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In my attempt to understand better postcolonialism in a Canadian context, I started reading the essays in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, a collection edited by Cynthia Sugars.  This book had been recommended to me as a good introduction to Canadian postcolonialism, which it indeed is.

In her introduction, Cynthia Sugars highlights the “impossibility . . . of settling on any one definition of postcolonialism in a Canadian context” (xiii).  She emphasises some of the form this postcolonialism can take, in particular as the result of American/English imperialism, but also from an indigenous perspectives.  This collection is an attempt at representing these various perspectives.

All essays have been previously published but are, here, regrouped according to their themes or perspectives: native perspective for instance, but also pedagogical ones.  It highlights how this contentious debate has evolved, with some essays being actual response to other essays, thus enabling the reader to create a more complete picture of the complex question of postcolonialism in Canada.

One will find essays by theorists, such as Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon and Diana Brydon, but also by writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, Thomas King or Lee Maracle.  Some of these essays might be more accessible than others, but I find that the way the collection is conceived helped for a better understanding of the difficult concepts.

Beginning with a consideration of postcolonialism in a Commonwealth context, the collection then moves to various attempts at defining postcolonialism in a Canadian context.  The essays thus highlight how postcolonialism in Canada might be the result of British imperialism, but also emphasise the question of Canada as a country in the periphery of the United States.  Indigenous questions are also examined in details and the essays offer an array of views on the topic.

I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in understanding better this controversial issue.  You might actually have already encountered some of these essays, but they act here as a dialogue.

Second Words: Selected Critical Prose is the first of Margaret Atwood’s collections of critical prose pieces.  The pieces in this collection are miscellaneous and range from the simple book reviews to book introductions to essays on topics as varied as Canadian humour, Canadianism or being a woman writer.  If you like Atwood, it will give you a good insight into where she is coming from.

I read it from cover to cover (for study purposes) and this might not be the best way to do it, although, as the pieces are organised into three chronological periods, it gives you a good idea about where Atwood stood in each period.  The collection spans the years from 1960, when Atwood was at Victoria University, to 1980, when she had already become an established writer.  She herself explains that the logic behind her organisation:

“The first, or Rooming House, runs from 1960 to 1971, during which I moved about fifteen times, always to places with a lot of stairs to climb and inadequate heat.  It was during this time that I was developing some of the ideas set forth in Survival.  The second, or Dugout, period runs from 1972 (or publication of Survival) to 1976, and covers a time when I was being attacked a lot; much of what I wrote then was in response to some of these attacks, the more intellectually serious ones, I think . . . It also corresponds to the peak of cultural nationalism and the popularization of feminism.

The third period, which has no name yet, runs from 1976, in which I published Lady Oracle and had a baby, thus becoming instantly warm and maternal and temporarily less attacked, to the present [1982].  It covers my growing involvement with human right issues, which for me are not separate from writing.  When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger.  There’s no contradiction.”

The reviews can become a little tedious when read one after another.  It is the same as when reading book blogs: you rarely read all the reviews you come across.  I read them all because I did not want to miss a thing.  Since Atwood’s writing is good, and funny at times (although she is more serious in her reviews than in her essays), they are enjoyable – albeit, if you space them a little.  Her reviews are actually enlightening in considerations of her own writing and they also give a good sense of the context in which the books were written and thus of Atwood’s own context (for contemporaneous books).  For instance, her reviews of Adrienne Rich’s work provide a glimpse at Atwood’s position regarding feminism.  They are also an excellent way to discover the work of authors unknown to you and to, perhaps, raise your interest to works you would not have considered reading before, as is the case with any review.  As they feature some Canadian authors, such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Audrey Thomas and Timothy Findley, but also Canadian magazines, they are also a kind of commentary on the state of Canadian literature at the time.

The essays are typical Atwood; they are witty and thoughtful.  Some of them are autobiographical, while other consider contemporaneous issues.  For instance, a piece like “Travels Back” recounts Atwood’s early book tours in some remote town (a topic also evoked in her short story “Lives of the Poets”, but also considers what writing means to her.  In fact, many of these essays examine various aspects of writing: “On Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas” and “Writing the Male Character”, for instance.  Others examine Canadianness, and Canadian literature in particular, as well as the relations between the US and Canada.   

I might look at these essays more closely in the future, as I really enjoyed reading them, but for now, I will share a few quotations with you.

