March 25, 2015
Redux is the wrong word. I haven’t stopped thinking about After Birth since I finished reading it last week. This morning I had the most interesting conversations with a woman who is a newish friend of mine (and don’t you find that new friends become more and more precious as one gets older?) with whom I’ve had the pleasure of so much company over the past few months while she’s been on maternity leave with her third child. Fortuitously, her house is a stone’s throw from mine, her son and Harriet are passionate friends, she’s so ridiculously smart and funny, and she just read After Birth. (I wish every woman a friend with whom to discuss After Birth.) So this morning we sat around my living room while my baby mauled her baby, and we talked about the book, how it made us both uncomfortable. Because, I think, I said, trying to put my finger on it, it doesn’t tidy up. Nothing is resolved, it moves is a circle. It is an unsatisfying book, which I mean as the highest literary praise. Like another fine book, Harriet the Spy, After Birth is about a female person who doesn’t change, who doesn’t stop ranting, who doesn’t stymy her anger. And we need this anger, I think—to seize on its power—, and we need this insistence on circuity, as opposed to the narratives we’re being sold most of the time about how we should tuck our anger and our lives, our selves, inside tiny tidy boxes. We’re being sold narratives of binary—breast and bottle, wohms and sahms. Just today, there is an online fracas because someone wrote an inane justification for stay-at-home-momming (don’t seek it out or read it. Nothing new under the sun. Argument is best articulated and refuted here). The writer articulating her lifestyle in opposition to somebody else’s, and I just though, how boring. I thought about the writer’s argument in contrast with the vibrant thinking I was a part of this morning, and all I could think of to say to her is, I wish for you the freedom to live your life on your own terms. Not to care anymore. Not to have to purport to have all the answers, or believe there even needs to be an answer. We’re all cobbling together our pieces, and the patterns don’t have to be the same. And yes, I wish for the public conversations about motherhood to be like the ones we’re having in private: the passionate, expansive ones that are challenging, rich and about the whole wide world.
March 2, 2015
‘But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet is it the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.’ –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Non-fiction by women gets the short shrift, even though women are often writing stories that nobody has ever told before, while, does anybody really need about book on WW1? So I am especially happy at the awarding of two recent fiction prizes to excellent books which were among my favourite books of 2014.
Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery has won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, and Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything today became the first book by a woman to win the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction since Isabel Huggan won it in 2004. Both these books prove that personal memoirs can indeed have far-reaching global and historical implications, and demonstrate remarkable research, story-telling and insight. They’re exquisite books, and I’m so glad that even more readers are now going to discover this for themselves.
November 24, 2014
Recent news had me thinking about mentors, how we imagine that success comes from kneeling at the feet of wise professorial men, or at least job opportunities from a date with a charismatic celebrity. What about women mentors though, I wondered? I started asking other writers about their own women mentors, and it turned out that these kind of relationships are not very common. For a few reasons, I think.
First, that there are fewer women in positions of power to serve as mentors. Second, that women are often already stretched with other caring commitments. Third, that perhaps we all know that mentorships will never make or break a writer’s career—her work and talent matter, and probably best to focus on that. And finally, because of the realities of women’s lives (dearth of time, power, money, etc), mentorships have taken on less traditional structures, are often virtual, and perhaps aren’t always recognizable for what they are.
Certainly, I’ve never knelt at the feet of the women who’ve served as mentors to me, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice. I think of Sheree Fitch, who never ceases to champion other women writers’ work, a vocal supporter of my blog and my book for so many years; Michele Landsberg, whom I encountered in the comments of my blog and we bonded over mutual admiration for Joan Bodger, who has been so supportive of my work; Rona Maynard, who has been a huge influence as I’ve put the pieces of my career together over the last decade and tried to take it all more seriously; Marita Dachsel, who helped me navigate my early days as a mother/writer; Tabatha Southey, who rocks it every week in the Saturday Globe and exists to make us all aspire to be smarter (and funnier); and my friend, Anakana Schofield, who sends me emails that say (and I’m paraphrasing), “Stop talking about mentors already, and just write your fecking book.”
