Nicole Brossard 1943-
Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, director, editor, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Brossard's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 115.
One of the most outspoken and innovative figures of late-twentieth-century Québécois literature, Brossard is an experimental and avant-garde writer, numbered among the foremost representatives of literary modernité, and regarded as a leading theoretician of écriture au féminin—women's writing—in French-speaking Canada. Openly and unapologetically political, Brossard's writing stresses her radical feminist beliefs, embracing her lesbianism and offering a literary celebration of the woman's body while promoting a sustained attack against the traditional orthodoxies of the dominant, patriarchal language, social systems, and cultural values. Additionally, Brossard's strong reaction against conventional views of poetry and fiction as mimetic representations of objective reality has become a central and defining theme in her writing—which values transgression and forbidden feminine desire—viewing these as integral elements in the creation of a radical, utopian, modern, and woman-centered vision of literature and society.
Brossard was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1943. Educated at the Collège Marguerite-Bourgeois in her youth, she later attended the Université de Montréal, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in literature in 1965. That same year, Brossard published her first collection of verse, Aube à la saison, in the volume Trois—which included poetry by Michel Beaulieu and Micheline de Jordy—and co-founded the literary journal La Barre du jour, which published poetry by the significant figures of the avant-garde poetry scene in Quebec, including Brossard's own experimental verse. Brossard continued her education into the late 1960s and early 1970s, obtaining pedagogical certification and teaching briefly at secondary schools before opting to devote her full attention to a literary career. The birth of her daughter Julie and a new awareness of her lesbianism in the early 1970s shaped Brossard's emerging literary identity and helped to define the political motivations that would characterize her subsequent career as a writer and activist. She began to publish a steady stream of poetry and prose, which expanded upon the ideas suggested in her novel Un livre (1970; A Book) and her poetry collection Le Centre blanc (1970). In 1976 she co-created the radical feminist magazine Les Têtes de Pioche. By this time, Brossard had joined a community of avant-garde feminist writers and activists in Quebec, which included Marthe Blackburn, Marie-Claire Blais, Odette Gagnon, Luce Guilbeault, Pol Pelletier, and France Théoret. Among the products of this artistic collective was the theatrical production La Nef des sorcières (1976; A Clash of Symbols), for which Brossard contributed “L'Écrivain,” a monologue on the creative process of the writer. In 1977 she co-directed the documentary film Quelques féministes américaines (Some American Feminists) with Luce Guilbeault and Margaret Wescott. Later that year, Brossard was elected to the first executive board of the Union des Écrivains Québécois, a literary organization designed to define and protect the ethical and economic rights of its constituents. She subsequently served as the group's vice-president between 1983 and 1985. Meanwhile, Brossard continued her increasingly prolific literary output in the 1980s with such novels as Picture Theory (1982) and Le Désert mauve (1987; Mauve Desert). By the 1990s, Brossard had become an icon of the radical, urban feminist movement in Quebec, and continued to write, edit, and speak about such issues as postmodern literature, semiotic theory, and the awakening of feminine consciousness and lesbian desire.
Among Brossard's early collections of poetry, Aube à la saison and Mordre en sa chair (1966) are thought to reflect the influence of contemporary poets Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, Alain Grandbois, and Anne Hébert, although they also demonstrate Brossard's movement away from the landscape focus then prevalent among Québécois writers. Her third volume, L'Écho bouge beau (1968), exhibits a more assured and individual control of poetic language, introducing many of the erotic and body-centered themes that Brossard has subsequently explored throughout her literary oeuvre. The collection also demonstrates her developing interest in semiotics and linguistic signification associated with such French poststructuralist theorists as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Beginning with L'Écho bouge beau, Brossard also began a process of experimentalism in her writing, seeking to divorce her work from the misrepresentation of dominant ideologies, particularly those linked with patriarchy and its manifestations in language. In her subsequent poetic works, including Suite logique (1970), Le Centre blanc, and Mécanique jongleuse (1973; Daydream Mechanics), Brossard continued to expand and develop this effort. Le Centre blanc endeavors to displace the conventional ordering of syntactic elements such as subject, verb, and predicate in order to multiply and expand the range of signification and meaning in poetic language. Additionally, these works demonstrate Brossard's interest in the seductive and desire-laden dimensions of writing, as well as its subversive potential. Installations: Avec et sans pronoms (1989) and the prose poem La Nuit verte du Parc Labyrinthe (1992; Green Night of Labyrinth Park) offer thorough examinations of language, sexuality, subjectivity, and representation and uses such themes to suggest multivalent layers of meaning.
