Writing Canadian Women Writing
A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing. Ed. Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli. Edmonton: Longspoon/Newest, 1986. xi, 427pp.
A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing. A maze of thirty-eight essays into which the reader as reviewer moves, essays that Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli offer as "events in the unwinding spiral of women's writing in Canada, moments of pause in that unwinding in which the writers and critics look back at their tradition and look forward to works yet to be written" (xi). Looking back, looking forward: reviewing. Re: back or again (OED). View: an interview or meeting. Neuman and Kamboureli's work as editors, as well as that of writers their collection includes, spirals out of interviews and meetings, conversations and conferences. Many of the voices that spoke at the Women and Words / Les femmes et les mots conference held in Vancouver in 1983 speak or are spoken of here. Neuman and Kamboureli write of Women and Words as "the first public feminist forum to foster . . . multicultural interchange" (Preface ix); Gail Scott looks back on the conference as "a turning point, with feminists showing new appreciation for the relationship between their struggle for profound change and so-called 'experimental' writing by women" (371). Such an appreciation underlies the pronounced emphasis in A Mazing Space on essays by and about contemporary and Québécoise writers, and the stated editorial "preference for essays that addressed questions of language and questions of women's relationship to hegemonic cultural models" (Preface x). A statement of preferences in the context of this collection, however, is not a statement of editorial power to define a canon or critique. Neuman and Kamboureli extend the range of the volume to include contributors who do not call themselves feminists as well as contributors who surely do. It is worth noting that some of the most radical essays in both form and content are written by women just beginning academic careers. That Neuman and Kamboureli make publication accessible to doctoral students and recent graduates in addition to well-established scholars, subverts hierarchy and hegemony in practical, as well as theoretical, terms.
View: space that may be taken in by the eye. A Mazing Space's large format reminds me, not of textbooks, but of workbooks, specifically those big books by and for women best represented by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's Our Bodies, Our Selves. In choosing this format, Neuman and Kamboureli can suggest many possibilities for a working definition of "writing Canadian women writing" without suggesting that a single collection of essays can be definitive. Rather than extend the power that traditionally privileges the editorial role, they keep editorial comment to a minimum. Their "Preface" is a brief three pages, while the convention of supplying subtitles to identify groups of related essays is abandoned in favour of photo collages between and within sections. Designer Jorge Frascara's black and white shells remind us of "the internal logic that endlessly summons women to mould themselves into/expel themselves out through the primal shell shape," a logic that suggests far more connections within and among these essays than any subtitle (Nicole Brossard Le Sens apparent as quoted by Louise Coitnoir and translated by Erika Grundman in "The Imaginary Body," in the feminine 168). Reviewing here, I write my way into the spiral, not as an authority not as a general or judge reviewing with a view to correction or improvement but as a woman afraid, with Carolyn Hlus, "to begin . . . Afraid of falling victim to the same trapped dominion of the patriarchal tradition being undermined" (287). There are many ways to enter this text. Reviewing the table of contents, I read thirty-eight titles, grouped into seven sections: read a history of women's writing in Canada from traveller's tales and the even older oral tradition of native women; through poetry, fiction and drama; to contemporary experiments with form and content in both French and English. A history, but also a critique of how Canadian literary history has been viewed. Centre: traditional genres; white, Anglophone writers. Margin: travel writing, oral history, letters, diaries, autobiography, performance poetry, theory; native, coloured, immigrant, and/or Francophone writers. A Mazing Space reviews this history, makes centre and margin into a continuum or, as the "Preface" suggests, makes many centres out of the margin (x).
Like much of American feminist scholarship, a number of these essays remember history, remember and recover names and texts that standard literary histories have overlooked or underrated. Barbara Godard rightly questions the narrow definition of literature that results in the exclusion of the cultural productions of native and more recent immigrant peoples from standard histories. Looking back to the oral text as practiced by native women, she proposes a theory of text as performance. Godard summarizes a great many native texts, as well as English-Canadian fictional texts that make use of native sacred stories, but relies in the end on the written, rather than the spoken, word. Godard tells me much of her difficulties in writing about what does not take a written form; much less of her position as a white woman and academic writing about a culture that is not hers. What does she mean, I find myself wondering, when she mentions "the non- scholarly work of native women writers" (90) in relation to her own analysis? Godard wants to uncover an "authentic" literature and adds to the Canadian women's "canon in formation" (91) texts that I would other wise know little or nothing about, but I feel more comfortable with Claire Harris on the question of authenticity. Writing about her own and other black women's poetry, she asks "how to be true to the black self; to the female self; how to reflect accurately the Canadian experience" (116). What she tells me of her own oral and written tradition and its various solutions to questions of language and audience, I believe.
