Marie Houzelle –
linguiste du mois de novembre 2014

Entretien avec Jonathan Goldberg pour le blog Le mot juste en anglais


LMJ : Où êtes-vous née  et où avez-vous grandi ?

Marie LezignanJe suis née à Toulouse, et j’ai grandi à Lézignan-Corbières, une petite ville du sud de la France, entre Narbonne et Carcassonne. À 14 ans, après la mort de mon père, j’ai suivi ma mère à Toulouse, où j’ai continué mes études.

LMJ : À l’école, vous avez appris le latin, l’espagnol et l’anglais. J’imagine qu’en dehors de l’école, l’occitan était très présent, malgré les efforts des autorités pour l’exclure.

J’ai suivi des cours de latin et d’anglais puis d’espagnol au collège Joseph-Anglade, à Lézignan. Joseph Anglade, né à Lézignan en 1868, après une thèse à l’université de Montpellier sur le troubadour Guiraut Riquier, a complété sa formation en Allemagne (Bonn, Fribourg-en-Brisgau). Il est devenu professeur de langue et littérature occitane à l’université de Marie - l'institutToulouse et a fondé l’Institut d’Études Méridionales. Pendant mes premières années de collège, je ne savais rien de lui. Mais chaque automne, pendant les vendanges, j’aimais écouter les vieilles dames qui travaillaient près de moi et conversaient en occitan. Je leur posais parfois des questions sur la langue, et un jour l’une d’elles s’est écriée : « Mais elle veut tout savoir ! Elle est comme Josèp Anglada. ». Elles l’avaient bien connu et avaient été ses informatrices pour Contribution à l’étude du languedocien moderne : le patois de Lézignan (Aude). Elles s’étonnaient encore qu’on puisse s’intéresser à un patois méprisé par la plupart des citadins.

À la fin du XIXe siècle l’école, devenue obligatoire, a imposé le français comme langue unique. Les punitions et humiliations étaient fréquentes quand il arrivait aux enfants d’utiliser entre eux à l’école la langue qu’ils parlaient à la maison. Le résultat de cette politique – mais aussi d’une urbanisation croissante – est qu’au milieu du XXe siècle l’Occitan, encore vivant dans les campagnes, est souffreteux dans les villes. On l’entend sur les marchés, on le comprend, et presque tout le monde le parle de temps en temps, mais il s’agit souvent d’expressions figées, de proverbes. On peut recourir à l’occitan pour parler du temps, de la vigne, des relations familiales, des nouvelles locales, et pour les jugements moraux, les moqueries, les compliments, les injures. Mais quand il s’agit de l’école, de la littérature, du cinéma, de la politique nationale, le français s’impose.

Vous pourrez lire la suite de cet entretien dans le blog Le mot juste en anglais




author of Moonlight in Odessa, asked me some intriguing questions about Tita, Paris, music, and Catholic rituals.

Here are some extracts of the interview published on


You were born in the south and now live just outside Paris. What brought you to Paris? What keeps you here?

I grew up in a small southern town. Staying there never felt like an option. I liked Lézignan and defended it when attacked, but I was going to study in a city, live in a city.

Before I was thirteen my father had died; soon my mother moved to Toulouse to work, and we followed her after a while. The summer I was seventeen, I met my first husband at an international work camp in Bavaria. He was a Parisian.

Paris, at first, felt incongruous, flawed; and intriguing. Or was it marriage? Pregnancy? After a few months, we moved to Berlin and, for me, the charms of an unknown language. When we came back to Paris after two years, I started relaxing into the city – it helped that my work often kept me away from it.

I settled in Ivry with my second husband, a painter. I had three children by then, and our family needed more room than we could afford in Paris. It was quite an adventure – with more than we could afford to borrow, we each bought a loft without windowpanes, floors, electricity, plumbing, or inner partitions and started from there. He had skills and grit; I had nothing, but I was game, and I learned (a little). We both loved Ivry – not exactly at first sight, but as soon as Lucien began running into old friends and we made many new ones. Ivry is exuberant and tranquil, intensely artistic, and very international. I enjoy staying in Brooklyn, Harlem, the West Village, Berkeley or Amsterdam, but I’m always thrilled when I come back to Ivry – and Paris.

