Rageful Laminations

The Rage Letters
Valérie Bah, translated by Kama La Mackerel
Metonymy Press
2023, 168 pp., $19.95

Most of the stories we tell, we do so without realizing. People get shuffled about in the strong-armed process of producing a social history. Some, often through various forms of violence, stake the ground of the subject. Others find themselves immovable objects in a story they had no hand in crafting. Here is where the project of the writer comes in.

Valérie Bah, a Tiohtià:ke-based filmmaker and writer, takes on this project in The Rage Letters. The book is a collection of 13 short stories that weave seemingly disparate tales into a loose, overarching narrative. Characters disappear from the foreground of one story only to re-emerge in the background of another. The playfulness of this choreography belies a stony realism. Bah’s characters navigate social violence and trauma while remaining firmly in the position of the subject, steadily creating space for themselves through joy, humour, rage, and rebellion.

The Rage Letters, first published in French by Les Éditions du remue-ménage as Les Enragé.e.s (2021) and translated by Kama La Mackerel for Metonymy Press, is a Québécois book released by two publishing houses based in Montreal, a city where the issue of language is so foregrounded that translation appears everywhere from metro stations to fast food menus. In Québec, the usual debates about what is lost and gained through the translation of a text are charged with a more urgent sense of personal and cultural loss. The stakes are high, with much to be revealed about the inherent limitations and socio-political features of language in the process.

As in the real world, the slipperiness of language politics in Bah’s collection is first apparent in pronouns. French, a gendered language, offers a heightened opportunity for identity to be garbled in a mix of antecedents and parts of speech. The French title, Les Enragé.e.s, translates directly to “the rageful ones.” The two letters tacked at the end make room for the masculine, feminine, and plural at once, all while separating each by decisive punctuation. The English title, The Rage Letters, shirks the issue. It is possible that these “rage letters” are precisely the “e” and “s” missing from the English title, frustrating signifiers of a circumscribed and grammared identity. It is also possible that, in framing each story as a “letter,” the reader is positioned as the receiver of a dispatch, carried across languages, across borders. As often, the process of translation provides questions, not answers.

How does one write when the language at hand is hopelessly unaccommodating, at times even hostile? In the face of this question, Bah’s task, according to Martelly, is to “summon this language in every respect,” a project as daunting as it sounds.

The introduction, written by author, painter, and scholar Stéphane Martelly, pays tribute to Bah’s ability to juggle with language. “Where does one start when one is made an allophone within one’s own language?” asks Martelly. In other words, how does one write when the language at hand is hopelessly unaccommodating, at times even hostile? In the face of this question, Bah’s task, according to Martelly, is to “summon this language in every respect,” a project as daunting as it sounds. Martelly continues, “we will dance, on the rug of the tongue, the dance of our desires and our noisy emancipation.” The key to evading the problem of language, it seems, is to tackle it without too much preciousness.

Like others before them, Bah and La Mackerel are fashioning a new dialect out of unwieldy, rust-covered materials. Demonstrating a filmmaker's eye and a deep reverence for the communities they are representing, they find a solution to the issue of language in the form of intertwined short stories. As Martelly notes, in the process of rebuilding a language one must “patiently weave a structure of echoes, where stories do not end without others immediately extending them.” The form feels collage-like: a figure appears in one story as one of a pair of lovers only to surface later as a sister being accused of abandoning her ailing mother; another character shows up uninvited to an art opening where he condescendingly shit-talks yet another character’s work. In a later story, he is decapitated.

The collage form avoids the pitfalls of entrenched narrative formulas by stepping clean over their leaves, becoming something totally new. This process is alluded to explicitly in “Thefts,” the first story, in which a third grade girl gets in trouble for stealing books from her school library. She cuts them up and produces new stories in a “rageful lamination” (a phrase that acts as an apt metonymy for the collection itself). Bah weaves together tangentially related stories into a constellatory narrative that does not bend to the constraints of language, but “summons” it to meet the writer.