Godard sees her re-definition of the text on the basis of the oral text as a radical extension of feminist re-visions of literary history that include letters, diaries and other 'para-literary' forms. While Douglas Barbour reads "non-'literary' categories" such as "folk tales, nursery rhymes, lullabies, ballads, carols, marginalia . . . , letters, and even a 'P.S.' " (181) within Anne Wilkinson's poetry, Janice Williamson reads Marjorie Pickthall's letters as countertexts to her poetry, texts that dismantle the decorative, late-Victorian frame traditional history has placed on her life and work. Both Williamson and Lorraine McMullen, in her analysis of the novels of Lily Dougall, use biographical detail to emphasize the act of choosing a career as a woman writer at the turn of the century. But where McMullen writes primarily within a traditional literary historical framework, Williamson writes "within a series of moving frames" (167), applying elements of marxist and psychoanalytic critical practice to her feminist reading of Pickthall. As I enter into Williamson's "textual fantasy about a body of poetry and letters" (167), Pickthall's woman-centred world of female correspondents begins to merge with the mythological golden age that the female subjects of her poems long for. And I rejoice in the recovery of "Pickthall's subversive writing strategies and her embodiment in language of a female desire for autonomous subjectivity" (178) from beneath the decorative surface of the poetry and the decorum of the life.
The writer's life whether as autobiography, autobiographical fiction, or traveler's tale is disussed repeatedly in A Mazing Space, perhaps reflecting editor Shirley Neuman's previous interest in this area. Neuman s Gertrude Stein: Autobiography and the Problem of Narration is one of the many studies alluded to in Helen M. Buss's overview of critical directions in the field. Buss stresses the need to map the varied and largely unexplored territory of Canadian women's autobiography, a task undertaken in Kristjana Gunners' analysis of Laura Goodman Salverson's Confessions of an Immigrant Daughter; Lorna Irvine's of Mavis Gallant's novels and stories; and Bina Friewald, Marni Stanley and Heather Murray's of women's travel writing. The question of origins links several of these essays to less explicit considerations of autobiographical material, including Claire Harris'. Like Harris, Gunners sees ethnic (in Salverson's case, Icelandic) and female experience as parallel. However, while Harris writes of the black woman poet's struggle to be true to her origins, Gunners reads Salverson's autobiography as an escape from origins, an escape into what is perceived as a non-ethnic, male world. Irvine believes that the debt owed to origins, however problematic, is "inescapable" (254) for both Gallant and her many characters engaged in writing autobiography. Friewald's reading of Anna Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada describes another approach, in which women writers actively search for female precursors, for origins. According to Friewald, the multi-voiced dialogue between women writers began well before the turn of the century.
Marni Stanley's survey of women's travel writing, including Jameson's, covers a wide range of 19th and early 20th century texts, many of which the Literary History of Canada leaves out. Although some of the travellers Stanley names are guilty of the ethnocentricity that is part of what Frye calls a "garrison mentality" in his conclusion to the History (II, 342), others, such as Agnes Deans Cameron and Mary Bosanquet, find freedom in leaving behind the conventions of female conduct. What exactly women find in the wilderness is the focus of Heather Murray's interrogation of Frye and the critical tradition of a nature/culture model for reading Canadian literature. Murray argues for a model in which nature and culture form part of a continuum, a complex system of land patterns and myths that places the 'pseudo-wilderness' of a rural area, cabin or camp at its centre. Just as Friewald notes that "key passages" are missing from abridged editions of Jameson (68), Murray comments on the way in which the most readily available edition of Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush omits "the lenghty sections devoted to life in the pseudo-wilderness community and to Moodie's more positive experiences with the deeper wilderness" (78), reinforcing by such omissions the nature/culture dichotomy. Using the complete text of Moodie as an early example of the city/pseudo-wilderness/wilderness continuum, she focusses on the pseudo-wilderness as a site for women and women's fiction in which women occupy an ambiguous middle ground, "within and without culture, within and without discourse" (82).
