November 12, 2013
If Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers were published today, critics would be lauding its uncanny sense of the contemporary moment, how Laurence dares to voice the unspoken truths of motherhood, her pitch-perfect portrayal of the subtleties of maternal ambivalence. Published in 1969, Laurence’s fourth novel belongs with Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians as essential Canadian novels born out of the world of The Feminine Mystique. Which puts the book’s contemporary moment-ness in question, but then the lessons of The Fire Dwellers don’t tend to be the kind we pass on to our daughters, however much to their detriment. Not that they’d listen anyway. Isn’t it funny how the history of feminism is so profoundly uncumulative? How we have to learn it for ourselves over and over, and it’s a revolution/revelation every time?
But then The Fire Dwellers is largely about such disconnectedness, between generations, between spouses, friends, between the personal and the political, and—in the case of protagonist Stacey MacAindra—from one’s self, from one’s own life. Stacey is 39, sixteen years married, mother of 4, and according to the sensationalist copy on my Seal Book paperback, she’s looking for a lover. Which isn’t really true, though it’s probably a good way to sell a paperback. Anyone who has read the book, however, will tell you that she is looking for is herself beyond her oppressive roles of wife and mother. Roles which aren’t strictly oppressive; “They nourish me and they devour me too,” she writes of her children, and it’s in this in-between where she’s stuck, imagining the various ways she is destroying her children (by being overbearing, by too much attention, with her anger, all of these suggestions underlined by “helpful” magazine articles suggesting as much) and/or all the ways they would be destroyed anyway if she somehow managed to get away from them.
Through the novel, Laurence plays headlines from television news programs, broadcasting war, turmoil and unrest around the world. In one sense, the headlines are juxtaposed with the domestic, but we soon come to see that these are parallel, that the home-front is no safe haven after all.
“I can’t forget that piece in the paper. Young mother killed her two-month-old infant by smothering it. I wondered how that sort of thing could ever happen. But maybe it was only that the baby was crying, and she didn’t know what to do, and was maybe frantic about other things entirely, and suddenly she found she had stopped the noise. I cannot think this way. I must not.”
Children are hit by cars and killed, neighbours attempt suicide, Stacey and her husband worry about money, she fears that Mac is sleeping with his secretary, her youngest still isn’t talking (and what has she done to her to make this go wrong, Stacey wonders), and just as terrifying as the suffocating demands of motherhood is considering who she will be once the demands are rescinded, when the children are older. Who will she possibly be then?
Laurence’s The Diviners is so central to my literary consciousness, and I couldn’t help but see Stacey in the context of the Manawaka she’d fled from as a young woman, and in relation to Morag Gunn whom she’d stood apart from as a child but whom she’d have so much to talk about if they met up again in adulthood. And I was surprised to discover that Morag didn’t even exist when Laurence wrote The Fire Dwellers–The Diviners would be published 5 years later in 1974. But in The Fire Dwellers, you see the roots of The Diviners taking shape, its ideas and experiments with narrative and form.
Stacey MacAindra is Betty Draper, is calling out for Betty Friedan, though fat load of good a book is going to do her. (I always find it interesting when people critique Betty Draper’s character for her obviousness to Friedan, as though one day every woman in America read The Feminine Mystique, and society flicked a switch). Stacey MacAindra is also so many of us, as we remarked at my book club the other night. “Maybe we all turn into Stacey MacAindra sometime…” as I tweeted last week. Women for whom the day is never long enough to encompass all the things we want to do, all the people we want to or need to be. Women for whom motherhood and selfhood become a battle, with wifehood thrown in for good measure. You’d throw it all away, if you weren’t tied to it inextricably.
Stacey’s green slacks are dated, and so is her slang, but absolutely nothing else is in this novel which 45 years later is a challenge to and a reflection of the world at once.
September 16, 2013
With the end of summer, the kids have come home from fishing down at the proverbial crawdad hole, and are now settling back into gender roles as dictated by toy marketers, because let’s face it: our boys will be boys and our girls will be princesses.
But not so fast…
Listen, I’ve read my Peggy Orenstein, and I’ve got an opinion or two about the effects of “princess culture” on boys and girls alike. And so since before my daughter was born, I’ve been unabashedly brainwashing her with my own politics, a plan that has been foolproof so far*. A parent has to have a weapon or two in her bag to use against the big bad world, and these are the ones that have worked for me, but have also served as great reads at the very same time.
Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess by Ralph Cosentino: Wonder Woman is the third of Cosentino’s manga-style picture book introductions to classic comics. He tells the story of Diana, the Amazon princess who didn’t want to be just a princess, and chose to spend her life fighting for justice instead. My daughter remains curious about why Wonder Woman has to battle the forces of evil in her underpants, but as princess role models go, you could do worse than this one.
The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer: Princess Violetta is raised in the same fashion as her big brothers, although they laugh at her futile efforts to mount a horse while wearing heavy armour. This makes her all the more determined to prove herself as brave and strong, so she begins sneaking out after dark and practicing a knight’s skills in her own way. She eventually becomes so adept that she ends up winning her own hand in marriage (long story) and thus is granted the independence she desires.
Sir Cassie to the Rescue by Linda Smith and Karen Patkau: “Cassie read a story about knights…” this book begins, and when she finishes reading, Cassie tries to cajole her brother into a game of knights. Just one problem: neither of them is interested in being the damsel in distress. After trying out other options, and constructing a variety of marvelous castles in the living room, Cassie and her brother come up with an ingenious solution to their problem. And then Cassie opens a book about pirates, and her imagination starts running wild again…
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer: At first glace, it looks like a Princess book, complete with tiara, magic wand and Olivia’s name in pretty pink. But a close look at Olivia’s facial expression reveals that this book will be an examination rather than a celebration of princess culture. Falconer is shameless in his anti-princess agenda, but the story is still funny for kids, and poses questions worth asking your sons and daughters: why are princesses so lacking in cultural diversity? And “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore… Why do they all want to be the same?”
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko: I know you’ve read this one already, but it’s still so good after all these years. Standout lines are, “You look like a real prince but you are a bum” and the best and most genre-defying conclusion of any book ever: “They didn’t get married after all.” Final image is the spirited princess dancing off into the sunset, kicking up her heels, arms embracing the world.
Princess Smarty Pants by Babette Cole: “Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms.” In order to deal with the annoying throngs of suitors turning up at her door, she sets impossible tasks that defeat every one of them—until Prince Swashbuckle arrives. He manages to jump through every hoop she throws him, proving himself quite up to the job of winning her hand except for one thing: Prince Swashbuckle doesn’t think that Princess Smartypants is so smart. And it’s too bad for him: Smartypants turns him into a toad. Obviously, they didn’t get married after all either.
And finally, someone needs to write a picture book about The Cockfighting Princess. Irina Walker, the third daughter of the exiled King of Romania, has been charged with running illegal cockfighting events in Oregon, even selling refreshments to spectators. This serves as a most important lesson for little girls everywhere: even cockfighting princesses are not above the law. And that princessing and glamour do not always go hand and hand.
*I know, I know. This is going to backfire at some point. But in the meantime, I want to provide my girl with a foundation that underscores the limitlessness to who she might possibly become as a human being.
March 7, 2013
“I hope readers will see that the situation is changing everywhere. It’s time for all of us to say, “No more” and to go to the barricades—and to claim our space.”–Sally Armstrong in my Q&A with her at 49thShelf.
For those of us who aren’t Sally Armstrong, those of us who haven’t spent the last 25 years bringing home stories of violence against women, subjugation of women and the trampling upon and disregard for women’s rights all over the world, the immediate impression of Ascent of Women isn’t that this is a book about hope and change. Instead, it’s overwhelming to consider that the plight of women in so many places is so terribly dire: scores of Aboriginal women missing and murdered in Canada while police did nothing; the idea of rape as a weapon of war, and that female populations of entire villages in the Congo have had to live through this violence; a fire at a girls’ school in Saudi Arabia during which students died because they weren’t permitted to escape the blaze with their heads uncovered; the endangered lives of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban; “honour” killings; young girls forced into early marriage; genital mutilation practices, and on and on.
My immediate impression of this book is testament to another point that Armstrong makes: that for the last 25 years as she’s been reporting these stories, the world hasn’t done a terrific job of listening. She gives a shocking story of an editor who “forgot” to follow up on a story she’d brought him of 20,000 Muslim women being gang-raped in Bosnia in 1992. I know that Armstrong was reporting on the Taliban when no one else was, long before September 2001 when the world finally turned its attention toward Afghanistan and feigned to care for what happened to the women of that country.