Tita is fascinated, even obsessed, by Catholic rituals. How did this obsession come about? How does it relate to the themes of your novel?

For Tita, Catholic rituals are captivating. With incense, flowers, stories, music and pageantry in a resonant Gothic church, they are feasts for all the senses. They link her very limited experience with a long history and a wide world. Latin, particularly, creates an esoteric effect: Tita wants to pierce its mysteries.

Around the middle of the novel Tita notices that, although she still enjoys her mother’s cuddles, she no longer needs them. She soon feels the same detachment from Our Holy Mother Church, as if the two devotions had complemented each other: when one is gone, the other wilts. This happens after an accident illustrates the pitfalls of her attachment to her mother.

Why do you write in English?

I’m not sure why I write in English. Or why I mostly sing in German and Latin. Last week, I felt like writing in Dutch, I had such a good time trying to pronounce it. French? I’m not fond of the word écrivain, not to mention écrivaine. While I feel quite comfortable with writer.

I teach creative writing to French university students. What advice do you have for them concerning writing in English?

Feel free. In a new language, you can be a new person. Don’t try to write either correctly or “like a native speaker”. English is a welcoming language. Many countries, no Academy. Enjoy it.

You’ll find the rest on:, interviewed me on 9 septembre 2014. Here too, a few extracts: 

Marie Houzelle grew up in the south of France, but now lives just outside Paris in Ivry. Her stories and poems have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Best Paris Stories and many other publications and  compilations. « Hortense on Tuesday Night » was chosen by Narrative Magazine as one of the five top stories of 2011. Her novel Tita, about a 7 year old in the south of France in the 1950s is published this month. Marie tells us a little bit about herself and her Paris favorites our interview.

When, where and how did you first come across FUSAC? A long time ago; maybe at the American Library.

When and why did you come to Paris? A long time ago, after marrying a Parisian.

What was your first job in France? The grape harvest, when I was twelve.

How did you get started writing? I don’t remember not writing. As a child, journals, poems, in various languages. As a teen-ager, leaflets and songs. Later, I experimented with forms. All the while keeping away from fiction.

What is the most satisfying thing about writing fiction? Freedom.

What is the oddest request a reader or publisher has made? An editor asked if , in a very European novel, the “love interest” at least could be American rather than German. She felt that it would make the book more attractive to American readers.

What was the impetus for writing your new novel “Tita”? The material I worked on was inspired by childhood memories; the impetus was the wish for a small, self-contained shape: short chapters, limited time frame, restricted world, little girl…

What is your chief characteristic? Who knows?

What proves you are French? I am (more or less) acquainted with most European languages, which might or might not make me European. French? I abhor camembert, roquefort, brie, and pont-l’évêque, so…

Your favorite occupation other than writing? Chamber music.

What are you currently reading? Molière’s L’École des femmes

The most significant author you have read? Or the most addictive, and the funniest: Marcel Proust.

What was the first book you remember reading? The comtesse de Ségur’s Les Petites Filles Modèles.

Your motto: Do I need one? Let’s see. Yes, from Bach cantata 144 (I was singing it in June): Murre nicht, “Don’t complain”.

The French expression that makes you smile. Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier* (I don’t have it).

Favorite smell? Fig leaves.

Favorite comfort food? Aubergines au poisson (eggplant and fish), at LaoViet, 24 bd Masséna.

Favorite quote? “I like not to speak a language well, not to master anything; I like to be in an uneasy place where I don’t belong.” Bernardo Carvalho, interviewed by Xavier de la Porte on France Culture radio, Des idées sous les platanes, July 11 (my translation).

You’ll find the rest on: http://www.fusac.


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