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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Gender & Genre

  • Lynne Van Luven (Editor)
    Going Some Place: Creative Non-Fiction across Canada. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Caterina Edwards (Editor) and Kay Stewart (Editor)
    Wrestling with the Angel: Women Reclaiming Their Lives. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Denise Adèle Heaps

Two recent collections of short non-fiction by Canadian writers tackle issues of gender and genre. E.B. White, in the foreword to his Collected Essays, describes the essay as the "excursion" of a "self-liberated man"; the editors of Wrestling with the Angel: Women Reclaiming Their Lives make the same claim for female essayists. The editor of Going Some Place: Creative Non-Fiction across Canada suggests that such excursions assume the form of creative non-fiction rather than the essay, and tries to make a case that there is indeed a distinction between the two. Wrestling with the Angel: Women Reclaiming Their Lives is the second anthology of Canadian women’s autobiographical essays that Caterina Edwards and Kay Stewart have co-edited. The mandate of their first anthology, Eating Apples: Knowing Women’s Lives, was to reclaim Eve’s hunger for knowledge about herself and her world, particularly by "illuminât [ing] the many sources of women’s knowledge, all rooted in the self." The editors shift metaphors from women as apple eaters to women writers as wrestlers in Wrestling with the Angel. They suggest that women who write the personal in a public mode such as the essay step into the ring with two daunting angelic opponents. The first angel resembles Jacob’s rival, except this one gives blessings of autobiographical insight.

Sparring from darkness to daylight to wrest a vision of the self is surely not a gender-specific act. However, the second angel evoked by the editors, Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House, is. Virginia Woolf, in "Professions for Women," throttled hers because the winged being "plucked the heart out of [her] writing" whenever she breached feminine propriety. Edwards and Stewart argue that women writers still wrestle with this angel, especially when trying to write honestly about their lives and bodies, because they attend to what husbands, lovers, parents, or children expect or wish to read.

The essays are as diverse as the contributors, who include women making their publishing debut as well as familiar and not-so-familiar names in Canadian literature. In soliciting manuscripts, the editors asked potential contributors to contemplate the theme of repetition, as in re-experiencing a life event or re-envisioning events or people from the past. Thus, the operative prefix in the titles is "re." In "Reevaluating Relationships," we find Lea Littlewolfe’s "supermom"; the author reconsiders her maternal obligations to a young, needy step-granddaughter after twenty years of caring for a special needs stepson. Exhausted, she bluntly defies the Angel in the House by stating "I’m not interested" and calling social services. Under the chapter heading "Reinventing Places," we find several travel essays, including Gail Scott’s "there’s no such thing as repetition." Scott’s "delicious sense of déjà-vu" in Paris, inspired by the voices of Stein, Hemingway, Miller, Balzac, and Proust, is interrupted by contemporary voices of racial intolerance and right-wing immigration policy. In "Reconstructing Experience" we find Sarah Murphy’s "The Night the Thirty-Ought-Six Got Shot Through the Ceiling," one of the more formally experimental essays which transforms a violent, potentially traumatic night in her childhood into a moment (only) of surrealistic joy.

In the introduction to Going Some Place: Creative Non-Fiction Across Canada, editor Lynne Van Luven strives valiantly to define creative non-fiction and offers the collection itself as illustration. Most of the contributions, however, do not differ in form from the personal essays we find in Wrestling with the Angel. Van Luven argues that creative non-fiction "adopts, expands and in some cases embellishes the personal essay format." In response, one might argue that the essay is an expansive genre to begin with. In the essay, according to Michel de Montaigne, "my Style and my mind alike go roaming," and many essayists since have celebrated the latitude and license of the genre. Admitting that all writers "necessarily deploy creativity," Van Luven then suggests the best of creative non-fiction to be a meeting of the self and the wider world, of private and public, of self and other. She seems to be describing the space between two types of essays identified by Aldous Huxley in his Collected Essays: "the personal and autobiographical" essay and the "concrete-particular" mode which explores "some literary or scientific or political theme."

When reading the works themselves, however, one loses interest in generic taxonomy because the topics are so compelling, varied, and skillfully rendered. Van Luven explains how she solicited "articles" contemplating psychological or physical "location/dislocation," but admits her surprise that so many writers focused on the "facts of life": living, loving, dying. The collection is divided into three chapters, the first of which, "A Honeycomb of Memory," incorporates autobiographical recollections of journeys, childhood, and the loved and lost. In this chapter we find the graceful, humorous "Not My Home," Daniel Coleman’s depiction of a displaced childhood in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, where "not home" was the familiar (a boarding school for the children of missionaries) and "home" was a mystery (a mythic place called Canada). The majority of pieces in the second and third chapters, "A Question of Identity" and "Breathing Spaces," are likewise autobiographical, but we do find a few contributions that correspond with Huxley’s second sort of essay: the exploration of a political theme. In "A Question of Identity," Nigel Darbasie traces the aetiology of racialized thinking in Western civilization followed by an assessment of its manifestation in Canada, whereas Ann Charney in "Strip-Mining the Land of Sorrow" condemns the "dead-Jews" tourist trade in a post-Communist, entrepreneurial Prague. Although interesting, these essays, where the autobiographical "I" is deployed at a minimum if at all, seem slightly out of place amongst intimate personal anecdote.

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MLA: Heaps, Denise Adèle. Gender & Genre. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 162 - 163)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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