Referring to Elaine Showalter's "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Murray characterizes women's writing as a "double-voiced discourse" that shares doubleness with the discourse of any colonized group, concluding her essay by looking forward to what is even now being written "in the aftermath of the Dialogue conference and the Women and Words / Les Femmes et les Mots congress; in the knowledge of the innovations of Québécoises and lesbian writers; in the formation of sympathies and alliances with the trebly-colonized" (83). Linda Hutcheon reads these alliances in the "extensive recall of other literary texts especially those by and about women " (225) in her analysis of contemporary English Canadian women's fiction as postmodernist critique. Inter-textuality is explored here as both an interrogation of the notion of an original (as opposed to communal) text and a parody of traditional male genres. For Hutcheon, parody constitutes a particular kind of double discourse, "a weapon against marginalization" that "works to incorporate that upon which it ironically comments" (226). The cabin or cottage novel, such as Surfacing, that Murray sees as an exemple of a fiction of pseudo-wilderness common to both women and men, Hutcheon reads as the invention of Canadian women novelists alone, the " 'domestication' of . . . the very male wilderness novel" (226). Her description of what goes on in the cabin or cottage does, however, echo Murray: "it is Susanna Moodie's experience in the bush," she writes, "that is the literary forbear of the lives of these woman characters as they cope with the wilderness that is around them, that is both physical nature and their human and sexual nature as women and, often, as creatrix figures, as well" (226).
Constance Rooke is perhaps more comfortable than Murray or Hutcheon with the tradition of a nature/culture dichotomy, but re-visions this tradition in the feminine by re-writing "garrison mentality" as "fear of the open heart," a phrase she borrows from Mavis Gallant. Rooke explores intimacy, the opening of the heart, both as a theme within texts by Gallant, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munroe and as a reader response to texts. While Gallant denies the open heart to both her characters and her readers, thus delineating the confines of this female version of the garrison mentality, Laurence and Munro are seen to lead us out of the garrison, often through characters who are themselves creatrix figures. Rooke's primarily thematic approach to Laurence and Munro's texts, however, does not make space for a consideration of the creatrix figure per se, a task that is undertaken in Smaro Kamboureli's essay on Munro, Jeanne Perreault's on Sharon Riis and Aretha van Herk's on Betty Lambert. Kamboureli's approach is also thematic, but she is concerned less with plot than with Munro's presentation of "the feminine body as sign" (31). Kamboureli examines how Munro and her characters, particularly Del in Lives of Girls and Women, refuse to ascribe to a symbolic order in which woman is defined by the phallus and hence the signifying function that she lacks. For Kamboureli, Munro's thematizing of the feminine body challenges this symbolic order without using the overtly experimental forms favoured by writers such as Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt and Audrey Thomas. Perrault and van Herk convince me that Riis and Lambert may be added to this list of practitioners of radical writing. Riis' The True Story of Ida Johnson and Lambert's Crossings are both self-reflexive texts that interrogate the traditional story about the growth and development of a writer, a tradition van Herk identifies as much with Lives of Girls and Women as with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. What van Herk calls the "destruction of what we expect from fiction" (286) results in texts that are described in close to identical terms: The True Story of Ida Johnson is interrupted by, or made up of, omissions, revisions, repetitions, fragments, returns" (270), while Crossings is "disjointed and dislocated, full of retractions and omissions and denials" (277). The relationship between these texts and their readers is not one of intimacy, but of violation.
