Character Sketch: Michel Tremblay’s “Nana”

Margo Kane as Nana in the 2013 production of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival (Photo by Barbara Zimonick)

The character known as Nana appears in multiple works by Michel Tremblay. This formidable woman is beloved by all of Tremblay’s readers. But where did Nana come from? What was she like as a child? What are the experiences that shaped her? In his recent novel series, we come to know the answers to these questions. And we come to know Nana as she once was known – as Rhéauna.

In The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant (1981 in English, and Tremblay’s first novel), seven women in a raucous Francophone working-class Montreal neighbourhood in 1942 are pregnant – but only one of them, “the fat woman,” is bearing a child of true love and affection. We never learn her name in this novel, but we know from the context of other books by Tremblay that “the fat woman” is Nana.

She is a peripheral character in Tremblay’s classic play, Les Belles-Soeurs (1972 in French [joual], 1992 in English), as well as his novels The First Quarter of the Moon (1994 in English) and The Duchess and the Commoner (1999 in English).

Only in the novel A Thing of Beauty (1998 in English) do we learn the name of “the fat woman,” whose nephew faces his own demons and her imminent departure from this world. Nana’s death, and her son’s memories of their relationship, are lovingly portrayed in the play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (1998 in English).

Nana was marvellously played by Nicola Cavendish in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again at Toronto’s Centaur Theatre in 2000. Dennis O’Connor played the Narrator

It is well known that Nana is based on the Tremblay’s own mother, and he shares more explicitly autobiographical memories of Nana in his book of short prose pieces, Bonbons Assortis / Assorted Candies (2002 in French, 2006 in English) and its dramatic counterpart, Assorted Candies for the Theatre (2007).

Until recently, however, readers of Tremblay’s beloved books had no window into Nana’s own childhood or the history of her fictitious but semi-autobiographical family life.

Crossing the Continent (2012 in English), the first in Tremblay’s Desrosiers Diaspora series of novels, forms the missing link. It serves as a prequel to the story of the characters in his great Chronicles of Plateau Mont-Royal, among which are many of the books mentioned above. Crossing the Continent tells the story of Rhéauna’s childhood and her eventual first steps into adult worlds.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to a Cree mother and a French father, Rhéauna was sent with her two younger sisters, Béa and Alice, to be raised on her maternal grandparents’ farm in Sainte-Maria-de-Saskatchewan, a francophone Catholic enclave of two hundred souls. Then, in 1913, at the age of ten, amid swaying fields of wheat under the idyllic prairie sky of her loving foster family, Nana is suddenly told by her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in five years and who now lives in Montreal, to come “home” and help take care of her new baby brother. So it is that Nana, with her faint recollection of the smell of the sea, embarks alone on an epic journey by train through Regina, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, on which she encounters a dizzying array of strangers and distant relatives, including Ti-Lou, the “she-wolf of Ottawa.”

And now the story is taken up again: in Crossing the City, the second novel of the series, we learn more about Rhéauna as well as Tremblay’s maternal grandmother, who, though largely uneducated, was a voracious reader and introduced him to the world of reading and books. This novel explores the mother-daughter relationship of Rhéauna and Maria as they raise Maria’s baby – Nana’s new half-brother – in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.

Look for Crossing the City in Fall 2014.