Kathleen Stein-Smith and Fabrice Jaumont, eds., 

French All Around Us (Non-fiction) 

Reviewed by Mary Rice-DeFosse

KATHLEEN STEIN-SMITH and FABRICE JAUMONT, EDS., French All Around Us: French Language and Francophone Culture in the United States. TBR Books, 2022. ISBN: 9781636072081

reviewed by Mary Rice-DeFosse

French All Around Us is a collection of essays that present the lives of French-speaking people in the contemporary United States or people who identify with French-speaking communities and cultures because of their heritage. It is, for the most part, a book foregrounded by personal stories rather than traditional research, although a number of well-known scholars and educators contributed to the project. The authors come from or live in a number of distinct French heritage communities that vary by their histories and geographic contexts. These communities include both descendants of colonial settlers and newer immigrant populations.

The editors are well-known proponents of the importance of multilingualism, with particular focus on French. Kathleen Stein-Smith is a foreign language educator who has critiqued the deficit of foreign language education in the US. Fabrice Jaumont is at present the Education Attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States and author of The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education Is in Two Languages (2017). It is not surprising to find essays here on bilingual programs, like the contributions from Marine Havel, president of the Foundation FLAM (Français Langue maternelle) USA, or Agnès Ndiaye Tounkara, Program Officer of the French Language Heritage Program in New York. These essays, like that of Etienne A. Kouakou, an Ivoirian who primarily teaches English as a Second Language in New York, speak at length to the beneficial outcomes of bilingual education in terms of enhanced cognitive skills, greater educational potential, and greater earning potential. 

However, what is most compelling in these and other essays are the individual experiences that have shaped the authors’ paths. Jean Mirvil, for example, traces his trajectory as a foreign language educator who has taught in New York, Gabon, and Haiti at various times. He found he needed to develop various dual and trilingual models while teaching a second or third language to students. Often authors focus on projects they have created. Mélissa Baril founded Le Caribou à lunettes in Detroit to give people in the United States, including her own children, access to children’s literature in French. Ben Levine and Julia Schulz reveal refreshing insight into behind-the-scenes interactions while making their film Waking Up French. Timothy Beaulieu explains the inception of the New Hampshire PoutineFest; Melody Desjardins, educated in Iowa, traces her slow awakening to her Franco roots and the creation of her blog, modernefrancos.com; Jesse Martineau and his sister Monique Cairns tell of their trajectory in creating the French Canadian Legacy podcast and blog; and Anthony Desrois of Florida, a sportswriter for GetFrenchFootballNews, candidly writes of his Franco-American identity as a place of insecurity and ultimately, a refuge. 

Some authors here are scholars who engage in a form of interdisciplinary autoethnography. Elizabeth Blood writes on the importance of the Richelieu Clubs in New England, but she does so as someone searching for her Franco-American roots who joins her club to establish a connection to her local Franco community.  Likewise, Katharine Harrington acknowledges the turn in her own career toward North American French while teaching in Maine’s Saint John Valley and later at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where she engaged students with businesses and tourism providers and co-founded the Bienvenue au New Hampshire initiative.

A number of essays are dedicated to the French speakers of Louisiana, where the state government’s Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) supports new initiatives in linguistic activism, as Margaret P. Justus enumerates in her essay. Joseph Dunn’s piece suggests cultural tourism as a means to revitalize heritage languages in the state; and Scott Tilton, founder with husband Rudy Bazinet of the Nous Foundation, marks the importance of the initiative that has made Louisiana the first US state to become a member of the International Organization of the Francophonie. Jerry L. Parker gives an African-American perspective on French language learning in Louisiana, while Georgie V. Ferguson gives a fascinating account of growing up in the Franco-Indien dialect of Pointe au Chien, underscoring the multiplicity of French language experiences in North America.

This collection sometimes grapples with the tensions between francophone communities and identities. Emmanuel Kayembe offers a familiar perspective on la survivance, an ideology of cultural superiority adopted by francophone elites in Canada and New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kayembe views la survivance not as a response to anglophone hegemony, but as a colonizing impulse rooted in an obdurate quest for cultural purity, and suggests that French must instead become a means for bridging cultural divides. Despite this and a few other passing references to “the weight of France’s colonial past” (Tounkara 46), this volume is firmly focused on the many post-colonial varieties of French and francophone experience in a country where English dominates and anglophone cultural constructions have shaped the identities of immigrants, past and present, including new immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean racialized as “Black” (46). David Cheramie’s witty contribution pokes fun at the absurdity of writing an essay on being “French” in English because of a fractured linguistic past. He expresses his Cajun and Creole identity best in a French that is not shaped by an English template. Author Robert Perrault’s memories of growing up and going to school in Manchester, New Hampshire, southern New England and Paris, France include encounters with ethnic and linguistic prejudice not only from monolingual English speakers, but also from francophones who could not understand that he was an Américain, who spoke fluent French, but with un accent canadien (201).  

David Vermette gives a clear-sighted appreciation of the potential for a Franco-American revival given the growth of Franco-American creativity, especially in new media.  He also emphasizes the importance of recognizing the cross-generational trauma of Franco-Americans who lived in grinding poverty as second-class citizens in Canada and New England and who have often lost their connections to the French language and to their roots in Québec or Canada, where society has evolved differently than in the United States. Vermette focuses on a Franco-American identity less defined by language and more defined by individual choice and agency, a tendency that is roundly amplified in some of the personal stories showcased in this book. 

The volume is unapologetically enthusiastic about the French language and French-speaking cultural heritage. This is not surprising, given the inspirational roles the editors and contributors have played in their lives and work. However, there are poignant reminders of the language loss that many Americans of French-speaking heritage have endured. The book’s significance lies in the many individual voices that it brings together in a polyphony that well mirrors the many kinds of French language spoken in the United States, as well as the diversity of French heritage identities found here.