Dr. Genevieve Brassard has garnered the title of resident Anglophile in the cozy nook of the English department. During her lectures and office hours students are imbued with her love for 20th century British literature, which seems to run deeper than the roots of her favorite authors. She always takes the time to appreciate the complex and universal range of emotions Woolf, Hardy, and Austen force readers to wade through. She views British authors as teachers for life, not just literature, and instills this virtue of emotional language in her students.
Her not-so-recent keynote speech for Sigma Tau Delta’s induction ceremony charges us students to sit in our present emotions and situations, no matter how far off they are from the so-called normal. Her own circuitous journey serves as an antidote for those who feel they need to have it all figured out before taking the next step.
Like the comforting conversation of your wisest, kindest relative, Dr. Brassard urges us to know ourselves, assuring all types of students that taking the long way will always serve them better in the long run. Today she teaches a version of her favorite undergraduate class– talk about living proof.
“Living with the Imposter Syndrome, or, Snapshots of a Life in Books, Places, and People”
-Dr. Genevieve Brassard
When Caroline invited me to offer remarks to you for this lovely occasion, my first response was “please ask someone else!” Public speaking, even in a relatively intimate setting like this one, is not really my thing, and I thought other colleagues would be more poised and assured candidates to address you. But then I thought, I do have a few stories to tell, and narrative is my preferred literary genre, so perhaps I could come up with anecdotes to illustrate my lifelong passion for books and stories. So, as Dr. Larson described my proposed topic as being ‘raised by books’ (a fairly accurate phrase), and a few days after our very own Sasha’s evocatively titled capstone presentation “Reading into Personhood” on Founders’ Day (I’m kind of stealing/borrowing from the best here!), I offer to you some of the key books and people that raised me in some way.
As many of you know, I grew up in Quebec City, and the culture that formed my early passions was hybrid in the best sense, with a mix of French singers and films, American TV shows and movies, gossip about the British royal family, and some homegrown artists thrown into the mix as well (Celine Dion, anyone?!). I was exposed to both French and British literary traditions, and an avid consumer and researcher of the histories of both nations (perhaps because Canadian history as taught at the time was pretty boring…), and yet when it came to literature, I quickly went down the British path and have never really kept up with French authors. For that choice I blame Jane Eyre; I read it in French translation at age 11, and it left a deep impression I reconnect with every rereading. At a simple level, as an only child of divorced parents busy with their own lives, I surely related to the poor misunderstood girl (although of course our circumstances were obviously quite different!). On another level, I probably recognized and appreciated her fiery desire to forge her own path and her arguably proto-feminist stance. The book of course also led me to biographies of the Bronte sisters, and later to a pilgrimage to the parsonage in Yorkshire where they crafted their works, and where the setting itself goes a long way toward explaining much of the tensions between wilderness and culture their novels explore. Ultimately, Jane Eyre established my lifelong bond to British writers, and perhaps inevitably, because I did not encounter this and other texts in the original, language was not the main hook for me: the emotional trajectories of the characters were the most significant factor, and continue to be to this day, even though I grew to appreciate language and form as my English skills developed and I began to read my favorites (Austen and Woolf, primarily), in their native tongues.
When I first attended college in Quebec, I signed up for my first literature class in English. Again, one text in particular blew my mind and not only introduced a new favorite author to discover and cherish, but more significantly how much psychological and cultural work a deceptively simple short story can perform on its readers. The story was “Roman Fever,” by Edith Wharton; I won’t ruin the twist for those of you who may not have read it, but I think I was able for the first time to recognize the artistry and knowledge of human psychology that goes into the craft of fiction through the subtle way Wharton builds conflict between two seemingly sophisticated matrons whose youthful passions and secrets eventually break the smooth surface of their good manners, and of the narrative. Wharton taught me that literature could reveal and expose deep and dark truths about human nature, and I still seek and crave those effects in much of the literature I read and teach.
