Monday, June 20, 2011

Who Speaks for the Forgotten? – Congress 2011 Big Thinking Lecture Delivered by Antonine Maillet.

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick
Who speaks for the forgotten? This was the topic of discussion for Antonine Maillet’s Big Thinking lecture held during the recent Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada). The Hon. Antonine Maillet is a well known Acadian author and linguist, whose fictional heroine La Sagouine (The Washerwoman) has come to epitomise the resilience and strength of Acadian heritage in North America.

La Sagouine dominates Acadian popular culture as a stalwart figure. Existing in somewhat contrast to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s romantic Evangeline (made popular by the 19th century epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie), La Sagouine does not pine for what has been lost. La Sagouine is strong. She is confident. Pragmatic. Optimistic. These are the descriptors that have transformed Maillet’s character into a symbolic figure for the 20th century Acadian Renaissance. In many ways she also represents the lifeways of many rural New Brunswickers before the introduction of Equal Opportunity social reforms in the 1960’s.

“This is a true story” – states Maillet in the opening line of her introduction to the published monologue entitled La Sagouine (1979). True – in that her character springs from a historical tradition. False, however – in that La Sagouine never really existed as a living person. She is fictional, yet also represents the nameless who will never be found in any archival record. She encapsulates a generation of Acadians who have long-since been forgotten. Who speaks for these people? How are they remembered? This was the topic of Maillet’s Big Ideas lecture.

Interestingly, Maillet’s discussion draws attention to the importance of not limiting historical inquiry to the written word; for just as the vast majority of us will never warrant inclusion in the school textbooks of 3011 and our names may never be found in archival collections (except perhaps by a great-great-grandchild tracing her past), so too are the voices of the forgotten lost to us except within the vernacular history of alternative sources of historical inquiry. How can we hear them calling to us? Antonine Maillet has sought their voices in the oral traditions of Acadia, that span from 16th century France to 21st century Louisiana, Nova Scotia, Québec, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.

For those who are disempowered in any society, the keeping of oral traditions and the preservation of collective memory is very important. As Maillet points out, “they” can never take your voice. Indeed, our schools could benefit greatly from the humanist agenda of making space in our classrooms for such forms of vernacular history. This is because, with each generation, it is the youth who bear responsibility for perpetuating the essential elements of collective memory that define cultural identity. In the words of Maillet: “C’est vous [les jeunes] qui vont décider le futur de l’Acadie”

In Acadia, the collective identity of the voiceless has been preserved in the dialect and words of a language that is more ancient than the french of modern France. As Maillet so poignantly illustrates in her discussion about the forgotten, the generational links between past and present can be found within the stories and songs of Acadia. Here lie the traces of the voices of the forgotten. As educators, we would do well to never forget this.

Listen to Antonine Maillet's entire lecture here:

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