Abby talks Les Filles du Qoui?
May 31, 2022
photo courtesy of Sarah Sarty
The Origins of Abby Paige's Les Filles du QUOI?
The play began with the very practical question of whether I could somehow present my previous work about French-Canadian culture in New England to an audience in Canada.
My first solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, commissioned for the 2009 Champlain Quadricentennial in Burlington, talks about the legacy of French-Canadian immigration to Vermont. But the show really speaks to New Englanders and takes for granted certain ideas about history, language, and identity that we don’t have in common with Canadians.
So at first I was thinking about context, and about how to speak to Canadians about Franco-American history, and I realized that I would very have different things to say to French- and English-Canadians.
In Canada, the culture is very divided along linguistic lines. There are French TV and movies and English TV and movies, French radio and English radio, French theater and English theater. In many places, and particularly in the Maritimes, where I was living, there is open hostility toward French, and in many francophone communities there is understandable distrust toward English- speakers.
Was there a way to make something that would just ignore that binary?
That question set into motion one of the primary dynamics in my creative practice, which is that if I catch myself dismissing something as impossible, I have to attempt it.
In this case, I said to myself, I’ll never be fluent enough to perform in French.
When I hear “never,” some perverse, defiant part of myself sits up and says, Well now I Must.
The question changes to what would it be like? What would it be like to perform with the French I have? What if impossibility is actually just fear?
So I started imagining playing a francophone character, but I also started to question what a bilingual show might mean, what kind of experience it might offer to an audience.
I often think of my work as being in conversation with my ancestors’ work, my ancestors who did domestic work and mill work and factory work and farm work. Many of them spoke French, and like most immigrants, most of them spent some time in that place between languages, where you miss part of the plot, where you’re smiling and nodding, but inside your heart is beating fast because you’re not sure what’s going on, and you are so vulnerable. What would it be like to give an audience a taste of that?
White people often choose to “converse” with our ancestors in problematic ways. Les filles du roi were a group of about 800 women who were recruited by King Louis XIV to travel to New France between 1663 and 1673 in order to grow the European population of the colony. Today, it is a point of pride among many people to trace their heritage to one of these women, the same way there is special prestige among descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in tracing one’s ancestors to the Mayflower.
I named the show Les filles du QUOI? because I am interested in what we’re up to when we pursue this kind of narrative for our ancestors, and by extension, ourselves.
James Baldwin said,
"People who imagine that history flatters them are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
I’m interested in sliding off that pin and seeing what other histories we can imagine.
My own experience of my heritage and identity were deeply transformed by living as an immigrant in the country of my ancestors. Les filles du quoi? grew out of that experience: my frustration with Canadian language politics, the isolation of early motherhood, and the invisibility of Franco-American history on both sides of the border.
Ultimately, the show is about the borderlands of identity. Our sense of self shifts when we cross a boundary between countries, between languages, and also, in some sense, between times.
The poet Alice Notley says,
“I want to go as far back in time as / will comfort by causing my life not to have been. / But can never get far enough.”
I want to understand where I come, beyond genetics, beyond genealogy, beyond history. Notley calls it “geology.” Brian Eno calls it “a bigger here” and “a longer now.”