By Kait Pinder and Ania Wroblewski
This summer, take a tour through Canadian literature guided by some of Canada’s strongest female voices. This reading list will give you a sense of the tradition of feminist women’s writing in Canada and the issues and aesthetics that have shaped it over the past seventy years. From the poetry of Elizabeth Smart’s affront to wartime propriety in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept to Sheila Heti’s meditation on art and female friendship in our contemporary world, this reading list reveals not only the problems women have confronted in the past (and are still confronting today) but also highlights the creative and shifting methods of their confrontation.
Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)
The unnamed first-person narrator of Elizabeth Smart’s now classic novella tells the story of her affair with a married man during the Second World War. Full of imagery of various landscapes onto which the narrator projects her erotic desires and ethical consciousness—“the new moss caressed me and the water over my feet and the ferns approved me with endearments”—this novella boldly asserts feminine agency in desire and in language, even (especially) during a period of war when women were expected to maintain and defend propriety on the home front. Smart thus challenges the wartime notions of propriety that insist on women’s public function rather than personal integrity. Skip the sexy pocket pulp this summer: By Grand Central Station uses all the eroticism of the Song of Songs in its affirmation of feminine desire.
Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel (1954)
Fishing might be a quintessentially feminist activity in Canada literature. In her best-known novel, Ethel Wilson portrays Maggie Lloyd, who finds employment and a new life at a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia after leaving her inconsiderate and unlikeable husband. Swamp Angel’s women, including Maggie and her unforgettable friend Nell Severence, are strong and uncompromising: they insist on their own autonomy and negotiate the resentment that such insistence inspires in others.
Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God (1966)
Margaret Laurence’s protagonist, Rachel Cameron, is a thirty-four year old teacher who lives with her aging and passive aggressive mother in Manawaka, Manitoba (a fictional small town based on Laurence’s own hometown, Neepawa). During a transformative summer holiday, Rachel negotiates the pressures and expectations of small-town propriety and her own sexual and individual desires. This is a novel about a woman finding her voice, that is finding the language and the courage to articulate what she wants from her own life.
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972)
As Ethel Wilson does in Swamp Angel, Margaret Atwood also sets her feminist novel in the wilderness and makes her protagonist a good outdoors-woman. The protagonist of the novel returns to her family’s cabin in northern Quebec with her lover and a married couple. As the unnamed protagonist attempts to find her missing father, she confronts the difficult moments that have shaped her life, including her affair, abortion, and divorce. This haunting novel is essential to any feminist reading list of Canadian fiction.
Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert (1987)
Set in the Arizona desert, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve desert is one of Quebec feminism’s incontournables. The novel, which explores the intricacies of relationships between women, is as much about translation and writing as it is about lesbian desire, freedom, and adolescent experience. The book is divided into three separate texts. The first, titled Mauve desert and signed by the fictional author Laure Angstelle, is the coming of age story of fifteen year-old Mélanie who drives through the American southwest on a quest for self-discovery and independence. The next two parts are closely related to one another. In “A Book to Translate,” Maude Laures finds Mauve desert in a used bookstore. After becoming enthralled by Angstelle’s writing, she decides to rewrite the story herself by reimagining the characters, the scenes, and the landscape. Mauve, the Horizon is Laures’ interpretative translation of Angstelle’s text. Nicole Brossard’s meandering Mauve desert is an ode to female creativity.
Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (1996)
In Another Place, Not Here is the first novel by Toronto’s current poet laureate. This novel tells the story of two women, Verlia and Elizete, both born on an unnamed Caribbean island. While Verlia leaves the island and makes a life for herself as an activist in Toronto, Elizete remains on the island where she is an abused labourer in a sugar cane field. The two meet and become lovers when Verlia returns to the island of her birth to organize the sugar cane workers into a union. While most of the other novels on this list feature women leaving Canadian urban centres in order to affirm their autonomy, this novel focuses on displacement, on both Verlia’s and Elizete’s desires to be “in another place, not here.” Brand’s title comes from one of her poems, and its lines best capture the sense of displacement and embodiment in her novel:
In another place, not here, a woman might touch
something between beauty and nowhere […]
[…] What I say in any language is told in faultless
knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping,
told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in
words and in words and in words learned by heart,
told in secret and not in secret, and listen, does not
burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves. (From No Language is Neutral)
Nelly Arcan’s Whore (2001)
First published in 2001, Nelly Arcan’s loosely autobiographical Whore is a relentless tirade against society’s enslavement of women. Cynthia, a high-class Montreal call girl, reflects on her childhood and the social pressures that led her to prostitution. She rants about the impossible emphasis placed on beauty and perfection, and reveals her biggest fear/fantasy: opening the door for her next client and coming face to face with her father. Read alongside French writers Virginie Despentes and Catherine Millet whose novels Baise-moi (1999) and La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001) respectively also caused great controversy at the turn of the twenty-first century, Quebec’s Nelly Arcan announces a new, unflinching, and provocative kind of women’s writing.
Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012)
Sheila Heti’s novel has received a lot of attention since it was released in 2012. Compared to Girls and admired by Lena Dunham, this “novel from life” centers on Sheila and her friendship with Margaux, a character based on Margaux Williamson, a visual artist working in Toronto. In her quest to discover how a person should be, Sheila is forced to recognize the models of appropriation that have defined her search for her own, individual self: “And hadn’t I always gone into the world making everyone and everything a lesson in how I should be? Somehow I had turned myself into the worst thing in the world: I was just another man who wanted to teach me something!” Heti’s novel confronts the difficulties of discovering just how a person or a female friendship should be, and, importantly, asks what a feminine model of genius might look like in the twenty-first century.
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