Witnessing Brandt & Tostevin
- Di Brandt (Author)
Dancing Naked--Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lola Lemire Tostevin (Author)
Subject to Criticism. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lorraine Weir
Collections of essays, interviews and reviews written over roughly the same ten-year
span from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Di Brandt’s Dancing Naked and Lola Lemire Tostevin’s Subject to Criticism share the feminist conviction that, as Tostevin says, "it is crucial for women to bear witness to our own circumstances, our experiences and desires." But witnessing, speaking, writing what Tostevin calls previously "unidentified territory" takes rather different forms in these books, as one might expect from their titles. Brandt’s early struggles to break from her Mennonite background with its taboos against women’s public self-expression are often poignantly present in her essays, expressing the fear she experienced in the act of becoming a writer. Tostevin describes her work on theory in Paris in the 1970s and her essays are suffused with Kristeva, Lacan, Derrida—with theory as a vital component of writing praxis, and with the sense of isolation that such work can still engender in Canada.
For both Tostevin and Brandt, that sense of isolation is located also in the daily negotiation with the father—academic, theoretical, ancestral, socioeconomic. Writing of her first book of poems, questions i asked my mother, Brandt describes her own "learning to speak in public in a women’s voice [which] was going to crack open the Mennonite world, and . . . it would crack me open, too" in the revelation of the family violence and abuse to which she had been subjected. For Brandt, writing and transforming the world are the same act. To dance naked, to write the naked self is the ultimate challenge to Mennonite custom and dogma, a challenge which Brandt takes up and records with power and vulnerability in the talks and short papers reprinted in this volume.
While Tostevin’s lexicon in Subject to Criticism is often very different from Brandt’s, there are some key points of intersection. In an ironic and sometimes angry essay "On the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities," Tostevin writes that
Once a woman writer is no longer willing to perpetuate the image of some stereotypical ’other,’ and she is no longer satisfied with simply unmasking traditional ideological constructs, her writing presents a startling challenge. Where ’woman’ had, traditionally, been a sign written by someone else, she must now construct herself as a sign constituted as subject and enunciator of her own discourse.
Tostevin’s essays on Miriam Mandel, Diana Hartog, Elizabeth Smart, Sylvia Fraser, Anne Hebert, Phyllis Webb and Daphne Marlatt (among others) parse the complexities of this position and its metamorphoses, focussing with equal ease on the works of relatively neglected and of canonic writers. Certain passages from Kristeva in particular recur in Tostevin’s work and her comfortable competence in the deployment of poststructuralist theory is a pleasure to see. However, I find myself at the end of this review wishing for a little more Brandt in Tostevin, a little more Tostevin in Brandt—which is to say that the intersection here of the warmth of spirit so powerfully expressed in Brandt’s writing with the intellectual irony and passion of Tostevin’s work leaves me precisely with a problem that is already mirrored in the terms of the classic feminist positions of both writers: the integration of the personal and the political, theoria and praxis, in the context of an academic environment where writers often find themselves located in the Sessional ghetto looking, as Tostevin bitterly notes, across the corridor at the rest of us teaching their work.
- Preoccupied Spaces by Meredith Criglington
Books reviewed: Mapping Canadian Cultural Space: Essays on Canadian Literature by Danielle Schaub and Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space by Stacy Alaimo
- Frye's Critical Commentary by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: 1936-1989. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 10 by Robert D. Denham and The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 9 by Michael Dolzani
- Feminist Debates by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Lesbian Utopics by Annamarie jagose and Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge by Patrice McDermott
- Isn't That Funny? by Lisa Close
Books reviewed: Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness by Eva Gruber, Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Work by Robert C. Nunn, and Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Elusive Moodie by Carole Gerson
Books reviewed: The Work of Words: The Writing of Susanna Strickland Moodie by John Thurston
MLA: Weir, Lorraine. Witnessing Brandt & Tostevin. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #159 (Winter 1998), Gay and Lesbian Writing in Canadian Literature. (pg. 171 - 172)
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