Revelations of Illegitimacy
- Coral Ann Howell (Author)
Contemporary Canadian Women's Fiction: Refiguring Identities. Palgrave Macmillan (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cynthia Sugars
In her essay “Negotiating with the Dead,” Margaret Atwood suggests that all writing is motivated by a desire to “bring something or someone back from the dead.” Her proposition can be interpreted literally, in the sense of an author (particularly an author of historical fictions) wanting to resurrect past events or personages. It might also be understood metaphorically, as a means of uncovering something (a family secret, a national fiction, a personal repression) that has long remained hidden. Coral Ann Howells’s latest study of Canadian literature uses Atwood’s metaphor as a way of unifying her own inquiry into recent, post-1990 fiction by Canadian women. Howells central concern is the ways various Canadian women writers interrogate inherited notions of national and individual identity. More specifically, she is interested in the ways their works function as “revelations of illegitimacy,” a form, in itself, of negotiating the tenacious hold of the still all-too-powerful dead.
According to Howells, Canada’s literary profile since the early 1990s has been marked by a significant shift in “discourses of nationhood, heritage, and identity in Canada.” In what ways, she asks, does “Canadian” mean something substantially different from what it did in the preceding decades? Making use of the notable theoretical interventions on nation and identity by such critics as Smaro Kamboureli and Stuart Hall, Howells focusses on the ways contemporary Canadian women’s narratives explore the incommensurablity of fixed identity constructs, especially the ways white, masculine colonial authority is “coded into a territorial representation of Canadian identity.” Contemporary Canadian women writers, she maintains, “are engaged in writing and rewriting history across generations . . . [in order to] uncover secrets hidden in the past.” These novels are symptomatic of a larger social and global context, “representing a nation in the process of unearthing deliberately forgotten secrets and scandals, as they share in the enterprise of telling stories that recognize the differences concealed within constructions of identity in contemporary multicultural Canada.”
The study focuses on the recent fiction of eight writers, containing a chapter dedicated to each. Beginning very consciously with an iconic Canadian writer, Howells explores Margaret Atwood’s inquiry into Canadian discourses of nationalism and identity in Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. These novels, she argues, “question the heritage myths of white Anglo-Canadian history, prising open ‘the locked box of our inheritance.’” In Atwood’s hands, this Pandora’s box of history begins to feel like a Gothic treasure trove as she plumbs the secret, unspoken depths of Canada’s colonial past. If “the dead are in the hands of the living,” as Grace Marks in Alias Grace maintains, then there is room for a contemporary writer to negotiate with them and intervene in the sway they continue to have over contemporary socio-cultural constructions. Both novels, says Howells, are “Atwood’s own elaborate alias for her broad socio-historical project aimed at uncovering scandalous secrets, which may be a necessary state in refiguring nation and identity.”
Subsequent chapters take us through the recent writings of Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Kerri Sakamoto, Shani Mootoo, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, and Eden Robinson. Howells’s study of The Stone Diaries is particularly astute in its exploration of Shields’ own fascination with the fictive nature of identity. Coining the phrase “foundational fictions of identity” (as an echo of Judith Butler’s “foundational illusions of identity”), Howells provides a fascinating and sensitive analysis of the ways Daisy Goodwill in The Stone Diaries strives to be “intelligible” by constructing an originary sense of loss as her foundational fiction.
Throughout, Howells’ textual analyses are evocative. She unifies her study by focusing on the “exorcism of ghosts” in the novels she considers, from the tortured family history in MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, to the uncanny shadow of history in Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field, to the ghosts of colonialism and patriarchy in Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night and Anderson-Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning, to the reinscription of authenticating spirits in Robinson’s Monkey Beach. Throughout, Howells is concerned with the ways these writers address the instability of national and cultural signification. If anything that weakens the book, it is that the chapters read like individual essays rather than parts of an integrated study. Nevertheless, reading these essays is well worth the effort. Together, Howells, and the writers she considers, engage Atwood’s prescient and multi-levelled question in In Search of Alias Grace: “How do we know we are who we think we are?” The answer might be we don’t or we’re not. It is this condition of illegitimacy, whether in terms of genealogy (MacDonald), personal identity (Shields), national history (Sakamoto), or cultural heritage (Robinson), that is central to this study.
- The Pioneering Wife by Gwyneth Hoyle
Books reviewed: Writing the Pioneer Woman by Janet Floyd and The Judge's Wife: Memoirs of a British Columbia Pioneer by Eunice M. L. Harrisoin
- (Re)Construction Zones by Maria Truchan-Tataryn
Books reviewed: Ephemeral Territories by Erin Manning and Literary Culture and Female Authorship in Canada 1760-2000 by Faye Hammill
- Dialectical Laurence by Nathalie Cooke
Books reviewed: Ancestors and Gods: Margaret Laurence and the Dialectics of Identity by David Lucking
- Unfixed Selves by Vijay Mishra
Books reviewed: Beautitudes of Ice by Rienzi Crusz, The Faces of Galle Face Green by Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri, and The Heat Yesterday by Ian Iqbal Rashid
- Women Write Nature by Andrea Lebowitz
Books reviewed: Here in Hope: A Natural History by J.M. Bridgeman and In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 by Barbara T. Gates
MLA: Sugars, Cynthia. Revelations of Illegitimacy. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 144 - 145)
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