Report from the West Coast: ASP’s Joanna Biggar Talks Paris, Then and Now
March 28, 2018
The San Francisco Bay Area Group met March 10th for a timely presentation by Joanna Biggar, whose first novel, That Paris Year, was published by ASP in 2010. Here’s a report:
Joanna began her talk, entitled, “I Will Always Have Paris: A Writer in the City of Light,” by saying it would not be a PowerPoint, but rather a show and tell, subjective, intuitive, and circular. She began by reading a segment of her essay in Wandering in Paris: Luminaries and Love in the City of Light, an anthology she co-edited, in which she told of her fascination with Paris 50 years ago. In 1962, at age 19, she hitchhiked from Belgium to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Immediately struck by the aromas, sounds, and light, she then became fascinated by the women in French history who left their mark on the country: Geneviève, Patron Saint of Paris, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Héloise and Abelard, 12th-century writers renowned for their erotic love letters. Héloise was of particular interest, being young, romantic, and a writer, as Joanna wanted to be.
Joanna was first attracted to France by the sound of the language, then the films, the full range from historical to surreal to art, and finally by books and poetry, especially Proust, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire. Like any romance, Paris had its ups and downs and contradictions. It was stylish and chic, yet snobbish and anti-American; the Sorbonne had great respect for learning, yet was sexist and barbaric. Yet her love of Paris and desire to be a writer persisted through graduate school, marriage, a move to Ghana, and a divorce. Finally in 1980, Joanna became a writer, first a journalist travelling to France as much as possible, then an essayist and novelist to tell her stories. She concluded her presentation comparing the 1960s and now through seven characteristics that define Paris: language, food, art, ideas and reverence for intellect, love and sex, style and history. She finds French identity is still entwined with its history, and sense of heritage, or patrimoine, despite having embraced much of American culture, while lamenting, along with many of us, our current political situation.