But things are changing, which is Armstrong’s thesis in Ascent of Women. She connects this tide of change to the awareness that dawned on Western Women in the 1960s and ’70s that the status-quo was no longer acceptable. She cites examples of women all over the world who are effecting change in their communities by standing up to patriarchy and tyranny. In Kenya, 160 girls are in the process of suing their government for failing to protect them from rape; women in Afghanistan have dared to question interpretations of the Koran; the idea that violence is cultural is starting to be undermined by women speaking out against this bogus “culture”; unique programs are being put in place to empower people to change their own minds about approaches to women’s health; economists are demonstrating that women’s financial empowerment is the key to progress in developing nations; grandmothers supporting AIDs orphans are coming together to support one another in South Africa; women who fought for change in Egypt during the Arab Spring are refusing to take a place on the sidelines of the revolution they brought about.
Armstrong’s book is powerful, profound and inspiring. Its organization is a bit haphazard, but then this haphazardness underlines Armstrong’s point: that something is happening here, and not even systematically, but in an organic, surprising, awe-inspiring fashion whose force is, amazingly, impossible to contain.
January 23, 2013
‘”No–I’m talking about the common attitudinal habit in women that we’re kind of…failing if we’re not a bit neurotic. That we’re somehow boorish, complacent, and unfeminine if we’re content.
The way women feel that they are not so much well-meaning human beings doing the best they can but, instead, an endless list of problems (fat, hairy, unfashionable, spotty, smelly, tired, unsexy, and with a dodgy pelvic floor, to boot) to be solved. And that, with the application of a great deal of time and money–I mean a great deal of itme and money. Have you seen how much laser hair removal is?–we might, one day, 20 years into the future, finally be able to put our feet up and say, “For nine minutes today, I almost nailed it.”
Before, of course, starting up the whole grim, remorseless, thankless schedule the next day, all over again.
So if I was asked, “Do you know how to be a woman now?” my answer would be, “Kind of yes, really, to be honest.” ‘
–Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman
January 20, 2013
I want to take a few moments to delineate the many ways in which 2012 was a spectacularly depressing year to be a pregnant woman. We’re only a few weeks into 2013 so it’s still too soon to say, but so far I haven’t had to listen to that jangly Rick Santorum song with the lyrics, “We’ll have justice for the unborn/Factories back on our shores…” one single time, and that is progress. Neither have I noted once that a panel of old men (too many of whom with more children than fingers on one hand) have been provided a international platform from which to debate just how much American women’s access to contraception should be curtailed.
And speaking of “debate”, so far in 2013 I have not once had to endure the insult of 91 members of Parliament (including the Status of Women Minister) voting for a say as to the contents of my uterus. I was five-weeks pregnant at the time, and I was absolutely horrified, as well as confused as to why I had not been brought in to provide expert consultation. Surely some expertise might have been necessary. Did you know that there are actually 233 members of Parliament who have not a single uterus among them? The input of a living, thinking pregnant woman into this conversation might have provided some much-needed perspective.
So far, 2013 has been an improvement. It’s been at least a few weeks since a group of Ontario MPPs (not a uterus among them either, note) staged a press-conference supporting a move to stop public-funding of abortion in this province. And while I am sure that several women worldwide actually have died this year because they’ve lacked access to abortion and other maternal health procedures, there has not been a story with the level of tragedy of Savita Halappanavar‘s, who died in Ireland after miscarrying at 17 weeks pregnant when a fading fetal heartbeat was privileged over an actual human life.
2012 was a bad year to be a woman with a reproductive system. I’m talking Handmaid’s Tale territory. When I got pregnant, it was immediately apparent to me that my body had become a national concern, that my womb was now somebody’s territory for staging a shouty “debate”. A woman who was pregnant in 2012 owned herself just a little less, and it was total madness. I really can’t believe we put up with it. My resolution for 2013 is that we not do that anymore.
December 10, 2012
The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts’ Blog launched today with my post “Taking Responsibility for the CWILA Numbers: My Piece of the Pie”.
“For years, I’ve been counting the pitiful numbers of female bylines in Canadian magazines and newspapers, dropping subscriptions in despair, so when the CWILA numbers were made public last spring, the numbers didn’t surprise me. If anything, I was delighted—finally here was quantifiable evidence that I wasn’t crazy or paranoid, that something was amiss. And I was also deluded enough to imagine that the next step would be simple, to suppose that now everyone knew what the problem was that things would start to change.”