Violation of the reader's expectations, violation of the male tradition. Carolyn Hlus analyzes other Canadian feminist writings that share many of the features Perrault and van Herk describe by violating critical boundaries between fiction, poetry, theory; English and French; heterosexual and lesbian in order to search out a theory and practice of "writing womanly" (287). Hlus, together with Neuman, whose brilliant essay "Importing difference" (un)closes the collection, provides an overview of innovations and alliances far more radical than those to which Hutcheon alludes. Inter-textuality and parody in the work of Brossard and Marlatt, as well as Louky Bersianik, Louise Cotnoir, Lola Lemire Tostevin, and Betsy Warland, are, for these critics, ways to re-invent language without postulating a phallic source, without denying, as do Freud and Lacan, female sexuality. Bersianik and Brossard's direct confrontation with Freudian and Lacanian dicta is introduced through extensive quotation by Hlus (who offers Bersianik and Brossard's texts simply as examples of parodies of Lacan) and detailed by Neuman. With reference to key essays by Lacan in addition to Luce Irigaray's Speculum de l'autre femme, Neuman explores Bersianik's derisive reduction of psychoanalysis and her "restoration of the 'barred' feminine" (397) as parallel to, but less painstaking, than Brossard's glosses on "aspects of Lacanian theory . . . in terms of their implications on her/her narrator's acts of writing" (397). Both Neuman and Hlus emphasize the centrality of women's bodies, of female difference, in all of the texts they consider. "Woman inhabits body," Hlus writes of Marlatt, transforming Frye's garrison once more,
The insistence on female difference is identified here with the positing of a different language, the nature of which has been the subject of controversy among feminist theorists for well over a decade. Hlus' essay, in form as in content, is within what may be called a feminist Utopian tradition, associated internationally with Helene Cixous and present in some of the texts to which Hlus refers. Where this tradition celebrates 'woman's language' as essential, however, Neuman points out that Julia Kristeva in France and Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar in the United States, among others, are more tentative, writing instead of "'woman's relation to language' "(401). Neuman herself, like Murray, advocates reading (and writing) doubly: rather than renouncing the dominant discourse and, hence, adopting another silence, she argues that "for the female as for the colonial subject, the only recourse is to foreground one's difference from the dominant discourse while speaking within that discourse" (402). In this context, Tostevin's bilingualism becomes a ready example of an "ideology of difference" which "lets us re-read the male/not male homology as male/ female difference, lets us cease our protection of the sexual/textual appropriation that has characterized the monologic discourse of Western civilization in order to reimport sexual/textual relation" (404).
Neuman, as well as Sharon Thesen in her consideration of Tostevin, stresses that, in Canada, the francophone, as well as the female, are outside of the dominant discourse. One of the most valuable contributions that A Mazing Space has to offer Canadian literary criticism lies in its commitment to making the feminist analysis of language that has been taking place in Québec (within the dominant discourse of French feminist theory to which so many of the essays in this collection are indebted) accessible to an anglophone audience. Like Longspoon Press's published proceedings of Women and Words / Les femmes et les mots, in the feminine (1985), A Mazing Space contains a number of major essays by and about Québécoise writers. Louise Dupré, France Théoret and Louise Cotnoir provide overviews of the many "cultural interventions" women have undertaken in Québec in writing, publishing, journalism, theatre, music, symposia and so on (Théoret 361-2). Dupré takes a literary-historical approach to the revolution in poetic language that took place in Québec in the 1970's, outlining women's distinct contribution to Québécois Modernity in its aim "to unhinge syntax, rupture the sentence, restore to words their polysemic 'unconscious' content, and to produce a body-centred writing in the image of the sex/text metaphor" (355). Dupré argues that women writers' use of writing strategies, such as inter-textuality and a mixing of genres, associated with modernité and the formalist revival "has made poetry move on from experimentation to experience, for there has been a real coincidence between research into form and the enunciation of a feminine signified" (357-8). Théoret sees the impact of feminism on modernité in much the same way: "women," she writes,
The resonances that take shape here between Théoret and Dupré's essays, as in A Mazing Space as a whole, seem evidence enough of the collectivity both writers identify with writing in the feminine. Louise Cotnoir offers more, however, in the analysis of collective plays, one woman shows and dramatic texts by Denise Boucher, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and others in which "the enunciation of a feminine signified" is (en)acted on stage. Diane Bessai's essay on Sharon Pollock's experimentation with dramatic styles and increasing interest in a feminine, if not feminist, point of view can only hint at similar developments in English-language theatre.
