March 28, 2020

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Kellough reframes Quebec culture

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/2/2017 (1148 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Accordéon, Montreal-based writer and performer Kaie Kellough’s first novel, is an ambitious, thought-provoking experiment in decolonial justice.

The novel is set in Montreal during the time Jean Charest’s Liberal government was in power in Quebec. By way of an anonymous witness’s testimony to the Ministry of Culture — and of ministry functionaries’ annotations thereto — we encounter a capitalist dystopia constrained by the ministry and its ubiquitous infiltrators.

In its power to detain citizens without charge and compel their testimony, in its power to infiltrate potentially all aspects of cultural life, and in its power to redefine the meaning of symbols and stories, the Ministry of Culture echoes Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of the ministry commentators, MC2, says, "The Ministry’s stated aim is to direct all activities, even ones that seem purposeless."

The narrator ranges through time and across various personas. "My parents," the narrator says in one instance, "were university professors. Their minds sprawled across academic disciplines. They were indentured servants whose lives spanned the Atlantic. They were harried scatterbrains with itchy scalps. They were mercenaries who fired primitive rifles on the Plains of Abraham. They were Métis traders who crossed the prairies and finally settled here."

The testimony returns to these and other always-shifting origin stories: "Nothing stands still, not even our ancestors."

The narrator’s shifting identity serves, in part, to reimagine what constitutes a real Québécois. In opposition to the prevailing myth that those of "pure laine" — which signifies white, exclusively French-Canadian — are the backbone of Quebec culture, the narrator integrates and draws attention to French, indigenous, Métis, Arab and African immigrants, and working-class peoples: "My father was a Québécois man, once a young separatist and author… No, that isn’t true. He was a Sri Lankan immigrant and a distinguished medical professional… No, that is not true. My father was a fireman. He also owned a sugar shack… He was equally a Haitian refugee."

In addition to the narrator’s shifting identity, Kellough subverts colonial logic in Accordéon by punctuating the narrator’s testimony with the image of a flying canoe that thwarts the Ministry of Culture’s attempts to be all-encompassing: "This is the main aim of the Ministry: to determine which realities our society performs. This is the conspiracy. This is why the flying canoe is so important. The canoe recognizes one reality alone: everyone exists and all stories are equal [. . . .] The Ministry only recognizes the canoe as an artifact mythologized by writers who belong to colonial culture. But the canoe predates colonial culture, and does not recognize the authority of the Ministry."

More importantly, Kellough dramatizes the canoe’s power and its opposition to the ministry by using it to undermine those the ministry chooses to elevate — by pairing them with people and symbols the ministry marginalizes: "Hamidou Diop, wily Senegalese double agent… is in the canoe. He is wearing a red sash, a red toque, leather moccasins, and he is smoking a pipe. A pile of pure wool is in the canoe. He is running his hands through it and delighting in its coarseness."

The experiment of the novel — especially in that it hangs on the testimony of someone whose story is structured in part by the repetition that they are many people simultaneously — overwhelms the plot. Thus, especially in the first half of the novel, the pacing is uneven and the stakes are not always clear.

Accordéon is, nonetheless, a fascinating book. Among its strengths are the ways Kellough engages with decolonization via common dystopian elements and their subversion, and the way he reconsiders who might be integral to Quebec culture.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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