White hunger: Deni Y. Béchard
August 13th, 2019
Born and raised in rural British Columbia to French-Canadian and America parents, Deni Y. Béchard was living in Montreal when he published his first novel, Vandal Love (Doubleday, 2006), about a French-Canadian family that is divided by a genetic curse that makes the children either runts or giants. It received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.
Largely set in B.C. and on Granville Island in particular, his follow-up memoir Cures for Hunger (Goose Lane, 2012) reads much like a novel. First co-published by Milkwood in the U.S., then republished by Goose Lane in 2019, it recalls how Deni Béchard worships his charismatic, wild and fierce father, and later discovers he’s a bank robber. He is forced to wonder if some parts of himself are chips off the old block. “Eventually Deni finds himself ensnared in the controlling impulses of his mysterious father and increasingly obsessed by his father’s own muted recollections: the impoverished childhood in the Gaspé he’d fled long ago, the hunger for excitement and a better life, and a trail of crimes leading from Québec to the American west.” In a subsequent book, Deni Béchard reveals, according to one reviewer, that his virulently anti-Indigenous father bore a deep self-loathing nurtured by English-Canadian stereotypes of Québécois inferiority.
With his novel White (Talonbooks $19.95), Béchard joins a coterie of B.C. novelists who have successfully set stories in Africa such as Audrey Thomas, Arianna Dagnino, Paul Sunga and Michael Wuitchik. It follows a journalist named Deni Béchard to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire, Belgian Congo) to investigate and potentially expose a corrupt and elusive American conservationist. Like his protagonist in Cures for Hunger, the ostensibly fictionalized version of Béchard is plagued by traumatic memories of his father. As he encounters a range of strange characters—such as an anthropologist who treats orphans like test subjects and a community of charismatic Congolese preachers—he discovers corruption, cruelty and the lies of American exceptionalism and white supremacy. Like the protagonist of Heart of Darkness who went searching for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel that gave rise to Apocalypse Now, Béchard’s journey to find the American named Richmond Hew is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Along the way Deni Béchard explores his own awareness of privilege and “the myth of whiteness” on a continent once routinely described as dark.
Deni Y. Béchard has also received the Nautilus Book Award for investigative journalism, and the Midwest Book Award for literary fiction.
by Deni Ellis Béchard
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018
$19.95 / 9781772012088
Reviewed by Paul Headrick
The narrator of White has a dramatic CV: freelance war reporter, novelist, and memoirist. It’s a background that closely matches the author’s, even down to the contents of their memoirs. Béchard’s explores his difficult relationship with his bank-robber father (Cures for Hunger, Milkweed Editions / Goose Lane Editions, 2012). White’s narrator says, “I’d published a memoir about my youth, about my father’s criminality, and the way a son grows into his father’s shadow.” Nothing is unusual in a novelist drawing material from life, and usually the best reading strategy is to ignore such connections, but in this case doing so might be a mistake, for the connections are so specific, including the narrator’s name: Deni Ellis Béchard.
Narrator-Béchard (I’ll call him “Deni”) is returning to the Congo as the novel opens; but whereas before he covered a war there (as did author-Béchard — hereafter “Béchard”), now he’s in search of a story of crime and corruption in the world of nature conservation. He plans to chase down a secretive, rogue conservationist, Richmond Hew, and write an article exposing him. Hew is famously successful in establishing park reserves, but also notorious for his manipulations, his violence, and his ugly exploitation of his power.
An epigraph from Heart of Darkness and several allusions make Hew’s resemblance to Kurtz unmissable. More important, however, is Deni’s confusion on more than one occasion when others bring up Hew’s name; he hears “Hew” as “you” and briefly thinks it is he himself being discussed. Deni, we are invited to see, is in search of his own identity in the Congo, and surely all the parallels and the shared name suggest that Béchard is engaged in a similar search, through the writing of the novel.