Not all of the essays on Québécoise writers deal with explicitly feminist texts. Mair Verthuy, like Bessai, notes the denial of the term 'feminist' by some women writers. Verthuy's essay on "the uneasy search of Hélène Ouvard" unfortunately demonstrates why this might be the case, since Verthuy wants to insist tht Ouvard "bring to the feminist issue the same intransigence she deploys in addressing the national question" (114). This kind of prescriptive feminist criticism, with its search for positive images of women, though characteristic of much early feminist scholarship, now seems theoretically naive. E.D. Blodgett's analysis of Laure Conan's Angéline de Montbrun as a "form of exposure" that "is in fact an instrument of health" seems to me to take a more useful approach to what has been called an "unhealthy" Québécoise novel (29). Blodgett sees in Conan the loss of semantic space for writing woman under patriarchy, a loss he ascribes to "the Father's seduction" (17). Reading the relationship between Angéline and her father as analogous to that of woman and the symbolic order as Lacan defines it, Blodgett finds the absence of woman in Conan's text as anything but castrated male to be absolute: Conan "privileges with remarkable irony the solitude of the phallus, capable only of signifying itself, a circuit jammed in its own self-allusive, homologous rhetoric, pulsion and expulsion, the huis clos of the patriarchal world" (30).
Blodgett's analysis of Conan provides a historical, as well as critical, context for the contemporary Québécoise writers who write themselves out of this circuit by speaking of the privilege of the phallus while resisting its rhetoric. In addition to overviews of such writing and its counterpart in English Canada, A Mazing Space includes major essays by Janet M. Paterson on Yolande Villemaire, Louise Forsyth and Lorraine Weir on Brossard, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters on Bersianik. Paterson's close reading of Villemaire's La vie en prose makes many of the same connections between feminism and postmodernism in Québec that Hutcheon makes for the rest of Canada. In suggesting that Villemaire's text "sets in place a poetics of transformation" (318), she stresses the use of a multiple, feminine subject that is both an individual and collective voice; the ongoing citation and modification of other texts (including the non-'literary' texts of comic books, songs and films); and the temporal and spatial movements of the narrator(s) as a reflection of the movements of writing. Paterson is keen to recuperate postmodernism for feminism (a recuperation that she notes some critics, such as Craig Owens, have questioned) and the feminine itself for heterosexuality: "unlike other feminine texts," she concludes, La vie en prose "not only speaks of woman's love for writing and literature but also her love for man" (323).
Paterson does not expand on what these "other feminine texts" may be, though Brossard and Bersianik's are probably among them. It is to the credit of many of the critics contributing essays on these texts and others like them that they can speak of what is woman-identified and woman-originated, of what is often (but by no means always) lesbian, without undue reference to an anti-male (or hetero-relational) framework. Weir reads "the goals of Brossard's utopia" in Picture Theory as explicitly lesbian: "to feel the 'grain of the voice' in words, to touch language through skin, the 'gyno-cortex' through the spiralling vagina, to discover ourselves not in the mirror of opposition but in the holographic meeting of woman with woman" (352). While Weir's close reading of Picture Theory explores the hologram as a "trope of inter-textuality" (350) that projects a lesbian text onto texts by Joyce and Wittgenstein, Forsyth's reading of Brossard's ongoing career explores tropes of spatiality, of which the hologram is the most recent example. For her, Brossard's work "promises a radical destructuring of existing ideas and concepts of space," a utopia that is described not as lesbian, but as "available to the inner eye of each individual who responds to the voice of her/his desire and passion with reflective/reflexive vision" (344). Waelti-Walters takes a less formal and more thematic approach to Bersianik's career, tracing chronologically the development of her critique of the male culture of the past, her revision of that past from a position of female desire, and her vision of "a future in which women are in full possession of their own bodies, words and world's" a "female alternative" in which women-identified women step into places left vacant by father-identified women such as Angéline de Montbrun.
Weir, Forsyth and Waelti-Walters quote at length from Brossard and Bersianik's texts in the original French, a strategy that forces the anglophone reader to confront the issues of bilingualism and English as dominant discourse head on. Unlike Barbara Godard's Gynocritics / La gynocritique (1987), which publishes the proceedings of the Dialogue Conference (1981) in the languages in which the papers were delivered with brief summaries appended in the second language, A Mazing Space publishes in English and English translation, but in most cases leaves quotations from the primary Québécoise sources in French, relegating the translation of these quotations to small print in the margins. Reading in English, French cannot be forgotten, whether as the language of the text under discussion or as the source language that has been decoded and recoded by the translator. Bersianik's own contribution as well as Dupré, Théoret, Cotnoir, and Paterson's is, as translated by A.J. Holden Verburg, only a partial translation, the French disrupting the English and the English in the margin reminding us of the gaps translation produces, reminding us of difference. Although we are not forced to be bilingual to fully appreciate the collection, as is the case with Gynocritics / La gynocritique, we must face the consequences of a re-alignment in language that pushes English to the border of the text just as French has been pushed to the border of Canadian culture.
