Dreaming of Nationhood, Writing of Motherhood
- Miléna Santoro (Author)
Mothers of Invention: Feminist Authors and Experimentl Fiction in France and Quebec. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Mann (Author)
The Dream of Nation. A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jane Moss
At first glance, Susan Mann’s history of Quebec and Miléna Santoro’s close reading of French and Quebec avant-garde feminist writers would appear to have little in common other than a publisher. In fact they do share a number of things: a feminist point of view, an impressive command of primary and secondary sources in French and English, a remarkable ability to synthesize massive amounts of information, and a self-confident scholarly voice. Interestingly enough, Mann and Santoro’s subjects also share some things: collective memories wounded by past oppressions, resentment of the Other, and identity quests inspired by dreams of autonomy.
When Susan Mann (Trofimenkoff) published The Dream of Nation in 1982, she was praised for the soundness of her scholarship, the originality of her articulation of the importance of feminism and nationalism in Quebec, and the clarity of her writing. Twenty years later, the book is being reprinted with only the addition of the author’s preface which briefly mentions some of the recent contributions to Quebec historiography and some of the political developments that have occurred since the 1980 referendum. While it would have been interesting to read Mann’s analysis of the events of the last two decades, The Dream of Nation is still a marvelous historical narrative for anglophones who want to understand the shared past of English and French Canadians. As the back cover declares, it is "essential reading for an understanding of contemporary Quebec" because it explains the political, constitutional, economic, and cultural issues that have long divided the country.
The breadth and depth of Mann’s analysis is impressive as she chronicles the history of Quebec from the imperial dream of New France to the sovereigntist dream of the late twentieth century. She goes far beyond the social and intellectual history promised in the subtitle. Various chapters deal with economic history, industrial development, labour movements, emigration, religious history, educational institutions, culture, electoral and constitutional politics. She also offers mini-biographies of people who have left their mark on Quebec—clerics such as Monseigneur Ignace Bourget and Abbé Groulx, politicians such as Louis Riel, George-Etienne Cartier, Wilfrid Laurier, Henri Bourassa, Maurice Duplessis, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and Rene Lévesque. The focus on Quebec does not preclude discussions of francophone communities outside of Quebec and she is always interested in Quebec’s relations with English Canada and the United States. Mann also presents the important contributions that women and feminism have made in shaping Quebec society.
The feminist activism of the 1970s which Mann describes in her last chapter is the historical context for the women writers examined by Mothers of Invention. In this weighty tome, Santoro proves herself to be a leading voice for a new generation of feminist critics in French and francophone literary studies. Unintimidated by the vast body of criticism written by an older generation of feminist critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Santoro takes on the difficult task of defining and describing what she calls a transatlantic community of avant-garde women writers. After an Introduction, in which the author explains both her goals and her choice of writers, Chapter 1outlines the history, ideology, and theory that created the context for French and Quebec feminist writing in the 1970s. Hélène Cixous, Madeleine Gagnon, Nicole Brossard, and Jeanne Hyvrard are the foremothers of feminist literary practice selected by Santoro. While the four do not constitute a "school" of writing and some would even reject the label "feminist," Santoro argues that the four share subversive and disruptive writing strategies, a lyrical and playful use of language, and a desire to liberate women from patriarchal oppression. In their works of fiction from the 1970s, Santoro explores the relationships between images of the mother, maternity, femininity, female eroticism, and creativity. The texts she chooses are Cixous’s La (1976), Gagnon’s Lueur (1979), Brossard’s L’Amer ou le chapitre effrité (1977), and Hyvrard’s trilogie Les Prunes de Cythère (1975), Mère la mort (1976), and La Meurtritude (1977).
In each of the four chapters focused on individual writers, Santoro follows the same methodology. She first introduces the authors, outlines their careers, and presents their ideological approach to writing as revealed in essays, lectures, and interviews. Close textual readings make up the second part of each chapter with particular attention paid to themes, intertexts, and images. Since it would be impossible to give linear plot summaries of the texts under discussion, Santoro is obliged to lead us through the texts, giving us reading strategies designed to unpack these dense and difficult fictions. As she performs her close readings and discusses textual practices, she also demonstrates her impressive command of contemporary feminist, psychoanalytical, and literary theory in addition to her knowledge of previous scholarship on these four writers. In the final section of each chapter, she explores the writers’ disruptive use of language, including parataxis, ellipses, disturbed syntax, word play, and neologisms. In her Conclusions, Santoro argues that while the feminist literary avant-garde did not survive much beyond the 1970s, their works of fiction/theory continue to have a significant impact on women’s writing. What Cixous, Gagnon, Brossard, and Hyvrard wrote in the 1970s opened up new possibilities for a transformative approach to literature and a liberated use of language.
Mothers of Invention makes a significant contribution to French and Quebec literary studies by showing us how the feminist theories, practices, and ethical commitments of four remarkable authors changed the way many of us think about motherhood, femininity, sexuality, and language on both sides of the Atlantic. Showing the same respect for her critical foremothers (Karen Gould, Louise Forsyth, Barbara Godard, Louise Dupré, Verena Conley, Alice Parker, Jennifer Waelti-Walters, Mair Verthuy, Claudine Fisher, Christiane Makward) as she does for the literary foremothers, she renews our understanding of the possibilities of women’s writing. And she does all of this with intelligence, clarity, passion, and humour.
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MLA: Moss, Jane. Dreaming of Nationhood, Writing of Motherhood. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 153 - 155)
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