Culture  A rose is a rose is a rose?

Judith McCormack's Backspring on cultural identity

American poet Gertrude Stein once wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” often interpreted as a statement meaning that everything is what it appears to be – clear boundaries exist to separate one thing from another. But when it comes to one’s identity, can it accurately be defined by such boundaries? Judith McCormack’s debut novel, Backspring, which features Stein’s line in its opening chapter, ponders and explores this question.

Set in contemporary Montreal, Backspring invites readers into the life of talented architect Eduardo Cabral. When Eduardo is on his way to meet his client at a local market, he is caught in a fire that destroys the site. He falls into a destructive spiral soon after. Consumed by self-doubt and anger, Eduardo becomes increasingly distant from his family and friends. The situation worsens after he is falsely accused of the arson; at work, Eduardo has to confront the rumours about his involvement in the fire. Meanwhile, his wife, Geneviève, who fruitlessly attempts to unearth the root of her husband’s aloofness, discovers her budding affections for Patrick, Eduardo’s best friend.

Narration alternates between the three protagonists and includes flashbacks showing the characters’ childhoods, giving readers a sense of immediacy. As a city where different cultures collide, Montreal mirrors the multiple identities of the characters.

Backspring was recently shortlisted for the 2016 First Novel Award. In light of her nomination, the Daily spoke with McCormack through email about her novel.

McGill Daily (MD): Inter-cultural collisions are evident throughout the novel. Eduardo grows up in an immigrant family from Portugal. Geneviève’s mother is francophone, her father anglophone. She sometimes feels “too English to be entirely French, far too French to be entirely English.” What inspired you to focus on the issue of cultural hybridity and identification in Backspring?

Judith McCormack (JM): I have a mixed background myself (Russian Jewish on one side and Scots-Irish on the other), and so I’m fascinated with questions of hybridity, […] cultural fusions, and fissures. I grew up with a sense of being out of place, someone who didn’t fit the usual categories, with a “messy” identity that had to be explained. I also have a mild form of synesthesia (numbers appear in colours to me), so the book explores crossing boundaries and finding new amalgams – between cultures, between different spheres like architecture, science and law, and between people.

“But this is […] about a very human desire to understand and make sense of relationships between things.”

Of course, Eduardo is literally out of place, having emigrated from Portugal – this was partly inspired by the fact that I’ve lived in Little Portugal in Toronto for many years and have seen my neighbours wrestling with displacement, and their attempts to recreate aspects of their previous lives. Geneviève’s mixture of French and English also means a great dual of ambiguity for her, which is made more complicated by the historical tensions between French and English in Montreal, and indeed, within her own family – for example, her ne’er-do-well English father, and her French mother who functions within a bit of a cultural cocoon.

MD: The novel proposes a way to embrace one’s dual cultural identity, that is, to be the “whole” of each identity, instead of being the “half” of each identity. Geneviève envisions herself as being entirely French as well as entirely English. However, although a person with multiple cultural identities might feel that they do not completely identify as a member of any distinct group, this “in-between-ness” could also be an essential and unique part of their identity — how does the novel speak to this? Is striving to belong “entirely” to any cultural group necessarily desirable?

JM: Yes, I agree that “in-between-ness” can be embraced, but on a personal level, it’s easier said than done! Geneviève is genuinely trying to figure out why she experiences a mixed identity as half as good, rather than twice as good, not so much proposing a solution. But hybridity and ambiguity are also virtues in the book, for example […] Eduardo’s interest in the architect Gordon Matta-Clark who was exploring orphan spaces, and the spaces between spaces.

“I lived for two years in Montreal as a small child, and I think it must have crept into my blood in some indefinable way.”

As to how we navigate complex and fragmented cultural identities – h’mm. Write a book about it? I guess it might be different for everyone, but the main thing would be to value and delight in the subtlety and richness of these fusions. Or something like that.

MD: The novel weaves in many French and Portuguese words; for some, translations are offered whereas others are not. What purpose do they serve, especially for readers who are unfamiliar with these two languages?

JM: Well, most are translated, and I hope that the others are obvious from the context. But I also wanted to highlight the elegance and beauty of these languages in themselves, while at the same offering a taste of the outsider experience.

MD: Geneviève describes Montreal as “[a]n organism of its own. Complex, confounding, rich, bitter […] [It is a city of] its own glossary […] Francophone, Anglophone, allophone.” The passage about the Portuguese festival on St. Urbain is also memorable. Why did you choose Montreal as the setting of the story? What unique background does Montreal provide to the story that similar multicultural cities, such as Toronto, do not?

“I grew up with a sense of being out of place […], with a “messy” identity that had to be explained.”

JM: I lived for two years in Montreal as a small child, and I think it must have crept into my blood in some indefinable way. The history, the buildings, even the street names all seem to have a mysterious quality, and of course the combination of old and new diversities in this context is also remarkable. But this is a novel, so the sights, sounds and smells of the Portuguese festival are also there because their sensuality and colour just seemed to fit the story.

MD: Law attempts to prescribe precise definitions to things, while in real life, much ambiguity exists. How does your career in law give you a different perspective on cultural identification or a different approach to this issue?

JM: “Attempts” is certainly the operative word here – the astonishing variety found in real life can be very subversive of the kind of categorizing and sorting involved in law. In the book, my experience with law is reflected to some extent in our ceaseless (but often futile) attempts to organize, classify, and make sense of the chaos of life epitomized when Geneviève starts her tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of orgasms. But this is not so much about cultural identity as it is about a very human desire to understand and make sense of relationships between things.