Gail Scott writes as a minority anglophone "on the outside looking in" on Québécoise culture, a position she believes "throws more light on [her] own culture than on the culture of the Other" and from which she creates (36). The "radical contestation of language and form" that the Québécoise have undertaken causes her to ask if her own reformist, content oriented, English-Protestant tradition hides "an even greater suppression of the feminine" behind the apparent neutrality of an ungendered language and a religion "that does not have a mother-martyr figure as part of its major iconography" (371). Her account of her relationship with France Théoret reveals the same kind of commitment to dialogue across the boundaries of English and French shown by the women who permitted their work to be translated for this collection. Théoret's essay, in fact, precedes Scott's: her assertion that "words, I need all of them" (365) takes on new resonance in the context of her amie anglais's description of conversations in which they listen "hard to each other," conversations that "end up in each other's writing" (372). I experience a similar sense of how women writers read each other, relate to each other, in reading Tostevin's essay after Thesen's. Thesen includes both herself and Tostevin among writers "who are convinced of poetry's capacity to carry truth and vitality, but as a matter of process rather than of goal" (382), an assessment with which Tostevin, who praises Thesen "for her extraordinary easiness with which she moves in and out of the frame" (391), would seem to agree. In her re-reading of Thesen and other English speaking writers, Tostevin embraces her ''adopted mother tongue'' without denying the ''lingual/umbilical tug'' of the francophone texts on which her essay focusses (391), embraces the dialogue as it is enacted within her.
Tostevin, Thesen, Théoret, and Scott enter academic discourse here as writers of poetry and prose, as commentators on the community of women writing today as well as on writing practices on which that community does not always agree. Thesen is sceptical of texts that direct "everything back to women's bodies," a strategy she relates to problems of "image" and a lexicon that men also use (381). For her, poetry itself is feminine (382), a term she prefers like Paterson, to feminist and lesbian. Lesbians write "texts" that "create a new space for desire and female gnosis, at least in intent" (382). Thesen prefers "poem" written "with no intent whatsoever" (382). But Thesen's use of "image," "poem" and "text" suggests a definition of these terms that seems surprisingly narrow in view of her own writing practices and those of writers, like Tostevin and Scott, whom she appears to admire; certainly she does not feel, with Scott, "that to express the shape of our desire, our prose must lean toward poetry . . . and poetry can no longer look 'like a poem' on the page" (372). Scott exalts in the feminist and lesbian writing that "bores" Thesen (382), in writers Thesen does not name: Brossard, Bersianik and others. Radical, "reticular writing," writing that Bersianik herself describes as succeeding "in decentering the text and producing a new sense out of the extra sense, ie. outside of the pre-existing range of symbol, in a travestied, divested language" (47). Bersianik writes not only of her own writing practice, but of the practice of criticism, writes to us ("the local intelligentsia" 39) of our too frequent failure to recognize in her work and that of other women a symbolic code that we have been taught to deny. Bersianik cautions us against "criticism in the masculine" (46) as it is practiced by both men and women, a caution that serves to remind us that Thesen's charge of boredom sounds much like that of the male critic to whom Bersianik refers. She does not deny the power of symbols or of symbolic thought, but refuses to recognize symbols that stereotype the feminine and feminism as negative. To enter into Bersianik's "text-webs" (47) and write with (rather than on) them is, she tells us, to enter a new symbolic logic.
Writing with Bersianik in A Mazing Space are Hlus, Neuman and Waelti-Walters. Hlus begins with the feminist critic's fear of writing the kind of criticism that Bersianik indicts, of remaining in the old symbolic order and its "labyrinth of man signs" (287); all are careful to find female difference in Bersianik's texts. Though by no means all of the contributors to the collection are as concerned with feminist critical practice as Hlus, most want to challenge what Laurie Ricou calls the "traditional academic essay with its seamless development of a single thesis" (206) on some level. Pauline Butling's essay on the poetry of Phyllis Webb is traditional in many ways, but she does not restrict her concept of play to the writer alone and, hence, includes Webb's reader in the engagement with language. Despite her best intentions "to identify when, where and how play occurs in [Webb's] work" (191), however, Butling provides more examaples of ideas about play than analysis of how play is generated linguistically, an analysis undertaken by Sarah Harasym in her reading of Roo Borson. For Harasym, play is a critical practice, a way of writing "within the resonances" of postmodern theory (325). At times, Harasym seems to be re-writing the play with language, identity, and language as identity she finds in Borson as theory: tracking down "the living name of the poet" (325) becomes tracking down the critic, who seems to situate herself not so much in the text as out of it. Harasym's theorizing offers a way of "reading with" a text markedly different and, for me at least, more difficult to accept than Rooke's "romancing the text" (256) or Blodgett's "violation . . . that is not without its homologies in the text" (18).