This narrative collage is decidedly neat, free from glue, tape, and roughly cut edges. Bah lays out the book with even-handed clarity and careful storytelling, a skill that is especially apparent in how they handle the particularities of Quebecois social politics. My perspective on Québec social politics is inherently informed by my own position as a White American anglophone, particularly one who spent the last year living in Montreal on an arts grant funded by the American government, explicitly to perform research for a poetry manuscript, implicitly as part of some vaguely diplomatic venture. As a writer actively interested in language politics, I often asked about the relationship between anglophone and francophone communities in Montreal, and specifically about the relationship between the different francophone diasporic communities within the city. It was common for other anglophone, White Canadians to throw up their hands. It’s so complicated, honestly, I hardly even understand!

The project of representing the lives of Black diasporic queer francophones, however, requires more time, more understanding of the deep webs of embedded intergenerational traumas. Bah does so with striking lucidity.

With straightforward, cuttingly clear prose, Bah proves otherwise. In response to the temptation for those in power to complicate their inconveniences, to employ the garbled non-language of the neo-liberal (the diversity nonprofit a character works for is called “Horizons Intégration”), Bah writes with a directness that borders on blunt. In multiple stories, a character’s “tchuip” cuts through bullshit like a blade, as when a participant in a DEI workshop insists that White privilege is a myth. In the story “Fille du Rois III,” Bah stunningly summarizes the Québec-settler perspective in a single sentence:

There are those who are looking for fame or money, those who are rebuilding an identity or a life after having left France, those who are looking for more traditional values here, less fashionable in their native country, and of course, those hungering after an untouched, virgin nature, which will reveal to them the secrets of harmony and felicity.

The project of representing the lives of Black diasporic queer francophones, however, requires more time, more understanding of the deep webs of embedded intergenerational traumas. Bah does so with striking lucidity.

More than an exercise in language, The Rage Letters is also a realistic portrait of queer people of colour living in Québec, a story that has gone largely overlooked in literature, even more so in works in English. Bah takes care to provide a faithful representation of the characters’ world, including regional language, nods to specific locations, and mentions of Jamaican chili and diri ak pwa. In an interview with the Montreal Review of Books, La Mackerel, a Mauritian-Canadian multidisciplinary artist, activist, and translator, says of the collection: “I have never seen myself in a book in Franco-Québec literature. Everything about it, every single character, all of the dynamics in particular, hit me. And then there’s everything with language, everything with gender that’s not justified, not explained; it’s just there.”[1]

The balance between the fantastic and the real is one of the most successful devices of the book, as Bah blends the supernatural into the narrative with double take-inspiring seamlessness. A description of a sunset gives me pause—did a molten bath actually just sear the sky? The familiar is made decidedly strange, producing such a state of heightened awareness that even the most supercilious reader would have trouble overlooking the casual horrors of colonial oppression woven throughout the narrative.

At times, the tone can veer into cynical. Understandably, when the book exists in a world endowed with just the right atmospheric conditions for cynicism: an airless containment, the sense of being tested by the prospect of no prospects. However, the cynicism is superficial, suspended in the shimmer of non-profit pageantry and circle-jerk art openings. The contemporary burnout experienced by most of the characters is not the point of the narrative, instead it acts more like contextualization, providing a backdrop for the real drama of these character’s lives, which foreground the hope and imagination inherent to survival. Some of the most vivid, lyrical passages of the book exist in the reveries of a security guard, drifting into memories of his home in Nigeria.

Above all, the collection proves that beauty and rich, radically inventive interpersonal relationships can exist despite living in a society that has neglected you. The effect is less flower blooming from beneath concrete, and more dance party in a DMV. In the final story, a character notes: “Though our hangovers may be colossal, I’m already anticipating the day ahead: our plans, schemes, joys, and anxieties. Our will to thrive in this place, through and beyond spaces that could never contain us.” Indeed, The Rage Letters stands as a testament to this will. Bah tells the story, then looks ahead.

[1] https://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/re...