), 2002; has also published several children's books, including Mes Animaux and Ma Famille.
SOURCE CITATION "Élise Turcotte." Biography Resource Center Online. Gale, 2005.
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