Referred to as "the first erotic novel written by an Indigenous woman in French", Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau's
The Lover, the Lake (Freehand Books) celebrates the intimacy and love between two people, but also their interconnectedness with the natural world. In this edition of Where in Canada, the novel's setting on the shores of Lake Abitibi is brought into focus, representing the source of this connection—both idyllic and tenuous.
Who: Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau is an artist and writer of Cree origin. She has published three novels and four poetry collections in French, and received the 2020 Artist of the Year Award from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Quebec. She lives in Abitibi, in northwest Quebec.
Susan Ouriou is an award-winning editor, writer, and literary translator, and has won the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation for her work. She lives in Calgary.
Where in Canada:
Lake Abitibi: a large lake, over 900 square kilometres, spanning the Ontario–Quebec border. Author Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau lives in the Abitibi region of northwest Quebec, and it’s here that she sets her World War II–era novel The Lover, the Lake.
The Lover, the Lake was called “the first erotic novel written by an Indigenous woman in French” when it was first published in Quebec. While the novel is a love story between two people (Wabougouni, an Anishinaabe woman, and Gabriel, a Métis man), it’s equally a love story between these people and the lake, between these people and the whole natural world around them. It celebrates the sensuality of pleasure and intimacy shared between two people, but also the intimacy and sensuality of the scent of fir trees, the “mist that frayed and dispersed in the light breeze,” the “geese sweeping the sky with hushed wings.” These moments of wilderness and wonder are both entirely everyday and entirely extraordinary.
In Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau’s Abitibi, the lake and her people are intrinsically linked and interdependent. Every action of one affects the other; if one is harmed, the other is harmed. The lake even rises up to punish the outsiders who are responsible for betraying one of her own people. It can easily be taken as a lesson in how essential it is to treat the natural world with the greatest respect and care, and how everyone flourishes when the earth flourishes.
And yet not all is an idyllic paradise in The Lover, the Lake. Wabougouni and her grandmother see how much their way of life is being threatened, how their connection to the natural world is under attack, how their people’s “territories would shrink to next to nothing, parcelled up by newcomers greedy for land and the earth’s gold.” That essential connection to the land is also one that’s tenuous. Worth fighting for fiercely.
When Gabriel appears out of the blue one day on the shores of Lake Abitibi, Wabougouni’s community doesn’t know what to think. Wabougouni is drawn to him instantly, but some of the other women view their fledgling relationship disapprovingly, judgmentally. But Wabougouni’s grandmother, Zagkigan Ikwe, sees something that the others cannot. She sees that the lake loves Gabriel – that it caresses him when he swims in its depths, that it protects him from danger. And so she offers her silent blessing and benediction: “Egoudeh, egoudeh, n’skoumiss . . . Just so, just so, my granddaughter . . . Love, be loved in beauty, vibrate in each fibre of your being and in the youth of your two bodies, be thankful, my dearest! Be loved by this man who is loved by the lake.”
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