“‘They’ had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins.  ‘We’ on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were.” (“Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club”)

“If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have – hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy – without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example.”  (“The Curse of Eve – Or, What I Learned in School”)

“How much better if children could be chosen, and loved for what they are, not viewed as an inadequate substitute for a ‘career’ or some kind of parasitic burden?”  (“Adrienne Rich: Of Woman Born”)

“Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth.”  (“Amnesty International: An Address”)

“If a man depicts a male character unfavourably, it’s The Human Condition; if a woman does it, she’s being mean to men.”  (“Writing the Male Character”)

I do not really read biographies or memoirs.  Actually, I do not think I had ever read a biography before, but if they are all like this one, I cannot wait to read more!  In fact, according to its author, Rosemary Sullivan, the book is not a biography, it is a “not-biography” (how can you write a book about someone’s life if this person is not dead yet?):

“I was writing a book about Margaret Atwood.  Though I didn’t quite know what to call it.  A ‘not-biography’ was the closest I’d come . . . I wanted a book about the writing life.  There is so much confusion about what makes a writing life possible.”

I think it is fair to say that Sullivan succeeded in her project.  The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out retraces the influences and beginnings of this writer who has now become a literary icon.  However, it is much more than about Atwood.  It is also about literary life in Canada and the developments of the publishing industry in the 60’s.

The Red Shoes is wonderfully written and takes you back to Canada at the time when Atwood was growing up and becoming a (woman) writer.  From Northern Quebec to Toronto to Harvard to Vancouver to Montreal to Europe, it makes you visit all those places in which Atwood lived and evolved.  It recreates the climate in which she became who she is.  It also makes you discover the state of literature in Canada at the time.  I had read about it before in many essays, but this book enabled me to get a feeling about it.  I was taken back to the late 60’s-early 70’s, when poetry readings were happening in the Bohemian Embassy and when a few musicians were also starting out (some of them got together and became The Band).

Sullivan’s work is well researched.  She knows what she is talking about, but has also interviewed many of Atwood’s acquaintances, has read Atwood’s works and links them to events in her life, has consulted the correspondence Atwood held with other writers, and so on.

The title comes from a film Atwood saw as a child, The Red Shoes, in which the female artist commits suicide because she is faced by the impossibility of pursuing her artictic career as a dancer and her love affair.  Atwood, when she decided to become a writer, had this idea that she would die before 30 and never become a wife and mother.  Womanhood and being an artist were seen as incompatible at the time.  Sullivan’s work retraces these anxieties and highlights how this unconventional woman managed to be fulfilled as both a woman and an artist.

It is also a valuable testimonial about the Canadian renaissance in literature and the arts.  It discusses how Canadian literature became viable, how small presses, such as the now famous House of Anansi, were born. 

For someone like me who has a fascination with Canada, this book is invaluable.  Sullivan has also written a biography of the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (which Loni mentions here) and I look forward to reading it.  MacEwen was a contemporary of Atwood and lived in the same Toronto as Atwood did…

Although I had heard and read a lot about “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) by Roland Barthes, I had never read it in its entirety.  I found it nice to be able to read and understand Barthes in French for once.  I know, I should be able to read in French, but I find literary theory more difficult to understand in French than in English.  As a result, it is such an effort for me to read French theory in its original language that I tend to avoid it.  However, this essay is easier to understand than other essays written by Barthes.

“La mort de l’auteur” was originally published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen and only appeared in its French version in 1968 in the journal Manteia.  Roland Barthes is a structuralist, and later post-structuralist, whose interest in semotics is evident in many of his works, including “La mort de l’auteur”.

“La mort de l’auteur” is probably his most controversial essay; however, the ideas he proposes in it are not as extreme as the essay title would suggest.  In fact, I think that most of what he argues makes a lot of sense.

Barthes’s essay can be seen as a reaction to critics’ and readers’ urge to find the author’s ultimate meaning in a text.  What Barthes argues is that the text exists in the here and now, that it is enunciated/read, and that there are multiple interpretations to a text.  The author as we know him is the one we construct through reading the text.  Barthes thus proposes that instead of deciphering a text to find the author’s message, we should untangle its various meanings.  When talking of a text, Barthes uses weaving metaphors, which actually lie in the latin origin of the word text.  He differentiates between the text and the work.  The work is material, whereas the text comprises many discourses and other texts that interact and result in our own interpretation.  The way we interpret the text relies on intertextuality.  The text is thus fluid and has infinite meanings.  Although he does not directly refer to intertextuality in “La mort de l’auteur”, Barthes’s argument points to this concept:

“un texte est fait d’écritures multiples, issues de plusieurs cultures et qui entrent les unes avec les autres en dialogue, en parodie, en contestation ; mais il y a un lieu où cette multiplicité se rassemble, et ce lieu, ce n’est pas l’auteur, comme on l’a dit jusqu’à present, c’est le lecteur”

“a text is composed of multiple writings, issued from various cultures that intersect through dialogue, parody, contestation; but the only place where this multiplicity is unified is not the author, as we have said until now, but the reader”

Therefore, according to Barthes, we should not try to explain texts by looking at their authors, but rather by looking at the language and how it speaks to us.  For him, it is the langage that creates meaning, not the author.  He notes that:

“l’écriture est la destruction de toute voix, de toute origine” 

“writing leads the destruction of the voice, of the origin”

Indeed, authors cannot control the meaning that will be given to their texts.  This so-called message of the author can only be a supposition from the reader.  Moreover, texts take on a life of their own by surviving their authors and being read year after year, century after century, by various readers who will impose their own interpretation on the text.

