WHY BOTHER?

By  Michael Parent

(published in the anthology Voyages, a Maine Franco-American Reader)

            For nearly thirty years, I’ve made my living as a storyteller, singer, writer, and sometimes actor. For the past twenty years, I’ve increasingly focused on material related to my Franco-American heritage.

            After living in Virginia for nearly two decades (and re-appreciating my birth culture's uniqueness from a distance), I returned to Maine in 1998 and now live less than an hour from Lewiston , my hometown. Since 1977, I’ve done hundreds of performances, more and more of them done bilingually since the mid-1980s. I’ve co-authored a book of translated and retold tales from the Franco-American tradition, and had a number of stories included in various anthologies, some of which are also based in that tradition.  I’ve made a storytelling audiotape and a musical CD, as well as written and performed three plays that are all grounded in my Franco-American heritage. So, I ask myself, how did I, a guy who stopped speaking French for many years, who was guilty of ridiculing my own culture at times, how did I come around to giving performances and producing materials grounded in that culture? In seeking the answer, I turn to my parents and grandparents, all now deceased.

            My father, unsurprisingly, was a key figure and unwittingly (or perhaps more wittingly than I've often thought) played a major role in determining my path. Gerard Alexandre Parent represented the voice that said: “Deux langues c’est deux fois mieux” (two languages are twice as good). The other voice, represented by people within and outside the Franco-American culture, proclaimed: “Le Bosse ne parle pas Français” (the boss doesn’t speak French).

            My father believed that we should retain our language and cultural heritage. And I think he understood that language and culture are inextricably entwined. My parents, Gerard and Alice, did not insist that we speak French at home, but there was an unwritten rule in the family that we must speak French to our grandparents. My paternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Adeline Parent, were able to get by in English, but to speak to them en Anglais would have been considered disrespectful. We never spoke English to Memère and Pepère, and we never called them Grandma and Grandpa. There was never any discussion about the matter because it wasn’t an issue. Since we had regular contact with them, and always spoke French, that language was well grooved into our neural pathways. Even as a teenager, during the self-conscious “let’s-be-American-and-assimilate-and-not-let-anybody-know-we’re-Canucks” years, I was able to easily converse with my grandfather. (My grandmother had died by then).            

            If my father represented the voice of preservation of language and culture, there were many others, in and out of the family, who represented the voice that believed that our Franco-American heritage held us back, economically and otherwise. Some of these people told their children to get busy learning English, that there was no point in speaking their own (the parents’) language. Others used French as a “secret language” when they did not want their children to know what they were saying. It’s not surprising, then, that many children in that next generation (mine) didn’t learn more than a smattering of French, often the colorful curse words or oft-repeated phrases. All this, combined with the notion that their particular dialect, or accent, was not “real French” led to a conviction among many that the French language was a social and economic liability. It was a private community language that worked well within the community, but did no good when the speakers ventured into the wider, mostly English-speaking world of “the Bosses.”

            For many in that generation, it was thought impossible to swim in both the mainstream and their own inherited “birth-stream.” A kind of “transitional confusion” resulted. After feeling quite at home in Canada for generations, they came to a place where the message was that “you can work here, but you don't really belong here. You can’t speak English, and your French is of an inferior variety. You’re misfits.” So, in many families, spoken French stopped quite abruptly between one generation and the next. And the Franco-American culture gradually became more invisible. One generation resigned itself to never completely belonging, turned in on itself, but encouraged their children to do whatever it took to someday belong. If it meant putting aside language and culture, then so be it.

            In the face of significant evidence that this second “voice” was right, that in an English-dominated society there wasn’t much point in holding on to a language which only identified a person as lower working class and therefore doomed to a life in the textile mills or shoe shops, one could reasonably ask, why bother?            Why bother making the effort to retain our cultural identity if that very identity was a drawback, a sure-fire means of not getting ahead in the big world of the United States ? Why bother re-connecting to one’s heritage and culture if the wider world, as well as many members of that very culture and heritage, are almost completely indifferent to it? For those of us involved in the arts, why expend our creative energy on a culture and heritage that seems to be dying out? Since I can speak accurately only for myself in trying to answer these questions, I have to ask, more specifically, why have I decided to “bother?” 