Whatever their critical practices and allegiances, the critics writing in this collection abandon, almost without exception, an impersonal and neutral voice in favour of "I." The personal voice may speak the stuff of traditional criticism, of problems and procedures, but may also speak of fear and desire, even fantasy. The four essays by male critics are particularly interesting in this regard. Blodgett, Barbour, Ricou, and Fred Wah are all conscious, uncomfortably so, of their position as men writing on women's writing, less so of the ways in which their gender conditions their reading. Gender bias, as numerous feminist critics have pointed out, is as much a problem of the reader as of the writer, a problem that the editors' decision to focus on a range of critical practices applied to texts by women rather than on feminist criticism applied to a range of texts, including texts by men, may to some extent obscure. Ricou tries to read gender in texts by Webb, Marlatt and others, which is laudable, but does not seem aware enough of his own gender as a subjective reading position, given that the danger for the male reader searching for the mark of the woman on or in the text lies in his positing of the text as 'other' and, hence, reduplicating the phallocentric position. In an essay that questions whether Wilkinson's poetry "should be read specifically as 'women's writing' "(180) at all while celebrating a great deal in that writing, Barbour speaks briefly of reading "Letter to my children" as a son (185), an approach that might have been more fruitful had it been pursued. Wah makes no excuses for reading as a male writer with little or no interest in how gender conditions either a text or a reading: women's writing is simply to be valued for what it has to offer writing in general and contemporary investigations of language in particular. Blodgett is perhaps most convincing precisely because he chooses to read in Conan an expose of the very system that privileges him.
Wah acknowledges that women may have "different reasons" (379) for investigating language than he does, but points out that he is "drawn to feminist writers who are focussed more on exploring language issues than social issues" (374). Such a distinction between aesthetics and ideology is, for me and many of the women writing and written of in A Mazing Space (including Brossard and Marlatt, whom Wah admires), inimical to feminism: even when a critic such as Butling asserts that her "primary focus is aesthetic, not sociological," she admits that Webb's "aesthetic developments and achievements have to be seen in the wider social and ideological context to be fully understood" (191). For Wah, Barbour and Ricou, however, feminism is something to be approached, if not with hostility, at least with trepidation. Barbour seems to assume that writers of feminist criticism are female when he notes that all of the work on Wilkinson to date has been produced by men and asks "Why have feminist critics so far ignored her?" (180). Ricou concedes that he knows "almost nothing about feminism and feminist theory" (207), but confidently calls Robert Kroetsch's Field Notes "feminist" (206). Marlatt's Touch to my Tongue is, however, "at first a disappointment," perhaps because it is "overtly feminist" (211). (The fact that it is also overtly lesbian is not mentioned, except for a not uncritical allusion to Marlatt's turning from Olson and Duncan to Sappho). Perhaps Ricou intends to make the distinction between feminine and feminist that Thesen and Paterson imply. And the feminist criticism about which he knows "almost nothing" can nevertheless be said to suggest "often" what is "ludicrously simplistic" (207). What marks Ricou's trepidation ultimately becomes a question of the form of the essay rather than of content: Ricou writes a discontinuous series of journal entries which are interrupted by but do not, unfortunately, address a series of quotes from the female graduate students he includes in his "community of enquiry" (206). Similarly, Barbour's essay is characterized as "day thoughts" and Wah's as "notes."