Oh, the women I have in my corner. They’re everything. Not least of all my friends, plus contacts in The Toronto Women Writers Salon, and CWILA. This is all turning into a protracted version of my Linked In profile, which is beside the point, which is to say that supportive women are everywhere. You only have to look, and also to celebrate, and be inspired too to serve a similar role for younger women whose work you admire.
I asked some other women to tell me about their own mentors, and am pleased to be able to share their responses.
In the mid-eighties, I set up a meeting with Karen Mulhallen, hoping to volunteer for Descant magazine. I knew nothing about anything. About an hour later, I left her house as managing editor. Karen became a mentor, an ally and a dear friend, doling out challenges in a way that seemed offhand but was somehow impossible to refuse. Over the years she has continued to put me in the way of writing and editing opportunities I would never have tackled had it not been for her confidence in me—or her willingness to take a leap of faith. I suspect I’m not alone in saying this about Karen. She is a truly generous person, in both life and art.
When the phone rang at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon four years ago, I never imagined it would be my Can-Hist hero – and a future mentor. But on the other end of the line, there was the crisp English accent of renowned biographer and historian Charlotte Gray, congratulating me on my successful Skype-in to the fundraising gala in Toronto. I had fan-girled her in my live interview, talking about how I had slid my book next to hers on the alumni bookshelf and was trying to soak in the genius left behind by her, Pierre Berton, and others. Since then, we have crossed paths in person only twice, but she has written me letters of recommendation, we have tweeted about her “academic ninja-ness” on Canada Reads, and she even made me her junior “running mate” in a literary award competition. Those votes of confidence have spurred me on through the inevitable crises of confidence and the exhaustion of juggling a small child and a writing career. I’m so glad I picked up that phone.
So I took her advice.
Eventually I got to study with Sarah’s mentor, Zsuzsi Gartner and the experience was challenging and enlightening and transformative.
Later, I returned to Sarah and thanks to her thoughtful direction, I was given the opportunity to work under the insightful and practical guidance of Annabel Lyon.
All my mentors have had helped shape me as a writer through developing style, building confidence, and trusting my voice. I am appreciative, grateful, and humbled and I continue to work under their influence.
This year, I am honoured to be a TA for Sarah’s online e-course where I have the opportunity to give back. And you bet I am giving away all the secrets I know, which, of course, are not secrets at all.
I have been fortunate to have several great teachers—Priscila Uppal and Richard Teleky certainly helped chart my present course. But the woman I would call my mentor, who supported me beyond any professional obligation, is Susan Swan. She was my fiction professor at York, and subsequently supervised a directed reading course that allowed me to start my memoir. I dropped my first draft on her doorstep in four boxes: 776 pages. She sent emails by turns encouraging and devastating (I am loving this; it’s not going anywhere), and was unoffended by my request not to send any more before reading the whole thing. She did, and then invited me over. I always loved being at her home: it signified to me that writing was not incommensurate with a good and beautiful life. Those hours of discussion helped me to believe I had written something worth taking seriously. She gave the book to her daughter, the agent Samantha Haywood, whose representation has been an incredible gift. After its publication, Susan mentioned my book whenever there was opportunity—a deep kindness that helped me feel as though I was part of a literary community.
Alas, I’ve not yet met American writer Susan Griffin face to face, but voice sounds and resounds inside me whenever I recall her our conversations. A year ago she was my editor but years before her book Woman and Nature, a poetic exploration of Western culture’s ideas of gender and nature, altered forever how I see the world and gave me language and the courage to dare to honour my own perceptions about woman as creators.
Susan became my editor at a time when I was in trouble with my novel, The Pig and the Soprano, the (true) story of a privileged Victorian woman who dared ambition on the Paris stage and ended her days as an impoverished recluse living with her pet pig. Susan worked as a midwife, giving me the sense that I had within me everything I needed to tell the story as it needed to be told and inspiring me to let the creative process unfold. Her written comments were insightful and catalytic and our phone conversations opened imaginative doors that set my spirits soaring. I’m forever grateful.