October 16, 2012
On Harriet’s long-form birth certificate, it is written that her mother is a writer. And while I don’t remember much of those blurry days after she was born, when our world was exploded pieces held together with love and hanging on just barely, I remember filling out that form, hunched over my laptop on our coffee table. When we’d got to Mother’s Occupation, we’d paused for a moment. I was three weeks into maternity leave from a job I wouldn’t go back to, from the least meaningful job title in the universe, which was “research administrator.” We couldn’t write that, and besides, I was no longer one. “Why not say, ‘writer’?” my husband suggested, and so we did.
It is often noted as monumental, that moment when a writer learns to call herself as such, when she gathers the confidence, courage and faith necessary to embark upon a creative path. Which I don’t have a whole lot of truck with. I think we sentimentalize these things too much, that we spend too much time with our heads up our asses, and that a woman staring into the mirror practicing calling herself a writer is like Annie Dillard’s writer who “himself only likes the role, the thought of himself in a hat.” I would argue that more important that learning to call oneself a writer is to write and (even better) to write well and to get the work out there so that everyone will know you’re a writer, and what you think doesn’t really matter.*
So this isn’t about how I lied on official documentation and was professionally transformed, never to administrate research ever again. This isn’t about how I learned to call myself a writer, but instead about how everybody’s wrong about motherhood (and by “everybody”, I mean mainly The Atlantic and Newsweek).
Something funny started happening as soon as I got pregnant in 2008. Professionally speaking, research administration aside, it hadn’t been a great time for me. I was a year out of a graduate creative writing program that had failed to take me places, my classmates were publishing books and I was getting rejection after rejection from lit mags. That post-school thing is always brutal, and from creative writing programs in particular. I remember Anne Patchett writing in her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy how they finished the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had to “write to save their lives” (I paraphrase). It wasn’t working for me. And so when I got pregnant, it seemed like the writing thing was going to be put aside for awhile. At least I would have another focus.
Life, it seemed, would have other plans. Coinciding with my first trimester were some interesting writing opportunities, an invitation to speak on a panel about literary blogging with the Governor General, increased attention to my blog, and some wonderful new writerly connections. By the time Harriet was born, I’d started writing book reviews, had a couple of stories published, and cheques were arriving pretty regularly, even if they were pitifully small. So when I wrote, “Writer” on her birth certificate, I wasn’t entirely delusional. But it wasn’t entirely true yet either.
I suppose it’s still not wholly true, if we’re speaking in terms of finances, because if I didn’t have a husband who worked full time, we’d be in trouble around here. But I’ll tell you this much, because I’m proud of it, and not because it’s the most important thing, because it isn’t: every month, I make our rent. It’s something. Since I became a mother 3.5 years ago, I’ve managed to put together a hard-scrabbled, deeply fulfilling professional life involving writing, editing, teaching and reviewing. And while motherhood has not been integral to this, as though it unleashed some deep creative fount within me, neither has it been an impediment. In fact, it’s helped hugely with the process in practical terms. It gave me a reason to leave my boring 9-5 job. It’s been the inspiration for some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. I’ve made mother-friends who are inspiring writer-friends in their own right. And motherhood has given me the ability to focus, to sit down and get the words out. Harriet has been in playschool since September and I’ve had mornings for working, and I promise you that I’ve not wasted away a single one.
Now obviously, motherhood is not necessary for career success, for many it really does stand in the way, and plenty of writers have really done quite well without kids. Plenty of mothers are also happy enough to be focusing on motherhood alone. Many jobs don’t mix with motherhood quite so tidily. Quite obviously too, our rent is fairly cheap and I could stand to be way more successful. And furthermore, fortune has been good to me. I am enormously privileged. But–
I am thinking about all this now in connection with Jessa Crispin’s column “The Pram in the Hall“, about how fraught is the question of whether or not to have children for creative professionals in particular. She writes, “The reason why it’s so difficult to think through your decision is because people keep pretending like there is one way this motherhood thing could go, when in reality there are millions.” Which she sees as terrifying as it is rife with potential, but from where I stand now it’s mostly the latter. Like everything with parenthood, when people complain about kids being expensive, demands on parents’ time, how you have to give your kids your all, how you just have to have an exer-saucer just you wait, I throw up my arms and shriek, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” There is not only one way this motherhood thing can go. Because life happens. Also, free will doesn’t get taken out along with the placenta.