Several female critics also choose discontinous forms, forms that participate to varying degrees in the deconstructions and reconstructions of writing taking place in so many of the texts they read. These essays seem more considered, less casual, than those of Wah and Ricou, perhaps because more informed by the theoretical implications of writing and reading as a woman. Williamson, Neuman and Harasym use a series of theoretical frames not to contain their work or that of the writers they discuss, but to allow for a play of meaning, for multiplicity. Harasym and, to a much greater extent, Hlus, fracture not only the structure of the essay, but of the sentence, at times even the word. Donna Bennett rewrites the essay as story, placing her critique of the range and development of feminist theory in a fictional frame. Her use of the quest, however, no matter how ironic, seems as full of stereotypes and contradictions as the feminism(s) its heroine explores. Bennett's use of the first and second person forces me to ride a "Naming Express" that bears little relation to my own experience of feminism: I don't recall ever wanting to prove (though Bennett would seem to include me in her "we") "the existence of a natural evolution toward the highest form of female being, the feminist" (229). I'm much more comfortable being part of Sarah Murphy's "we" in her fabular "Putting the Great Mother together again or how the cunt lost its tongue." Reading Murphy spins me into downtown Calgary during stampede to the Love Shop, the Bay basement, a women's washroom, the rollercoaster as viewed by the eye/I of a woman in search of "what . . . we could be" (1), "what we think we once were" (2). We come instead to what we are in this patriarchal world; Murphy's "incessant nibbling voice" (1) speaks a story of loss. Murphy's "essay-story" does, as the editors promise, "break the rules, erase the boundaries of syntax, of etymology, of propriety" (x), but it would seem easier to write an expose of "how the cunt lost its tongue" in role playing and power plays (of woman with woman as well as with man) than to do more than hope to put the Great Mother together again. If Murphy puts the Mother together, she does so by daring to speak as a woman at all, by daring to speak of "cunt" and "cunctipotence" in the context of academic discourse. And, in A Mazing Space, academic discourse itself is made to put the Mother together. That Neuman and Kamboureli begin their collection with a radical text challenges notions of editing and critical anthologies as much as any of the contributors challenge notions of writing.
"What is significant," writes Gail Scott, "is what we choose to hear" (368). In choosing the essays that make up this collection, Neuman and Kamboureli hear present more often than past voices (particularly those that speak in traditional genres) and fiction, theory, para-'literary' and mixed forms more often than poetry and drama. English Canadian modernism is, for the most part, consigned to silence. And the academy, even the academy in the process of change, reinforces its own silences. Neuman commented at Women and Words / Les femmes et les mots on the difficulties of teaching women's writing within the criteria of the canon at Alberta, or any other university, adding a postscript that "slowly, the canon is being changed" (142) when In the feminine was published in 1985. That so many of her colleagues join her in A Mazing Space can only be encouraging. But I find this space more confining than that of In the feminine, less inclusive. True, men are included: Laurie Ricou even refers to having been "asked to write" (205). But Claire Harris also had to be asked to write as a black woman (115); Native women are written about by Barbara Godard; lesbians write (and are written about), but do not identify themselves as lesbian in either their texts or their biographies. Who may write, and of what, in the context of a broad-based conference for women only does not yet correspond with who may write in a collection that ultimately has its basis in the academy that it challenges. In reviewing, I too have made choices, hearing some of the voices in these essays above others. But A Mazing Space is big enough to shoulder the giant expectations that will greet it as one of the first collections of its kind in Canada: Neuman and Kamboureli have made space for (un)covering the body of Canadian writing in many of its forms, space for continuing this coverage, not in traditional academic footnotes, but into margins spacious enough for references to other texts, expressions of gratitude to other critics and writers, comments inscribed by the reader. As Louise Dupré notes in her essay on Québécois modernity, and becoming increasingly true (as this collection attests) for the country as a whole, "a meaningful intertextuality of dedications, quotations, and references is emerging by means of which women writers name, greet, stimulate, re-read and interpret one another" (357). An intertextuality that shapes my text as the spiral of women's writing unwinds around and through me. Looking back as writer over the space I/eye have taken in as reader. Meeting other writers, other readers in the matrix of
Looking forward to our tradition as women, as Canadians, read with a difference. Naming, greeting, re-reading, interpreting: reviewing.
et al., eds. In the feminine: women and words / les femmes et les
"Conclusion." Literary History of Canada, II. Carl F. Klinck, ed. 2nd
ed. Gynocritics / La Gynocritique: Feminist Approaches to
Robin Edwards Davies