I signed up for Colleague Circle for the free dinners. On the last Thursday of every month, eight of us—the six new humanities hires and two facilitators—gathered at the faculty club at 5:30 pm for insipid meals that consisted of a meat dish, a starch and an obligatory overcooked vegetable, followed by a creamy dessert. We ate, drank wine, debriefed about our first-year-faculty-member woes, compared grant notes, politely appreciated everything the University of Missouri offered us, and went our separate ways. I gravitated toward Maureen Stanton for her self-deprecating humor and her academic discipline: creative nonfiction writing. She had made a career for herself writing precisely the kind of prose I loved to read and found myself writing, yet not showing anybody—slices of life, creatively rendered. I hadn’t realized there was an institutionally accepted term for this. Timidly, I asked Maureen if she might share her course syllabus with me or provide me with a list of creative nonfiction classics. She responded with a generous reading list that I immediately began to work my way through with disturbing enthusiasm. Here I was at the university of Missouri, an assistant professor of Russian literature, and all I wanted to do was read literary nonfiction and acquaint myself with this new, yet strangely familiar genre. Maureen and I met for coffee and she shook her head as I regaled her with family story after story. “Why aren’t you writing this down?” she demanded to know. And that might have been the beginning. We later formed a writing group—her comments, the perfect combination of encouragement, awe, and incisive criticism—and she wrote letters of recommendation for me when I applied to artist colonies. “You’re a writer,” she told me after reading a short essay of mine, years before I ever dared to use that word to describe myself. I devoured all of her essays and read them closely, pencil in hand, as perfect lessons in craft. Her book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, is a riveting peek into the world of antiques and flea markets. In the end, we both left the University of Missouri (not at all on account of the awful Colleague Circle meals); she ended up teaching in Massachusetts, and I moved back to Toronto. Though I haven’t seen Maureen in eight years, she’s the first person I alert when I have a new publication out in the world.
It’s damn difficult to name just one mentor. I’ve been so lucky: even in the deep bullshit of high school, there was Bev Hiller, my art teacher. She didn’t tell me that things were going to get better, she showed me how they could be. She treated us like adults and for that hour, we were. That classroom was an oasis.
Much later, after I’d already had two children and could only see the size of the canyon between me and the novel I wanted to write, I met Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. I was writing journalism; it was as close as I could get to where I wanted to be. I was starting to think it was too late to start, that I’d never get there, that I’d blown my chance. But she had small children too, and she was doing it. She was fierce and committed and her generosity knew no bounds. She let me trail after her like a lost duckling at literary events. She kept nudging me by example and by suggestion. She has read almost everything I’ve written since then. My debut novel exists in no small part because she’s in my world. Merci beaucoup, Kathryn.
My mentors are peers, women whose intelligence and generosity have encouraged me to work harder, write better, sometimes to write at all. Tending towards both vanity and insecurity, I depend on the bracing opinions of friends who won’t indulge either trait. Karen Connelly, Ann Shin, Camilla Gibb and Donna Bailey Nurse have all sustained me with their support and encouragement, and by their example. There are other mentors I’ve met only on the page who’ve sustained me in a more private way. (And I confess, some of them are men.).
November 14, 2014
We always had true crime books lying around the house when I was little, and since I read everything, these books were no exception, and I do wonder how the 10 year old’s psyche is affected by rigorous rereadings of Blind Faith by Joe McGinniss. I have a better sense of the impact of Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe, the story of the murder of 18 year old Jennifer Levin in New York City by a man who strangled her in a park and pleaded guilty to manslaughter—the death was a result of “rough sex”, he said. (When police found him the next day, he was covered with scratches. He claimed he’d been attacked by his cat.) Which is that from very early on, I learned that there were some men for whom women were completely disposable, and that our justice system is stacked against victims of sexual violence in a way that is absolutely heinous.