Brossard's narrative texts, which often feature a mélange of poetry and prose, generally dismiss traditional plotting and schemes of characterization. Un livre focuses on a small group of acquaintances and lovers whose movements, actions, and gestures form the structural center of the work and contribute to its themes of liberation, autonomy, and simultaneity. Brossard's second novel, French Kiss: étreinte/exploration (1974; French Kiss; or, A Pang's Progress), shows more of a concern with the emotions and physical sensations of the main characters, rather than conforming to traditional notions of plot or narrative. The novel follows Marielle and four other underground revolutionaries who create a short-lived utopian community, successfully staving off outside reality and Montreal's authorities before their experiment is destroyed by police intervention. Evidencing the influence of the French nouveau roman and other experimental fiction of the twentieth century, French Kiss subverts traditional modes of psychological characterization, instead offering a deep focus on the characters's movements, smell, texture, skin, and hair. Brossard's lesbian-feminist viewpoint and its consequent critique of patriarchal society is the driving force behind L'Amèr ou, le chapitre effrité: fiction théorétique (1977; These Our Mothers; or, the Disintegrating Chapter), a work that probes the psycho-social dynamics of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Another defining element of Brossard's prose is its focus on sexuality, particularly in the novels Amantes (1980; Lovhers) and Le Sens apparent (1980; Surfaces of Sense). Lovhers ostensibly takes place at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, though the work itself is more specifically a mixture of erotic poetry and utopian prose focused on the lesbian body. Drawing upon technology for its central image, Picture Theory—the term is borrowed from the theoretical work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—nevertheless critiques and transgresses notions of linear, scientific logic. Its central focus is the daily repression and potential liberation of feminine desire, which Brossard visualizes in the symbolic contexts of the hologram—a construct that employs laser light to create a seemingly animate, three-dimensional image in space. Brossard uses this image as an abstracted reference to the mystery of the feminine and of a woman's limitless potential for interpretation. In a departure from Montreal, the setting of most of her fiction, Brossard favors the symbolically suggestive desert of the American Southwest in her postmodern novel Le Désert mauve, a text that plays with categories of writing, reading, and translation. Its first portion recounts the adventures of an alienated and rebellious fifteen-year-old girl, Mélanie Kerouac, detailing her high-speed drives through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. In the novel's second section, Mélanie's narrative is transformed into a book written by an author named Laure Angstelle. In the third and final section of the volume, a woman named Maude Laures discovers Angstelle's long forgotten work and decides to translate and rework the story under the title Mauve, l'horizon. More fictionally accessible than Brossard's earlier novels, Baroque d'aube (1995; Baroque at Dawn) explores the theme of feminine imaginative desire as it follows the efforts of three women—a writer, a photographer, and an oceanographer—to understand and interpret the creative process.
Since the early 1970s, Brossard has been widely recognized as a principal figure among North American feminist intellectuals and writers. Her unique poetic voice, radical politics, and provocative interpretation of lesbian poetics have positioned Brossard as a central figure in the avant-garde movement in late-twentieth-century Québécois literature. While some commentators have criticized her fiction for its experimental and non-traditional treatment of plot and character as well as its heavily meta-literary content, many contemporary critics have praised Brossard's writing as demanding, multifaceted, and richly suggestive. Amid those undisturbed by Brossard's open challenge to existing social, cultural, literary, and political institutions, her creative and theoretical work has been regarded as among the most esteemed in contemporary Francophone literature.