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The past is personal

Exhibit revisits the forgotten controversy of one woman’s identity

In 1738, a Jewish woman named Esther Brandeau was arrested in New France for posing as a Christian man under the name Jacques La Fargue. Because citizenship in the colony was restricted to Catholics, Bardeau was subsequently deported back to France after she refused to convert to Catholicism. When poet and performance artist Heather Hermant first discovered Brandeau’s little-known story, she “was just blown away.” “It was instantly a queer story,” she explained. “[I started] wondering what it would have been like if I’d known this story my whole life.”

Hermant recognizes the potential pitfalls of “using twentieth century language for something that happened over 200 years ago,” but insists that identifying Brandeau as a “defiant female” and as “queer” was an important way to contextualize her own identity. “Everyone is looking for a precedent for themselves,” she explained.

This personal connection to the story set off Hermant’s obsessive research into Brandeau’s life. Now, five years later, the fruits of this labour will be witnessed on stage in “Ribcage this wide passage” – a performance piece that Hermant wrote and stars in herself.

“Ribcage” combines poetry, theatre, movement, and live-video installation to tell Brandeau’s story, all set to a live score by violinist Jason Freeman-Fox. Primarily self-identified as a spoken-word artist, Hermant explained that when she first began “Ribcage,” she assumed it would be mostly composed of poetry. But as she delved deeper into the project, she felt that the historical questions raised by Brandeau’s story demanded a more dynamic approach. Consequently Hermant saw a use for more diverse mediums. These various medial elements represent different angles from which to understand the story. Recognizing the limitations of each subjective viewpoint, Hermant felt that bringing them together brings the viewer closer to Brandeau’s story: “What we can bring from our own experience, that [gets] us as close as we can get.” Hermant’s acknowledgement of how limited one’s access to history can be is especially poignant given how Brandeau’s story has been adopted by various communities despite what little information is available. Various Canadian-Jewish historians have identified Brandeau as the first Jew to arrive in Canada, and celebrate her commitment to her faith. Her story has also been framed by queer and feminist writers as an attempt at passing. They guess that Brandeau posed as a man because she enjoyed cross-dressing, or because she wished to enjoy the freedoms that were then exclusive to men.

These interpretations have been incorporated into some of the few retellings of Brandeau’s story that exist. In the graphic novel, No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Who Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom, and Adventure, Brandeau is ashamed to return to her Jewish family in France because she unintentionally disobeyed Jewish dietary laws after being shipwrecked in Amsterdam. The novel imagines Brandeau staring longingly at men working, an act from which women are excluded, and wondering, “Are these breeches my chance to freedom?” Likewise, Sheila E. McKay’s young adult novel Esther presents Brandeau as a heroine for young Jewish women as she desperately tries to overcome the oppression of both her religious and gender identities. Because so little is known about Brandeau, any one of the labels that have been given to her by modern writers and academics is highly contestable. But for Hermant, “all these potentials for claims and counter-claims [are] what’s so interesting” about her story.

The artist recalls discovering a host of discrepancies between the Canadian history she learned at her francophone elementary school and the education she later received at an anglophone high school. She believes that this experience “must have been an early seed for the approaches [I] take” and for her “skepticism around the dominant story.” Hermant contends that, “[I]t’s important that we know who the storyteller is and I think that’s pretty evident in the piece.”

You can hear Hermant’s side of the story at Gallery Le Mai, 3680 Jeanne-Mance, from October 28 to October 30.