This is something important for Barthes because it enables us to resist the totality of the message from an over-controlling author, that is to resist ideology.

“un texte n’est pas fait d’une ligne de mots, dégageant un sens unique, en quelque sorte théologique (qui serait le ‘message’ de l’Auteur-Dieu), mais un espace à dimensions multiples, où se marient et se contestant des écritures variées, dont aucune n’est originelle: le texte est un tissue de citations, issues des mille foyers de la culture”

“a text is not composed of a series of words, giving a single meaning, somehow theological (which would be the message of the Author-God), but a site with multiple dimensions, where various writings interact and contest each other, none of which original: the text is a fabric of quotations, from culture’s thousands of sources.”

What seems to shock the most in Barthes’s essay is that he replaces the Author by a scriptor, someone mainly laying words on the page.  This is somewhat disturbing taken out of its context.  However, I do not think that Barthes rejects the author as such, but rather the over-controlling author and the possibility to find the author’s meaning.  All we really have is the work, those words on the page and we are ultimately free to interpret them the way we want, depending on our own circumstances.  He therefore concludes that the only way to liberate the reader is to get rid of the Author:

“la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur”

“the birth of the reader necessitates the death of the Author”

Although Barthes’s statement is radical, I think his argument is convincing.  How does it make you feel?  How do you read a text?  Do you always try to find out about the author or do you give more importance to the significance it has for you?

In my opinion, the author is one of the texts we use to understand the work.  I believe we can only guess what the author’s intended message is.  Each of us creates her/his own meaning of the text and the text will have a specific significance for each of us, depending on our own context.  As we try to interpret the text, we might consider the author and, by doing so, we create the author through the text we have read, but also by using other texts about the author.  Ultimately, the meaning of the text results from our own interpretation and use of the texts and discourses surrounding us and our reading.

All translations are mine and are probably imperfect.  You can read the English version here.

This essay is my first introduction to Adrienne Rich, a writer I have wanted to read for a long time.  It was written in 1971 for a conference and later published in College English 34.1 in 1972 (this is the version I am reviewing) and in Rich’s collection On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  There is also a revised version of this essay online.

What I know about Rich is very little.  Margaret Atwood describes her as a proto-feminist and, from reading this essay, I can see why.  Rich is one of these women who successfully managed to be both a writer and a woman in a society (the 50s) where the norm for a woman was still to change nappies and cook your husband’s meal. 

In this essay, she discusses how she managed to find her female voice.  She begins her essay by considering the exhilaration of living in a period of “awakening consciousness”.  This, she believes, can only come out of knowledge of the male-dominated structure of society and of literature.  She deplores the fact that too many women have adopted a masculine style of writing in order to be accepted as writers, men being the judging audience.  She argues that in order to find their own voice, women need to be aware of the myth of the woman as represented in past literature and need to then subvert these representations, what she calls “re-vision”.

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.  And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

It is therefore through this act of revision that women can affirm their place in society, not as submissive wives and muses for the male writer, but as female human beings able to express their own feelings and passion.  Women writers should not follow the tradition set by male writers, but should become aware of it, subvert it and create their own.

“We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us”

After discussing this need for re-vision, Rich takes as an example her own writing and explains the various steps she has taken toward finding her own voice.  She describes her own situation as a wife and mother in the 1950s and how difficult it was to write at the beginning. 

“But in those earlier years I always felt the conflict as a failure of love in myself.  I had thought I was choosing a full life: the life available to most men, in which sexuality, work, and parenthood could coexist.  But I felt, at 29, guilt toward the people closest to me, and guilty toward my own being.”

However, she explains that it was not until she decided to adopt her own style and be more experimental that she managed to find her voice.  She quotes a few of her poems and mentions others, some of which are reproduced at the end of the essay and illustrate the evolution of her poetics, such as her move from using the pronoun “she” to “I”.

“You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.  For writing is re-naming.”

At the end of her essay, she also notes the effect this “awakening consciousness” might have on men.  As women find their voices, men lose their muses.

“One thing I am sure of: just as woman is becoming her own midwife, creating herself anew, so man will have to learn to gestate and give birth to his own subjectivity – something he has often wanted woman to do for him.”