The title announces the novel’s interest in race, as does an intriguing plot element introduced in the opening pages. On his flight to the Congo, Deni meets Sola, a woman who tells him the story of a girl, one of Kinshasa’s street children, who appears to be white but insists that she is black. The girl claims that a demon has stolen her colour, that she has no parents, and that she “crossed the ocean on the blade of a knife.” Deni’s search for Hew is delayed by his attempt to track the girl down and by his developing relationship with Sola. He also shares the tale of the white-black girl with a Congolese pastor who acts as an ambiguous guide to Deni, challenging his privilege and his assumptions — perhaps demons really do exist.
The novel’s depiction of the confusion and violence of the Congo is entirely convincing. The suspect motivations of the northern interlopers there and the many barriers to their understanding recall the political-psychological territory that Béchard explored effectively in Into the Sun (Anansi, 2016), which is set in Kabul (and which also examined the relationship between one of the expats and his frightening father). Violence can erupt at any time. People may turn out to be something other than what they seem. All relationships, especially intimate ones, become intensely fraught.
The physical and psychological pressures on Deni mount as he leaves Kinshasa and sets out in search of Hew. He can never be certain who to trust or what to believe. One of the major accomplishments of the novel is the handling of the characters that he meets, several of whom aggressively question his sense of what he knows about the Congo and also himself. They’re believable individuals, not just representations of what to Deni is the “other,” but they do serve a political purpose, exposing some deep assumptions about race and colonialism.
Despite a high-stakes plot and a setting that for many readers will be exotic, the most attention-getting feature of the novel is its voice. One of the markers of Deni’s flamboyant style is the unusual simile (and here the distinction between narrator and author becomes difficult, for the style is typical of Béchard’s other fiction as well): “He encroached on our circle of light like a night creature testing a boundary”; “She displayed her freckled cleavage in a long green dress, as if nature had cleverly sent a white Dryad to steer the general toward the deliverance of black people’s forests”; and “He was animated now, rubbing his knuckles against his palm, as if to purée the information he was conveying, afraid I’d fail to digest it.”
The first of these conveys the hesitancy in the man outside the circle and perhaps Deni’s condescension to the “creature,” but the second, though it won my admiration, had me imagining that Béchard clothed the woman in green because of the opportunity for the simile, not a good thing to be imagining if I’m supposed to be thinking about character. The last made me wonder what the figurative elaboration added to the picture of a man rubbing his knuckles against his palm, a telling enough image on its own.
Béchard’s virtuosity with descriptions can become somewhat fussy. From the opening pages of the novel, we have “her skin a shade lighter than gold, almost flaxen”; “her irises were nearly sepia, with a thin bright rim of black”; and “He possessed a defining roundness that seemed almost muscular.” After the almost flaxen, nearly sepia, and seemed almost muscular, it’s a relief to come to “A stout woman with a yellow perm.”
Deni’s descriptions of his mental states also demonstrate Béchard’s stylistic talents. Here’s a typical example:
Then there was a brief spell of stillness: an awareness of the electrical tension between my skin and the air, of the unceasing flicker of uncoalesced thoughts in my brain, and of muted incomplete impulses to action at the base of my skull and along my spine.
There’s a real pleasure to be had from these flourishes, connecting interior life to physical sensations. But as they accumulate, along with the imaginative similes and elaborate descriptions of characters’ appearances, what’s conveyed most powerfully are not Deni’s sensations or the qualities of things described, but, rather, his distance. Little strikes Deni with such force that he can’t muster up an elegant descriptive response.
A twist in the plot accounts for the existence of the manuscript we’re reading and shows Béchard to be aware of the way in which his high literary style can diminish the novel’s sense of urgency. The self-awareness is welcome, and it’s also consistent with the intelligence of the novel as a whole, its sophistication in its handling of race, colonialism, and male violence. This sophistication includes the treatment of Deni’s encounter with Hew, its frightful aftermath, and the surprising resolution of the mystery of the street child.
But the problem of narrative voice remains. I wanted to be moved by Deni’s eventual confrontation with the complicated truths about himself, but in the end, even when he is brought to extremes, I remained as distant from him as he seems to be from all experience, and I was not moved, just impressed.
Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation by Deni Ellis Béchard and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, translated by Deni Ellis Béchard and Howard Scott (Talonbooks $19.95)
Review by Dylan Burrows
Not all books are intentional. Some arise accidentally, or tragically. In 2015, an 11-year old Ojibwe girl named Makayla Sault died of leukemia after her parents had refused chemotherapy on her behalf.
Contrary to her physician’s wishes, Makayla’s parents had sought traditional medical treatments and homeopathy. A Québécois journalist named Denise Bombardier subsequently ridiculed Indigenous culture in a blog as “deadly” and “unscientific.”
At a literary event, Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine tried to read a letter to Bombardier that expressed the hurt her words had wrought. Bombardier cut Fontaine off, and read aloud her own definition of “Amerindian”—the French for “Indian”—from her most recent novel.
After witnessing Bombardier’s condescension, Vancouver-born Deni Ellis Béchard approached Fontaine and commiserated. Their subsequent friendship and 26 letters have resulted in Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation.
As Béchard reveals, his grandmother had once told him his ancestors “walked like Indians.” Rather than assume this could be evidence of having “Indian blood,” Fontaine sees it as a reflection of how Béchard’s family adapted to the customs of Indigenous lands.
“One day, perhaps,” she writes, “Québécois will understand what it means to ‘walk like an Indian.’ Walk in their shoes. I believe that the day will come soon where ‘Indians’ invite the ‘Whites’ to make a journey with them. And the latter will perhaps notice that it is comfortable to walk in shoes that don’t imprison feet. Shoes that are adapted to the territory, shaped by it. And that bring them freedom.”
In Kuei, My Friend, Béchard reckons with his father’s bigotry. Virulently anti-Indigenous, the elder Béchard also bore a deep self-loathing nurtured by English-Canadian stereotypes of Québécois inferiority.
Fontaine, in turn, writes honestly about Innus’ struggle to heal from the “wound of Colonization.” The “vile, genocidal, alienating intention” behind Canada’s reservations and Indian residential school system, she writes, lingers like a poison in Indigenous minds and bodies.
Some things do get lost in translation. As one of two translators, Béchard renders “allochtones”—French for “non-natives” or “settlers”—as “Whites,” a decision he justifies at length. This unfortunately frames reconciliation as a responsibility exclusive to Indigenous peoples and settlers of European-descent.
Towards the end of their correspondence, Fontaine poses to Béchard an incisive question. “What is your relationship with the idea of Indigeneity,” she asks, “now that I have revealed so many secrets to you?”
Béchard’s answer is anticlimactic: Indigeneity is tied to an “openness” to other intellectual and cultural traditions outside his own.
Kuei, My Friend also includes a chronology of events that led to the establishment of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; an English to Innu-aimun lexicon, and questions and exercises for educators to use in the classroom.
Ultimately Kuei, My Friend pursues honest, open-ended dialogue over political expediency. Through their letters, Béchard and Fontaine chart future possibilities for reconciliation. Their letters shake up the stultified debate spurred by the 2015 publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s final report.
Although political leaders quickly recognized the TRC’s damning conclusions, few have paid more than lip service to implementing its 94 calls to action.
Dylan Burrows is an Anishinaabe Ph.D. candidate at UBC’s History Department. Raised in central Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region, his doctoral research focuses on the nature and meaning of Inuit labour under the aegis of Danish, British, and Canadian Arctic exploration and sovereignty exercises between 1849 and 1948.
Vandal Love (Doubleday 2006)
Cures for Hunger (Goose Lane 2012, 2019)
Empty Hands, Open Arms (Milkweed 2013) $29.95 978-1-57131-340-9
White (Talonbooks 2018) $19.95 9781772012088
Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation by Deni Ellis Béchard and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, translated by Deni Ellis Béchard and Howard Scott (Talonbooks $19.95) 9781772011951
[BCBW 2019] “Fiction”
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