For mothers, as with women, and as with people (and I’ve made the connection between mothers and people before), there are reassuringly myriad ways to be. We have to broaden and complicate our understanding of what motherhood is and who mothers are if we ever want the conversation about motherhood to be one from which we actually learn something.
*Obviously, I was a child in the 1980s when our education system was robust, my teachers told me I could anything, and my parents underlined this point over and over. So I can afford to be so flippant.
June 18, 2012
Two of the things I complain about most often in public are terrible examples of authors promoting their work online and women writers’ lack of representation in the media and in the world, and so it is amazing to me that both of these annoying things can be addressed with one solution.
But I will address the former problem first, those head-bangingly awful incidents in which it’s clear that authors don’t understand that the opportunity to shill their stuff an offshoot of social media engagement and not its primary purpose. Though I’ve met writers who go the other way, who get a poem published in a national magazine and think it’s bragging to put a link on Facebook. It isn’t. Linking to cool stuff is what people do on Facebook, on twitter and on blogs. But it’s when writers cross a line from, “Look at this!”" (link to published poem) to “Look at me!!” (link to published poem posted on twitter five times daily for months at a time, and also spamming link to other people’s feeds) that it gets to be a problem. When you’re a human who’s a spam-bot, you’ve clearly gone too far.
So how do you avoid becoming a human spam-bot? Easy: don’t post the same link more than twice. If you run out of links, do something new, something better. And in between those links, how about you talk about somebody who isn’t you? A book that isn’t yours? If you’re part of a literary community, you can talk about what your peers are up to. If you aspire to be part of a literary community, deposit yourself within it by engaging with that community’s literature online. If you’ve got nothing to do with any literary community, talk about the best books you’ve read lately and– ka-pow– you’ve just situated yourself in (close) relation to those books, those authors. It’s amazing. From these references, your readers will be able to figure out what you’re about.
When you have promotional opportunities– to write guest blog posts, to write your own blog, when you’re talking to a reporter or answering a Q&A– share your attention with other deserving writers and books. When someone puts a call out for book suggestions, resist to the impulse to chime in with “Mine!” and suggest somebody else’s. If there is a readers’ choice award going on, take a risk and champion a book that you didn’t write (which is the point of these things anyway. It’s not a “writer’s choice” award). If your book is up for a readers’ choice award, sit back and let the readers choose. (If you win a readers’ choice that you rigged, you didn’t win anything at all.) Engage with social media not just as a writer, but as a reader. It broadens your approach, and makes you that much more interesting.
And it also serves to promote a culture of readers, of reading. If you’ve already got someone’s attention, they know about your book, so why not suggest another? It increases the odds that whoever is listening will buy two books instead of one. And as a writer, you certainly stand to benefit when people start buying more books. When you reference other people’s books, it becomes less about your book than about reading in general, which is a terrifying leap to take, I know, but if your book is really good, it will only thrive in that healthy bookish eco-system. It means that you’re taking the opportunity to support other writers, and not in that annoying “rah-rah we all stick to together” way, but in that you have a platform from which to promote the work you really believe in, the books you’d like to see growing up alongside your own, the writing you admire.
And if you are a woman (and even if you’re not) and if the writing you admire happens to be written by women, then herein lies your chance to be part of the solution to the problem of women’s lack of representation in the media and the world. You don’t have to be a book reviewer or an editor to do something about it. You just have to be a reader as well as a writer, a reader/writer who champions the work of worthy women writers. Use your power as someone with a platform to shine a light on other books, other works. Support great work, be vociferous in that support, and understand how that support has greater impact when it’s a woman’s great work you’re supporting, that you’re helping to change the game for the better.
June 14, 2012
I am inspired, excited and hopeful like I haven’t been in ages about Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) which has apparently been simmering all spring and broke out into the world yesterday with a storm. A response to the American organization VIDA, CWILA has similarly compiled statistics about gender parity in book reviewing, and the results are predictably dismal. Less dismal, however, were particular statistics for Quill & Quire and THIS Magazine, whose parity negates the excuses of others as to why such a thing is impossible. It clearly isn’t. How wonderful.
From the site: “CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is an inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape.”
It is an incredible honour to have such ranks to join.