I’ve been thinking about Jennifer Levin’s death since yesterday, when the verdict was delivered in another case involving the death of a teenage girl. We all know her name, but no one is permitted to print it, which means just this: you can indeed be prosecuted for using a rape victim’s name, but you can actually photograph the victim being raped and then share the image on social media—destroying the self-esteem and reputation of a teenage girl, who goes on to commit suicide—and receive a punishment that involves writing a letter of apology and attending a course on sexual harassment. “He must learn how to properly treat females,” is part of the judge’s verdict, as though this is something that must be taught, as though knowing “how to treat females” (who are indeed people) isn’t sort of one of the barest prerequisites for being a human being.
“Why didn’t he help her?” I wonder. The boy with the camera, I mean, or any of his friends, or the police who shrugged when the victim came to them with the actual photo of her rape being committed, and who found no way to prosecute any of the perpetrators (for distributing child pornography—the charge that has a man punished by letter of apology) until after her death by suicide. Why did nobody help?
Let alone, why are there people actually defending the perpetrators? The same kind of people who are bothered by rape charges ruining the lives of nice young men, or promising footballers? What kind of inside out world do we live in? The kind of world in which the parents of a young man who talks about having his colleague raped as a kind of punishment actually speak out in defence of their son? If that were my son, I’d draw the curtains and not go out again for a very long time. Have these people no shame? “We ask you to give him the chance to learn,” the parents say, to which I respond with a vehement, NO. One does not have to learn about how it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues (or anybody). If you don’t know this already, you never ever will.
When Toronto’s terrible mayor and a godforsaken excuse for a human being was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I fumed as public figures postured about prayers being with him etc. etc. This is another man who has not yet learned that it’s wrong to talk about raping one’s colleagues. It was all I could think of, as his ass fat tumour came down, that a public figure gets to say the things he said (let alone do the things he did) and then get up there with a whole lot of actually honourable citizens and campaign beside them for the job of mayor. “But no!” somebody protests, “do not make disparaging remarks about a man with cancer.” Because we’re willing to draw a line there—we are moral after all—but it’s women who are disposable, women who are nothing more than something for you to stick your dick in, or make jokes about sticking your dick in. A dick receptacle. And if that’s not enough, you can choke them too, “rough sex,” says another public figure, not even sheepishly. And now I’m thinking about Jennifer Levin again, a moment in time, 1980s’s excesses, but it’s forever and always. This is the world in which we live.
You can call it rape culture. You can call it the most horrendous, pervasive male entitlement too. But not all men, another voice pipes up, but oh, there are ever so many. Some of whom are even seemingly feminist allies, examining complicity as they forget about the women whose bodies they themselves have groped, and carrying banners at feminist rallies, even. These men are fathers, husbands, brothers and sons—to frame things in those terms. And I don’t know what to do.
In The New Quarterly 131, Karen Connelly’s essay, “#ItEndsHere,” parallels Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s seeming unconcern with the disappearance of 300 school girls with Canada’s own lack of response to the more than a thousand missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in this country. (The most recent in the news is the young girl in Winnipeg, Rinelle Harper, who was assaulted twice and thrown in the same river where 15 year old Tina Fontaine’s body was discovered months ago. Mercifully, Rinelle Harper survived. She is recovering in hospital.) Connelly reminds us of the rumours surrounding the farm where the remains of so many women were eventually discovered—those rumours would not be investigated for years, during which time so many women died. Disposable women. Ineffectual authorities. There’s a pattern here. It’s like stringing beads.
Connelly writes, “When there were enough missing women—68 to be exact…—the police finally began to look for them. The investigation into the missing women of the downtown east side began in 1998. [Redacted] continued committing murders until his arrest on February 22, 2002.” And from her poem, “Enough,” from her recent collection, Come Cold River:
Unfold the maps on the table.
Let me show you hell.
As described in The Globe and Mail.
Oddly, it includes English Bay,
blue salt water, sand, crows,
owls in the cedars.
The road out?
Oh, that remains
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
May 15, 2014
And here it is! My essay from The M Word appears on The Huffington Post Canada, and I’m so relieved and bolstered by the feedback I’m receiving. Hope you will enjoy reading it.
January 8, 2014
I wrote a short post for the CWILA Blog about why I will be donated to Canadian Women in Literary Arts once again in 2014.
