Emily St. John Mandel and the Allure of Languages


I’ll be introducing Emily St. John Mandel as she reads from her debut novel, Last Night in Montreal, at the Mercantile Library (17 E 47th St) this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. The story unfolds like a mystery as Eli, a perpetual grad student specializing in languages that nobody speaks any more, tries to understand why his girlfriend, Lilia, just up and vanished from Brooklyn—and though Michaela, an exotic dancer in Montreal, can tell him, she’s holding back the information until he tells her something else about Lilia’s past… which we also see from her perspective.

(You’ll also want to come hear Greg Ames read from his debut novel, Buffalo Lockjaw—and you can read my Q&A with him Tuesday over at Maud Newton’s website, but if you care about great writing, you’re probably reading that already. Right?)

Do you share Eli’s fascination with extinct languages? Is there one where the disappearance strikes you as particularly poignant?

I do share Eli’s fascination with extinct languages. What strikes me as particularly poignant isn’t so much the loss of any one specific language, but the way in which so many of them die: in the end, after decades of gradual attrition, it often comes down to one last speaker. When that last speaker dies, the language dies with them.

There was a particularly heartbreaking quote in The New York Times that I read a few years back—the reporter had gone to the Amazon to interview Natalia Sangama, the last woman who spoke a language called Chamicuro. She told the reporter, “I dream in Chamicuro, but I cannot tell my dreams to anyone. Some things cannot be said in Spanish. It’s lonely being the last one.”

You lived in Montreal briefly before coming to New York. Was your experience there as disheartening as Eli’s or Michaela’s? (And while we’re on the subject, how’s your French?)

My French, regrettably, is virtually non-existent, although I’m very good at saying “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French” and “A bowl of cafe au lait, please” en francais. I consider this both a personal failing and a gap in my education; French is a required subject in Canadian schools, but I was homeschooled as a child and never picked up the language, and I grew up in a region (the west coast) where almost no one speaks French. When I arrived in Montreal, I’d only heard French spoken in passing maybe five or six times.

As the casual reader of my novel might guess, my experience in Montreal wasn’t overwhelmingly pleasant. I’d been under the impression that Montreal was a bilingual city and that therefore I could get by in English for a few months while I learned French. This turned out not to be the case.

What are you working on these days?

I actually just sold my second novel to Unbridled Books, which is tremendously exciting; I’ve loved working with them on Last Night in Montreal, and it’s a joy to have the opportunity to work with them on a second project. I’ve been working on revising the second novel; it’s called The Singer’s Gun, and it’ll come out in spring 2010. I’ve started writing my third novel, but only barely.

11 May 2009 | interviews |