Writing for Our Lives
- Mary Eagleton (Editor)
A Companion to Feminist Theory. Blackwell Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Miriam Fuchs (Author)
The Text is Myself: Women's Life Writing and Catastrophe. University of Wisconsin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Feminist theory has, in recent years, expanded beyond the categories of feminism (radical, liberal, socialist, psychoanalytic, etc.) that served as organizing principles for previous surveys of feminist thought. Undergraduate women’s studies classes are less likely to be planned around these various feminisms than to follow students’ interests in the big topics: gender, race and class, and how to transform received social constructions which impact the lives of women. Mary Eagleton’s collection of new essays written by twelve feminist theorists offers a concise overview, not of the founding manifestos of various feminisms, but of the concerns and debates within a range of fields in chapters with short titles such as: “Time,” “Sexuality,” “Subjects,” and “Cyberculture.” This approach avoids the territorialism that results from attempts to label theoretical perspectives; the focus is, instead, on following the course of debates which arise from the problematizing of gender in a variety of discourses and acknowledging the proliferation of new cross-disciplinary matrices. This openness produces a collection which is both concise and, largely, companionable.
Eagleton, in her introduction, says that the essays in this collection “are conscious of both the purpose of theory and political and practical reasons for lucidity.” They do succeed in finding a point of balance between macro and micro theory, between theory and political practice which would make this an eminently useful text both for introducing undergraduates to feminist theory and for reviewing the ever-deepening engagement with those theories and their implications for both specific discourses and praxis.
It is more European than North American in its emphasis, as is to be expected from a volume in the Blackwell’s series of Companions, and perhaps this tilt accounts for the absence of several subjects which I assume to be central to feminist discussion: gender, lesbian theory, theories of the female body, and spirituality. Each of these would warrant a chapter of its own. Of these, the most serious oversight is the lack of attention to lesbian challenges to feminism to deal with “difference,” to lesbian ethics, sexuality, and so on. Chris Weedon’s otherwise excellent chapter, “Sexuality,” makes brief mention of Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum” but does not venture into subsequent developments in queer theory and its questioning of received ideas about the body, the meaning of gender, and political activism, to name a few. Also, significant areas such as race, ethnicity, difference, and development, to which feminist theory owes so much, should not be largely confined to a single chapter: “Race”.
These limitations may have resulted from the demands of concision. So, while we may fault the editor for what she has overlooked in assembling this collection, we cannot fault her for what she has chosen to include. The essays are thoughtful, readable, and accompanied by carefully selected bibliographies all of which would make this a very useful text in a variety of gender, women’s studies, and theory courses.
Miriam Fuchs’ The Text is Myself is part of the excellent Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series. An earlier work in the series was Sidonie Smith and Jane Watson’s Women, Autobiography, Theory in which they suggest that the time has come for critics to stop focusing on the way autobiographies reveal women’s alterity because “feminist criticism needs to consider how gender intersects with other components that comprise identity.” Fuchs’ project perfectly illustrates the kind of approach they advocate. She undertakes to show how women who have had their lives suddenly, and often violently, overturned have nevertheless found their voice and regained authority in their own lives. Her book adds to our understanding of the effect of catastrophe on the self and on the task of self-representation; her choice of texts also adds to the discussion of what constitutes an autobiographical text.
Fuchs begins by defining catastrophe in contrast to crisis. Catastrophe is sudden and violent change, “change that is extreme enough to constitute an overturning, a revolution or subversion of the established order” whereas crisis is change of an ongoing or continuous nature. Fuchs is interested in the writer who finds herself in a political or medical situation out of her control but who nevertheless attempts to survive through exploring how external events operate within her life. Her point is that catastrophe narratives are distinguished by “an unleashing of the past as a dynamic response to the exigencies of the present, making self-representation . . . tropological.”
The texts chosen also challenge the limits of autobiography, although Fuchs clearly establishes the ways in which these works fulfill her criteria. Grete Weil’s autobiographical novel The Bride Price deals with her treatment as a Holocaust survivor and, collapsed into the same experience, her later treatment as a stroke patient, all worked into the story of David’s first wife drawn from the Tanakh. Lil’uokalani’s Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen is a political rejoinder to America’s annexation of her homeland. She uses her people’s proud past to help them continue to see themselves as the Hawaiian nation, not an American state. Isabel Allende in Paula is literally writing for her comatose daughter’s life and, as the task becomes more futile, the text shifts more and more towards biographical tribute. The other two works studied, H.D.’s The Gift and Anna Banti’s Artemesia, are partially about each author’s struggles with fear and danger in the upheavals of World War II.
As Fuchs points out, these works were challenged as well as challenging. Weil was attacked by critics, Lil’uokalani was accused of not writing her book, and H.D. was originally published in a form so heavily edited that the subject of the war—and the bombing of her neighborhood—was largely removed. Fuchs’s theoretical strategy provides a coherent way of looking at these widely divergent texts. She invites us to see how, when these writers found their lives overturned, each drew on a more stable personal or cultural past to safeguard the self during the chaos of catastrophe.
- Taking Stock by Erika Behrisch
Books reviewed: The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History by Rosemary Neering
- Legacy of the Bear's Lip by Heather Hodgson
Books reviewed: Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman by Yvonne Johnson and Ruby Wiebe
- Metcalf in Darkest Canada by Frank Davey
Books reviewed: An Aesthetic Underground: A Literary Memoir by John Metcalf and Forde Abroad by John Metcalf
- A Shout Out to Marsh by E. Hamilton
Books reviewed: Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding by Terence W. Gordon and Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand
- Women in the North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Winging It in the North by Lyn Hancock and Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak by Victoria Jason
MLA: Barnwell, Kathryn and Stanley, Marni L. Writing for Our Lives. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 142 - 143)
***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.