Strangers and Strange Lands

  • Vici Johnstone (Editor)
    This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Valerie Burton (Editor) and Jean Guthrie (Editor)
    Changing Places: Feminist Essays on Empathy and Relocation. Inanna (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alana Fletcher

In their introduction to the 2014 edited collection Changing Places, editors Valerie Burton and Jean Guthrie note that the text is intended primarily for use in Women’s and Gender Studies classrooms. Bringing together contributions from eleven women of varied disciplines and career stages on topics ranging from motherhood and infertility to addiction treatment to university life, the collection indeed provides a valuable resource for students of Women’s and Gender Studies, especially upper-year undergraduate students seeking models of gendered analyses of varied cultural phenomena. Standout essays include Jill Allison’s sensitive exploration of the way infertility is negotiated in largely family-centric, Catholic Ireland, including such coping tools as funerary Masses for unconceived children, and Pauline Greenhill’s novel analysis of Newfoundland folk songs for their imaginative inhabitations of transgender identity.

The collection’s pedagogical commitment, the editors continue in the intro, prompts their adoption of “empathy as a practical and theoretical proposition” that holds the topically-varied collected essays together under the umbrella of deciphering “how evolving disciplinary practices overlap with knowing the world empathetically.” Most of the introduction apart from the chapter descriptions focuses on defining and troubling definitions of empathy, affect, and emotion, along with their naturalizations as feminine traits. The essays themselves, however, engage little with empathy; several do not mention the concept at all while others appear to have tacked this keyword on as an afterthought (as in the isolated statement in Greenhill’s essay that imagination is “a necessary precursor to empathy” or in Christine Overall’s observation when discussing gender oppression in universities that oppressive institutions lack empathy). This is more a general collection of feminist essays about the ongoing need for feminism, equal opportunity action, and gender troubling—especially within the university—than a collection about feminist perspectives on and engagements of empathy; this near-mislabelling, though, does not discount the value of the essays gathered here, which provide a prime example of both the strength of today’s Canadian feminist scholarship and its necessity. The straightforward style the editors have imposed on each essay makes complex problems easily understandable (while at times also resulting in too-abrupt transitions or too little support for claims), and the issues discussed are universal despite the collection’s preoccupation with Newfoundland (a function of its emergence from the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Women’s Studies Speakers’ Series). Some typographical errors are likely the result of a lack of resources at Inanna Publications, a small independent press.

This Place a Stranger, editor Vici Johnstone writes in the introduction, was born from a comment she received on one of her many solitary journeys that women who travel on their own are very brave. Brave indeed, Johnstone suggests, but not for the more explicit reasons her interlocutor likely had in mind: “When we travel alone,” she elaborates, “without a familiar companion to reflect back to us a familiar self, we are strangers—to ourselves and to those around us . . . such experiences can change us, reveal us, open a world of understanding.” The many autobiographical stories collected in This Place a Stranger—twenty-three in total, from women of diverse cultural backgrounds and varying stages of life—describe this opening to new worlds and the experiences that follow. Often introspective, sometimes horrifying, and at times very funny, the women’s stories collected here paint an affecting portrait of the way women come to know themselves through encountering the unknown. Themes of love, family, and work—especially writing, for obvious autobiographical reasons—are prominent throughout the stories contained here, with travels often prompted by the desire to get away to write, by fieldwork or volunteering, or by attempts to reunite with an old lover. Standout contributions include Lori Garrison’s “Lonesome Thelma,” a touching and relatable tale of a ragged twenty-one year old hiking away unrequited love, finding unexpected comfort in the arms of a beautiful older woman; the wryly hopeful “Protection to Go,” in which author Karen J. Lee describes a trip before a trip, to the condom section of the drugstore in advance of reuniting with an old flame in Kenya; and “Travel Blows the Mind,” Trysh Ashby-Rolls’s tale of youthful malaise in Europe that takes a jarring (and possibly triggering) turn into forcible confinement and physical and sexual abuse. This Place a Stranger is one of the most enjoyable collections I have read for some time; the range of topics, places, and autobiographical avatars collected here should make it of interest to all those—women and men alike—with a passion for travel or an interest in autobiography.

 



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