            In the introduction to his novel, Ireland , Frank Delaney says:

We merge our myths with our facts according to our feelings, we tell ourselves our own story. And no matter what we are told, we choose what we believe. All ‘truths’ are only our truths, because we bring to the ‘facts’ our feelings, our experiences, our wishes. Thus storytelling - from wherever it comes - forms a layer in the foundation of the world; and glinting in it we see the trace elements of every tribe on earth.[i]

            So, let’s have a look at my “tribe,” tell at least part of its story, and see what “trace elements” emerge. My mother’s family, the Fourniers, journeyed from Quebec to Suncook , New Hampshire , and finally to Lewiston , Maine . My maternal grandfather, Honoré Fournier, eventually became an overseer in the rayon weaving room at the Bates Manufacturing Company textile mills. My father’s family followed a similar route, leaving Quebec for Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, and then on to Lewiston, where my paternal grandfather, Ferdinand Parent, eventually worked as a tailor, though all of his seven children but one (who became a priest) worked in the mills at one time or another.

            My early childhood revolved around the tailor shop, which my Pepère and Papa operated in downtown Lewiston, after my father’s severe asthma forced him out of dusty mill work, and visits to Memère and Pepère’s house “out in the country” on Bailey Avenue. About five kilometers (three miles) from the center of town, it was the family gathering place on Sundays and special occasions - where the latest news, jokes and stories were told - mostly in French. 

            The tailor shop occupied the front room of our first-floor apartment on Middle Street , aptly named since we were within shouting distance of the most important places in town. The Bates Street playground was a half-block away. So was the Central Fire Station, where we were thrilled to watch the fire trucks go screaming out to fires and privileged to be their official “backer-uppers” when they returned - our words and gestures guiding these sparkling red behemoths into their parking spaces. The cathedral-like Saints Peter and Paul’s Church stood a block and a half up Ash Street from the firehouse and could be seen for miles around. Masses were said in Latin and French. Saints Peter and Paul’s School, imposing but not as majestic, sat three blocks up Bates Street . Half the school day was conducted in French and half in English.

            Most of the inhabitants of this little world were French-speaking, and I don’t remember giving that any thought as a child. Only later, when I stepped into the wider world, did I realize this was perceived as an unusual situation by most English-speaking residents of the United States . Through the years, in my travels as a performer, I’ve met countless people who know of my French-Canadian heritage. But unless I tell them otherwise, they often assume that since I’ve spoken French since childhood and continue to do so, I must have grown up in Quebec and later moved to the United States .

            Very few U.S. residents are aware that, according to the 1990 census, the northeastern U.S. is home to over three million people of French heritage and that most of their ancestors came to the U.S. by way of French Canada. Many of the original immigrants from Quebec , New Brunswick , and Nova Scotia intended to come to “the States” only briefly, make some money, stay out of trouble, and go back home. So they did not make a lot of noise - in public anyway. They banded together in their neighborhoods, spoke French, occasionally kicked up quite a ruckus singing and dancing, but mostly stayed to themselves. Self-expression through song and story was O.K. in private, for family and friends, but it was most often not O.K. in public. So it’s not surprising that - even today - the mainstream of the U.S. of A. knows little of the Franco-Americans and their culture. Like cautious visitors unwilling to offend a powerful host, our people were reluctant to be the center of attention in a stranger’s house. Their songs and stories were sung and told around their own fires but not when “strangers” or “the boss” or the boss’ kind of people were around.

            As a younger man, I wondered why my grandparents’ and parents’ generations did not manage to preserve their native French-speaking culture and smoothly assimilate into the larger English-speaking culture? Why, for instance, were they not able to mix with “the strangers” or shed their “Canuck” accents - speaking French and English equally well?  Why did they seldom put their thoughts into writing? Perhaps a closer look at the “tribe” and a particular member of that “tribe,” my father, will help shed some light on these matters.

            During the course of a long-ago conversation, a few questions arose about a possible connection or interplay between oral traditions and “literacy” or “literateness” in a culture, specifically the Franco-American culture in the Northeastern United States.  When we refer to someone as a “literate person,” we are usually talking about someone who possesses basic reading and writing skills, an illiterate person being one who does not. The term can also refer to people who are formally educated - people of letters - who can express themselves clearly in both verbal and written communication.