First, because the pies are making a difference. Quite a few people don’t like what they stand for, or don’t like what they’re saying (or something. Truth be told, I don’t really understand, though I’ve tried) but they those pies are changing our publications for the better. The 2013 CWILA numbers reflect a significant change from 2012, writers and editors now working with an awareness of gender representation in what they read, write and publish. And that’s huge. I want to make sure the count continues into the future, is even expanded, and that the “counters” are properly compensated for their work.
Read the whole thing here.
January 7, 2014
When I was 19, I had a notebook that I’d covered with a piece of green corduroy that had previously been part of a pair of my pants. On one page, I wrote a heading with each letter outlined in a different colour Crayola marker, and the heading was “My Opinions”. And below, I tried to capture them all, my perspectives on such things as capital punishment (against), war (totally averse), abortion (well, I guess I respect choice, though I could never go down such a road myself). I don’t remember what I must have been for: universal suffrage, maybe? The abolition of acid rain? Sex, probably, but only hopefully. I think this was around the time I used to say things like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist,” so really, my opinions were likely best not held in a permanent record. It is not a total loss that I don’t have that green notebook anymore.
(I do remember that on the page following my summary of opinions, there was a recipe for mocha cake.)
I thought about this today as I read a really interesting New Yorker profile of novelist Jennifer Weiner. It was a respectful, considered piece that managed to make some space for nuance, to highlight how smart Weiner is and what important ideas she conveys about how fiction by women is perceived by readers and reviewers. And yet it also shows the trouble with Jennifer Weiner, which is her conflation of literary and commercial fiction, and this inane idea that not joining a rah-rah sisterhood is a feminist betrayal.
I’m been turning my head inside out for years now trying to make sense of Jennifer Weiner and her activism, basically trying to articulate a one sentence burst under the heading “My Opinions”, but the words don’t fit. If I added up all the blog posts I’ve ever written on this subject, I think they would fill up that entire green corduroy notebook, and I still wouldn’t have it figured out.
While I find the whole thing infinitely frustrating though, I am starting to realize that the turning my head inside-out might be the very point, instead of a pithy line I could deliver with a bullet. That these figures or ideas that rattle us or make us uneasy are doing a service, serving a purpose. “But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality– dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers,” said Dorothy Parker, and sometimes (often?) the very worst parts of the feminism are the other feminists, but maybe why this is why feminism is excellent (and also why it will never become a totalitarian regime). We keep each other in check, we rub one another the wrong way, we ruffle feathers, we don’t sing kumbaya.
Here’s an opinion: the non-fiction literary anthology is a revolutionary act. This is apropos of something, and I mean it. The literary anthology, second-tier non-fiction. The kind of book that couldn’t win a prize if it tried (because it isn’t eligible). There is no cohesion, but this is the very point. The complexity of many voices, all of them singing a different tune. Not cacophony, which is noise, but heteroglossia instead. Resolving nothing, but reflecting reality. Sometimes as close to solidarity as we’re ever going to get.
December 15, 2013
“But, as a woman poet who increasingly reads the work of other women poets, I know that a too-large proportion of the books I love don’t get their due in the public sphere. I cannot begin to tell you how many “underrated” poets presently occupy places of honour on my shelf. I say this not to diminish the books I read or write about, nor the marketing skills of their authors, nor to suggest that I write reviews or read books out of pity—I am at heart a lazy hedonist, and do in my unpaid hours basically only what brings me immediate pleasure—but to question the context in which poetry books by women and other “minorities” are received…
Male reviewers, by the CWILA stats at least, are more likely to have their tastes taken care of—assuming, as I think is reasonable based on my experience studying friends’ bookshelves, that tastes often diverge by gender. And really there is no better illustration of this than the relative freedom many of these reviewers seem to feel, the leftover energy they seem to have, to express their dislikes too. Singling something out and saying “no, not this” is a gatekeeping behaviour. It presupposes an ample supply of the things you like and need—people don’t generally demand to have the peppers taken off their pizza if they aren’t regularly being fed.”
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.