On April 5, 2006, Ann Charney was decorated, in Montreal, by Roland Goeldner of the Consulat Général de France à Québec, and became an Officier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres de France—an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. This is her translation from the French of her acceptance speech.

Ann Charney is the author of
Defiance in Their Eyes and Rousseau’s Garden, both published by Véhicule Press.

MY INTEREST IN FRANCE and its culture goes back to my childhood in Poland, when I would hear my mother speak of that country in ways that never failed to arouse my curiosity. Although I didn’t really understand the words she used to express her enthusiasm—concepts such as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity were much too abstract to mean anything to me–I could see that whenever the subject of France came up. her face became particularly animated and her voice acquired an unmistakable edge of excitement.

My mother’s Francophilia–an inclination shared by many Poles of her generation–was all the more profound given the fact that her closest friend lived in Paris. This was the woman she had chosen to be my godmother.

My curiosity about this distant place to which I was somehow linked led me to a book entitled The Splendors of France. I found it on my mother’s shelves, and I soon discovered that its many alluring illustrations had the power to rouse my imagination. Among the images that fascinated me was one depicting a merry-go-round with wooden horses, set in the midst of a vast park, identified as the Luxembourg Gardens. The riders, children about my own age, held long poles with which they attempted to detach the brass rings dangling overhead. Leafing through the book, the unknown country of my mother’s stories began to exert its charm upon me as well.

Places one comes to know through books and the workings of the imagination are often found disappointing in the harsh light of reality. But when I finally arrived in France to stay with my mother’s friend, whose name was Zosia, I had the feeling that my real life was about to begin at the age of twenty.

Make sure you have passport with you, “ Zosia said, before I even had a chance to unpack properly. “We’re going to march against the war in Algeria.” I knew very little about the war, but in the vast crowd overflowing Place de la République that night, the abstract, incomprehensible words that had floated around me during my childhood suddenly took on meaning, a meaning as palpable as the bodies of the people pressing against me on all sides.

While Zosia saw to my political and gastronomic education–despite her fierce commitment to Socialism, she did not scorn the delights of good bourgeois cuisine–professors at the Sorbonne, where I was now enrolled as a student, took on the task of acquainting me with the literary works of the great French writers of the past.

Amongst the many new literary voices vying for my attention, I found myself increasingly drawn to the writings of Marcel Proust. Here was a writer with whom I appeared to have nothing in common, and yet he seemed to know all my secret longings, as well as the failings I didn’t like to acknowledge even to myself. Reading Proust, I understood the power of literature: to reveal the true nature of the human condition, unmutable across time, space, and gender lines. I decided I would devote my thesis to his great novel, Remembrance of Things Past.

As far back as I could remember, I had wanted to be a writer. But it was during that first year in Paris–inspired by my readings of Proust, and the city that had served as a refuge for so many writers from all over the world–that I began to write my first book, an autobiographical novel based on recollections of my childhood in Poland.

Upon returning to Montreal to continue my graduate studies in French literature, I discovered a city that seemed to me suddenly far more alive and interesting than the one I had left in such a hurry three years earlier. But the truth was I was the one who had changed, not the city. Thanks to my stay in France, I was now sufficiently fluent in French to be able to enjoy the rich and varied attractions of this great Francophone city in North America–all previously unknown to me.

My first stay in France was followed by many others, each in turn strengthening and diversifying the ties that bind me to that country. During several of these visits I had the pleasure of seeing my books published in France, and the delightful experience of finding them in the bookstores that I had frequented as a student. And now this honor from the French Order of Arts and Letters, a distinction I had never anticipated.

I hope this fragment of personal history has succeeded in conveying the importance I attach to this award as well as the pleasure with which I accept it. I am most grateful for the recognition you have granted me today.