Agents against Their Erasure

  • Carole Gerson, Peggy Lynn Kelly, Sandra Campbell (Editor) and S. Leigh Matthews (Editor)
    Hearing More Voices: English-Canadian Women in Print and on the Air, 1914-1960. Tecumseh Press
  • Rona Altrows (Editor)
    You Look Good for Your Age. University of Alberta Press
Reviewed by Melanie Power

Rigorously researched and compiled, Hearing More Voices offers a welcome retrospective examination of women’s contributions to early-twentieth-century Canadian publishing and broadcasting industries. Organizing sections by genre (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and radio), Kelly and Gerson investigate the social and cultural influences that framed these creative spheres during the years 1914 to 1960. While profiling works that are “under-acknowledged and scarcely known,” they illustrate how harmful ideologies (misogynist, racist, ableist) manifested as exclusionary practices that hindered the reception and endurance of women’s creative work (138). The book succeeds in its mission of increasing awareness of the worth and ongoing relevance of overlooked, forgotten, or lost women writers from an understudied period in Canadian literary history.


Hearing More Voices takes care to highlight and contextualize the various barriers faced by women writers at the time, as well as the strategies that they employed “to subvert systemic professional challenges or turn them to their advantage” (19). For example, when women were excluded from professional writers’ organizations, they formed separate associations (such as the Canadian Women’s Press Club, established in 1904). Their challenges, however, were not only political but also socio-economic. Kelly and Gerson include choice quotes from the journals or epistolary correspondences of various women writers, including an extract from a 1947 letter by poet P. K. Page, in which she writes, “I simply don’t want to work for a living. I’d like to sit on a cushion and write a fine poem” (68). While Page was privileged enough to focus full-time on her writing, many others had to juggle their literary ambitions with more practical career options and domestic responsibilities—a balancing act that many writers today, of course, still struggle with.


In addition to colouring in the social, political, and cultural contexts in which these creatives operated, Kelly and Gerson also carefully delineate the publishing and editorial forces that led to the marginalization or erasure of interesting work. “Availability has much to do with canonicity,” they write, illustrating how the masculinist literary values of the early twentieth century led to the omission of many women-authored works from anthologies or to these works falling out of print altogether (36). Novels by Madge Macbeth, Flos Jewell Williams, and Joyce Marshall are some of the many cited examples of understudied texts—texts that radically centre on “sexual desire, unwanted pregnancies, childbirth, unhappy marriages,” all “key aspects of female experience” (53).


“You look good for your age,” a specialist told writer and editor Rona Altrows in 2018; this so-called compliment served as the catalyst to the conception and completion of her book (xi). Through personal essays, short stories, and poems, You Look Good for Your Age catalogues twenty-nine women’s meditations on aging, as these women are variously pulled, pushed, or lulled by the currents of time. With wit, candour, and wisdom, these writers explore the pleasures and hardships of growing older: of “trading a tight body for a lumpy body and a baby” (254); of caring for aging parents or ill spouses; of finding a new presence of mind and body; of “wearing out bit by tiny bit, small wound by small wound” (12); of discovering their unique, unflappable value. Inherent in the book’s title, in that complicated compliment many women regularly receive, is the “social assumption that it is better to look young than old and, by logical extension, better to be young than old” (xi). In the wide range of their ages and lived experiences, the contributors to this collection attempt to untangle the knots of agism and misogyny that exist outside—as well as inside—of themselves.


Although unified in subject, the style, tone, and mood of each piece varies widely, combining to create a poignant patchwork of protest and peace-making, of lamentable losses and celebratory gains. Many of these writers grapple with the frustrating double standards for women regarding physical appearance and aging, as well as contemporary society’s vanity and absurd beauty ideals more broadly. Women in these pieces comically characterize themselves as “the nearly dead” (4), “as over-ripe fruit” (258), “an old crone” (272), and “a fugitive from the land of fuckability” (274). Other writers discuss the dangers of visibility in a culture where “there are still women being attacked in back alleys,” still women “being raped and thrown in the river”—a reality more terrifyingly possible “for queer or trans people, for Indigenous women,” and for other women of colour (19). In addition to this precarity, there are also the gendered expectations of womanhood, which Roberta Rees summarizes beautifully in her non-fiction piece “Upriver”: “How I keep writing and often can’t write about what it means to be a woman looking—being looked at, doing the looking, looking out, looking after, living long enough to see children grow up, to wear time in our bodies, our faces, our minds” (56).


In addition to these writers’ grief, rage, and resignation, there is also joy, peace, and anticipation regarding the years to come. For Julie Sedivy, aging can mean “feeling the growing tug of everyday pleasures” (202) even while failing to “mak[e] a serene transition toward the wisdom of living more deeply in the moment” (204). There are many lessons to glean from You Look Good for Your Age. While “[d]yeing is such a waste of time,” as E. D. Morin comments with regards to her decision to let her greying hair show (278), this collection as a whole reminds us that the prospect of dying gives us something worthwhile, in the ways that it clarifies and makes us cling to the small and large meanings we contrive.

This review “Agents against Their Erasure” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 21 Jun. 2022. Web.

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