German Critics on Canadian Women Writers
- Hannelore Zimmermann (Author)
Erscheinungsformen der Macht in den Romanen Margaret Atwoods. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Doris Eibl (Editor) and Christina Strobel (Editor)
Selbst und Andere/s. Wissner Verlag (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Studies in Canadian literature by critics from other countries often present intriguing glimpses of how Canadian works are received in other cultures. The two volumes under review reflect the diversity, originality and strength that a number of European critics see in Canadian writing by women.
The first volume is a collection of twelve essays by young German female academics. As a whole, the volume makes a substantial contribution not only to feminist Canadian studies but also to applications of feminist theory in the broader sense. The editors have presented a competent and compact summary of the status of current research in the area, and the articles themselves, most of which appear in English, have an astonishingly broad focus, ranging from film studies (an analysis of Patricia Rozema’s When Night is Falling) to Quebec theatre, and from the role of women in Native societies to lesbian narratives by Jane Rule and Daphne Marlatt.
The editors’ premise is that gender is a function of a hegemonic discourse, an expression of the normative hierarchical system that affirms the binary norms and values of the social consensus, inscribed in the fictional as well as the historical record; women don’t exist in history except as diluted traces, and the dominant discourse creates a normative structure in which women are always marginalized, always Other, often in multiple ways. All the essays focus on manifestations of this alterity in a feminist context.
Andrea Braidt’s perceptive piece on Patricia Rozema and Doris Eibl’s beautiful and suggestive contribution on Suzanne Jacob’s Maude analyze the symbolic significance of visual perspective in the gaze of "the other." While Braidt’s context is cinematic and Eibl’s is textual, both emphasize the subversive potential of deviating from and drawing attention to the narrative conventions of perspectivisation. Hélène Destrempes’s essay, the only one that appears in French, deals with the significance of Native women’s prise de parole and its emancipatory role in native communities, whereas Pamela Dube thematizes the multiple marginalization of "women of colour," pointing out that the latter expression has been perceived as opposing "feminism," resulting in an implicit dichotomy between white women and "women of colour."
Ulrike Lange and Marion Schomakers have co-authored a fine piece on the blurring of gender boundaries in Monique Proulx’s Le sexe des étoiles, while Brigitte Mertz-Baumgartner argues in her eloquent essay that the "monologue," a popular theatrical genre in Quebec, has, in works by female writers like Clémence DesRochers, Jacqueline Barrette and Denise Guénette, not only popularized the issue of sexual relationships but also created a strong female voice that opposes the hierarchical, male-dominated dialogic structure.
Caroline Rosenthal on Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic stresses the obliteration of women in history and the necessity of female re-invention as subject. Hers is a convincing piece of work, and one finds oneself wishing she had referred to other striking examples (such as Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries) that might have created a broader context for her subject. Dunja Mohr presents a generic and theoretical framework to contextualize a hardly original but solidly researched account of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The most original and elegant pieces in the book are those by Colleen Ross and Christina Strobel. Ross argues that the split between "factual" history (male) and "imaginary" fiction (female) is an illusory concept, inscribed in a patriarchal culture that privileges the former and trivializes the latter. Using translation as a model, Ross suggests that this split is overcome in the transcription of women’s experiences, in a translative process that rewrites the "original" (male) text in a new voice. Christina Strobel’s essay on the work of Jane Rule emphasizes the valorization of alterity— not only of gender but also of class, colour, age and region—that Rule celebrates in her work, inscribing it in an ethical context in which difference is not a stigma that marginalizes but a vehicle of independence to be cherished, respected, appreciated.
One wonders why the editors of this collection chose to include Christiane Harzing’s piece on the German immigrant experience in Toronto and the article on "Bodyscape/s" co-authored by Katja Pfrommer and Tamara Pianos. The empirical findings on which Harzing’s contribution seems to be based are unfortunately thin, and do little to advance the argument, either theoretical or thematic, that underlies the rest of the volume. The contribution from Pfrommer and Pianos is theoretically underlaid by poorly (if not mis-) understood Irigaray, applied with an at times embarrassing naïveté. In the authors’ description of the "body-landscape-relation" the reader is startled by per-spectivally unmediated statements such as the following: "Native people, analogous to women, are closer to nature while at the same time being usually less intelligent and less civilized."
Notwithstanding two rather dubious articles and some careless editing—typos, punctuation and syntactical errors as well as occasional unidiomatic English expressions occur—this is a worthwhile book. It brings together a multiplicity of perspectives on Canadian writing by women that bolh illuminÃ¢tes and advances the state ol knowledge of what "writing in the father’s house," as Patricia Smart puts it, is all about.
In Hannelore Zimmermann’s impressive study of Margaret Atwood’s work, power is seen as a basic theme underlying virtually all of Atwood’s prose fiction, manifesting itself in social norms, human relationships, restrictions of personal freedom, ecology issues, and in the way Canada’s role in world politics is presented. Zimmermann points out that the gynocentric criticism underlying numerous studies of Atwood’s work (as a vehicle to advance the feminist cause) is reductive and hence invalid: the really vicious power battles are carried out between Atwood’s female figures. According to Zimmermann, in Atwood’s fiction the power mechanisms that give rise to aggressors and victims are based on complicity between the two, and it is hence the victim who enables the aggressor to assume the position of power. As Zimmermann observes, this conception points to resistance as a subversive strategy, in personal relationships as well as in political ones—in particular the unequal economic and geopolitical strength of the United States, compared to Canada. Zimmermann goes on to comment on the significance of this resistance strategy in making Atwood’s work an issue in "post-colonial discourses."
Zimmermann’s analysis of Atwood’s texts in terms of this "complicity theory" is supported by her application of Foucault’s model of power, control and punishment. The thoroughness and articulateness of the analysis and the fastidiousness with which Foucault’s model is applied create a new perspective on the complex motivations and interpersonal relationships that characterize all of Atwood’s work.
In her conclusion, the author observes that while historical conditions may change, the mechanisms of power do not, a statement eloquently borne out by the analyses of individual Atwood texts consli tuting the substance of the book. For the present, regrettably, this valuable contribution to Atwood criticism and to Canadian studies as a whole is accessible only to German readers. One hopes that excerpts, if not the entire book, will eventually appear in translation. The inclusion of an English version of one of Zimmermann’s chapters in the anthology edited by Eibl and Strobel would have been a welcome first step in this direction.
- The Decline of "Sisterhood" by Margaret Prang
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- Fresh and Tired Metaphors by Afra Kavanagh
Books reviewed: Swimming in the Ocean by Catherine Jenkins, Margery Looks Up by Meredith Andrew, and The Haunting of L by Howard Norman
- On Returns by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida's Ghost Writing by Jodey Castricano and Anarcho-Modernism: Toward a New Critical Theory by Ian Angus
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MLA: Heidenreich, Rosmarin. German Critics on Canadian Women Writers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 171 - 173)
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