[​Série Des lieux, des livres] Walk in Saint-Henri with Anne Villeneuve

There was Jean-Paul Sartre and the Café de Flore. Émile Zola and the Opera district. Stephen King and Castle Rock. Or Anne Hébert and Kamouraska. Great writers have always been associated with spaces, neighborhoods and landscapes that have marked their works. In this summer series,The duty” visit, in the company of four Quebec authors, the places that inspired them.

The sun is scorching on this late August morning. In front of the Greenspot snack bar in Saint-Henri, moist-skinned passengers, their eyes squinted with exertion, stroll with the slowness imposed by the great heat on the scorching sidewalks. The smells of smoked meat, fries and bacon have attracted wasps, which fly in swarms around the windows.

The temperature fits perfectly with the world of Anne Villeneuve, whose comic strip A long heat wave (Mécanique générale, 2017) recounts the first days of a young Madelinienne in exile in the metropolis, then weighed down by the hottest days in its history.

Unlike her character, Anne Villeneuve was not born in the Magdalen Islands. However, the native Montrealer had no trouble imagining what an islander can feel upon arriving in a big city: the feeling of suffocation, loneliness, loss of bearings. “I was 19 when I left my parents’ house, in a residential area in Ahuntsic, to land in Saint-Henri. I had never really perceived before how lucky I was to have grown up with space. Here I saw people huddled together opening and closing windows in search of air. The biggest difference is that everyone was talking to each other, throwing replicas from one balcony to another. I discovered a lively, lively, welcoming neighborhood. »

A big theater

To overcome loneliness, the cartoonist surveys her environment on foot and by bike, imagines incredible adventures, savors the fruits, vegetables and sweets of the Atwater market, attends, dumbfounded, the improvised concerts of saxophonists or harmonica players strolling along the banks of the canal. from China. Regularly, she eats a bite at the Greenspot, listening to the colorful conversations of the waitresses, these ladies who have seen others.

“I was taking my first steps into adulthood. I needed to put down roots to start building myself. In Saint-Henri, I found a starting point, an abundant, inspiring and reassuring reality that helped me find my bearings. »

Passing by the Atwater market, where she regularly came to do her shopping, the artist hurries upstairs to see if the best fresh pasta in Montreal is still sold there. The Pasta Bella is there, intact. “I remember it belonged to Italians. At the time, the father was about to hand over to his son. »

Anne Villeneuve finally remained less than five years in the district. However, nearly thirty years later, it seemed quite natural to him to make it the scene of his first comic strip; a story of emancipation drawing on both his experience and that of his daughter, who had just left the nest.

“I started doing location scouting, as if I was about to shoot a film. I retraced my steps as a young woman. The neighborhood had been transformed. Condos had replaced most apartments. Disused warehouses were also being transformed. But my landmarks had changed little or not at all. It was a crazy pleasure to find everything and reinvent the corner on my drawing board. »

Generosity and freedom

Beyond the physical places, it is the atmosphere that Anne Villeneuve miraculously succeeds in transposing into images: benevolence, solidarity, freedom.

In A long heat wave, the protagonist, Marie-Hélène, is followed one evening by a repeat offender who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. “I was inspired by a man I had met once, who had gotten on a bicycle without pedals which he pushed forward with his feet. He had a particular face, which struck me. In the evening there was a report about him on the news. »

Following the event, Marie-Hélène develops a deep friendship with a policeman, who makes it his personal mission to patrol the area and ensure the young woman’s mental security. “There is always a risk, when you are a woman, of walking alone in the street. Unfortunately, it didn’t improve. Integrating a threatening character allowed me above all, by contrast, to show the social safety net, the generosity of people who are ready to help others and allow them to settle here, with confidence. »

Over the course of her encounters and her friendships, Marie-Hélène quietly finds her bearings, makes peace with the storms she has gone through and tames the soul waves that accompany exile, releasing from page to page more in addition to confidence, poise and joy. When a friend challenges her to swim in the Lachine Canal, she first dips her toe in it, wary, before throwing herself happily into the cool waters.

“This scene is a symbol of the freedom I felt here; an opportunity to seize life head-on and become who I wanted to be. This free side is one of the reasons that makes Montreal an ideal city for young people. »

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