New Document Québécité, the latest work by Nova Scotian multi-genre writer George Elliott Clarke, is the libretto to a jazz opera set in Quebec City. "Its architecture is gothic, its vices baroque," states the author in his introduction, explaining his chosen locale.
Clarke tells the story of two romances, each of which revolves around the female character's choice. The first is Laxmi, a conservative young architecture student, who repeatedly resists the romantic advances of Ovide. More than simply coy, Laxmi has a great distrust of men and of love. She is a proud virgin who expects men to deceive and ruin her. To Laxmi "kisses are just prefaces to perdition" and "often Marriage / ends in a mirage--/ or in triage--/ or in a cage." Ovide is a determined suitor, nevertheless, and their courtship consists of much entertaining banter on the subjects of love and sex.
Colette, the second heroine, is more easily swayed to participate in her romance with Malcolm, a jazz saxophonist who performs in the club owned by her family. Recently emigrated from China, Colette's parents are determined that she should find a Chinese husband. Malcolm, of combined African-American and Mi'kmaq descent, hardly fits the bill. Colette is left to decide first how long to keep their romance a secret, and then whether to conform to the values and wishes of her parents once the romance is exposed.
The story takes place in the present day, which is at times difficult to keep in mind because of Clarke's often deliberately archaic language, as well as his tendency to allude and refer to all things ever written, philosophized, painted, or performed. However, most of his references are modern, such as naming a nightclub "La Révolution Tranquille," beginning each canto with a quote from Ezra Pound, dressing a character in the style of Dior, naming jazz musicians (including his own collaborator, D.D. Jackson), and mentioning Flare magazine. Scenes are often introduced with a description of the characters' attire, and the stage directions read like interpretational instructions, such as "Feel here a rose-gold lamé Lagerfeld vibe."
Québécité is a pleasant story, but in the reading it quickly becomes apparent that the plot surrounding the four characters is a mere framework for the creative presentation of the themes. The varying fluidity and percussion of Clarke's verse are Québécité's most prominent attributes, along with his wordplay ("To be a mandarin, I dress like mannequins") and choice vocabulary ("fissiperous," "glassine-hyaline"). The writing is musical, with unmistakable jazz influences. Without having seen the opera, it is easy to imagine the partnership of the libretto with the compositions of D.D. Jackson.
Clarke manages to treat such themes as the difficulty of being a visible minority in Quebec, cross-cultural marriage, language divisions, and religious differences, yet end the story with a sense of hope that these problems eventually will be overcome. All of the characters are bilingual, and their dialogue is executed in both English and French. He celebrates diversity subtly by dressing Colette in a Nova Scotia tartan sari, and overtly by having the united couples later dream of having "children of every colour."
Québécité consists of heavy themes treated in an uplifting plot, in verse suited for jazz fans and lovers of language.
(For a first-time reader of Clarke, it may be prudent to hold off on Québécité's prologue until after reading the body of the work; it is daunting and convoluted, listing the author's influences and implying that the work is intended for elite audiences. Clarke's influences, as presented, are not terribly obscure, but the manner of their presentation may be more of a deterrent to continue than an incentive. A reread, for all that, draws a chuckle.)
Kelly Murphy studied English at the University of Kings College, Halifax.