This interview took place originally as a written interview between Clayton (Clay) McKee and Mich Beyer (Mich) in French. It is translated here by Clayton McKee If you’d like to listen to the podcast episode made with this article, check it out here

Clay: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Mich: Hello! My name is Michèle Beyer and I am 74 years old. I was born in Douarnenez where I currently live. Before my hometown, I lived here and there: Paris, Quimper, Rennes, Botmeur in the Monts of Arrée. I completed my studies in classic and modern letters in Paris. I worked in a lot of different domains, but my main job for 8 years was as a teacher in maternal and primary Diwan schools, which is a network of Breton-language immersive schools. Then, for about 20 years, I was an instructor for adults of Breton learning structures, for example, Stummdi, Roudour, and Kelenn.

Clay: What is your relationship to Breton? Did you speak it at home when you were young? Did you learn it later on as an adult? 

Mich: My family came from various regions of France. My dad was from Alsace and French Flanders. My mother was from Brittany. I learned a lot of Breton when I was a child from my mother, family, and nearby neighbors. But that suddenly stopped when I went to primary school in the Parisian region. I missed Breton and I started studying it when I was a teenager. At first, it was by letter, and then later, when I returned to my home region, I took night classes, went to immersive workshops, and talked to childhood Breton-speaking friends.

Clay: What’s the status of Breton in Brittany today? How about more generally in France?

Mich: What a tough question! We estimate that there are about 280,000 speakers with a quickly disappearing number of elders. The majority of this elder generation spoke Breton but did not read or write in their language because it was forbidden at school. But, luckily, since the birth of the Diwan immersive schools in 1977, then the implementation of private and public bilingual channels as well as the growing number of organizations for adult education which propose long courses of 6 or 9 months, the situation is changing. The majority of new speakers are coming from urban areas and the majority of them are young. Furthermore, for the last 20 years or so, Breton has become a source of employment for teaching, socio-cultural entertainment, media, cinema, and even computing. I don’t have specific stats in mind but I think that the image of Breton has changed a lot. One of the signs of this larger visibility is the appearance of Breton on road signs, in cities, in certain administrations, or its use by many companies at least in terms of advertising. There is more visibility, but we are still in a very precarious situation. The French State does everything to halt and hinder this progress. The official dogma of French is that it’s the “language of the Republic” and this centralist force is wreaking havoc.

Clay: Talk a bit about your writing career. How many books have you published? Do you write solely in Breton? Are there any themes that inspire you in particular? Or do you write about what inspires you at the moment?

Mich: I started writing when I was a primary and maternal schoolteacher because we were sorely missing books for children. So, I wrote three novels and one short story collection for children and young teens. Then I stopped because of not having enough time. I got back into writing in the early 2000s but for adults this time. Planedenn paotr e bluenn (The Destiny of the One Who Wrote) is my thirteenth published book. I only write in Breton.

Inspiration is difficult to define. It varies. There are a lot of things that are tied to social relations between people, including violence. My stories range from today to older times (the Middle Ages, the 17th century, etc.). There are connections to art, individuals, society, and more. Sometimes, it’s one person in particular who inspires me, but it’s only a jumping-off point. Amongst my books, there are three detective novels, because it’s a literary genre that I love, but also because between two books that are “serious,” it’s really relaxing to work on a crime novel.

Clay: In 2022, you published Planedenn paotre bluenn / The Destiny of the One Who Wrote. We are very excited to include that in our issue Essential New Literature of Lesser-Known Languages of Europe. You can find the excerpt here. Can you tell us a bit about this text?

Mich: I often say it’s easier to write a book than to summarize one. This one is a very incomplete story about a young man living in a difficult time between war and sickness.

Clay: Why did you decide to write a story set in 1920? Why did you concentrate on the need to physically and psychologically heal? 

    Mich: I was inspired by my great uncle for the main character. I was very close to him and he was around twenty years old at the beginning of the First World War (1914-1918). He also had tuberculosis before dying at just around 100 years old! But, it’s not a biography whatsoever. I played off of his real life a lot! I wanted to write this story because in it I saw a ton of similarities with the worries and anxieties of youth today: the pandemic, general stress, and the risk of widespread war, etc. The young also yearn to change the world but their hopes seem blocked.

    Clay: The choice of language for a publication is very important. There are many scholars and authors, in particular, those who work in relation to the continent of Africa, who debate whether it’s better to publish in a language from colonization to reach a wider audience or in a native language for a local audience. Why do you choose to write in Breton? What does the language do for you (or for Brittany) by publishing in it?

    Mich: I never really thought about the choice of language. Breton is the language that I chose for my family, professional, and activist life. I live in a country in which language is very mistreated by the centralist State. We need books in our language. The young need it. French-language readers have a ton of things to read already, there’s no need to add further to it. Breton-language readers, even if they’re a minority, they need materials. We need new writers as well. It’s important to show others the path. To show that it’s possible to create and be creative in our language. But what I’m saying is not just true for literature. It’s needed as well for cinema, theater, and music and its diverse genres: rock, slam, rap, traditional, etc. It’s really needed across all types of media and cultural production.

    Clay: Can you share any resources about the language or to help us learn more about it and its culture?

    Mich: There are a ton of associations that offer language classes. Here are three: Skol an Emsav allows people to take classes in Rennes, Nantes, or even online. You can access their site here. Stumdi is another organization that provides classes for language. You can go to Stumdi’s website for information on this organization. Last is Mervent, you can access it at Mervent’s website, and it also has various classes and resources to learn for those interested. There are also full university curriculum in Breton that go the whole way through doctorate level, in particular in Rennes. There are also professional trainings and teacher trainings. For those who have attained a level that is sufficient to live their daily life in Breton, there is an immersive summer training where you can come with your whole family for one to two weeks. You can find information about this immersive camp here. Honesetly there are a ton of resources out there and it’s impossible to make a full list.

    Clay: What are you working on now?

    Mich: I don’t really have too many writing projects at the moment. But I’m translating a lot. I am translating from French into Breton The House of the People by Louis Guilloux, A Rector of the Ile de Sein by Henri Queffelec, The Empires of the Moon by Savinien Cyrano de Berjerac which is a political science fiction novel from the 17th century, and in this very moment, I am collaborating with an Icelandic translator friend on the translation of Jon Kalman Stefansson’s trilogy. I also do technical translations for expositions, associations, and various research projects for local cultural heritage. I also participate in a commission on literary translation under the guidance of the regional council for the public office of Breton language, which financially helps editors and translation for the translation of important works of world literature.

       

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