|Anthology of French stories resurrects three women
writers and their Franco-American heritage
By BDN Staff
Monday, May 14, 2007 - Bangor Daily News
By Melissa MacCrae
"CANUCK & OTHER STORIES," edited by Rhea Cote Robbins. Translated by Sylvie Charron, Ph.D.; Sue Huseman, Ph.D.; Jeannine Bacon Roy and Madeleine C. Pare Roy. 2006, Rheta Press. $18.99
Stories by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Orne Jewett and other English-speaking women writers are still read and studied today, years after the deaths of their authors. Yet, writings by Frenchwomen Camille Lessard Bissonnette, Alberte Gastonguay and Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau have escaped notice by most people, particularly those who neither read nor speak French.
"Theirs are silenced voices that need to be heard," said Rhea Cote Robbins, founder and director of the Franco-American Women’s Institute. To that end, she has published a translated anthology of rare French language stories that resurrects three women writers and their Franco-American heritage.
While she prepared to teach a class at the University of Maine on Franco-American women’s experiences a few years ago, Cote Robbins immersed herself in the Franco-American literary tradition and emerged with a deeper understanding of women’s lives and contributions to the settlement of New France (Canada), and the experiences of those who later immigrated to the U.S. seeking work in textile mills.
"Some of the books I read were written in French. I realized that these texts were the bridge to knowledge of the French heritage woman on the North American continent," Cote Robbins said. "I know I am not the only one who sometimes feels like an island of Franco-Americanism. I wanted others to be able to read these books."
Though she was raised in a home where both French and English were spoken, Cote Robbins didn’t want to tackle translation of the French stories; so she sought help in cyberspace. Her Internet posting read in part: "Translations are needed of several important and historical works of fiction by a body of Franco-American authors. … What is needed are translations of these works to accommodate many Franco-Americans who do not have access to the language due to the ravages of assimilation to which they were subjected."
The anthology features "Canuck" by Camille Lessard Bissonnette, first published in 1936; "Le Jeune Franco-Americaine," or "The Young Franco-American," by Alberte Gastonguay, first published in 1933; and "Francaises d’Amerique" or "Frenchwomen of North America," by Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau, a one-act play commissioned in 1915.
‘"Canuck and Other Stories’ is a repatriation of the literature of the Franco-American literary tradition. I had to be able to put it back into the hands of the culture and the state. It’s like a bridge from that era to today," Cote Robbins said. "These works contain a clue to recovering the lost generations of our forebears in literature."
Some of those nearly century-old works actually address such contemporary issues as domestic violence, equal pay, marriage and the family. "These women from the past were multitasking before we gave it a name," Cote Robbins said. "They could take care of others, and still stand up for themselves.
"The writers are role models of incredible proportions," she continued. "They valued hard work and family. It is my wish that people know about these writings and this history."
That history, however, is seldom — if ever — taught in schools, but it could help instill pride, particularly for Franco-American and other women students. In the preface of "French Women of North America," translated by Jeannine Bacon Roy, Corinne Rocheleau in 1915 writes, "We have often discussed the major feats and accomplishments of the French colonists, but we have left their ‘better halves’ in semi-darkness. I believe it is time to introduce these Frenchwomen pioneers. … The centuries have practically erased all traces of their footsteps on American soil."
Cote Robbins with help from her daughter, Bridget Robbins Grant,
the book’s four translators, and many volunteer typesetters and proofreaders
retraces those lost footsteps in this scholarly, yet engaging volume.
"‘Canuck’ is oral tradition put down on paper," Cote Robbins said. "This
is not your apple-pie Franco-American story. For me, it tells a truer story
of the culture. I hope people will teach this book."
"Canuck & Other Stories" is available online at www.rhetapress.com, the Maine Historical Society and through amazon.com.