            Is there - in fact - a direct connection or a kind of inverse proportion between a strong oral tradition and a more advanced kind of “literateness?” Is it possible for individuals within a primarily oral culture to acquire a facility for written expression and gain the support of that culture for their literary efforts? Why is it, for instance, that so many Franco-Americans of my parents’ generation seem to be such able talkers and singers, but seldom seem to be proficient and enthusiastic writers? Within my own family, the Parents on my father’s side, the Fourniers on my mother’s, it’s often said that certain members of the family are, or were, fine tellers of tales and jokes, and good singers. But very seldom did I hear, or do I hear, anyone referred to as a good writer - not only of letters to relatives but of poems, short stories, or even novels - a writer defined as a person whose main avenue for expressing thoughts and feelings is through the written word.

            Put another way, is a culture full of good talkers and singers, who have had minimal formal education, less likely to produce people who write and thus perceive themselves as “writers?” Examining this question for a number of different cultures (the Irish spring to mind) could occupy us at great length. I prefer to examine my own tribe and, as I specified earlier, one member of that tribe.

            I learned some years ago that my father, Gerard Parent (born in 1912 and deceased in 1983) had - as a young man - written a number of stories. I never heard him refer to these literary endeavors, though he was usually willing to sing a song at family gatherings or tell us stories at bedtime. I can barely imagine my Papa finishing up a story he’d written and showing it to people to get their reaction. Why? There may have been a number of factors, but I’d guess there was one “bottom line” and that is that Gerry Parent’s own perception of himself was that he was not a “literate person.” Therefore his attempts at self-expression were invested with only a private value. And why might that be?

            My father’s early childhood was spent in the tiny village of St. André-de-Restigouche on the Gaspé Peninsula in eastern Québec. When he was about ten-years old, the family moved to New Hampshire and, later, to Maine , living in an immigrant culture where hard work and survival were primary values. Most members of the family, Gerry included, worked in the textile industry in Lewiston , Maine , where they eventually settled. The gifts of gab and song were also valued among a people who often had large families and thus many occasions for gathering in groups. There was a long tradition of song, story, and dance, and Gerry’s strong voice, tenacious memory, and nimble feet allowed him a secure place within that tradition. There seemed little precedent in the family or culture, however, for people going off by themselves to write. So, Gerry wrote his stories, but only shared them with a small circle within his immediate family.

            It’s probably worth noting that his formal education ended after 5th grade and, though he continued to be a steady reader on a wide range of subjects throughout his life, he never seemed totally at home with the English language and grew more ill-at-ease with his native French. He often said: “Le bon Français, y’est parler au Canada ” (the good French, it’s spoken in Canada ). Thus, his perception of himself, and the Franco-Americans of themselves, was as people who don’t use either French or English very well. Not surprising, then, that putting one’s thoughts and feelings into the written word was not encouraged. That would invite the kind of exposure and judgment that could only confirm their view of themselves as linguistically and “literately” unaccomplished. My Aunt Antoinette, my father’s sister with whom he shared his stories, once said of his literary efforts: “His grammar wasn’t good, but he had a lot of imagination. His stories were romantic, they were short stories, like literature. They were like ... classics. He would’ve been real good with an education.”

            Other factors were certainly at play. Franco-Americans are not the only ethnic group where the struggle to make ends meet precludes the leisure time necessary for written artistic expression. A doctor from Thailand once told me that in his homeland, where the level of poverty is staggering, there is an abundance of oral tradition and almost no literary tradition. A friend of mine quoted her Dutch immigrant father as saying that: “Some people make their living with their heads, others with their hands.”

            Many immigrants, who came to the U.S. to find work and new lives, were more familiar and practiced in the “work of the hands” than in the “work of the head.” Literary expression was not so much discouraged as it was just not an active part of my father’s generation's blue-collar consciousness. That might explain why, a generation later, I feel more like I’ve done “real work” if I'm splitting wood, pounding nails, or any kind of “work of the hands” than I do learning a song, writing a story or play, or any “work of the head.”

            Not only did the Franco-Americans of my father’s generation think of themselves primarily as workers, the Northeastern mill town culture into which they slowly assimilated reinforced that notion. The mill owners wanted factory hands, not singers, poets, or writers. And oral expression, in the form of songs sung and stories told, was seen as something to be done among family and friends, not for strangers or a judgmental public.

