Xavier Gould reflects on their experience as a non-binary Acadian artist
At the bilingual event Beyond French Fragility, Xavier Gould spoke about “the power that exists within the chiac dialect,” language as a tool for the discovery of identity, and linguistic insecurity. For me, as someone who can never choose between her two languages, the Acadian dialect chiac is the perfect embodiment of never having to. The event created a welcoming, safe, productive, and engaged environment for the discussion of Acadian and queer issues.
Xavier Gould is a queer, non-binary Acadian multidisciplinary artist who grew up in Shediac. The school system, French media, and Gould’s parents encouraged the use of standard French rather than chiac. Gould commented that their mother wanted her children to get steady jobs, and to do that, they had to speak and write “proper” French.
Chiac originates from southeastern New Brunswick but is spoken throughout Acadie. It combines English words, French words, and old French words and was born of impoverished Acadians. Gould started speaking chiac only in high school “out of frustration” of not being allowed to speak it at home.
Gould came to Mt. A in 2012 looking to find a queer community and chosen family and to discover what kind of life they wanted to lead, but they did not find the queer liberation they were looking for. They explained that they were in a weird place where “something didn’t feel right.” They were looking for a new community while having just left their Acadian home behind.
Gould started a blog in 2017, during their last year at Mt. A, part of which included improvised comedic videos in which they played a character named Jass-Sainte Bourque. These videos were the beginning of Gould’s queer Acadian journey of discovery. They said that “what happened was kind of beautiful. [They] didn’t expect it to connect with Acadians the way it did.”
Jass-Sainte allowed Gould to access the chiac they hadn’t been free to speak before, and Gould let their queerness come forth through the language. Standard French is a gendered language without gender-neutral pronouns, but when speaking chiac, it is simple to substitute a gendered French word for a gender-neutral English word. Gould called those videos their “linguistic drag” because they borrowed tones and expressions used primarily by southeastern Acadian women.
Gould acknowledged that the success of their videos among Acadian communities came partly from the fact that they are white and male-passing. However, they also believe that their videos are funny and “unapologetically chiac [and that] people felt liberated by that.”
There was a big shift in 2019 for Gould, which was a result of Blaine Higgs becoming Premier of New Brunswick and Gould’s own increased reading of queer memoirs by trans and non-binary authors. These events “politicized who [Gould] was as opposed to who Jass-Sainte was,” and a discrepancy grew between the person Xavier Gould and the character Jass-Sainte Bourque. Gould decided to shift gears and become a more explicitly political artist, which is when they began their career in drag with their character Chiquita Mére. Through drag, they explored morality, their Acadian identity, and their identity beyond the gender binary.
Their sculpture iel est moi, mais yelle est mon hook, a manifestation of the rejection of stereotypical Acadian symbols, was on display at the Galerie sans nom in 2019. It was an important piece for Gould because it was the first time they put the word “iel” out in the world. “Yelle,” which has the same pronunciation as “iel,” was already a chiac word, meaning “that woman over there,” but Gould was using it in this piece as a gender-neutral pronoun combining the masculin and feminine pronouns in French, “il” and “elle.”
The public was not ready to embrace this new French pronoun because it had the potential to change the well-worn language system. Contributing factors to the francophone community’s resistance to gender-neutral pronouns were, of course, transphobia and a lack of education, but linguistic insecurity also played a part. This is what Gould means by French fragility: the idea that the language might break or die out if three letters are combined in a new way in order to include a group of people underrepresented in the French language. In short, the public’s worries are ridiculous; the creation of new words is how language evolves.
Gould started writing poetry as a way to gain more control over their language. During the event, they read a poem called “L’Acadie Queer est:,” which was born out of the frustration of being a white settler while also growing up with trauma and how to reconcile that. In the poem, Gould reflects on what it means to live on land that is not theirs while at the same time not having land to call their own.
Mona, a short film created by Gould and their partner Samuel Landry, won the award for the best short film in 2021 at the Festival international du cinéma francophone en Acadie. The film is about a drag queen auditioning for America’s Next Top Model and is entirely in chiac. Gould commented that “chiac gave [them] a voice, chiac gave [them] power, and now, it is part of [their] art. Chiac is present in the work and saying what it needs to say and doing what it needs to do.”
Chiac is often looked down on by speakers of standard French because it follows its own rules and incorporates English words (into French syntax). A question from the audience asked how Gould lives out their chiac in the midst of other communities. Gould responded that you just have to “deal with it [and] suppress the impulse to speak ‘proper’ French with ‘proper’ French speakers.” They added that “people outside the region just don’t know. That’s why it’s important to make art, [to show that] we exist nevertheless, [that] we’re still there, which is better than not existing at all.”
Gould’s work is revolutionary; they are leading a discovery of identity through art and language and creating space for linguistic minorities and queer people within linguistic minorities. They declared that they are “no longer fixating on what [they] don’t want, and instead creating stories […] that [they] do want.”