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May/June 2003
Vol. 35, no. 3
ISSN 1492-4676

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From no books… to national librarian

Reprinted from the Saturday, March 1, 2003, issue of the Sentinel-Tribune, Bowling Green, Ohio

Jordan Fouts, Sentinel Staff Writer

To his thick list of scholarship, leadership and service, Canadian author Roch Carrier added his first honorary degree from an American institution.

The 65-year-old National Librarian of Canada received a Doctor of Letters certificate from Bowling Green State University Tuesday, through the Pallister French-Candian Lecture Series. The series honors the work and interests of Professor Emeritus Janis Pallister, active in French-concerned arts and culture.

She noted the skill and humor of Carrier’s writing, exploring life and dynamics of bordering cultures from an often child-like perspective. He has authored dozens of novels, short stories and plays, besides serving in numerous organizations and government capacities promoting arts and education.

He directed the Canada Council for the Arts from 1994 to 1997, and became the country’s fourth National Librarian in 1999. Among other honors he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Officer of the Order of Canada.

"He was chosen because of his extraordinary lifetime achievements," said Mark Kasoff, director of the university[sic] Canadian Studies Center. "The university awards an honorary degree to people who’ve led an exceptional life, (and) I think he deserves this from Bowling Green State University."

Carrier said he was thrilled and surprised by the distinction, and praised the department for its work forging a link between national neighbors.

"The Canadian Studies Program is a well-founded program, and as a Canadian, for me, it gives me a good feeling," he said. "They work well for an understanding of Canada and an understanding between both countries."

Since the degree recognized his inspiration of younger Canadian authors while developing a distinctly French-Canadian tradition, he recounted his own youth and beginnings as an author.

Born in Sainte-Justine, Quebec  -  a village so rustic it considered receiving a plow as entrance into the world of technology  -  he grew up listening to stories from his grandmother. He still remembers details from her ghost stories, fables, and sad tales of national history.

"It was a heavy oral tradition, we had no books," he said. "So now, as the national librarian, I visit schools and tell students, "I went from zero books to being in charge of all the country’s books. Anything is possible."

As well, his father was the town gossip, often stopping short when the tidbit reached its juiciest. "He was the Larry King of the village… I learned something as a writer from him: Nobody taught me such a good recipe for where to stop a chapter."

When Carrier first saw books at age 9, brought back from his father's trips, he considered it a second birth. His world expanded with Greek and Latin classics six years later, when he began learning English in boarding school.

"They taught it like a dead language, so we won’t speak it (and) end up with English-speaking Protestant babies," he said. "But that’s the thing of the teaching business. You believe you are teaching something, but the students are learning something else."

He said translating authors like Homer and Chaucer taught him a vital quality in writing: "I discovered the music in the words. As a writer, it’s excessively important to find the words that play the music."

Still, he felt limited by knowing only writers who, as he put it, had beards or were dead. So through serving truckers at a diner he saved up for books by J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, appreciating stories he could relate to. He also wrote himself, producing about a story a day.

He thought his break would come when he met French playwright Eugene Ionesco in Paris, but the absurdist author only told him that literature is dead. He begged to differ.

"I’m not sure literature died. I think literature is more alive than at any time," he argued.

Many books later Carrier is a living legend among his own, observed Dennis Moore, public affairs officer for the Consulate General of Canada in Detroit.

He said Canadian writers often go undiscovered, despite their quality. He noted that far-reaching appeal of Carrier’s stories like "The Hockey Sweater" and "La Guerre, yes sir!", tackling issues of cultural differences and war-time public distress.

"It’s been a fun trip. One day I put some little words on a piece of paper, and everyone starts paying attention and giving me kind words," the author said. "I’m not sorry because I chose literature. It’s been a great life."