            The French-Canadians who eventually became Franco-Americans and supplied the backbone of many textile mills in the Northeastern United States possessed many personality traits that fostered an oral tradition, but those same traits may have inhibited the development of a literary tradition. For one thing, this was a people fond of group gatherings. Because of the size of their families, many people spent much of their lives living in a large group on a daily basis. And it wasn’t unusual for families to gather at the home of a family member, usually the grandparents who were close by and whose house could accommodate the whole clan. They also tended to gather together in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods called Petit Canada (Little Canada) - another larger group experience that reinforced the sense of community or village. Add to this a rich body of folklore in both story and song, an attachment to the past, and a basic need to affiliate and communicate verbally, and what you have, unsurprisingly enough, is a group of people where talkers and singers are in abundance and writers are scarce.

            If my Papa, Gerry Parent, was at all typical of the Franco-Americans of his generation, his experience suggests that very plausible connection between oral and literary traditions. He had the soul of a writer and was surrounded by people who had little incentive to write. I’m not suggesting that the preponderance of oral over literary expression in the Franco-American culture is good or bad, deplorable, or admirable. I can only wish that I had been able to read my father’s stories and been able to keep copies.  I’ve long forgotten the ones he told me when I was a child, and I dearly wish he had been proud enough of, and supported enough in, his literary efforts to hang onto those stories and pass them on.

            So, what does this mean for me and my generation? If he were able to articulate it, what would my Papa have me do with this impulse or inner urging that he felt, and that I also feel, to create stories, sing songs, and have those stories and songs say something about our tribe? In retrospect, I realize that I’ve had some clues about his feelings on that issue. A particularly memorable one came during my junior year in high school.

            I was the goalie on our high school hockey team. I came home after a particularly bad day on the rink and at school. He was sitting in his chair by the radio. I was frustrated and angry about the lousy day I’d had and began fulminating to no one in particular about how I was sick of school, sick of hockey, that I was about ready to quit school altogether and go to work in the mills like many other guys in town. When I paused for breath, I heard the distinctive squeak my Pa’s chair made when he leaned forward. Though he had a powerful voice, he spoke softly and clearly on this occasion: “You’re not gonna quit school now, and you’re not gonna work in the mills, ever.” His tone made it clear there would be no discussion. He didn’t have to say the words, but he got his message across – “You won't do what I did. You’ll do better.” He might even have added - “I did what I did so you could do better.” He never prescribed or suggested what it was I should do. He trusted, I suppose, that I’d find that out for myself.

            When I came home from college and told him and my Mama that I’d gotten some free language credits by passing a French exam, he did not say “I told you, two languages are better than one,” but his slight nod and grin conveyed his pleasure at the news. When I told him, years later, that I had performed a story in French at a storytelling event in New York City , it was clear he was pleased. When I started writing and publishing stories, as well as performing them, he didn’t say it, but perhaps it crossed his mind that his son was not working in the mills, that his son was in fact doing something that he, the son, loved doing, and that he was doing so in public, in the big wide world, doing something that he, Gerry Parent had only felt free to do in private. I wish I could have told him that he was and continues to be a fine example. In a culture that only knew how to encourage some of his gifts, he at least tried to go beyond. He wrote the stories and showed them to somebody.

            So, why do I bother writing and performing stories that reflect my culture, language and heritage? Perhaps, because my father and others did what they could. And, in doing what they could, they opened the door to my being able to do what I can. It also became clear that I was the one who should be doing the very thing I wanted them to do. I should do well in both French and English, expressing myself verbally and in writing, because I could. And I can, precisely because they did their job. My grandparents and parents made the journey and did the work of building a new life in a strange place. As a result, I have the opportunity to tell the stories and sing the songs in public that they felt they could only sing in private, within the tribe. I can also choose to sing them and tell them around any fire. And when I do, whether for my own tribe or for other tribes, it feels like I’m somehow more myself, that my journey back to my birth culture brings me all the way back to who I really am. And it's been good to find that many people are willing to join me for part of the ride.

            So, a large part of why I “bother” is to thank those hardy, loving people of my tribe for doing their “job” and to celebrate them not only for surviving but for telling me their stories and singing me their songs - and thus clearing the path for me to make the journey to my own “job.” Their primary job was to survive in a place where they never truly belonged. Because they did that job so well, I’ve had the capacity and the opportunity to swim in the U.S. mainstream and in my Franco-American birth-stream.  And I honor my tribe with every stroke.

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