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Bilingual Being: My Life as a Hyphen

by Kathleen Saint-Onge

In her debut memoir, teacher and linguist Kathleen Saint-Onge details her fraught relationship with her native languages, English and French. Appropriately, Bilingual Being is itself written in two “languages”: prose and poetry. The latter tackles repressed childhood memories, while the more lengthy prose portions focus on the writer as an adult. 

The book introduces us to the author in the present, teaching at a French-immersion school. She is strangely unsure of her French, which is not the “proper” language of textbooks, but rather a Quebec City patois. While at work she encounters other teachers who don’t (or won’t) “get Quebec at all.” In this way, Bilingual Being functions not only as Saint-Onge’s story, but as an attempt to elucidate Quebec’s politics, history, and society. 

Saint-Onge’s mother was French and her father English. She went to an English-language school and spoke French at home. As a consequence of this fractured linguistic upbringing, her childhood involved a kind of tug-of-war between the two languages.

Saint-Onge began to drift from her French roots after incidents of sexual abuse in her childhood: all her victimizers were francophones. For Saint-Onge, English represented a safe harbour from an overly sexualized and sexist French culture where little girls are pitounes (an epithet that can mean either “doll” or “slut”). The author devotes little space and few specifics to her actual abuse, and this seems entirely appropriate: agency should be given to the survivor of crime, not the perpetrators.

In its formal structure, Bilingual Being resembles the broken-mirror art Saint-Onge created as a child (a mirror was broken into pieces and then re-glued into other shapes on black velvet). She eschews narrative cohesion, bounces haphazardly around in time, and often makes superfluous use of long lists. These choices slow down the pace of this distinctly Canadian document of childhood trauma and the clash of cultures.