Novelist Kevin Lambert seeks to understand his northern Quebec roots
Kevin Lambert is hoping to uncover the narrative of his northern Quebec heritage that dates back to the early days of colonialism.
Originally from the Chicoutimi borough of Saguenay, Que., Lambert is an award-winning novelist who turned to books growing up as a way to escape his feelings of isolation in an insular community.
“Everything that was different from the norm was bad,” says Lambert, who joined the University of Toronto’s department of French, in the Faculty of Arts & Science, earlier this year as a postdoctoral researcher.
“I never played hockey, but I know that in the change rooms homophobic jokes were commonplace. It was difficult to have relationships with other people, so, I preferred to live in books.”
As his love of books grew, Lambert shifted from reader to writer. His widely acclaimed first novel, You Will Love What You Have Killed, was a finalist for Quebec’s Booksellers’ Prize.
But he’s most noted for his second novel, Querelle of Roberval, which won the Prix Ringuet in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last year.
The book’s plot follows a millworkers' strike in the northern lumber town of Roberval. As the strike drags on, tensions escalate between the workers. When a lockout renews their resolve, they rally around the magnetic charisma of Querelle, a charming newcomer from Montreal. By day, he protests and walks the picket lines. At night, he transforms, welcoming young men who flock to his apartment for sexual liaisons. As the dispute becomes more intense, and both sides refuse to yield, class struggles and entitlement ignite in a firestorm of passion that’s both sensual and violent.
“The story shines a spotlight on social and political tensions of life in this remote Quebec company town and the challenges related to sex, lust, loneliness and gay relationships in a remote setting,” Lambert says.
“It’s about the different political relationships between working class people and industry. But I also talk about the relationship between industry and colonial history, because there was a lot of wood cutting in this area – and with that big companies were active in polluting Indigenous territories.”
It’s these themes of clashing groups and colonial history that Lambert seeks to build upon in his research, which will continue at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi next year.
Part-writer, part-historian, Lambert is fascinated with the narrative surrounding colonialist attitudes in the late 1800s.
“How did colonialism explain or justify itself?” he says. “What language and stories were the government and media using at that time, what type of narrative was being shared to justify Quebec’s transformation to a colonial settlement?
“To send the settlers to steal lands from Indigenous Peoples, you have to have strong storytelling [and] you have to have a strong fantasy of what you are doing to convince people to do it.”
What makes this field of research so compelling for Lambert is the feeling that he’s covering new ground.
“In French literature, it's a field that is not very much explored,” he says. “Most post-colonial studies have first come in English. Often, we study history in a more nationalistic way. Those subjects have been talked about in Quebec's history, but in a very broad way. What I want to do is work in a small area. It's also a process about my own story because it’s where I come from.”
Capturing that story means understanding multiple perspectives.
“My goal is to deconstruct the main settlers’ narrative, so I need other points of view – for example, women who wrote about their experience during that time and LGBTQ people can bring elements of criticism to this story, because the main narrative is a nationalist heroic view with only male figures.”
Eager to dive into historical archives, journals, memoirs and photos, Lambert also intends to explore how these narratives continue to circulate in contemporary Quebec literature.
“I want to see if writers who come from there nowadays carry the same narratives or do they bring other points of view? Do they criticize this narrative in their novels or in their plays? What point of view do Indigenous writers bring, because it's only recently that we have novels written by Indigenous Peoples from this region.”
He’s equally curious to learn more about what he calls, “the queer dimension that appears in the gendered analysis of colonial structures.”
“White colonization is often presented as the logical outcome of male domination – that of ‘pioneers’ over the territory, women and Indigenous Peoples,” Lambert says.
The stereotypical image of a colonial settler family is always presented as heterosexual and patriarchal, he adds, noting that this picture of the family also includes the mistreatment of women, homophobic fear and an aversion to the unions of white and Indigenous Peoples.
“It’s these other narratives, historical and discursive elements summoning sex and gender dynamics that remain to be interpreted.”