A year later, at Concordia University in Montreal (incidentally Dr. Swidzinski’s alma mater…), I took a year-long course on the ‘Victorian Novel and Social Change,’ taught by dynamic and generous professor who not only turn me on to some favorite authors and texts, but also patiently guided me as I learned to write decent essays in a still hesitant English. Reading those thick books was no picnic, but two in particular made their mark, most likely because I labored over essays about them, and as we know, writing about a text attaches you to it forever. From Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, I learned that the novel could be grand in scope yet precise and almost surgical in its close examination of human frailty, and that the aspirations of obscure inhabitants of small English towns not only deserve careful attention and respect, but also could resonate, somehow, with a young woman living a very different existence many years later. What I responded to most in these and other richly imagined fictional worlds was their emotional and intellectual truths, and I still crave the same kind of storytelling ‘kick’ in everything I read to this day.
Flash forward a few years and many miles west, where I briefly pursued a dream of working in movies by moving to the dream factory itself, Los Angeles. My love of film may have briefly distracted me from my lifelong connection to books, but even there I gravitated toward literary settings. I managed a bookstore where film and TV stars were regular customers, and I also worked at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which housed countless newspaper clippings (remember those?!), photos, and film scripts. At the bookstore, a co-worker freshly graduated from Brown and slumming it in retail while working on the Great American Novel, remarked one day in passing that my literary judgments lacked rigor because I didn’t have a college degree. Sadly, his words still rang in my ears a few years later when I returned to school to complete my degree (I will show him!…). At the Academy library, I was surrounded by smart, under-employed people who all aspired to add more impressive titles to their resumes: screenwriter, film critic, director. Through sheer serendipity, another book caught my eye then and had such an effect on me that it precipitated my resolution to go back to school. Reading The Day of the Locust, by Nathaniel West, a sad tale of washed-out has-beens and never-have-beens, those left behind by an industry that celebrates the few and destroys the many, while surrounded by aspiring film artists who would most likely not succeed, snapped me back to reality and the need to shelve unrealistic dreams and move toward a more viable career path.
I then returned to school as a first generation, non-traditional student, and in those two years I was blessed with a pair of professors who affirmed my desire to continue learning from books in the more formal setting of graduate school, however unlikely that goal seemed at the time. And again, the first step toward graduate research began with a book. Browsing in a used bookstore in LA (and let me say here that yes, LA at the time was filled with great bookstores and yes, browsing actual shelves in a physical store is a wondrous thing that Amazon can’t ever replace), as I was saying, I came across a slim volume. It was a biography of Vera Brittain, a young woman of privilege whose life was transformed by the First World War, a war that not only killed her brother and her fiancé, but also made her into a writer, one of many women who discovered their voice and bore witness to wartime horrors, both at home and at the front, in both physical and psychological forms. Why did I grab that particular book that day, apart from a general curiosity about the topic? I’ll never know, but it became the starting point of my doctoral research, years after that momentous encounter in a used bookstore.
So now you know how a French-speaking introvert somehow ended up teaching literature in English many miles from home, after a few detours, many life-changing books, and great mentors along the way. Let me close with my attempt at a few bits of wisdom:
Thank your good fortune, your own hard work, and your parents’ or relatives’ hard work, for being here, today, at this university, pursuing this major that you care about, students of words, plots, and ‘ink people,’ as Jonathan Gottschall puts it in The Storytelling Animal, and try not to take this good fortune for granted, even at the busiest and most tiresome parts of the semester. You never know what small moment or encounter (with a book or a person) will lead you to the next phase in your journey. No matter where you end up, your love of reading will stay with you, and enrich your life in ways you may not yet imagine. And if you do end up in academia, remember that everyone has a story, and most people never feel like they truly belong or deserving, if they are honest. Incidentally, that Brown graduate never wrote the Great American Novel, but after years of plying his trade on second-rate TV shows (thanks for the stalking resource, IMDB!), he is now the award-winning writer/producer of the Handmaid’s Tale adaptation on Hulu and yes, I’m happy for him, I really am. 🙂