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May 6, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

How To Make Love to an English Girl Without Getting Frostbite

Next week, I’m going back to where it all began. When I was 18, I made the unorthodox choice to go to a French university (Université de Sherbrooke) to study English. It was a volatile time in Quebec, with emotions still running high after the 1995 Referendum. I grew up in the West Island, the English part of the island of Montreal. When Jacques Parizeau famously said that it was “the rich and the immigrants’ fault” that Quebec was still a part of Canada, he was, in theory, referring to me. Rich in Quebec is code for English.

It is in the shadow of these events that I decided that I would leave Montreal and an opportunity to study in a prestigious program in order to become a part of a small program at a lesser-known (in English, in any case) university. “They’re all going to hate you,” my friends told me. Other shook they heads, convinced I was wasting my intellect and throwing away future career possibilities by going to a “lesser” (read: French) institution. I was stubborn and I was stuck: I needed to get out of my house and away from my life in Montreal, but I couldn’t afford to leave the province because of my reliance on student loans (which are only good in your home province). So off to Sherbrooke I went.

I was the English Girl, “l’Anglaise”. I was an a source of curiosity, an anomaly, and, dare I say, exotic. Everyone on campus knew who I was. Many of my classmates had never met a “real” English person before, let alone an English person from Quebec; it was like we were these mythical boogeymen used to scare the Québécois into turning out to vote in Referendums, Provincial, and Federal elections. Often, they heard stories from their grandparents about the mean English boss or the handful of rich English families who used to own and run the mines, power plants, mills, and smelters. Stereotypes abounded. One I consistently heard that I didn’t understand until much later was that I wasn’t cold at all: “Tu n’es pas froide du tout.”

English women were seen being frigid as a result of long-standing class and religious conventions and assumptions. If you’ve ever seen the Monty Python sketches from The Meaning of Life illustrating the difference between the (Irish) Catholics and the (English) Protestants, you’ll understand. Note how the title card of the Catholic part identifies it as “The Third World.” This attitude permeated Quebec language, religious, and social attitudes. But while “proper” English men have always sought the company of “lower” women (and my experience in Sherbrooke was no exception; rich frat boys from the small English college a few miles away would often come into town looking to score with “easy” or “dirty” French girls), rarely were English girls out looking for a good time with French boys.

Hence, English women were frigid (and again, if we weren’t, then our men wouldn’t come looking for comfort in the arms of French girls).  It only occurred to me much later that my own grandmother was a source of the stereotype. She grew up English and relatively privileged in a French part of the province; her father famously had a Duplessis party membership card, basically a get-out-jail-free card for the Premiere’s trusted lieutenants, a card that was hard to come by, English or French. She told me stories about how she remained unmoved by the insults the French boys would hurl at her, unimpressed by the advances of young French soldiers, attempting to seduce her with talk of imminent war and possible death. She was the picture of proper Protestant restraint, as mocked by Monty Python above.

I look exactly like her. I was nothing like her.

Dany’s first novel, the first novel of his I read, Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer, spoke to me in many different ways. I read it just as I was about to leave Sherbrooke to do my PhD at the University of Alberta. I loved how subversive, playful, and unexpected he was. When he disrupted our expectations, based on stereotypes, I reflected back on my own experience upsetting expectations and stereotypes. I was exotic for many of campus. There were too many nights at the bar that were spent explaining to drunk guys who I was, why I was there, and that I would indeed help them practice their English. Later. During the day. When sober. I dated a lot of French guys who warned me not to reveal that I was, in fact, Protestant at family gatherings. Grandma might be able to accept that I was English, but being Protestant would not stand.

Is this at the same level of the racism and discrimination that Dany writes about in his novel? No. But if Dany can find inspiration from Basho, a Japanese poet who wrote over 400 years ago (Je suis un écrivain Japonais), I can certainly do the same through his writing. I go back next week to where it all started. And I reflect and remember.


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