Indeed, time has shown that men have felt threatened by women’s affirmation of themselves as subjects rather than objects, as Robert Bly’s Iron John and the crisis of masculinity debate have highlighted.

I think Rich’s essay is an important text in the history of women writers.  It clearly emphasises the conflict in which many women found themselves as they were writing in a patriarchal society.  It also foregrounds the need for subversion of the masculine conventions of writing and the need to be experimental in order to find a voice of their own.  A technique many women writers have since used.

First of all, yay! I have figured out how to have italics in a title!

Now, the book.  Escaping from the Prison-House of Language and Digging for Meanings in Texts among Texts: Metafiction and Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s Novels Lady Oracle and The Blind Assassin by Andrea Strolz does what it says in the title: it looks at metafiction and intertextuality in these two novels.  If the jargon scares you, do not worry: Strolz takes you step by step into the theory of metafiction and intertextuality.  The first two chapters introduce the reader to these theories, the third and fourth chapters look at metafiction and intertextuality in Atwood’s work in general and the last two chapter focus on how they work in each novel.

It is an interesting book, which, for those familiar with these theories, will refresh the concepts and show how they apply to Atwood’s work.  However, I did not find Strolz’s thesis revolutionary.  For me, it was like revising some notes.  Strolz has some good insights, but I think the structure of her book does not enhance her ideas.  It is too fragmented, like a series of bullet points.

Will I use this book again?  Yes, as some kind of catalogue of ideas and references, particularly regarding intertexts in Atwood’s work.  Strolz has done her research: she has compiled nice summaries about each idea and her references are informative.

Who would I recommend this book to?  People who enjoy Atwood but are not particularly familiar with the concepts of intertextuality and metafiction.  Strolz’s theoretical explanations are clear and she then shows you how they work in the two novels.  I think it would make a perfect textbook for undergraduate students.

In 2000, Margaret Atwood delivered a series of lectures on writing in Cambridge as part of the Empson lectures.  These were later published by Cambridge University Press in a little volume entitled Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

I have recently read Strange Things and Payback, which I really enjoyed.  I also enjoyed reading Negotiating but found it more difficult to follow as some of the connections she makes can be quite obscure.

In her introduction, Atwood gives her usual disclaimer that she is not a scholar and that her voice is that of a writer.  The set topic she had for these lectures was: “Writing, or Being a Writer”.  She considers the long list of motives given by writers when asked why they write and, then, tackles the question of “what it feels like to be a writer”.  From the answers received, she deduces that it is what her book is most about:

“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.  This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.”

Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of writing and she poses questions such as: why does the writer write? who does s/he write for? what is the motivation behind the writing? does s/he have a moral responsibility? what relationship does s/he have with the reader?  She explores possible answers to these questions and, as always, provides a profusion of literary examples to illustrate her argument.  All her considerations are interesting and well-written and she touches on many topics that should enlighten both readers and writers, although some might find them disturbing. 

“All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.”

It is a book in which the activity of writing is thought out and explained to an audience.  As such, it might destroy the glamorous idea you had of the writer.  She also argues that writing is an act of communication and, in the end, it is the reader who receives the work and interprets it.  In that sense, writers cannot have any definite control on their books and what they try to transmit.

“. . . the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant.  Instead it’s the reader”

I have had this book for a while now and for some reason it took me four years to pick it up.  I think the subtitle and cover must have put me off.  Anyway, I chose to read it at the right time since I am starting to become fascinated and increasingly curious about anything Canadian, particularly stories about Natives.  I think that might be due to my trip to Canada: Canada became a reality not a place from which my favourite author writes. 

Strange Things by Atwood was definitely a good introduction to tropes of the Canadian North.  As Atwood often states she is a creative writer, not an academic (anymore) and this can be felt in her non-fictional writings.  Each of the four parts of the book is a lecture; yet, they all have a quality of storytelling and Atwood’s humour can be felt through the whole book.

The first lecture is about the disaster of Franklin Expedition, which is also the topic of her story “The Age of Lead”, who set to discover the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century but of which all members ended up dying for strange and, for a long time, unexplained reasons.  The second lecture is entitled “The Grey Owl Syndrome” and is about those white men who try to “turn Natives”.  The third lecture is about the Wendigo, a figure I had never heard of, which/who is a ravenous cannibal creature with a heart of ice.  The last lecture focuses on how women writers have used these tropes in their works and thus on how their representation of the malevolent North might be different to that of male writers. 

Atwood does not intend to be all knowledgeable on these topics and these lectures are not all-encompassing.  However, she is well-read and knows what she is talking about, particularly when it concerns their representations in Literature.  The lectures provide an introduction and might give you the envy to read some of the many texts she mentions and to explore further the subject of the Canadian North.